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House of Commons Hansard
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05 May 2020
Volume 675

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Home Learning

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What steps he is taking to support children and young people to continue learning at home while nurseries, schools and colleges are partially closed as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [902238]

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What steps he is taking to support children and young people to continue learning at home while nurseries, schools and colleges are partially closed as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [902239]

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What steps he is taking to support children and young people to continue learning at home while nurseries, schools and colleges are partially closed as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [902241]

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What steps he is taking to support children and young people to continue learning at home while nurseries, schools and colleges are partially closed as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [902242]

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What steps he is taking to support children and young people to continue learning at home while nurseries, schools and colleges are partially closed as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [902249]

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What steps he is taking to support children and young people to continue learning at home while nurseries, schools and colleges are partially closed as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [902254]

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I am determined to help learning continue in these challenging times. We have committed over £100 million to provide devices and internet access to vulnerable children and published a list of high-quality online educational resources, and we continue to support parents and teachers in supporting children at home.

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Headteachers in York have told me of their frustration that they will have to wait at least another month until they can provide students with laptops under the Government’s scheme. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that support will be available to schools in the meantime to help their most disadvantaged students learn from home?

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As I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, £100 million for computers and other support for schools is a major investment, and it takes a while for these resources to arrive at schools. We have already notified multi-academy trusts and local authorities of what resources they will be getting, and we continue to work to provide resources, with the BBC providing resources in the homes of children right across the country.

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Parents across Amber Valley have been doing a fantastic job of supporting their children to continue to learn while their schools are closed. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking them and set out what more we can do to support them to help their children continue to learn?

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I would very much like to join my hon. Friend in thanking the teachers and all the support staff who have done so much to support home learning and ensure that schools remain open for the children of critical workers and the most vulnerable children. We have seen the launch of the Oak National Academy, which is providing educational resources for children of all ages to support them in their learning, and we are looking at putting more and more resources online, to help schools and, most importantly, to help children continue to learn.

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I very much welcome the funding for IT equipment, because there is nothing worse than when computer says no. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the laptops and tablets provided to disadvantaged and vulnerable young people will not just benefit them while schools are closed, but will continue to be used by their schools to aid learning in the future?

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My hon. Friend is right in his analysis. It is not just about helping children during this crisis; it is about helping and supporting children for many months and years to come, ensuring that schools continue to have that resource and helping many children through that resource over a long period. We recognise that a lot of work needs to be done to support children as they catch up on what they have missed, because there is no substitute for a child being in a classroom, learning directly from a teacher.

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School closures will, of course, affect children of all ages and backgrounds in different ways. Children from more disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to have access to the internet via a mobile or tablet. Will the Secretary of State confirm that devices with internet access are being sent to disadvantaged children, so that they can learn online more easily? That would certainly help to ensure that the disadvantaged children in my constituency of Ashfield and Eastwood, which the Minister visited recently, are not further disadvantaged by this crisis.

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I had the great privilege of joining my hon. Friend on a visit to Leamington primary school in his constituency, to see the amazing work being done there. We have made substantial investment in not just laptops but 4G routers, to ensure that families have better access to the internet and that children can benefit from the brilliant resources, many of which have been made available for free by people, companies and organisations, to allow children to continue to learn.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating schools in Hampshire on their success in ensuring that 31% of vulnerable children are attending school, and in thanking all the teachers, school staff and children, particularly those in Meon Valley, for their hard work both in school and at home? Has he assessed the impact on the mental health of children and young people during the coronavirus crisis?

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I do indeed join my hon. Friend in thanking the teachers, the support staff, the social workers, Hampshire County Council and all those who have been involved in making sure that schools stay open and available for vulnerable children. They have done amazing work. The attendance rate she highlights is truly outstanding. Since the Easter holidays, we have seen a doubling of the number of vulnerable children who are attending school, and that is down to the work of teachers, school staff and social workers, reaching out and encouraging them to come into school. Mental health, which my hon. Friend also raised, is an important issue. That is why we have committed £5 million of funding to support charities to help children with mental health concerns and issues while they are at home.

