The coronavirus pandemic could worsen the life chances of disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland, the Equality Commission has warned.
Schools in the region have been closed to all but a few pupils since late March due to the Covid-19 crisis, leading to fears that the pandemic will deepen existing educational inequalities, or lead to the emergence of new ones.
Education Minister Peter Weir said that the role out of thousands of digital devices to school children across Northern Ireland would mitgated some of the inequality pupils will experience during home learning.
Chief commissioner Geraldine McGahey said the loss of a full term at school will have different impacts on different groups of children.
“Pre-schoolers will lose out on language, learning, social and behavioural benefit,” she said.
“Older children, losing a full term in the classroom, and possibly returning part-time, will also lose out, but in particular we are concerned about those already experiencing inequality — that is, boys, pupils entitled to free school meals, particularly Protestants and within that, particularly Protestant boys.
“We also see serious impacts on children who need specialist support in education, for example children with special educational needs or disabilities or those needing language support.”
The commissioner said there may also be equality impacts on GCSE, AS and A Level pupils who will not be sitting exams this summer.
Ms McGahey added: “It is important that the Department of Education is aware that its decisions, even where they need to be made urgently, may have different impacts on different groups of people.
“The Section 75 duties on public bodies to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and regard to the desirability of promoting good relations generally still need to be complied with, even at times of crisis.
“We are all agreed, surely, that every child deserves the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential at school, and that no one should be unfairly disadvantaged because of their equality characteristics.
“Action now is essential, built on evidence and informed by parents, communities and wider stakeholders, to mitigate the risks to children’s futures.”
Mr Weir told the Assembly on Thursday that he aims to see a phased reopening of schools for “key cohort” years in late August.
“This will not be a return to school as it was prior to Covid, but rather a new normal reflective of social distancing and a medically safe regime,” he added.
He also said plans were being explored on providing thousands of electronic devices to children to support remote learning.
When asked by the Belfast Telegraph about inequality during the daily Covid-19 briefing, Mr Weir said: “In terms of devices, there is a range of mitigating measures that we will want to put in place.
“To try and ensure whatever disadvantages are there the gaps are closed. Is there still likely to be some level of inequality in our society? Yes, I think that is likely.
“So in of itself this will not solve it, it will be part of a wider package of measures. In an imperfect situation all we can try and do is ensure we have as much mitigation as possible to give as much opportunity for every child as possible.”
Koulla Yiasouma, Commissioner for Children and Young People in NI, told the BBC Radio Ulster Nolan Show she was concerned that not all pupils have technology, such as iPads, required for effective home learning.
“Too many children are still not getting the education they need and we do not know the quality they’re getting, but we cannot blame individual schools and teachers. We need to take a systemic approach,” she said.