Lack of clarity around what will happen to NI schools in January ‘unacceptable’ says deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill

The lack of clarity around the return of schools in January is “unacceptable”, Michelle O’Neill has said.

By Rebecca Black and David Young, PA
Friday, 18th December 2020, 5:12 pm

Teachers and parents have demanded answers amid uncertainty around how education will operate during the six-week lockdown in Northern Ireland.

The deputy First Minister urged education and health officials to “quickly conclude discussions” on what measures could be introduced at the start of next term.

“We certainly do put a premium on children being educated and I think that the piece of work that has now been commenced between health and education should be done at pace because I don’t think it’s acceptable that school leaders don’t understand what the situation looks like for January, or indeed the parents don’t understand what the situation looks like in January,” she told a press conference after the North South Ministerial Council.

It's not yet known how or when schools will return after the Christmas break.

“So I would urge health and education to work together over the weekend and hopefully provide clarity on that at the start of the week, so that school leaders and parents can plan for what comes next.”

First Minister Arlene Foster suggested that schools would open as scheduled in January, with the focus of officials’ discussions on additional safety measures.

“There is an acknowledgment in the Executive that the best place for our young people is to be at school where they can get their education to give them the best life chances that they can get moving forward,” she said.

“That is still the position of the Executive. The reason why health officials and education professionals are speaking over the next period of time is to make sure that we put in as much safety as we can for our young people to ensure that they can get the education that they need moving forward.”

The Executive delayed a decision on schools at the meeting on Thursday when ministers agreed to introduce the fresh restrictions on other sections of society.

Education and health officials have instead been tasked to engage on potential options to reduce face-to-face school time in the new term.

One option is a potential staggered return to the classroom after Christmas, with some year groups going back earlier than others.

Teachers and parents have demanded answers so they can plan for January.

Particular concerns have been raised about the prospect of primary age children from several schools mixing when they gather to take tests set as part of an academic selection transfer process used by some secondary schools.

While January’s tests are conducted by private companies, the Department of Education has ultimate responsibility for ensuring school settings are safe.

National Association of Head Teachers president in Northern Ireland Graham Gault criticised the Executive on Friday morning.

“Principals and teachers need clarity on what the beginning of term will entail,” he tweeted.

“Schools can’t turn things around overnight.

“Unfortunately, a lack of understanding has been the hallmark of decision-making through this pandemic, with schools being the last to know at every turn.”

Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Ian Young said a “wide range of options” regarding schools has been provided to the Executive.

“Schools don’t have to be open or closed, there are lots of in-between things – staggered opening, I think, would be clearly included as one of those possibilities,” he said.