Any progress on legislation to reform integrated education is likely to face delays after a Stormont committee said it would need to extend the consultation period.
The bill, brought to the Assembly by Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong, passed its second stage on Tuesday despite opposition from the DUP.
Proposed legislation now comes before the Education Committee for scrutiny, but members said that the complexity of the proposed legislation meant they would need extra time to consider the details.
In the Assembly on Tuesday, all parties said they had concerns over those details, which would give the integrated sector precedence over the others in future plans for education.
Though Sinn Fein said they would support the bill through the second stage, the party warned it would need “serious and significant changes” to make it fit for purpose.
The DUP has further concerns over a lack of consultation with either the controlled education sector or the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said the bill was “unwelcome and unhelpful” and would “completely undermine” a Stormont review of the schools system.
At Stormont’s Education Committee on Wednesday morning members agreed that October 10 would be the date set for the end of the consultation period, which normally lasts 30 days from the passing of the second stage of the bill.
SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said the extension was necessary to allow “all key stakeholders have the opportunity to properly participate in this”.
Ms Armstrong’s Alliance colleague and committee chairman Chris Lyttle replied: “This timescale makes it highly unlikely that the bill will return back for the Assembly stages,” but members agreed the extension was necessary.
Giving evidence at the committee, CCEA officials outlined plans for dealing with grades in this summer’s exams at A-level, AS-level and GCSE.
Chairman Tommy O’Reilly confirmed CCEA had now started stage four of the five step process “which is the awarding of the grade processes”.
Results will be delivered on August 10 and 12.
Asked by Sinn Fein MLA Nicola Brogan if schools and colleges have the capacity to process multiple appeals within the allocated timeframe, CCEA Temporary Director of Examinations Amanda Swann reassured members that the exams body “have tried to make it as simple as possible for schools”.
Ms Swann told MLAs that sample appeals documents are available for schools, while CCEA interim CEO Margaret Farragher added that teaching unions have provided “very positive feedback” on this year’s process.
Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan raised concerns over the decision to drop oral assessments from language qualifications.
“A language is nothing unless it’s spoken,” he said and asked if there is any potential for this to be changed.
Ms Farragher replied that CCEA received “considerable feedback” to a public consultation around assessing the speaking component.
“I don’t think there will be less teaching of the speaking components,” she added.
SDLP member Justin McNulty told officials that teachers, pupils and parents had been left “gobsmacked” by the decision to omit oral assessments.
“We need clarification of CCEA’s claims that it has support for the move from Queen’s University and Ulster University,” he said.
Ms Farragher said CCEA had worked with the team that deals with languages admissions at Queen’s University, Belfast, “to explain to them the rationale for that unit being the unit that was put forward for omission”.
“CCEA has worked incredibly hard to engage with higher education bodies to ensure they are confident about our approach,” she added.
“All the content, all the knowledge, undertaking and skill is still being taught to the best of our ability in centres across Northern Ireland.”
The committee also heard details from education officials on the progress of area planning in the sector.
Department of Education official Janis Scallon told members that since 2017 there have been 124 development proposals with decisions, with the ultimate decision made by the Education Minister.
“Area planning is not about achieving financial savings nor is it a policy about closing schools,” added Ms Scallon.
“The level of unsustainability in the education system means resources have to be distributed widely”.
The Education Authority’s director of education Michele Corkey added that during the first strategic area planning phase, under the EA’s leadership, 32 unsustainable schools have been discontinued.
“There is still more to be done,” said Ms Corkey. “In some areas there are too many schools for the size of the population while in others there are not enough schools for demand,” she said.
Committee chairman Chris Lyttle told witnesses that 34% of primary schools remain “below sustainability thresholds” and asked if adequate progress has been made on dealing with this figure.
Ms Scallon continued: “Area planning is extremely complex and sensitive. Rural communities are very attached to their school. There is a very emotional discussion to have.”
She also confirmed that 84 pupils are still to to be allocated a place in post primary school.
“The aim of area planning is to ensure there is the right number of schools, of the right size, in the right areas, at the right time,” she said.