Northern Ireland

No school return until March 8 at earliest

Pupils will have missed out on the benefit of in-school teaching for the equivalent of half an academic year
Pupils will have missed out on the benefit of in-school teaching for the equivalent of half an academic year Pupils will have missed out on the benefit of in-school teaching for the equivalent of half an academic year

SCHOOL closures are being extended again with teachers already predicting classroom learning will only resume after Easter.

First Minister Arlene Foster confirmed schools would not return to face-to-face education before March 5.

This means Monday March 8 is the earliest date on which children will be brought back, although this will be kept under review.

The extension means pupils will have missed out on the benefit of in-school teaching for the equivalent of half an academic year.

Several teachers have suggested to The Irish News that a post-Easter return is more likely unless the health situation improves drastically.

The closures apply to all pre-schools, nurseries, primaries and post-primaries.

Special schools will remain open and mainstream settings will continue to provide supervised learning for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.

Childcare settings and child minders will also continue to operate.

The executive has also agreed to support a further roll-out of the Engage Programme.

It is designed to limit any long-term adverse impact of the lockdown on educational standards by supporting pupils' learning on their return to school. This involves high quality one to one, small group or team teaching support in every school.

"It's unlikely to come as a significant surprise that we are keeping to remote learning," Mrs Foster said.

"I also understand that for so many it will still be felt as a disappointment that we cannot yet press the restart button.

"As a working mother with children still in full-time education I have a sense of how difficult home-schooling can be, practically, educationally and emotionally. The kitchen table is no substitute for the school desk and as my children would no doubt agree, parents are no substitute to trained teachers or lecturers.

"I am resolved, as is this executive, to get our young people back into the classroom as soon as possible. That is the best place for them to learn and achieve their full potential and to have the best life chances."

The INTO union said it welcomed that schools would remain open for key worker and vulnerable pupils.

Assistant Northern Secretary Mark McTaggart said principals and their staffs should only safely attend school for "business-critical reasons".

He said this ruled out teachers taking part in the organisation or administration of any assessment of pupils, requested by parents or post-primary schools.

Some brought P7 children back into classrooms to sit English and maths assessments amid speculation the scores might be used by grammar schools to award places.

"Principal members who are asked to facilitate tests or requests of this nature should advise their board of governors that they are unable to do so," Mr McTaggart said.

"Members are further advised that, while parents are entitled to request the results of any standardised test that have already been carried out by schools, they should reject any request either by parents or other schools, to use such results to rank order pupils, or to report any performance related assessments of pupils in any other form that are outside the normal practice of the school in which they work."

Martin McKay, CEO of Belfast-based technology company Texthelp, said for many children, education this year "has been more like a game of snakes and ladders".

"The learning begins and you make progress, only to slide back down the board again," he said.

"Learning loss happens naturally between term breaks, but the constant stop-start has meant this learning loss is now greater than ever. Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged yesterday that it will take more than a year for children to catch up with their education.

"Keeping students engaged and motivated over Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams is one of the biggest challenges, and a constant battle for teachers. Education software can help to overcome some of the challenges around motivation and engagement by providing regular feedback and ‘gamifying’ learning, using point systems or leader boards, for example."