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Covid-19: School Reopening

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on his Department’s plans to reopen schools as part of the Government’s covid-19 recovery strategy.

Mr Speaker, I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question. We had requested to make a statement this week, but Members will understand that there are restrictions on the number of statements, so I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for the opportunity to answer questions today.

It is over seven weeks since we asked schools, colleges and childcare settings to close to all but vulnerable children and those of critical workers. This has been a huge ask of teachers and parents, but the greatest impact of all has fallen on children themselves. I am immensely grateful for the response of all those working in education, childcare and children’s social care, but we all know that the best place for children to be educated and to learn is in school, and it has always been my intention to get more of them back there as soon as the scientific advice allowed.

As the Prime Minister has confirmed, we are now past the peak of the virus, and he has set out a roadmap for the next phases of our recovery. If progress continues to be made, we expect that, from 1 June at the earliest, we will be able to begin a phased return to school, college and childcare for children in key transition years, alongside our priority groups. Primary schools will be asked to welcome back reception, year 1 and year 6 children in smaller class sizes. Nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, will be able to begin welcoming back children of all ages. Secondary schools and colleges will be asked to provide face-to-face support for years 10 and 12, who are due to take key exams in the next year.

On Monday, my Department published initial guidance for settings on how to begin to prepare, and we will work with the sector leaders to develop this further in the coming weeks. This guidance sets out protective measures to minimise the risk of infection, including restricting class sizes and limiting mixing between groups. Crucially, all children and staff will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus. This will enable a track-and-trace approach to be taken to any confirmed cases.

We continue to follow the best medical and scientific advice, and we believe that this phased return is the most sensible course of action to take. I know that it will be challenging, but I know that nursery school and college staff will do everything in their power to start welcoming our children back to continue their education.

We need to get our children back to school at the earliest opportunity. Every day that schools remain shut, the disadvantage gap widens and vulnerable children risk falling through the cracks. However, we should reopen schools only when we know it is safe. Given that we still do not know about transmissibility between children, can the Secretary of State reassure us that these decisions are based solely on public health? To what extent has getting parents back to work been the main driver?

What of teacher safety? The chief medical officer has said that there still needs to be a debate on that issue, so does the Secretary of State not think it irresponsible to publish plans and suggest timetables without disclosing all the scientific advice? Will he commit to publishing it today? Why were not all major teaching unions consulted on the specifics of the decision to make sure that it is workable? The guidance says that risk assessments should be carried out before schools open, and I welcome that. Will these be made public, as with businesses? When can we expect further guidance on travel?

If a school leader decides it is not safe to reopen, will the Secretary of State respect that? He says that reasonable endeavours must be made to deliver the curriculum. Will he now set out his expectations of that, given how varied it has been among schools so far? Can he clarify what “some face-to-face” contact for years 10 and 12 actually means? Will he guarantee that every child in all year groups who needs access to devices or the internet will get it, and when will we know about future exams?

Finally, it is obvious to anyone that children in reception and year 1 cannot socially distance. The Secretary of State says that the safety of children and staff is “our utmost priority”, so can he tell us, in plain English, what does he think “safe” actually means?

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions; I am glad that she recognises the importance of ensuring that children are back getting their education in schools at the earliest possible moment. When we have medical and scientific advice saying that it is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do, and only the responsible thing to do, for many of the reasons that she has highlighted. In terms of pulling our guidance together, we have worked closely with all the teaching unions and headteachers’ unions and with the sector. Every week we have had the opportunity to meet them, and I have ensured that my officials have made time to sit down with them and talk about their issues and concerns. This is what has informed and developed the guidance that we have shared with schools.

In terms of the hierarchy of controls that we have developed to ensure that the risk of transmission of coronavirus is minimised within schools, we understood that the advice we needed to seek was not within the Department for Education but within Public Health England, and we have also been working with the scientific and medical advisers, who have been informing what the Government do every step of the way. That is why, when we created the hierarchy of controls about creating safe bubbles for children, teachers and support staff to work in, it was informed by them.

So why are we bringing schools back? The reason that we are bringing schools back is that we know that children benefit from being educated by their brilliant teachers in front of them. We recognise that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the ones who will suffer most if we do not bring schools back when we are able to do so. I am more than happy to share all the advice that we have received from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. SAGE regularly publishes its advice and when it is ready to do so, it will be sharing it again. We have also asked the scientific advisers to give briefings for the sector to ensure that it understands that the decisions that we are making to bring back children are based on the best interests of the children, including by ensuring that they do not miss out on something that is so precious: their education.