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While schools are closed, the issues of home-school transport affecting my constituents have effectively been paused, but they will come back eventually and potentially result, for example, in siblings having to go to separate schools. Although this is a county council matter, the Government issued a consultation on home-school transport last October, and five Suffolk MPs, including me, wrote to the Government asking them to consider changing the guidelines to state that siblings should not be separated by changes in school transport policy. Has my right hon. Friend had time to consider that consultation, and will he publish the response soon?

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The consultation closed in October last year. We were hit by twin issues of purdah being imposed and now, obviously, our principal focus being on dealing with the coronavirus. We hope to respond to the consultation in the near future, but I am not currently in a position to give my hon. Friend an exact date.

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Constant speculation on when schools will reopen and whether it is safe to do so is leaving many parents, pupils and staff anxious. Last week, it was reported that the Government were looking at best practice in other countries; this weekend, it was reported that the Government would reopen schools for year 6 pupils on 1 June; and last night, it was reported that there were discussions in Government about giving schools and multi-academy trusts the flexibility to decide for themselves, amid concerns that Ministers were coming under pressure to help to kick-start the economy. I am sure the Secretary of State will want to reassure parents, pupils and staff that their safety is the Government’s No. 1 priority, so will he clarify the basis on which the Government are making decisions on school and college opening, and when will he make the scientific advice supporting his strategy publicly available?

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First, let me take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Lady on her new appointment. I appreciate the time she has made available to speak with me, and I hope the regular briefings from officials that we are providing are of considerable assistance to her, as I think they were to her predecessor.

All SAGE advice is made public, and we will certainly do that. On the return of schools, I am sure the hon. Lady shares my desire for children to be given the opportunity to return to school when it is the right time to do so. The decision will be based on the scientific and medical advice that we receive. I assure her that we will take a phased approach to reopening schools, and we will always aim to give schools, parents and, critically, children maximum notice of when that will happen.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his kind comments. He must understand that faith that children and staff are safe will be necessary to parents having the confidence to send their children to school, but nearly 1 million pupils in English schools are in classes of 31 or more—an increase of 28% since 2010—so there is understandable concern that social distancing will be difficult in schools. Everyone wants a return to vital education to support pupils and to stop the ever-widening attainment gap, but does the Secretary of State agree that first we need a national plan for social distancing and personal protective equipment, evidence of a sustained downward trend in cases, comprehensive access to testing for staff and pupils, a whole-school strategy for when cases emerge, and protection for the vulnerable? In the words of the National Education Union:

“Anything else will be a dereliction of duty from government”.

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I think the hon. Lady would very much appreciate the fact that I take my responsibilities for the safety and the health of children who attend school as the absolute principal motivation for everything I do, as is the case for those who work in schools. I always welcome constructive dialogue with her, which is why we have made every effort to do so, about how best we can support children to be in schools. Let us not forget that the overwhelming majority of schools—over three quarters of them—are currently operating in a safe, considered and proper way, supporting the children of critical workers as well as those children who are most vulnerable in society. Every step we take is about making sure that we look after those who are the most important part of our society, and that is our children, but also about supporting those who work in educational settings.

Covid-19: Vulnerable Children

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What steps his Department is taking to ensure that vulnerable children are identified and supported during the covid-19 outbreak. [902244]

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Schools remain open to children in care, and local authority virtual school heads are actively tailoring their expert offer of advice and support to all children on what they are learning in schools. For those not attending, we have made it clear to local authorities and schools that they should be doing everything they can to maintain contact with and support for children not attending school.

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What specific support during the covid-19 pandemic is being provided for children in care and children with special educational needs, such as dyslexia?

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We have been working right across the sector to make it absolutely clear that we understand the need for very specific, tailor-made guidance for a lot of children in special educational needs settings. We have been working with special schools to be able to provide that. We have also been providing tailored advice, support and resources online for children with a whole spectrum and range of special educational needs, as well as on how we support families to give education at home.

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I welcome Tulip Siddiq to the Front Bench. I call the shadow Minister.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last week, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said that the Government’s latest reduction in legal protections for children in care without proper scrutiny or an opportunity to scrutinise was not justified, given that the staffing in social care is “holding up”. The Labour party agrees with the Children’s Commissioner for England. Does the Secretary of State also agree with the Children’s Commissioner for England?

