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Educational Disadvantage: Covid-19

Volume 677: debated on Monday 22 June 2020

What plans he has to provide time in schools for pupils to catch up on education missed as a result of the covid-19 lockdown. (903510)

What plans he has to help schools deliver programmes to enable pupils to catch up on progress lost as a result of the covid-19 lockdown. (903513)

What support his Department will provide to pupils to make up for time spent out of school as a result of the covid-19 lockdown. (903522)

What support his Department will provide to pupils to make up for time spent out of school as a result of the covid-19 lockdown. (903528)

Before I begin, may I take this opportunity to express my deepest condolences to the family of James Furlong and the other victims of the terrorist attack in Reading? We have heard so many young people talk about the amazing impact James had on their lives, the real appreciation they felt and the loss that they now feel. Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this most terrible of tragedies. It was an appalling attack, and the Home Secretary will update the House later today.

We are focused on doing whatever we can to ensure that no child falls behind as a result of coronavirus. That is why this Government have announced a package of support worth £1 billion to tackle the impact of lost teaching time due to covid-19.

May I associate myself with the condolences expressed by the Secretary of State to the family, friends and pupils of James Furlong? No one who heard the “Today” programme interview this morning with one of his former pupils could fail to be moved. I also express my condolences to the family of Fred Jarvis, the celebrated educationalist and trade unionist, who is sorely missed.

The Secretary of State says that the Government will do whatever they can, which seems some way short of whatever it takes. The Government’s latest Social Mobility Commission report reads like a litany of failures, with references to a lack of “coherent” strategy; “mounting evidence” that welfare changes over the past 10 years have put many more children into poverty; children in disadvantaged areas already facing “limited life prospects” by the age of five; the attainment gap at 16 widening; and further education “underfunded and undervalued”. I do not know whether it was incompetence or a row between the Department for Education and the Treasury, but last Thursday we saw a DFE press release at half-past 6 announcing support, including for early years and post-16 education, and by half-past 8 we saw a support package only for schools. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to get a grip and take the action that we really need?

Order. We were very good at the beginning. This is important, but lots of Members want to speak, and it is not fair to take all the time. When I stand up, it means that I want to bring in the Secretary of State.

I would very much like to associate myself with the hon. Member’s comments about the sad passing of Fred Jarvis, and I am sure all Government Members would wish to do the same.

This is the party and the Government that are absolutely committed to closing the gap between those who are most advantaged and those who are most disadvantaged. That is why we are not just talking about it, like the Labour party did—we are driving up standards in education and schools. That is why we are spending an extra £1 billion to raise standards and help those youngsters who have been impacted by this.

I fully associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s comments about the tragic events in Reading. He might have heard the suggestion I made about moving the 2021 exam season from May to July, to allow students and teachers more time in the classroom to complete the curriculum. Has he given consideration to that or to other ways of getting extra teaching time in before the exam season?

One key element of the £1 billion package is ensuring that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have extra support through one-on-one tutoring and tutoring in small groups. My right hon. Friend raises an important point about providing more teaching time. That is why we will consult Ofqual on how we can move exams back, giving children extra time to learn, flourish and do incredibly well.

I welcome the additional £350 million announced last week for catch-up tutoring, but the Secretary of State is aware that schools with already badly overstretched budgets will have to find a quarter of that cost. Will he give an unequivocal commitment that schools, which are best placed to know their pupils’ needs, will be able to target those funds in the most appropriate way for them?

I am pleased to report that Knowsley Council has seen good sense and is working with the Department to ensure that all schools in Knowsley are opening up, which is a welcome development. The whole purpose of our very targeted approach is that it is evidence-based—we know that direct tutoring of children from disadvantaged backgrounds has the single biggest impact on driving their attainment. As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the other element of the package—£650 million—gives schools flexibility to look at how they can drive improvement, and I urge him to look at the work done by the Education Endowment Foundation to guide how they spend that money.

I welcome the Government’s £1 billion support package, which will be essential in helping children catch up on their academic education. However, our children are not just missing out academically; they are suffering emotionally.

