Education Minister announces free wi-fi boost for school children

Children and young people who have not had access to digital technology during lockdown are to be given the opportunity to avail of free wi-fi and mobile connectivity for learning, Education Minister Peter Weir announced today.

Up to 2,500 MI-FI devices for children not within a BT wi-fi hotspot and 8,300 wi-fi vouchers for disadvantaged children are to be provided under the scheme which the Department of Education has devised along with the telecoms company and the Education Authority.

Minister Weir said: “In May, I outlined proposals to lend digital devices such as laptops to those children who would benefit most in terms of supporting their learning. A key element of this scheme was to ensure that pupils who did not have access to the internet were able to use the digital devices for online learning. My officials have been working with the Education Authority to progress this issue as quickly as possible. I am pleased to announce that BT is assisting us to provide a range of solutions to address connectivity problems for those pupils.”

It is anticipated the wi-fi scheme will run for up to eight months for eligible pupils from the middle of August.

Priority will be given during the distribution of devices to children in year groups: 11, 13, 6 and 3 in this order; and to those pupils who receive free school meals, have special educational needs or from newcomer target groups including: asylum seeker, refugee and Roma children.

Looked after children and children considered vulnerable, as well as rurality will also be taken into account.

In other news, driving tests for certain categories of drivers are to be reinstated this month in accordance with public health guidance on physical distancing, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon confirmed.

Motorbike driving tests resumed from Monday (6 July), with tests for drivers of buses, tractors and module 4 CPC tests for lorry, bus and coach drivers due to return from 20 July.

Driver theory tests were also reintroduced from Monday, with measures to ensure safe social distancing in place.

Minister Mallon said: “The DVA continues to work on proposals to safely resume practical driving tests for cars and lorries as soon as possible. While a date for the resumption of these services has not yet been confirmed, this legislative change is a step forward for drivers who have already passed their theory test and are keen to take their practical driving test. My Department continues to work at pace to find solutions to ensure the safe resumption of all services, working in partnership with staff and the unions. I will continue to keep the public updated during this changing and challenging time.”

The Minister also revealed the validity of theory test pass certificates for learner drivers will be extended because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Test certificates that expire between 1 March 2020 and 31 October 2020 will be extended by eight months and off-road motorcycle test pass certificates which expire between 1 March 2020 and 31 August 2020 will be extended by six months.

The Minister said: “This legislative change will come into effect in September 2020 and will be applied retrospectively. It will benefit over 1,300 people.”

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Conor Murphy joined forces with his Scottish and Welsh counterparts to call on the UK Government to ease the restrictions on the devolved administrations’ budgets that would allow them to respond more effectively to Covid-19 challenges.

Ahead of the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s Summer Statement, Conor Murphy, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance Kate Forbes and Welsh Finance Minister Rebecca Evans called for assurances that will give them the freedom to switch capital funding to day-to-day revenue and put an end to the arbitrary limits on borrowing.

Minister Murphy said: “It is crucial that the Devolved Administrations are equipped to respond swiftly and effectively to the challenges arising from Covid. More financial flexibility can help us deal with these challenges and use our budgets to support public services, protect the vulnerable, and deliver an economic recovery.”

In another development there will be fewer on-farm inspections for the 2020 Basic Payment Scheme, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots announced.

In a bid to protect farmers and Departmental staff, the Minister said the exceptional measure was required to reduce the potential for Covid-19 to spread.

Minister Poots explained: “In these exceptional circumstances we all need to play our part and adhere to social distancing measures to help reduce the spread of Covid-19. I have, therefore, decided to reduce the number of inspections to be carried out by my Department as part of the 2020 Basic Payment Scheme year. To further reduce non-essential travel, I have introduced legislation to allow the use of alternatives to an on-farm visit where possible. I believe these additional measures will help reduce the burden on our farms during a very difficult year.”

Under the new arrangements:

Basic Payment Scheme inspections will be reduced from 3% to 1%
Greening inspections will be reduced from 5% to 3%
Environment Farming Scheme inspections will be reduced from 10% to 5%.

Meanwhile, Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced details of a free Postgraduate Certificate (PgCert) in Operations and Supply Chain Management for people whose career has been impacted by Covid-19.

A total of 100 fully funded places are available for the part-time PgCert with Queen’s University Belfast. The course starts in August and is open to people who have a 2:2 honours degree in any subject or appropriate work experience.

Urging those eligible for the PgCert course to apply, Minister Dodds said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for people with degrees in any subject, or appropriate work experience, and whose careers have been affected by the pandemic, to study, at no cost, in a growth area and potentially secure employment in the future.

“Queen’s University will deliver the learning ‘virtually’ and participants who complete the course will be strongly positioned to compete for roles in this growing sector, or choose to go on and study for a Master’s. This investment follows my Department’s funding of a postgraduate certificate in software development at Queen’s. This opportunity was very popular and I am pleased that we were able to expand it from 100 to 150 fully funded places.”

Applications for the PgCert in Operations and Supply Chain Management part-time course are being accepted now and the closing date for applications is 24 July.

The course will run from 17 August to 30 November 2020.

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