I strongly welcome the approach that the Secretary of State is taking in getting children back to school in a phased way. I understand that schools will not officially be open in the summer, but given that close to 90% of vulnerable children are not in education, and that figures from the Sutton Trust suggest that at least 50% of pupils did not communicate with their teachers in the first week of April, will my right hon. Friend support the opening of summer schools over the holidays, to be staffed by volunteers, graduates and an army of retired teachers, to provide catch-up tuition to those children who have been left behind?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to do everything we can to help children who will not have the benefit of returning to school before the summer holidays, and to support them, to give them that extra boost to ensure that they are learning all the things that they want to learn. He is right to highlight the many thousands of volunteers who want to reach out to help our children to have the knowledge they will need to succeed in the future. We are looking closely at such schemes, and working with schools and with the sector to see how we can make them available. I very much value my right hon. Friend’s advice, insight and thoughts on this, and we are looking at how we can mobilise the schemes.

We all desperately want schools to reopen for the sake of children’s education and wellbeing, but the Secretary of State must appreciate that the guidance provided so far does not yet give the clear assurances over safety that are needed. Anxious shielding families, worried grandparents, teaching staff in fear—sadly, this sums up the theme of the past 48 hours. I hope that, to allay these concerns, he can address the following issues today.

Will the Secretary of State consider changing the focus of the plan so that, instead of asking schools to scramble to implement an unrealistic plan by a specific date, we ask them to plan to meet certain conditions that, when met, would signal that it was safe to open—a subtle but important distinction? Does he acknowledge that, due to the availability of staff and space, splitting classes while simultaneously providing remote learning is incredibly difficult, and will he work with schools to develop a realistic plan for social distancing? Has he modelled the impact of reopening schools on the infection rates, and will he publish that? Will he acknowledge that for younger year groups, social distancing will be virtually impossible and that the current guidance, sadly, gives the impression that those pupils and staff should just accept being exposed? With this in mind, will he rethink the position on PPE?

Finally, most schools break up for summer in mid-July; if the ambition is to get pupils back for a month, that means the whole school would need to be back less than two weeks after the priority years, so how does the Secretary of State expect schools to implement social distancing for the whole school when many heads say this is just impossible? If they do not, then what is the point of schools planning strict health and safety measures for two weeks only to abandon them? The Secretary of State repeatedly states that schools will open only when it is safe, and he referred to the scientific advice, which requires a return in a controlled manner; I do not see much of a controlled manner at the moment, so please will the Secretary of State work with the sector to get this right?

Of course. The hon. Lady points out the importance of working with the sector, and that is what we will do at every step of the way, and that is what we have been doing. We recognise the importance of supporting the sector to make sure that, as children return to schools in a controlled and phased manner, we offer schools the maximum amount of support, recognise that every school is individual and unique in how we support them, and give them elements of flexibility so that they can make the transition from just providing an education setting for vulnerable children and children of critical workers. Expanding that in the limited way that we are proposing will require some elements of flexibility; schools and the sector will need that, and we will work with them to achieve it.

I have always been clear that we will give the sector as much notice as possible, and we have said that if we are allowed, as seems likely, we would like to see schools opening from 1 June, giving them as much forward notice as possible in order for them to get ready. We think that is a responsible and sensible approach to a phased return. I slightly fear that if we were to ask the hon. Lady to pin down the date it would end up being about what would be the year rather than what would be the actual start date. But we do want to work with her; we want to work with the whole sector to make sure that this is a phased, sensible and controlled return to schools, because those who suffer most from schools not being open are the children who are so desperate to attend.

The guidance on the return of schools in the primary sector is very clear. May I ask my right hon. Friend to be very clear about the guidance for the secondary sector? For example, what does “face-to-face support” mean? Precisely which year groups will be able to return, and will that be on a voluntary basis, and does he agree that we need to provide maximum support for those taking GCSE and A-level exams both this year and next?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right on the importance of supporting youngsters and children who are going to be facing GCSEs next year, as well as A-levels, BTECs and other qualifications in years 10 and 12. We are working with the sector, because we want all children in those year groups to have the opportunity to go into school and to speak with their teachers. We want their teachers to be able to make an assessment of the learning and support they will need over the following weeks as we approach the summer holidays, and to set the work at the right level so that children can benefit from learning through the six weeks of the summer holidays as well as in the weeks approaching the summer holidays. It is important to get those transition years back into schools, even if not for a full timetable, as that will be a first step in the right direction.

Although young children seem to be less susceptible to covid-19, Professor Graham Medley told the Select Committee on Science and Technology:

“It is still not clear what the role of children is in transmission.”

