Gemma Weir, Workers Party North Belfast representative has slammed Education Minister Peter Weir for his total incompetence in supporting schools during the pandemic. Back in September schools were asked to come up with a plan for how to reopen safely and within the guidelines for social distancing.

School leaders in every school in the North came up with plans for splitting classes to comply with guidance, having a rotation of children attending school, therefore ensuring that the correct level of social distancing took place. By doing this all children would have had contact with school, to include access to teacher’s resources and friendship groups (Blended learning).The minister rejected this plan and insisted that all students return on a full-time basis.

She said ‘This whilst reasonable in August/ September with low rates of infection, was soon found to be unsustainable. The infection rates in school spiked before the Halloween half term break, this forced an addition closure. In the weeks running up to the Christmas holidays many voices called for the managed end of the school year, these calls fell on deaf ears. The Blended learning approach remains unused and with the infection rate at current levels unable to be used.

‘This method of education whilst not perfect and less preferential than face to face teaching, would be a massive improvement on the lockdown and remote model we have been forced into by the procrastination of the minster. Regular safe contact with school would have done much to improve the educational, social, mental and emotional experiences of our pupils and staff teaching them.

‘It would seem that his desire to push through the selection process was the driving force behind his decision not the safety and wellbeing of the staff or students. By Christmas we had reached crisis point, the selection process exams had been postponed from November to January, the R number was rising, and staffing levels were problematic. Now four days before students were due to sit their exams the Minster has once again postponed them until February. Of course, the two private companies who provide the test are clambering to protect there interests, including the money paid to run the tests.

‘Questions must be asked, why did the minister instruct teachers to come up with a plan for reopening schools and then refused to use their sensible proposals? Why is the Minister subjecting children to a constant postponement of their exams instead of trying to postpone them indefinitely and work with parents and teachers to find an alterative route for this year?

‘Our feelings on the selection process have been made clear on many occasions. We have stated clearly that the system of selection is not appropriate and must be changed. However, at this time it would be insensitive of us to begin to lecture about the necessity for a new system. We must focus our efforts on protecting the children who have been working within the current framework we must ensure that these students are supported through this current stressful time.

She concluded ‘What needs to happen immediately is for the Minister to listen to teachers and students. He must begin to make decisions based on what is right for pupils in the north and not what Westminster decide to do. His dithering has brought us to this point almost one year later we are still directionless. This is not acceptable when students’ futures are at stake not to mention the wellbeing of staff, students and their families.

‘Minister Weir must postpone the exams indefinitely, immediately. The lockdown must continue for the duration of January with a phased return when the R number dictates it is safe to do so, and based on the original plan drawn up by schools themselves. This is the only way to protect lives and to protect the mental wellbeing of our exam students.

‘Following the postponement of the exams the minister must work with Education stakeholders to ensure a process is set up that is fair, achievable, transparent and allows pupils who are completing key parts of their education to move to the pathways that suits them best.’