As our society begins to emerge from lockdown after facing an unprecedented global health crisis, the complete return of all our children to school is essential. Not only for our young people’s educational and personal development, but also to enable the recovery of our economy and our society.
This week University College London published research to suggest that Northern Ireland, as a region, was performing well above average in terms of remote teaching and interaction with pupils during Covid-19. A superb testament to a great many teachers who I know have worked endlessly through this crisis and I want to thank again every educationalist who has put their heart and soul into these last 12 weeks.
We do not know the final impact of the Covid-19 crisis on children’s safety, well-being and learning, however, we do know that the longer children remain out of school, the slower the recovery of lost learning.
My objective is therefore the full-time resumption of classroom-based learning for all pupils in the new term. We must plan for that scenario where the disease is under control but also for the scenario where we still need social distancing. I know from speaking with parents and teachers, it is also their desire to have children in front of teachers when the new school year starts.
The New School Day guidance focusses on social distancing and hygiene measures which have been informed by Public Health Agency (PHA) advice. The guidance has also been co-designed with school principals whose professional and practical experiences have been invaluable in informing the document. Our priority with the education restart is, of course, to deliver a safe and effective reopening of our schools for pupils, parents and staff.
I realise that it is neither practical, nor indeed would it be helpful, to be overly prescriptive about the arrangements that every school must follow
I fully recognise that the work towards restart cannot be done without support, and this must include financial support. That is why this week I announced a package of measures to assist in the reopening of schools to pupils, to recover lost learning and also to protect the more vulnerable pupils in our society.
These measures will include an expansion of nurture units and the further funding of ‘Whole School Nurture’ approach.
I have sought and obtained Executive approval for me to continue Free School Meals payments over the summer. I will also now extend the ‘Eat Well, Live Well’ programme which is providing healthy breakfasts and lunches to over 3,000 vulnerable young people in Northern Ireland.
Provision of adequate childcare has been another key part of this work, as aligning school restart plans with childcare provision is imperative
I am also creating a new programme called ‘Engage’ to provide literacy and numeracy support and mental health interventions for the duration of the 2020/21 academic year for primary and post-primary schools in socially deprived areas. This is to ensure our students are given the greatest support in bridging the gap on lost learning.
Provision of adequate childcare has been another key part of this work, as aligning school restart plans with childcare provision is imperative. The Childcare Recovery Plan announced by the Executive this week will ensure that parents can access childcare, as and when they need it, over the next few months.
Finally, I realise that it is neither practical, nor indeed would it be helpful, to be overly prescriptive about the arrangements that every school must follow. Every school setting has different physical characteristics and flexibility will be key to enable schools to maximise pupil attendance. With the key objective being the return of full-time, face-to-face teaching in the classroom for all pupils, my Department will work with principals and schools to provide any additional help and support we can give.
I fully recognise the stresses felt by teachers, parents and pupils throughout this crisis and as we face into the future would like to give my assurances that our children’s well-being and development remains at the centre of all we do