So what new evidence does the Secretary of State have on the ability of children to transmit, and will he publish it? When the Scottish Government recently published detailed proposals for reopening schools, with a mixture of home and school learning, his colleague the First Secretary of State said that that would cause hospitals to be overwhelmed, so why is England considering this reckless full reopening of primary schools?

Finally, if the ambition is to bring all primary year groups back before the summer holidays, with a maximum of 15 pupils per class, where are the extra teachers going to come from? As most schools do not have rooms lying empty, where are the additional classrooms coming from? Will he reassure teachers and school staff that they will not be expected to make or provide their own personal protective equipment?

Let me take the opportunity to thank the Scottish Deputy First Minister for the close work and collaboration there has been between us over the past few months, as we have had to deal with this pandemic right across the United Kingdom. The hon. Lady would be asking searching questions of me if, when I am given the scientific and medical advice that it is the right time to be opening up schools, I were not taking up that opportunity. Understandably, SAGE does publish its advice. I have no doubt that it will be publishing the advice it has offered us on what we are doing, and obviously we would be more than happy to make that as freely available as possible.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that our approach to reopening schools is very much in line with that of other European countries? Members might expect a former Sports Minister to ask this, but I have not seen much about how we can ensure that schools can conduct their physical education duties, so will he be issuing specific guidance to ensure that schools can still put on PE classes, in a safe way?

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of PE for all children, whether they are at school or at home. We have been seeing some brilliant examples of children really being engaged in physical activity. We have issued guidance on how PE can be conducted, such as the safe use of equipment and having non-contact sports at this initial stage. We are keen to work with the sector to see how we can engage all young people in as much physical activity as possible.

We know from the National Association of Head Teachers that headteachers have not been consulted on the proposed date of return, so when the Secretary of State says that the Government are working with the sector, that is partially but not completely true. Having 12 to 15 children socially distanced in a classroom is largely unrealistic. We know that children are more likely than adults to be asymptomatic if they contract covid-19, so what public health and medical evidence does he have that children will not spread the virus to other children, teachers, teaching assistants, and cleaning, catering and caring staff when they return to schools? Will he publish that evidence?

As I have repeatedly said—I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was listening to my earlier responses—SAGE does publish its evidence and the advice that we get, so, of course, that is in the public domain. At every stage, every week, I have been meeting union leaders, as well as other sector leaders, be it Ofsted or the Confederation of School Trusts, and I will continue to do so. We have shared our thinking widely on what we are hoping to do. We recognise that this is a challenging situation for everyone and that there are a lot of concerns. We want to work with all organisations, whether they be representative bodies of schools or unions, in order to get the best guidance to the workforce and to children and parents.

The vast majority of schools in North West Durham have remained open for the most vulnerable children. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the staff of those schools for their selfless actions throughout the global coronavirus pandemic? For the future, will my right hon. Friend reassure parents, teachers and the House that, despite the claims of some, the safety of pupils is the Government’s top priority? Will he confirm that in reaching that decision, he consulted the unions and school leaders, and that any children going back to school will be fully eligible for testing and tracing, as teachers are already?

I very much join my hon. Friend in thanking those teachers and support staff who have done so much to keep schools open all the way through this period. It is important to remember that schools have remained open all the through the coronavirus pandemic.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about testing. We already have priority testing for all teachers and those who work in schools, if they have symptoms of coronavirus. That priority testing will be extended to all children who attend school if they are displaying symptoms, as well as to their families. We recognise how important test and trace is in beating this pandemic.

First, my thanks to all the school staff in the City of Durham and across the country for their dedication throughout the pandemic. Education unions are clear: there can be no compromise on health and safety. The proposals are ill thought out and reckless. At best, they will create a sterile learning environment for young children, who will not understand why they are unable to interact with their friends. At worst, the proposals will set off a chain of new infections going back into the households of working people. How can it be right that without any scientific evidence, school staff and pupils have to accept lower safety standards than we expect queuing at Tesco?

The only consideration behind this decision is what is in the best interests and for the welfare of children and those who work in schools. We all recognise the importance of children being able to return to schools. Sometimes, scaremongering—making people fear—is unfair and an unwelcome pressure on families, children and teachers alike.

I commend the approach of minimising and mitigating the risk of the virus. Simultaneously, as well as the educational harm, I recognise the significantly negative health and wellbeing effects for children the longer they are away from school. Will the Secretary of State assure me that within the clear guidelines, headteachers will be afforded maximum flexibility to make this work for each school’s unique circumstances?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The impact on children is not just educational, from not being in school, but a health and welfare one. He is equally right about the need to ensure that schools have the flexibility to be able to work within the guidelines to make the proposals work for staff and for children.

