There are no plans to reduce school summer holidays or make catch-up classes compulsory for pupils falling behind, the Education Minister has said.
Peter Weir said funding will be made available and it will be up to individual schools to decide what extra summer support they provide struggling pupils.
The minister is also not in favour of giving all pupils the option of repeating a year after missing out on so much class time during the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview with Belfast Live, he said this would cause problems “educationally, logistically and even socially”.
Plans on when and how to reopen schools are expected to be considered by the Stormont executive by Thursday or early the following week.
Schools in general have been closed to most pupils during the current lockdown and are to remain shut until at least March 8.
Mr Weir said he hopes to give pupils, their families and schools at least “a week-and-a-half to two-and-a-half weeks” of notice on reopening plans.
He said there are a “spectrum of options” available, from blended learning or a phased return of pupils to classrooms, to a full reopening for all year groups.
“I want to see a situation where we move back as quickly as possible to full reopening of schools,” he said.
“While public health has obviously got to be the key determinant, as much as possible I think we need to be prioritising the education of our young people as we move ahead.”
While Scotland and Wales are reopening some elements of schools from February 22, Stormont confirmed an extension to school closures until at least March 8 shortly after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the same for England.
Mr Weir denied rigidly following England’s decisions. He said Scotland and Wales currently have a lower rate of Covid-19 infections than Northern Ireland.
There is a “high level of interlinkage between jurisdictions” particularly on qualifications, and the close geography means “it’s not surprising that different jurisdictions have taken roughly similar positions”.
Mr Weir said his department is developing a catch-up programme for schools during term time to help pupils who have fallen behind due to the pandemic.
Funding will be provided for schools to tailor their support in both academic help and mental well-being, he said.
“Schools themselves may tailor where they see the interventions that would be most important to their pupils,” he said.
“The issues faced by a 16-year-old in Belfast from an academic point of view would be quite different from the issues faced by a seven-year-old in rural Fermanagh, for instance.”
Last year around 50 schools voluntarily took part in a summer initiative helping pupils catch-up on lost learning.
Mr Weir said there are no plans to make this compulsory.
“There won’t be any compulsion in that regard. I don’t take a particular Stalinist view on these type of things,” he said.
“It will not be a question of children or families being compelled to attend things over the summer, but I think it’s actually about providing opportunities to people.”
Mr Weir added: “In terms of academic catch-up, people will be in different places.
“For quite a lot of students their actual loss of learning will be minimal if at all, but for others they will be in a more disadvantaged position.
“So for maybe some within our society, there won’t even be a great deal of need for any level of catch-up. Others will have felt that more acutely.”
There are also “no particular plans” to reduce summer holidays, although a “change on the margins” last year – in which some year groups returned to school a week early – could happen again.
On the idea of allowing pupils to repeat a year, Mr Weir said this already happens for a small number each year, such as those with special needs or children new to Northern Ireland with language barriers.
But he said “on a systems-wide basis, I just think it is not practical” and educational studies suggest “in general those repeating a year don’t on average seem to actually benefit academically”.
He added: “From a logistical point of view in our primary schools, would we end up having to find hundreds of extra classrooms?”
With GCSE, AS and A-level exams cancelled again this year, Mr Weir will be hoping to avoid last summer’s controversy over predicted grades.
An algorithm used to standardise results was scrapped following outcry after it reduced more than a third of A-level grades predicted by teachers.
The minister said this year will have “robust mechanisms” in place. Guidance will be given to schools, teacher grades will be moderated within schools, and exams body CCEA will provide some external oversight.
“There won’t be any algorithm. This will all be on the basis of moderated, professional judgement,” he said.
He added: “There’s no system which is 100% fair or 100% level for everybody, so we’re trying to work on the best possible solutions.”
Mr Weir defended his approach to post-primary transfer tests, which the external organisations involved delayed before eventually cancelling amid the current lockdown.
He said his department advised schools in the Autumn to prepare alternatives and gave guidance on selection criteria.
But he said legally it is up to boards of governors for each school to set selection criteria, and he could only intervene “if the assembly came to a clear-cut agreed position on academic selection”.
However, he said alternative criteria being adopted “perhaps highlights the need to have an option for a transfer test”.
“We have seen in England where for instance proximity to schools is sometimes a key determinant, that you will find that the house prices very close to the school will tend to go up.”
He said it “becomes much more of a driver for levels of wealth”, adding: “It’s not a situation I would be keen to see develop for post-primary schools here.”
-- to www.belfastlive.co.uk