No PPE issue at special schools, says Peter Weir

Committee chairman Chris Lyttle of the Alliance Party told the committee said many families felt "abandoned"
Committee chairman Chris Lyttle of the Alliance Party told the committee said many families felt "abandoned"

SPECIAL schools remain shut down due to a lack of demand from parents and concerns over social distancing, the education minister has said.

Peter Weir provided an update by audio link to the cross-party education committee at Stormont yesterday.

The minister and Department of Education permanent secretary Derek Baker both dismissed claims that special schools were closed over concerns about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Department guidance says they should be open as those who attend have statements of special educational need and "they fall within the definition of vulnerable children".

No PPE issue at special schools, says Peter Weir

They "should continue to work in partnership with parents and/or legal guardians to ensure that the best interests of children take precedence".

There are 40 special schools across the north educating about 6,000 children.

It is understood as few as five have been open - although there may not be any pupils attending those.

A group of 10 special schools in Belfast voluntarily closed ahead of the blanket lockdown.

They said this was to minimise the risk of infection and to keep children safe.

Governors said coronavirus posed very specific risks both to and by pupils.

Committee chairman Chris Lyttle of the Alliance Party told yesterday's meeting that many children with complex additional needs felt "abandoned".

Mr Baker said principals were being encouraged to make sure what services could be provided in the home were being provided.

He added that while there were 6,000 pupils across the schools, the department had been made aware of just 13 "difficult cases" and it was working to resolve these.

Daniel McCrossan of the SDLP told the committee that many "deemed it unsafe to bring the pupils into schools" and asked was this to do with a lack of PPE.

Replying, Mr Baker said there had been little or no demand from parents.

"No special school is closed because it does not have access to PPE. None," he said.

"The vast majority are closed because there is no demand. In other cases, some feel they cannot exercise social distancing. In some cases, perhaps it is because staff are self-isolating."

Mr Weir also said PPE "has not been raised as an issue".

"There is not a special school in Northern Ireland that is closed because of a lack of PPE," he said.

Earlier, the committee discussed the issue of children entitled to free school meals.

The deputy chair, Sinn Féin's Karen Mullan, said a problem had emerged in making meal payments for people without bank accounts.

Mr Baker said 166 such families had been identified and the department was working with the Home Office to transfer money.

Meanwhile, Mr Weir said he expects an announcement imminently on how GCSE and A-level grades in Northern Ireland will be decided in the absence of written papers this summer.

Exam boards in England announced two weeks ago that results would rely on predicted grades.

Mr Weir said his department has been consulting with key stakeholders including teacher unions and the Education Authority.

"In one sense we could have simply jumped ahead and produced something but we felt it was important that we got buy-in, which largely speaking is there," he told the committee.

"I would anticipate a very imminent announcement on that within the next couple of days."

Asked about whether 11-plus transfer tests due to be sat in the autumn will be delayed, Mr Baker also said while it is not a direct responsibility of the department, the bodies involved are "looking very, very hard at this and are considering all of the options".