Who would have thought that after the 2020 Summer exam results fiasco, the education system in NI would be thrown into a deeper, darker spiral of confusion at the hands of our Education Minister? Well, given the track record of our government, it’s likely that the majority of the population thought as much. And sadly, they would be right.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had a severe social, political and economic impact across the globe. It has encroached upon every aspect of humanity, changing our lives to an astronomical degree. Indeed, with new variants of the virus emerging and another lockdown imminent, all new year optimism for a quick return to ‘normality’ has likely faded into nothingness. In NI, the situation is dire. Cases are rising at an alarming rate, reaching the highest daily total as 2020 drew to a close, and hospital numbers are swelling close to maximum capacity. Our government has had to make difficult decisions, forced time and time again to impose draconian restrictions, giving one a distinct sense of déjà vu.
In light of new COVID variants, purported to have 70% transmission rates and spreading more rapidly among under-20s, we’re in a significantly worse situation than we were nine months ago. Given this, why then did MLA Peter Weir not take swift and decisive action to protect our communities? Why was he forced by other Stormont members to revise COVID risks in schools and enforce stricter measures to protect the health of our children, teachers and their families? Whilst this was unfortunately unsurprising, it was nothing short of disgraceful, shambolic and offensive to the education arena in NI.
The decision to return to remote learning is by no means an easy one for anyone to make. Not only are virtual platforms such as Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams simply incomparable to the countless benefits of face-to-face classroom teaching, studies have shown that previous school closures had distressing effects on students regarding a decline of mental health and limited the development of key interpersonal skills. The reality is that pupils thrive both socially and academically in the physical classroom environment and removing them from that space is wholly unsettling to pupils, parents and educators. However, when that environment potentially becomes a catalyst for a deadly, rapidly spreading virus, strengthening its hold on our communities, one would assume that the latter decision reluctantly becomes the obvious one to make. That assumption was clearly deemed wishful thinking by our education minister.
Instead, Weir adopted a painfully stubborn attitude in response to growing concern over the safety of reopening schools after the Christmas break by both school leaders and medical advisors from as early as the beginning of December. This resulted in other Stormont members forcing him to complete yet another last-minute U-turn, finally making the decision to close schools to limit the spread of the virus. Indeed, Weir’s meagre ‘wait and see’ approach taken from the beginning of the academic year has left school leaders and teachers stretched well beyond their capacity. Despite clear inconsistencies and gaps in remote learning, Weir’s plans for the 2020/21 academic year, the most turbulent academic year in our education system’s history, are infused with a lack of consideration or respect for our educators and young people. By failing to even provide basic online-learning training for teachers, schools across NI have had to scramble to devise adequate strategies that not only support our young people’s learning sufficiently but also improve on their remote learning approach from the previous closures in March. School leaders are left to do more than picking up the pieces of Weir’s complete incompetences as a leader; they are doing the job he is paid to do.
Peter Weir’s dogmatism reached its climax as he was forced to make decisions regarding the growing concerns of teacher and children’s health and safety in schools. And whilst his decision to close schools was welcomed, it simply added more fuel to the growing fire in the education system, leaving educators once again reeling, and in the dark until just three days before the scheduled beginning of term. Weir, in true fashion, exacerbated anxiety further by failing to promptly address the issues of scheduled GCSE and BTEC examinations, instructing teachers and students to simply ‘continue as normal’, only to cancel exams with little than a week’s notice with no guidance as to how grades will be awarded. Further, his handling of post-primary transfer examinations was simply catastrophic. Rather than resolving the growing concerns regarding the safety of transfer tests, Weir placed thousands of 10-11-year-old children, their parents and teachers in limbo to defend his party’s agenda. Indeed, his statement, issued on the last day of school term, placed heavy pseudo-moral pressure on primary schools to resolve a mess for which they themselves had called for an alternative.
From the beginning of this pandemic, Weir displayed nothing but contempt for our education communities in NI. So candidly, he has continuously disregarded our children’s educational and mental well-being in the pursuit of political gain. It is without question that parents, children and teachers would not have the, albeit limited, clarity they have today without the work of MLA Chris Lyttle, the Chair of the Stormont Education Committee. But the reality is that other politicians should not have had to move mountains to force the Education Minister to do what his job title entails. Parents and teachers should not have to seek clarification and reassurance about their child’s education via news journalists on Twitter feeds. Children should not have to see their future used as a political weapon on the news. I, like many others, am appalled at the failure to prioritise the young people of NI and their futures in such unprecedented times. Instead, Peter Weir has adopted a reckless and shambolic approach that will irrefutably damage a full generation of young people. If Weir has proven anything, it is that he is incapable of leading our education system, that his position as Education Minister is unsustainable, and that the detrimental long-term consequences on our young people will be the hallmark of his tenure.
Katie Brown, 22, is studying for PGCE in English at Queen's University Belfast. She interested in education in working class communities, global politics and intersectional feminism.