Education Minister McIlveen accused of 'failing basic test' during heated Stormont debate

Schools are under pressure as a wave of Omicron infections spark staff shortages.

Stormont saw a heated early recall this afternoon with a debate on the reopening of schools in which Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan accused the Education minister Michelle McIlveen of 'dithering' and 'failing the basic test'.

Michelle McIlveen defended her department's handling of the pandemic during a recall of the Assembly on Monday.

The plenary came following a recall motion submitted by Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan, which was backed by the SDLP and Alliance Party. Mr Sheehan's motion passed following an oral vote. DUP MLA Robin Newton claimed the recall of the Assembly was a political stunt. He slammed "negative motion after negative motion" and "cynical motion after cynical motion attacking the minister".

"Parents and teachers deserve better than political posturing like recalling the Assembly for what is little more than a political stunt," he said.

"I'm sure the minister will spend wisely any money allocated by the Finance Minister and this pan-nationalist front signing this motion.

"Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance are the co-ordinating group (who) - rather than during the pandemic wanting to work with the minister - have sought to criticise, for political advantage, Minister McIlveen or Minister (Peter) Weir.

"A health crisis deserves a better response."

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan took exception to being accused of signing a "pan-nationalist motion".

"All children in Northern Ireland are affected, all teachers, all schools. (It) doesn't matter what walk of life, so don't try and turn something as fundamental as children's education into a sectarian argument or bunfight, because that is not what this is.

"This is about children's education and protecting them," he said.

Ms McIlveen said the motion "represents quick fixes, easy headlines, and the worst form of politics".

"There is no magic one thing that can be put in place in schools other than a continued focus on all those things that work," she said.

On the much touted solution of employing air filtration systems she said there is 'limited evidence' of their effectiveness in stemming the spread of Covid-19 in schools.

"At a conservative estimate, it would cost around £40 million to install them across 20,000 classrooms. If the evidence supports such investments I will have no hesitation in bidding for such funds for the Executive and the Minister of Finance. However I will not move ahead of the evidence and recklessly spend public money," she said.

Ms McIlveen said she is investing £2 million this year on ventilation works, including replacing old and defective windows, Co2 monitors, and an initial 100 air filtration units.

Mr Sheehan described the recall as a "voice for school staff, parents and to students to express their frustrations at the way things have been handled in our schools to date".

He added: "This is also about accountability and this Assembly holding this minister to account."

The issues raised by Mr Sheehan were staff shortages due to Covid-19, ventilation systems, contingency plans for exams, and contact tracing.

"I accept there is no silver bullet or panacea but what I will argue is there needs to be a combination of measures - a range of issues that can be introduced in our schools," he told MLAs.

"Two years into this pandemic, (Ms McIlveen) has no plan, she has made no proposals, she has brought nothing to the Executive, and she has not asked for money for air filtration systems," he said.

"That's her responsibility as Education Minister and she has totally failed this basic test.

"Opening windows in classes isn't going to cut it. While our children are shivering in their classrooms, the minister is dithering in the department. It's time for action, it's time for action now."

Ms McIlveen said action has been taken on workforce shortages, such as asking recently retired teachers to return, which has resulted in more than 100 putting their name on the substitute teachers' register.

The minister said she has also asked education bodies to identify qualified teachers who could be deployed, and spoken with higher education institutions around final year student teachers playing more of a role.

Meanwhile, Ms McIlveen said performance reviews and teacher appraisals will be paused this academic year, while schools inspections remain paused.

Arrangements for key stage assessments have been suspended, and Ms McIlveen is working with exams body CCEA to ensure grading in 2022 at GCSE and A-level allows for the disruption to learning.

She also said detailed contingency plans for public exams are in place.

Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Ian Young has warned a "substantial number" of children are likely to contract Covid-19.

Belfast Model School for Girls and Mercy College have both announced that some year groups will return to remote learning for a number of days due to staff shortages.

In recent weeks teaching unions have warned that schools would face tough decisions while trying to maintain as much face-to-face learning as possible.