Education Minister pledges to end confusion over phased school return

Northern Ireland Education Minister Peter Weir has pledged to end the “confusion” over the phased return to schools.

Mr Weir also said he would push for a full return to the classroom “as soon as possible”.

The first pupils in P1 to P3 returned to school last week.

The Stormont Executive is set to discuss proposals by Mr Weir to fast track the current phased approach.

An ampty classroom

Mr Weir told Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) on Monday that he would have preferred decisions to have been made earlier.

“We only reach something closer to normality when we have all students back, and particularly for those at primary level,” he said during Education Minister Questions.

“I can understand, particularly those at primary level will see a situation where they are seeing perhaps a younger sibling heading to school, and a level of confusion as to why they are not.

“I think it is important that tomorrow we bring a level of certainty. I will certainly be pushing for that return as soon as possible in line with whatever public health mitigations will need to be put in place.

“But I think both from an academic point of view, from the point of view of where families are at, but also from the point of view of the mental health and wellbeing of young people, I think it is critical that we get that return to face-to-face teaching as soon as is practically possible.”

DUP MLA Gary Middleton responded to Mr Weir’s comments, urging the other parties on the Executive to back a return to school.

“We hear from a lot of teachers and school leaders who want that clarity to be able to move from remote learning into face to face, but obviously they need as much time between that as possible,” he said.

“I urge all the other parties who do a lot of shouting, if they would support our young people in getting back into schools… and ensuring that we can do so in a safe manner.”

Before last week only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers had been permitted in school since January.

P1 to P3 pupils returned to the classroom last Monday, as did nursery and pre-school children.

The Executive last week ditched a previous plan for those pupils to go back to remote learning on March 22 when the next children, year groups 12 to 14, are due to return to school.

Mr Weir wants all remaining primary schoolchildren, P4 to P7s, to go back to school on March 22, and all remaining secondary pupils, years eight to 11, to return after the Easter holidays on April 12.

The Executive will consider those proposals on Tuesday.