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No firm date for reopening Northern Ireland schools, Stormont committee told

The permanent secretary of the Department of Education told the Stormont Education Committee it is too early to say when classes will resume.

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Student who had been due to sit GCSE, AS and A-Level exams this summer will instead have grades assessed on previous work (PA)

Student who had been due to sit GCSE, AS and A-Level exams this summer will instead have grades assessed on previous work (PA)

Student who had been due to sit GCSE, AS and A-Level exams this summer will instead have grades assessed on previous work (PA)

There is no firm plan yet around the reopening of schools in Northern Ireland, the top civil servant in the Department of Education has said.

Schools have been closed since mid-March as part of the lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Permanent secretary Derek Baker was questioned by MLAs at the Stormont Education Committee about when classes could resume.

“We do not have any date, any target date, any planned date, any anticipated date for when normality returns to schools or schools start to open, That will be guided by the science and the public health advice, and that obviously will be the kind of decision the Executive will take,” he said.

“But there is no plan in the department for that. Of course we have started a bit of work to try to scope out the kinds of issues that we will need to consider in conjunction with schools and the wider education system of what we will need to do to get back to normality.

While this is a complex solution, it's our view that it at least provides grades for those learnersJustin Edwards, CCEA

“I know there’s been a lot of speculation in the media recently, I’m not quite sure why but there is no date and no plan in the department of education that I am aware of for schools reopening.”

Pressed about whether schools may be reopened with social distancing measures in place, Mr Baker responded: “We do not have a firm plan. We will look at all of the issues about return to normalisation, rather its phased opening, whether it’s focusing on certain peer groups, whether it’s focusing on lower numbers, I have no idea what those plans will look like yet because it is far too early to speculate.

“But we will look at lessons learned from wherever we can learn them and we will take ideas from wherever we can get them, but I really think it would be premature for me to speculate on what the individual dimensions of a return to normalisation would look like.”

Earlier, the committee heard that work is under way to assess grades for A-Level and GCSE students in Northern Ireland.

In the absence of written exams this summer which were cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis, grades will be decided by teachers using past performance data.

Justin Edwards, chief executive of Northern Ireland’s examinations body Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) told the committee that work is under way within schools towards this.

“Schools have started undertaking that work already, we anticipate that schools will enter that information to CCEA in a very tight time window from May 29, and from May 29, we will capture all the data, match it and combine it with the statistical information and models that we have finalised and then be able to produce the grade outcomes,” he said, adding an appeals process is being finalised.

“While this is a complex solution, it’s our view that it at least provides grades for those learners.

“The centre-assessed grade is a new approach, it has been introduced here as part of a contingency arrangement so we can overcome this unprecedented circumstance.

“This arrangement uses the professional judgment of teacher, based on the objective evidence that they hold inside their centre, school or college.”

PA