The impact of Covid-19 has been unprecedented in the history of Northern Ireland. It has presented significant challenges for many sectors but particularly for those working in health and education.
Firstly, I want to express sincere thanks to teachers in Northern Ireland, many of whom have gone 'above and beyond' to be in regular contact with their pupils, assisting them in their distance learning, and also to those schools who have remained open throughout the pandemic for the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils. I also know that many parents have embraced 'home schooling' and have carried out excellent work to support children who have remained at home during this crisis.
The focus for many parents who have children going into P7 has now turned to Transfer 2020-21 as this is a key transition period for their children.
I want to make it clear that I recognise that a solution encompassing the continuation of transfer tests, alongside a range of support mechanisms being put into place, may not be the perfect answer.
However, I believe it remains the best possible available option for this year. On Thursday I announced a roll-out of laptop provision to key year groups and also vulnerable and disadvantaged children. In addition to this scheme there are a number of other options to further support P7s and these are being examined at the moment.
I am aware that there are very genuine concerns and fears within the community on the transfer process, and specifically criticism of the procedure for this year, with some suggesting we should cancel the tests and let primary schools use past test material for grading, similar to the solution for GCSEs and A-levels.
A return to school will be critical to our children's long-term educational prospects but at this point I cannot foresee circumstances of a return to school during this academic year
Unfortunately, the test data available to primary schools is nowhere near as robust and valid as the data available to the post primaries who are grading GCSEs and A-level candidates. The information at primary school level, for example, would not include equivalent continuous assessment grading and in many cases would be two years old, from when pupils were in P5. I don't believe it would be fair, either to primary school principals or importantly to the pupils themselves, to assign transfer scores based on such historic information.
Another suggested option would be moving the tests to January or February 2021 but that also would create difficulties, with pupils unlikely to know what schools they would be attending before mid-summer, and appeals running to mid-October.
Those sort of delays would be unacceptable to me, as they would be to most parents. I reiterate the fact that those calling for the cancelling or postponing of tests have failed to come up with any viable alternative and their solutions are likely to cause significantly more uncertainly and anxiety for parents and pupils.
Teachers and parents also want to know when children will be going back to school. A return to school will be critical to our children's long-term educational prospects but at this point I cannot foresee circumstances of a return to school during this academic year.
Many parents are beginning to wonder about what 'school' will look like when it returns. We will be working with the Public Health Agency and the chief medical officer to ascertain the appropriate guidance for schools at the point of return. The safety of pupils and staff remains my key priority.
Finally, I recognise that the way schools were closed in March was, by necessity, imperfect. We had to react extremely quickly to the onset of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland which meant we did not have time to consult as fully as we would have liked with key stakeholders.
Most people will understand that there were clearly reasons for this. However, as we plan for the reopening of schools I plan to consult and engage widely with school leaders, the teaching unions, teachers themselves, parents and the wider educational sector on the best way forward.
Peter Weir is Education Minister