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Covid-19: Financial Implications for Schools

Volume 681: debated on Wednesday 7 October 2020

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the financial implications of covid-19 for schools.

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise an issue of considerable importance to my constituents and, I suspect, constituents across England. Schools in Harrow and across the country are facing a very tough financial year because of their extra covid costs. I say gently to the Minister that Ministers are not yet doing enough to help.

Harrow is blessed with a very strong state sector, with generally excellent primary and secondary schools, as well as a strong sixth-form college and good further education provision. The schools work together extremely well and the quality of Harrow’s schools remains a central attractive part of the borough’s offer to families with children.

I pay particular tribute to Harrow’s headteachers. They are a remarkable group of very talented leaders and generally have very strong staff teams in their schools. Since the beginning of this term, students from 12 schools have had to self-isolate, but in general the return to school has gone relatively well.

I am a former pupil of two Harrow schools and am now a parent of a child at one, and I have many friends whose children are either at or have been at Harrow schools. What happens in the borough’s schools and their funding is a lively concern in the many conversations that I have as a constituency MP. Talking to headteachers and others involved in the financial governance of our schools, I am concerned, first, about the funding difficulties that covid is causing our schools; secondly, about the limited financial support the Government have so far offered; and, thirdly, about the difficult financial backdrop faced by schools, even before coronavirus became an issue. I am also concerned about the increased difficulties that covid is causing those children with special needs; the mental health challenges facing our young people, which are being exacerbated as a result of covid; and what the feared increase in child poverty will mean for schools and their finances.

One of the many excellent high schools in my constituency expects to incur, over 12 months, approximately £175,000 in extra costs due to covid. Extra cleaning, extra teaching cover, longer hours needed for support staff, additional essential supplies, such as personal protective equipment and sanitiser, and significant digital investment—for example, in laptops to ensure that students can study at home in the event of closure, partial closure, self-isolation and so on—are just some examples of things that have created extra costs. Also, the school has suffered a significant loss in income in relation to a lot of community clubs—for example, football clubs—to language schools and to simply the use of buildings for event hire. That is lost income that the school would have invested in education for its pupils. To be fair, that high school has received some funding from the Department to cover cleaning costs, and funding equivalent to two teachers from the catch-up fund, which will, according to the headteacher, help just with years 10 and 11.

One large primary school, which is fairly typical of the borough, has incurred more than £60,000 in extra costs just over the last—summer—term. Again, the school has faced significant costs for additional staffing to cover lessons where teachers or teaching assistants have been shielding, and for site staff and office staff overtime to prepare for the reopening of the school. School lunchtimes are costing more because of the need for disposable cutlery and packaging, and, given the staggered lunchtime arrangements required, there are, again, extra staffing costs.

Two primary schools have seen the need for significant extra IT investment. Similarly, they have had extra cleaning costs and they have seen significant losses of income, as their premises cannot be hired out. Some schools in Harrow and, indeed, across the country are also trying to maintain wraparound care—even as external providers can no longer do so—in order to help parents who otherwise would struggle to keep working.

The spending review announcement will not leave Harrow schools much better off. The so-called funding increases are largely just recycling the pay and pension awards, which used to be funded separately. I understand specifically that pay and pension increases from last month are not funded, costing the average high school in the borough between £150,000 and £200,000, and the average primary school more than £50,000. Changes to the school funding formula for deprivation have hit Harrow schools very hard, because for some reason we are now classified as a less deprived area. The consequent loss of funding meant that Harrow schools did not get anywhere near the 4% funding increase announced nationally for 2020-21. It is difficult, therefore, to see how the funding settlement for Harrow schools—welcome as any increase always is—goes anywhere near addressing the real-terms cuts in school spending over the last 10 years.

On the national picture, as I alluded to, I recognise that the Department for Education has provided some additional funding for schools facing, in Ministers’ words, “exceptional costs”. However, there are limits on the amount of costs that will be recompensed, and no consideration is given to the loss of often crucial lettings income.

The National Foundation for Educational Research set out in September the scale of the educational and financial challenges facing schools, based on interviews with almost 3,000 school leaders and teachers across more than 2,200 primary and secondary schools in England. The NFER pointed out that nearly all teachers estimate that their pupils are behind in their curriculum learning, with the average estimate being that they are three months behind. Teachers in the most deprived schools were more than three times more likely to report that their pupils were four months or more behind in their curriculum learning than teachers in the least deprived areas. Indeed, more than half of all teachers thought that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had widened.

