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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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”.
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.