Northern Ireland news

Return to school will be 'complex and challenging'

Education Minister Peter Weir with Gerry Murphy, INTO Northern Secretary (right)

REOPENING schools will be complex and challenging and caution must be maintained, teaching unions have warned.

Children in `key cohorts' will be the first to be brought back into the classroom towards the end of August.

There will follow a phased return for all young people at the beginning of September - but exact dates have not yet been confirmed.

A `restart programme' is to be developed over the summer.

Details still to be finalised include what exactly is meant by key cohorts.

The Department of Education guided this "could" include "significant educational years" - transition from primary school (P7) and at the start of GCSE/A-levels.

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said it was committed to seeing schools returned to normality as soon as possible.

It said this could only be done in circumstances guided by science.

Northern Secretary Gerry Murphy said the union was determined to play a full and constructive role in planning for and managing a phased wider reopening.

"This is a complex and challenging undertaking, but the teaching profession continues to demonstrate a capacity for innovation and a willingness to be flexible that will be essential as we work our way through these difficult times," Mr Murphy said.

"INTO members are stepping up to the challenge and will continue to do so in the interests of all our young people and society generally. Teachers remain the most valuable resource and whilst more IT equipment is welcome, teachers in safe, properly resourced classrooms, engaging with children and young people in learning activities remains our goal."

Mr Murphy added that it was disappointing that Education Minister Peter Weir remained "unwilling to embrace the opportunity presented by the unfortunate circumstances we find ourselves in, to address the issue of transfer to post primary schools".

Unregulated grammar school entrance exams are scheduled to take place in November and December.

"INTO will continue to campaign to have the current system which is both educationally unsound and socially unacceptable changed in the interests of every child," Mr Murphy said.

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT, said his union had previously welcomed the executive's decision not to rush ahead with the reopening of schools.

"As plans are now starting to be put together in relation to how schools might begin to reopen in the new academic year, it will be critical that the executive maintains a cautious approach which does not undermine public health or put at risk the health and safety of teachers or children," he said.

"Once the details emerge of the arrangements, the NASUWT will evaluate them and advise members in the light of the key tests it has established around making schools Covid-19 secure and minimising risk.

"The NASUWT's bottom line remains that no teacher or pupil should be expected to return to school until it can be demonstrated that it is safe to do so."

Justin McCamphill, NASUWT National Official for Northern Ireland, said it had been the practice of some schools to reopen at the end of August to prepare for the beginning of the academic year.

"It would not be acceptable for individual schools to move their established starting date without agreement with school trade union representatives," he added.

"The NASUWT reminds the minister that a new agreement on teachers' term and conditions is in place and whatever arrangements are developed must not conflict with teachers' contractual rights.

"The NASUWT will continue to work with Department of Education, employers and sister trade unions in the development of these plans, with our primary concern being the safety and wellbeing of staff and pupils."

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