Northern Ireland news

Week-long delay to school re-start 'had 11-plus in mind'

Transfer tests begin on January 9

A PLAN to keep primary-age children at home for just one extra week was drawn up with the 11-plus in mind, it has been claimed.

Pupils will stay out of schools until January 8, with transfer tests starting the next day.

MLAs returned to Stormont yesterday in the second recall of the week to discuss schools reopening.

The recall was approved only hours before changes were announced.

There remain concerns about young people going back to face-to-face learning when the rest of society is in lockdown.

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In addition, there are fears about hundreds of children from different bubbles mixing when they take transfer tests in grammar schools.

The SDLP's Daniel McCrossan, who brought forward the recall petition, said there remained questions to be answered by education minister Peter Weir.

His motion, which won assembly approval, called for urgent clarity from the minister on what work had been undertaken with the Department of Health on protecting schoolchildren, teachers, parents and the wider public from the virus.

It further called on Mr Weir to outline the medical and scientific advice his department had received.

"It has been clear for days now that Covid-19 cases are surging in every part of the north but delay, inaction and lack of leadership from this minister has caused needless stress and anxiety for pupils, parents and teachers," Mr McCrossan said.

"The minister must now produce detailed guidance for schools and provide support to assist our young people with online learning, particularly those in areas of disadvantage."

Many members noted that primary children would be allowed to return in time for transfer papers.

Assembly education committee chairman and Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said he was disappointed by the minister's approach, claiming he appeared to be copying changes announced in England.

"How can the education minister effectively suspend school-based operations until January 11 for so many of our children and yet support the sitting of transfer tests on January 9? How can those tests fairly, safely and legally proceed?" Mr Lyttle asked.

"That is a legitimate question, it is focussed on this year alone and parents have not received a satisfactory answer to that or the question of what the contingency plan is for any child who is unable to sit tests due to a Covid-related absence."

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said he was concerned about whether the tests could go ahead.

"I think we are all used to risk assessment graphs where the horizontal axis gives us an assessment of how likely an adverse event is to happen - nought being not likely, five being almost certain - and the vertical graph gives an assessment of the impact should it happen," he told the assembly.

"I would like to know where the dot is in terms of the department's risk assessment of those exams not going ahead. I suspect we are much closer to five-five than to zero-zero."

Former education minister John O'Dowd of Sinn Féin said the virus did not work to timetables and the minister had to plan for schools being closed for longer.

"We may be in restrictions for a significant time. Setting a date in the calendar is not going to work for us," he said.

"Do not think for one second our schools will open on a date because you set it."

Mr O'Dowd was highly critical of what he claimed were efforts to protect academic selection.

"What concerns me most minister is this, you have set your agenda in regard to January 9 - the transfer test.

"Our education system for generations was planned around the 11-plus. We reached a certain part of the year where a section of the class sat at the back of the classroom with pencils and a colouring book and told to colour in while the rest of the class were educated.

"Minister please do not go back to that mentality where we now have an education system in the middle of a Covid-19 crisis being directed towards the needs of the minority instead of the majority."

Mr Weir did not reference transfer tests specifically in his response. He said the timing of the restart was partly to allow schools to prepare for remote learning and partly due to advice that the first week in January could see a huge number of cases.

"There was an expectation that, with the new variant, we may face into a situation whereby late January and February may become a very dangerous period," he added.

Earlier his party colleague Maurice Bradley said the top priority was education.

"There is also preparing children for the next stage of their development, whether it is for examinations, transfer from primary to post-primary education, further education or young people going out into employment," he said.

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