Peter Weir faced a barrage of questioning from Stormont’s Education Committee on Wednesday as concerns continued over exams, remote learning and the safety of special schools remaining open.
ith one of Northern Ireland’s private companies running the transfer test for schools, the AQE, planning to hold a single test on February 27, the minister said he expects the number of appeal to rise.
“I would anticipate there will be a much greater number of parents appealing under exceptional circumstances,” he said.
Mr Weir said there will be additional support provided to the appeals process, but said he did not expect any delay to the admission process for post-primary schools, despite the test being held later than planned, should it go ahead.
That, he said, remained entirely dependent on the health situation in the country at the end of February.
“My position is that parental choice does need to be honoured,” the minister stressed.
He added that he does not foresee any delay to the admissions process, despite the test being held so late in the academic year.
“I don’t think that we can see any particular delay within that,” said Mr Weir.
“The aim throughout this is to ensure that in the later stages in June that everybody receives their place”.
UUP MLA Robbie Butler said that P7 pupils have been “treated despicably”.
“What we all need to remember is that this isn’t about a test or academic selection, this is about our pupils,” he said.
Peter Weir replied that “there are three sweeps of options” that grammar schools can take.
These include completing the test, using non-selective criteria, or using some form of alternative selective criteria.
The minister added that schools have been advised to seek legal advice on the approach they intend to take.
Asked by deputy committee chair Karen Mullan if teachers will be included in the Covid-19 vaccination prioritisation list, the Minister replied: “There will be no solo run to roll our Covid vaccinations for teaching staff.”
He said there is a lobby to prioritise education staff but decisions are taken UK wide.
The experience of the first lockdown was a sharp learning curve. Peter Weir
With A Level, AS and GCSE exams cancelled this summer, the minister said he would be in a position to set out the alternative grading approach “by the end of this month”.
“People had to work very quickly last year,” he said. “As a result some people “got a very unfair level of grading".
“There will be a lot of anxiety out there. There have been wider measures that have been taken than any of us would have liked to have taken in that regard.
“The best case scenario in all cases is that examinations take place.
“But there have been six weeks of remote learning, creating a level of disruption in preparation for June examinations,” he said.
“The overriding desire is to ensure that students in Northern Ireland are not disadvantaged.”
But the minister maintained that schools remain "a safe place".
“The experience of the first lockdown was a sharp learning curve,” he said.
“I would say that schools are a very safe place.
“Nowhere is entirely risk free, but the actions that we’re taking (on remote learning) are not on the basis of particularly what is happening in the classroom, but on the wider context to which schools being open contributed to the situation.”
There were angry exchanges over the continued opening of special schools.
SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan asked the minister about safety measures for staff in special schools who are “directly exposed to vulnerable children”.
Peter Weir responded that “across the board” the level of Covid-19 infection among teachers “would suggest the level of positive testing for Covid is pretty much the same throughout”.
“There is a considerable level of cross-contamination in terms of infection between adults,” said Mr Weir.
“There is a considerable level between pupils. But there is very, very little evidence, and very rare cases where there is a direct transfer between the children and staff”.
SDLP MLA Justin McNulty expressed his anger that special schools “are being treated like mainstream schools”.
The Newry and Armagh MLA asked the minister how many pupils are in classrooms across Northern Ireland.
Mr Weir explained that the information was not available but it can be provided.
However, Mr McNulty said: “Are you telling me - as a constituency MLA - I have more data on how many children are in schools than you as Minister of Education?”
Mr Weir replied: “I can never aspire to your level of wisdom Mr McNulty.”
Special school teachers do not feel safe. Justin McNulty
Mr McNulty then told the minister not to “make a mockery of this” as “this is not a joking matter”.
“There is no point producing something inaccurate in relation to that, we will get the data to the committee as soon as we get the data,” stated Mr Weir.
Mr McNulty then said that staff in special schools are “scared and frightened” at wheat they are facing. “Staff are dropping like flies,” he said.
“Special school teachers do not feel safe”.
Minister Weir replied: “PPE guidelines are followed fully. There is no golden solution. If there are specific suggestions we will take them on board.”
He says there is a “clear need to stay open".
On the issue of the mental health of pupils through the pandemic the minister added: “Both the pandemic, and some of the steps in education and beyond it, will have a very damaging impact on children’s mental health.
“The other thing that is less obvious as well is that the pandemic creates a level of barrier on the types of “intervention that can take place as well” in terms of one-to-one counselling.
“I think all this is frankly worrying for all of us.”
The committee agreed to invite Public Health NI to a future committee meeting to address questions from principals, staff, pupils and parents that need answering.