In the Government guidance for educational and childcare settings, the section on “What the latest science tells us” states that

“children…have less severe symptoms than adults”


“are less likely to become unwell if infected with coronavirus”.

Is there is a danger that children might be infected but asymptomatic, in school and posing a serious risk to the health and safety of school staff, other children and their families?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s agreement to publish the scientific advice, but he must have heard loud and clear that heads, teachers, support staff and parents are really worried. How will he win their confidence that it is time for schools to reopen?

At the heart of every step we take on schools returning is the safety and security of those who are in schools, whether it is a child, teacher, teaching assistant or any other support staff. That is why we are doing a phased return. We are ensuring that we take small steps forward and minimise the risk to all those who are attending schools and working within them.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s approach. Denmark reopened its primary schools on 15 April, and it has not seen a huge surge in infection. In fact, the country is moving to a new phase where it is reopening restaurants. Is he aware that yesterday, the BBC spoke to Dorte Lange, the vice-president of the Danish Union of Teachers, who was very positive about her country’s experience? Does he agree that our own teaching unions should speak to and engage with their Danish counterparts, to learn from their experience, so that when we get to the beginning of June, we can reopen our schools safely and successfully?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the international benchmarks that we can look towards. In reaching conclusions on how to bring about a phased return of schools, we looked at how it had been done in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and many others. We will see a mirroring of the approach taken in Denmark here in the United Kingdom. That is the right approach, because we have not seen a negative impact as a result of schools starting to return in Denmark. That confirms that our approach is the right approach, and I certainly hope that trade unions in this country will speak to trade unions in Denmark.

My constituents repeatedly express frustration to me that the UK Government’s press conferences and briefings to the media do not make clear the distinction in policy on this between England and Wales, which is causing confusion and anxiety. Will the Secretary of State make it clear for the UK media and Welsh teachers and parents that the decision to reopen schools is for the Welsh Government, that schools will not reopen in Wales on 1 June and that they rightly will not do so until it is safe for children and teachers?

How can my right hon. Friend reassure nervous parents and staff that 1 June is not too early for a phased return to school?

We would not have made this decision to do a phased return to school if the scientific and medical advice had not been explicit that this is the right time to do it. We have stated that 1 June is the earliest date. If the situation changes, and if the scientific or medical advice change, obviously we will change the programme of that phased return. But we want to give schools, parents and children the opportunity and time to adjust and get ready to return to school.

The Prime Minister’s recent promise that England’s schools would be covid-secure prompted Chris Whitty, his chief medical officer, to say that there needs to be a “proper debate” about teachers’ safety as schools reopen. When will that proper debate take place, and what steps will be taken to ensure the safety of teachers and their pupils?

We recognised right from the start the importance of ensuring the safety of all those in schools—not just children, but those who are teaching and supporting the education of children. That is why we put forward a whole set of guidance about how to minimise risk by reducing the number of children in classrooms, minimising contact between children and staggering the times that schools open. I would be happy to share our thinking with the Scottish Government, so that when they wish schools to return, they can hopefully benefit from the work we have been doing.

Wycombe and Buckinghamshire enjoy a diverse school system, including grammar schools. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to the special situation of those grammar schools?

This does present some additional challenges, especially with the consideration of the 11-plus in September. I know that it is a concern of my hon. Friend, and I have received representations from Conservative Members in Kent about their concerns. We will be looking at working with local authorities that have grammar school systems in their areas as to how best we can ensure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not disadvantaged as they look at taking the 11-plus in future.

We all, including me and my constituents, want our schools to reopen and our children’s education to continue, but Government guidance around the reopening of schools raises more questions than it answers. As a parent of two young children, I can attest to the difficulty of explaining social distancing, let alone getting the kids to practise it, and that is why so many parents fear sending their children to school. Will the Secretary of State revisit the guidance and commit to working with education unions and others to create a working plan for reopening our schools when the science indicates that it is safe to do so, and when doing so has the confidence of all those affected?

We will continue to work with the whole sector to ensure that any changes or modifications that are required, in working with children and teachers in schools, are rapidly adopted. We recognise the importance of creating a safe bubble for children and teachers to operate in, which is why we have put out extensive guidance on how this is done. We have very much worked with Public Health England and the scientific community as to how to approach, in the best possible way, the return of schools, because children benefit from being in schools and they are losing out as a result of not being in schools.