Increasingly, I am hearing from parents of children with autism in my constituency, who report that being away from the structure and routine of the school day is having a devastating impact on their children’s behaviour and mental health. Some of those children are not being allowed back into school because of concerns about social distancing. What can my right hon. Friend do to get autistic children back to school as quickly as possible to ensure that this crisis does not have a permanent effect on their wellbeing?

The best thing we can do for every child is to welcome them back to school at the earliest possible opportunity, when it is safe. I herald the wonderful work done by the Autism Education Trust, which the Department has decided to give extra funding and resource to this year, so that it can work with more teachers, helping them and training them to create the best environment to welcome all children back into school, where they can develop.

I have spoken to many headteachers across Ashfield who want to get back to full service as soon as possible. One way to begin to do that is to encourage all kids who can go back to school to do so, because it is safe. I deeply regret that last week, the Leader of the Opposition refused to say publicly that schools are safe to go back to. Will my right hon. Friend remind colleagues across the House that the education and welfare of our children come before any political point scoring?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. He will know from his constituency the real benefits that schools are bringing to the children who are going back, and we need to expand that. Schools are a safe environment not just for children, but for those who work in them. It is a shame the Leader of the Opposition does not acknowledge that, but I hope the shadow Secretary of State will acknowledge how important it is to get all children back and what a safe environment schools are.

I share the Secretary of State’s comments about James Furlong and send my condolences to his family and to all those who were affected by the horrific events in Reading on Saturday. I also echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) about Fred Jarvis, the former general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, who recently passed away at the ripe old age of 95.

Last Thursday evening, the Government issued a press release clearly stating that £700 million would be

“shared across early years, schools and 16 to 19 providers”.

Of course, it was not the strategic national education plan that I and many across the sector were hoping for, but it was a start none the less and I welcomed it. Less than an hour later, the Government amended the press release: the funding was not for early years and 16 to 19; it was £650 million, not £700 million; and it would not be available until September. Now I hear that schools will need to find 25% of the tuition funding themselves. I ask the Secretary of State: what on earth happened?

I was getting rather optimistic that the hon. Lady would say that she believed it was safe for children for go back to school, but she missed out on the opportunity. The difference between our scheme and the hon. Lady’s is that ours will deliver results and make a difference. Our scheme is for £1 billion extra to go to schools and for £350 million to be targeted at children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It will close the gap in terms of attainment much more effectively than any of the Labour party’s proposals. It would be nice if the hon. Lady welcomed such proposals.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State did not listen to my question—indeed, he does not listen very often at all.

Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders said:

“It remains frustrating that we haven’t had the opportunity to discuss any of this with the government ahead of this announcement and that we once again find ourselves having to guess the detail.”

There were no details on resource for early years, 16 to 19, summer provision or emotional and mental health support; there were no plans to source additional school space, to streamline GCSEs and A-levels or to roll out blended learning; and there was no promise to extend free laptops to all children who do not have them, rather than just the groups who have been identified by the Government.

All of this uncertainty could have been avoided if the Secretary of State had chosen to listen to the sector. Will he confirm that he will now formally convene a taskforce of trade unions, education and childcare leaders and staff, local authorities, parents’ organisations and health experts to address these issues urgently?

Order. It would be easier if we could try to make questions shorter. There are other shadow Ministers to come and we have lots of other Members; I do not want them to miss out, because they blame me.

May I confirm, Mr Speaker, that I would never blame you?

The hon. Lady asked a number of questions. The reality is that Government Members are committed to getting every child back into school. We understand that that is where they are going to benefit. If it was up to the Labour party, we would not see any children going back into the classroom, but what have we already got? We have got nursery back, reception back, year 1 back, year 6 back, and years 10 and 12 as well. We have given schools extra flexibility to get more children in and we have made it clear that next week we will outline plans for the full return of every single child in every year group. We will always listen to the whole sector, whether it is trade unions, those running the schools, or parents and children themselves—

I strongly welcome the Government’s catch-up announcement, which will make a huge difference to the left-behind children. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that out of that £1 billion, money can be used to set up summer schools or camps? Will the Department for Education work with Essex County Council, which is considering setting up summer camps across the county?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his input, advice and thoughts about how we can make sure that any intervention delivers the very best results. I can confirm that we would be happy to work with Essex County Council. In the Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance on how the money can be targeted to deliver the best educational advantage, summer camps are one of the schemes suggested.