The report notes the difficulties in teaching remotely, with more than one quarter of pupils having limited or no access to IT at home—a particular challenge for schools serving the most deprived areas. Across the piece, almost 50% of teachers thought that their pupils needed intensive catch-up help, with the figure being even higher in the most deprived schools and in areas serving the highest proportion of pupils from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, such as schools in my constituency. The report notes the need for additional IT equipment. Senior leaders have been particularly aware of the need for improved IT, with the limitations of school IT systems hindering their ability to communicate with pupils, parents and, indeed, staff.

The NFER went on to suggest that some primary schools could need up to an estimated £280,000 a year and that an average secondary school could need up to an estimated £720,600 in order to operate in line with the Government’s requirements. I should underline that these estimates are based on talking to senior leaders who were concerned about their ability to provide a full and comprehensive service to their pupils from the beginning of last month.

The NFER acknowledges the funding that the Government have provided for cleaning costs, the catch-up funding and the IT funding, but it says, in its traditionally understated way:

“Nevertheless…there is still likely to be a need for additional funding beyond the current government offer.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies annual report on school funding, which was also published just last month, is also striking. The IFS is arguably the most independent and respected group of analysts in the UK, and it reported that larger funding costs for schools in poor areas have left them badly placed to deal with all the challenges that covid-19 has thrown up. The IFS notes the obvious widening of educational inequalities over lockdown and highlights the particularly tough challenges faced by schools serving more deprived pupils over the next few years, with planned increases in teachers’ starting salaries—welcome as they are in their own right—likely to weigh even more heavily on their budgets because they are more likely to have to employ new teachers.

The IFS describes the post-lockdown funding support for schools as “modest”, and goes on specifically to say:

“Faster falls in spending per pupil over the last decade, slower increases under the National Funding Formula…widening of educational inequalities…all provide a case for greater targeting of funding to more deprived schools.”

The IFS also notes:

“School spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20”,

describing it as

“the largest cut in over 40 years”,

compared with the

“increase in spending per pupil of over 60%”

during the period of the last Labour Government.

The IFS goes on to acknowledge the 2019 spending review announcement for day-to-day spending on schools in England through to 2022-23. It notes that, using school-specific inflation, the expected growth in spending per pupil between 2019-20 and 2022-23 would leave spending per pupil about 3% in real terms below its 2009-10 level, which will still be the biggest squeeze on school resources since the 1970s.

The IFS further notes the lower increases in formula allocations for schools in poorer areas, which

“run counter to the objective”—

that is, the objective of the Government, apparently—

“of using school funding to ‘level up’ poorer regions.”

Echoing the NFER report, the IFS says that this could

“pose additional challenges for deprived schools seeking to help pupils catch up after the closure of schools during the pandemic.”

The IFS goes into some detail on the different aspects of the Government support, in particular describing the national tutoring programme as offering a level of support that is “low” when compared with the scale of likely lost learning.

The Minister will also know that there is particular concern about children with special needs, with almost one fifth of them, according to Government figures, off school due to the problems that schools face in managing infection control, timetables and transport difficulties. There is a particular problem, which the media have covered, in providing access to education for children with a tracheostomy, or who require what is called oral suctioning to clear their airways. Public Health England rules state that schools must ensure that they are suctioned in separate ventilated and sanitised rooms by staff wearing full protective gear. Many schools are simply unable to comply with those rules. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister—if not today, then soon—what specific steps his Department has taken to address that issue.

There are broader issues about funding for children with special needs. The Children’s Commissioner has noted specifically that the problem of access to mainstream schooling for children with special educational needs was showing up long before lockdown. None of the disruption of this year has helped to change that picture.

Many local authorities, struggling with years of austerity cuts, are still often finding it difficult to provide appropriate placements, and children with special needs are missing out in many cases on their education, putting their parents under enormous pressure to pick up the pieces. Research commissioned by the Local Government Association acknowledges the extra funding that the Government have provided for special educational needs in this comprehensive spending review period, but it estimates that councils still face a high-needs shortfall of at least £889 million. It would be good to hear from the Minister whether there will be further sustained investment in special educational needs provision by Ministers over the course of the next spending review.