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On the regulations we have laid, we worked very closely with the ADCS—the Association of Directors of Children’s Services—on how we make sure we do everything we can to maintain the very best support for all children when they are in care. It and the sector have specifically asked us to make sure that some flexibilities are made available to them. This is a temporary measure that we have taken in response to concerns that people have raised about making sure they are able to provide the best care for the most vulnerable children. It is certainly not something that is going to be continued once we are through this crisis.

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First, will my right hon. Friend thank the teachers and support staff of Harlow, who have been doing everything possible to teach children of critical workers and vulnerable children over the past few weeks? Given that only 5% of vulnerable children are being educated in schools, nearly 50% of under-16s are potentially being exposed to online harms and possibly two thirds are not accessing online education, does my right hon. Friend agree that a catch-up premium, with tuition, mentoring and wellbeing, will be necessary for these vulnerable children as schools begin to reopen once again?

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I certainly will join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the teachers and all those who work in schools not only in Harlow but right throughout the country for the amazing work that they are currently undertaking.

We are working closely on how we ensure that every child in this country has the ability to catch up, and I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend’s ideas. We are looking into how we can take forward some of those concepts, including the enormous good will among the British public, to help to support children to make sure that they do not miss out as a result of this crisis. We need to make sure that that is not just an idea but actually becomes a reality.

T-levels

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What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the introduction of T-levels on the (a) quality and (b) recognition of technical education. [902253]

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T-levels are based on the best international examples of technical education and, crucially, they are employer designed. They will help to raise the quality and prestige of technical education across the UK, with longer teaching hours and a meaningful industry placement. I am confident that they will provide a high-quality alternative to A-levels, giving technical education the status and recognition that it deserves.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. It is clear that T-levels will have a valuable part to play in ensuring that we have the workforce of the future across the economy, but the sector of the economy that is being most adversely affected by the current crisis is hospitality, and it is vital that that sector is able to access the workforce that it will need to recover, particularly in a post-Brexit world, so will the Minister please consider bringing forward a T-level in hospitality as soon as possible?

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I agree with my hon. Friend: equipping people with the skills that they need is crucial to our economic recovery, particularly in St Austell and Newquay. To support tourism and hospitality, which are important to his constituency, we will offer T-levels in cultural heritage and visitor attractions, catering, and management and administration. I hope that, with my hon. Friend’s support, T-levels will be available soon so that young people in St Austell and Newquay can benefit from a high-quality technical education.[Official Report, 1 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 2MC.]

Covid-19: Further and Higher Education

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What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for the further and higher education sectors during the covid-19 outbreak. [902245]

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What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for the further and higher education sectors during the covid-19 outbreak. [902246]

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I take this opportunity to thank all staff in the further and higher education sector for their hard work in responding to this unprecedented challenge. I reassure the House that we have protected grant funding for the FE sector for the full year, and we will provide additional targeted support. Yesterday, we announced an HE package of measures to boost support for students, stabilise the admissions system and ease pressures on universities’ finances.

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I thank the Minister for her answer. A survey by the National Union of Students has shown that 85% of working students will need additional financial support after losing their jobs as a result of the current crisis. With rent being the most significant financial demand on students, will the Minister tell us what discussions she has had with the private rental sector to ensure that students are not being charged for rooms that are lying empty?

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We understand that this is a difficult time for everyone, including students, which is why we have worked with the Office for Students to help providers. We have reallocated funds totalling £46 million for April and May for hardship funds for students. On accommodation specifically, we have sent the clear message that accommodation providers need to be fair and transparent in their policies for students. The Treasury has announced additional measures to protect renters who are tenants.

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Researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s world-leading Roslin Institute in my constituency are at the very heart of the global fight to find solutions for covid-19, but such higher education institutions are struggling to get the support that they need through existing Government schemes. Given the complexities of the funding models for higher education and the immense impact of the lockdown on such institutions’ current and future finances, will the UK Government provide a support package specifically tailored for jobs in the higher education sector, to support the economy and their covid-19-fighting efforts? What additional support is the Minister seeking to support research groups throughout the UK?

