The Education Minister has said expectations shouldn’t be raised that new legislation on a flexible school starting age will be brought before the Assembly during the current mandate.
While Michelle McIlveen said she remained “committed to moving the policy forward”, she warned that factors outside her control, including the lack of time before the next Assembly elections, may curtail progress.
Taking questions in the Assembly for the first time since replacing party colleague Peter Weir, Ms McIlveen told MLAs work has commenced on policy proposals on allowing parents to defer their children starting school if they feel they aren’t ready to.
The policy would be aimed at allowing children born prematurely to begin school a year later than they do currently, with Northern Ireland still having one of the youngest school staring ages in Europe.
The Minister’s comments backtracked on a commitment made last week to bring the legislation before the end of the current Assembly mandate during a meeting with SDLP representatives Daniel McCossan and Justin McNulty.
Ms McIlveen also revealed that work has recommenced on Stormont’s Childcare Strategy, and SDLP MLA Pat Catney reminded her that parents in Northern Ireland continue to pay amongst the highest rates in Europe for childcare.
And she told MLAs that “an additional £5m has been made for another Covid-wellbeing fund for 2021-22,” outlining that it will be delivered to all schools.
“Each school will have the ability to manage the funding it is allocated,” she confirmed.
A key part of the recovery process will be a pilot scheme to introduce counselling in primary schools, with a further £5 million allocated y the Executive.
The Minister said she hopes to it will be implemented “in the new academic year”.
Away from Covid recovery programmes, Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson turned the focus onto the minister’s assessment of the condition of the school estate in East Antrim.
Michelle McIlveen replied that in the area, £6.3m has been invested in minor work schemes over the last three years in order to improve existing infrastructure.
That raised a wider issue of investment, with Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan telling the Assembly that many schools in west Belfast have been operating in “outdated, inappropriate and temporary accommodation for 20 years now”.
“I do agree with the member when he says the school state is crying out for investment,” the minister responded. “It does concern me there is a significant backlog in minor works.”
In response to Mr Sheehan’s further question on independent counselling support services for young people at schools in his constituency of west Belfast, the education minister responded that “there has been an increase in the number of referrals since young people returned to on-site learning” but “overall the service hasn’t been overwhelmed”.
As of Monday, the minister said there were “ten young people awaiting counselling service in west Belfast” though she admitted the number in need of the service could be a lot higher.