Similarly, it would be helpful to hear what further support Ministers are providing for investment in mental health services to which schools can have access. Various charities have highlighted the increased feelings of isolation and loneliness during lockdown for many young people. Again, the Children’s Commissioner has articulated the greater threats of domestic abuse, online grooming and other threats that children faced during lockdown, few of which would have been picked up by teachers during that period, and for which children now require support.

The final thing I want to mention in terms of the financial implications that covid has for schools is child poverty. Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that covid threatens to push up to another 200,000 more children into poverty by the end of the year. That is on top of the 4.2 million children trapped in poverty already. As unions such as the National Education Union have highlighted, child poverty is already putting pressure on school budgets, with schools funding extra breakfast and holiday clubs, providing and washing children’s clothing, and supplying children with essential equipment that they need to learn.

I acknowledge the Government’s investment in digital equipment and the expansion of free school meals to cover school holidays at Easter and over the summer period but, given the expected rise in unemployment and the associated rise in child poverty that I fear is inevitable, it would be helpful if Ministers would confirm whether similar free school meal provision can be made this half term, and in the holidays at Christmas and next year, particularly while the covid pandemic is still having an impact.

What further investment will Ministers make to tackle the digital poverty that is likely to hold young people back if they still do not have access to laptops, tablets or other such equipment? Will Ministers consider providing free household internet access to children and young people in households on universal credit?

I am grateful for helpful briefings from the National Association of Head Teachers, NASUWT, the Local Government Association, the National Education Union and, of course, schools in my constituency, and my local authority. Schools face a difficult financial challenge in the coming months, and none more than those in my borough. Ministers need to extend funding to cover covid costs and to recognise that sustained investment is needed in areas of deprivation and special needs. Further investment will be required in mental health services, and rising child poverty will have a further significant impact on schools and their finances.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I will be brief, as I want to hear from the Minister. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing this important debate. I thank him for giving me a couple of minutes for sharing, reiterating and adding to his experience of school funding, especially from my constituency in Putney and from across Wandsworth. I pay tribute to the heads, the staff management and the chairs of governors of schools who are managing budgets during this difficult time. I would like to outline four areas of concern that I have noted for local schools.

The first area of concern is mental health. That is one of those areas that is additionally funded, and is an area that can potentially be cut by school governors at the moment, when a school is stripped to the bone. The second area of concern is that of additional costs—more staff, more cleaning costs, and more PPE. There is also inconsistency in terms of income. Many schools have previously had some or a lot of income from hiring out their premises, but are getting no reimbursement or acknowledgment of that difference in budget as a result of losing that income. A third area of concern is youth services. There have been huge cuts in youth services: in London alone, over 100 youth services have been cut in the last five years. That has an impact on education. There is no area to do homework, informal education goes and family support goes. That has all been an additional concern after covid.

The fourth and final concern is special educational needs, as has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West. Only last Saturday, two parents came to my surgery. They were at their wits’ end. They were not getting the diagnosis support. When they had an education, health and care plan they were not getting any response to that plan. That is detrimental not only to the education of those children and young people, but to the schools that are having to put in additional resources to try and cope with and support those young people. I would like to highlight those areas of concern, and obviously the catch-up fund. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the catch-up fund—when it will be reviewed and whether there will be flexibility to provide additional funding for that catch-up as we know and understand the needs of our young people over the next year. Thank you.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, for the first time as far as I am concerned. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing the debate. Education does lie at the heart of our national mission as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Helping children to catch up on the time that they lost as we took action to stem the spread of coronavirus is critical, not only for this generation of schoolchildren but for the economic and social health of the nation. It is thanks to the outstanding efforts of our teachers and staff that pupils are continuing to receive the education and opportunities they deserve in the face of this pandemic.

The Government have been clear that pupils in all year groups, and from all types of school, should return to school full time from the beginning of the autumn term. Figures show that, as at 1 October, 99.8% of schools were open and 92% were open to all their pupils. Over 7 million children and young people are back in school, representing 90% of pupils across the country. I am delighted to hear from the hon. Member for Harrow West that the return to school in Harrow has gone relatively well too. We continue to do everything in our power to ensure that every child can be back in their classroom safely, as that is the best place for them to be for their education, development and wellbeing. The Department has published detailed guidance to support schools to implement protective measures that are endorsed by Public Health England and fully informed by evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Schools will have access to testing, PPE and advice from their local health protection team where needed.