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We should not underestimate the impact of the package that we announced yesterday, which builds on the Treasury announcement that universities are eligible for Government financial support worth at least £700 million. This package also brought forward £100 million of research funding. We have also brought forward £2.6 billion in tuition fees to help with cash flow. Most fundamentally, this is a package that is designed to stabilise the higher education sector and safeguard it as a whole.

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May I take this opportunity to welcome the new Labour Front-Bench team to their positions and also to pay tribute to all those working in the education sector to support our young people through this pandemic?

The £100 million of quality-related research funding that the Minister has just referred to is research for England. Can the Minister confirm that this is indeed new funding and that these increases to the English QR grants will deliver Barnett consequentials for universities in Scotland?

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I can confirm that this is QR funding that has been brought forward for English universities, but the hon. Member will have noted in the announcement yesterday that it also included a research taskforce designed to prioritise safeguarding our research base. That is a cross-governmental taskforce on which the devolved Administration Ministers will have a seat.

Early Years Sector

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What steps the Government is taking to support the early years sector. [R] [902240]

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What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of support available to childcare providers and nurseries during the covid-19 outbreak. [902243]

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What assessment he has made of the effect of changes to the coronavirus job retention scheme on the ability of nurseries and childcare providers to retain staff. [902248]

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We have two key priorities at this time: making sure that there is sufficient childcare for critical workers and vulnerable children; and ensuring the longer-term sustainability of the vital early years sector. Therefore, the Government will continue paying local authorities for the hours that we normally fund, and, where appropriate, providers can also access business rates relief, grants, a business interruption loan and the self-employment support scheme, which is especially helpful for childminders. In order to retain staff, providers can also furlough up to the proportion of their salary bill that would normally be considered as being paid from non-public funding sources.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. With a young son at a local nursery—I declare that interest—I am acutely aware of the pressures faced by early years providers at this time. The Government said that they expect childcare providers and local authorities to work together to ensure sufficient childcare for children of critical workers and vulnerable children, but will the Minister also confirm that she will do everything in her power to support our vital early years providers, including meeting representatives to understand what more it might be possible for her Department to do?

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My officials and I are in continual contact with early years sector organisations through regular meetings and working groups and feed their messages right into the heart of Government. We have put £3.6 billion into the sector through funding the entitlements this year and will continue to ensure that providers get the best possible support on the many different Government schemes while also staying within the rules. We also have a new announcement for parents. Parents who are normally eligible for the Government’s free childcare will continue to be eligible for those entitlements during this summer term, even if their income levels have changed because of the virus. This will be a massive support to families as well as to providers.

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Nurseries and childcare providers have struggled to stay open during this crisis. The Minister will know that the confusion over the Department for Education statements on free entitlement and the furlough scheme has caused many financial headaches. Last week, the First Secretary of State said at PMQs that if those providers were finding it too much to bear, the Government will look “afresh” at what can be done. Can the Minister tell me when the Secretary of State will look afresh at what needs to be done, and, given that the Minister is regularly in touch with nurseries, will she tell me the last time that she spoke to the nurseries and childcare providers in my constituency, because they do not seem to know about plans to rescue their provision?

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I spoke to early years organisations only last week, and speak to them on a weekly basis through my officials and in meetings that I join regularly. On the coronavirus job retention scheme, the initial guidelines were first published by the Government on 26 March. I am sure that Members understand that it would not be right for providers—or, indeed, any business —to receive two Government incomes for the same costs. We have worked closely with the sector to clarify this position, and will always make sure that early years providers get the best support possible. This will be an important discussion at the next spending review—

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Changing the guidance on the job retention scheme at the last minute has pulled the rug from underneath many nurseries and childcare providers. A survey by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years has found that 40% of childminders are not confident that their business will survive this crisis. Despite the answers that the Minister has given, there is a lot of confusion. Will she do the right thing and bring forward a comprehensive plan to protect the childcare sector during this difficult time?

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Let us have a brief answer from the Minister.

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The guidelines were first published on 26 March, and we will continue to work with the sector to provide clarity to ensure that it can access, as far as possible, every single set of Government support that is available at this time. We will continue to work on supporting this vital sector.