The Government are supporting schools during the coronavirus outbreak and we are delivering the biggest funding boost in a decade, which is giving every school more money for every child. We are increasing core schools funding by £2.6 billion this year, and £4.8 billion and £7.1 billion by 2021-22 and 2022-23 respectively, compared with 2019-20, including additional funding specifically for children with special educational needs and disabilities. On top of that, we are providing £1.5 billion per year to fund additional pension costs for teachers, contrary to what the hon. Member for Harrow West said in his opening remarks. Overall, that will bring the schools budget to £52.2 billion a year by 2022-23. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said—in a report other parts of which were quoted by the hon. Member for Harrow West—that investment will broadly restore schools funding to previous levels in real terms per pupil by 2023.

On special needs funding, high needs funding has increased by nearly 25% over these two years—a rise of £780 million this year and £730 million next year—bringing total high-needs funding to £8 billion. We understand the pressures that schools and local authorities are facing with high-needs and special needs costs, which is why we have introduced such large increases, particularly large increases in the special needs budget. The hon. Member for Harrow West asked about the spending review. That is happening as we speak, so I cannot say what will be in it, but this is a priority for this Government, as we have seen from these two years of spending.

We need to acknowledge that every child and young person in the country has experienced unprecedented disruption to their education as a result of coronavirus, and those from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds will be among those hardest-hit. We are hugely concerned about that as a Government, as are the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). That is why, on top of that £2.6 billion increase in this year’s schools budget, the Government are providing a package of additional support worth £1 billion to ensure that schools can help children make up for lost teaching time, recognising the additional work that schools will need to do to help students catch up. Of that package, £650 million is being provided in the form of a universal catch-up premium for schools. The grant recognises that every young person has lost time in education as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. That £650 million—£80 for every child in a mainstream school and £240 per pupil in a special school—will be delivered in three tranches across this academic year.

It is likely that disadvantaged and vulnerable children will have been hit hardest by this outbreak. That is why we have also launched the national tutoring programme, to provide additional targeted support for those children and young people who need the most support to catch up—one-to-one and small group tuition. We have also been providing additional funding to schools on top of existing budgets, in order to cover unavoidable costs incurred between March and July due to the covid-19 outbreak that could not be met from those schools’ budgets. Schools were eligible to claim for increased premises costs associated with keeping schools open over the Easter and summer half-term holidays, support for free school meals for eligible children who were not in school and where schools were not using the national voucher scheme, and additional cleaning costs incurred due to confirmed or suspected covid-19 cases, over and above the cost of existing cleaning. Schools have already received initial payments of £58 million in respect of their claims against those expenses, and those payments have been made to schools that claimed only against their standard expenditure categories. Some schools have made claims outside their standard categories, and we are assessing those claims. If we decide that they are eligible, they will be paid later in the autumn term.

The Government are committed to the continuation of high-quality education for all pupils, and to the ambition—shared by schools—of ensuring that everyone can catch up and reach their full potential. We have therefore invested over £100 million to support remote education, and have already delivered over 220,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children who would not otherwise have access, supporting those children to stay online and connected with their teachers during the summer term. Those laptops and tablets remain the property of the schools and local authorities, so that they can continue to be used to support education, and we are now supplementing that support by making available 250,000 additional laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children in years 3 to 11 in the event that face-to-face schooling is disrupted as a result of covid-19 outbreaks or local restrictions that mean that children become reliant on remote education.

The Department have also made £4.8 million available to Oak National Academy to provide video lessons, for reception up to year 11, for the last summer term and for this coming academic year. That will provide a resource to support teachers throughout this academic year, helping them to transition education from the classroom to online in the event of local restrictions. So we are working to support all children to return and start to reverse the enormous costs of missed education. This will be an important move back towards normal life for many children and families. We are extremely grateful for the exceptional efforts that teachers, headteachers and other school staff have been making to support their pupils during this very challenging period, and we know that we have the professional knowledge and expertise in our education system to ensure that pupils and students recover and get back on track. To help them do so, we are providing schools with the resources they need to get children back into the classroom safely and protect a generation of pupils from the disruption caused to their education by this pandemic.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).