Monday 7 December 2020
[David Mundell in the Chair]
Childhood Cancers: Research
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and dispose of that material as they leave the room. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room, and to exit by the door on the left. Members should speak only from the horseshoe, and I therefore ask Members currently at the horseshoe to vacate a seat for the Members at the back who want to speak in the debate—once they have spoken, obviously. I call on Tonia Antoniazzi to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300027, relating to research into childhood cancers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell, and an honour to lead for the Petitions Committee in this debate. I welcome the large number of colleagues who have put in to speak today, and pay tribute to those who are unable to do so due to the parliamentary covid restrictions. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cancer, I really wanted to lead on this petition, as it is one that has touched many parliamentarians and their constituents. Indeed, I was approached by the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), who is unable to participate today, who asked me to pay tribute to his constituents Julia and Darren, who lost their beautiful daughter Fifi to childhood cancer. I put on record my heartfelt thanks to the petitioner, Fiona Govan, who lost her grandson Logan to a type of brain cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, and to Amanda Mifsud from the charity Abbie’s Army, which was set up following the death of six-year-old Abbie from DIPG in 2011.
Children’s cancers represent under 2% of all UK cancers. Despite this low number, that still means that over 500 children die from cancer each year. It is the most common cause of death in children. The great news is that since the 1970s, mortality has decreased by around 70%, and even with the debilitating side effects of many treatments, that is testament to the achievements of research in saving our children. One caveat to those figures is the massive variation in survival rates by cancer type: 99% survival for retinoblastoma, contrasting with 0% for DIPG. Many forms of cancer affect children, but after speaking to Fiona and Amanda, I am going to concentrate on the disease that took Abbie, Logan and so many others.
DIPG is a highly malignant brain tumour located in the pons, or pontine, area of the brain stem, almost exclusively affecting children. DIPG tumours are one of the most aggressive forms of cancer, and the prognosis for children diagnosed with it is terminal—it has a 0% survival rate. What also struck me was that while there have been huge leaps in the treatment of many other cancers and diseases, nothing can be done to treat DIPG. Neil Armstrong lost his daughter to DIPG in 1962, and since that time there has been no development in treatments, let alone a cure. Thankfully, childhood cancers are rare, but that also means that they do not get the research funding that other cancers attract, and are often seen as too difficult to tackle. As Dr David Walker wrote in The Telegraph in February 2016:
“So-called ‘rare’ cancers are collectively as common as the ‘common’ ones. But the perception that research should be funded according to incidence means that individual rare cancers are doomed forever to receive a fraction of the money.”
As such, the equivalent of a classroom full of children die from DIPG in the UK year after year, while there are no meaningful advances in treatment options and no current UK trials.
What does the petition ask of the Government? Less than 21% of research funding on childhood cancers is provided by the Department of Health and Social Care, and there is little transparency on where the funding goes. To change that, the petitioners want the National Institute for Health Research classification system to include specific cancer types and age data. They also ask for a commitment from the Government on ongoing funding obligations and for a set percentage of other funding to be ring-fenced for research on childhood cancers. We also need to look at reprioritising funding, to make sure that money is being used strategically for actual research—and that it is not spent on infrastructure, as happens at the moment.
We need to take full advantage of the highly accomplished researchers we have in the UK, such as Professor Chris Jones, but they need funding to answer the key scientific questions, such as, how can we do better and how can we help these children? That has been done in other countries. The Australian Government awarded about $9 million in 2019 and 2020 for childhood cancer research, and there have been extraordinary advances in outcomes on some cancers. If we can get that funding, the UK can become a centre of excellence in the field.
Yesterday, Fiona sent me an email with a message from one of the families, who are going through an incredibly hard time with their son Joshua. Josh’s mum, Michelle Beresford-Smart, writes:
“Josh is still with us, but since August has been bedridden and no longer able to communicate. Completely paralysed by the end of September and blind in October and no longer able to swallow. About 10 days ago his breathing changed and this week he was put on a syringe driver. No life, just waiting for the inevitable. Horrendous. Josh… was diagnosed in August 2017 with a tremor in his right hand. The GP told us we were being paranoid! Just a trapped nerve!”
Nine days after the GP appointment, they were in Great Ormond Street Hospital. Michelle writes:
“My son was 15 at diagnosis. He is now 18. But, as you know, there aren’t any options here in the UK. He did radiation and chemo and then we were lucky enough to get him on the ONC201 trial in New York. We last visited in February 2020, then COVID struck and options were taken away.”
These incredible women told me their stories about making a change for other families and their children who will be affected with poise and passion, and today I am speaking up on behalf of all the families who deal with the tragedy of losing a child. I ask the Government to do the right thing and fund research on rare cancers to give future generations a fighting chance.
The majority of fundraising is done by parents and family-led charities. Earlier today, I heard that Alison Caplan, a constituent of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), lost her son Daniel, aged 17, to DIPG last week. He was a bright young lad who had his whole future ahead of him. His funeral is this Friday and the family hope to help other children who are diagnosed with cancer, especially DIPG.
These are people who have lost a child to a horrendous disease, but still they continue to fight for better outcomes for future generations. They deserve to have their voice heard and I am proud to have been able to speak for them today.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to follow my Welsh colleague, the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who moved the motion on behalf of the Petitions Committee.
I want to speak about unbeatable Eva, a 10-year-old constituent of mine. I have been involved and in contact with her since she was diagnosed with DIPG in January. As we have heard, this is an inoperable brain tumour, inside the brain stem, and the prognosis is a life expectancy of less than 12 months. Today, it is 11 months and seven days since Eva was diagnosed with that horrendous tumour. The global pandemic has been particularly cruel to Eva and her family. Not only was there no suitable treatment for Eva in the UK, but she was unable to fly to the United States to receive experimental treatment. The cruel hand of covid stopped Eva travelling to Europe to receive life-prolonging pharmaceutical treatment. Think for one minute about the agony faced by a parent knowing that treatment is available and could prolong their child’s life, but being powerless to do anything about it. How cruel is it that, in any other year, Eva might have received that treatment? Covid took that chance from her.
The benefit of these debates is that they show the strength of feeling on a topic. Petitions allow the public to influence what we, as parliamentarians, discuss. Eva and her family should be proud of how much awareness they have raised nationally for this cause. DIPG has been talked about by many Ministers and the Health Secretary. Eva’s name has been mentioned by the Prime Minister in the Chamber, and her plight was highlighted on “Children in Need” and across the news channels. Wrexham has rallied around this little brave girl, and her parents have privately raised more than £310,000 to fund her treatment. I am here today for Eva, and I hope, Mr Mundell, that you deem it appropriate for me to read out a statement from her father, Paul.
We are here to advocate and fight for our constituents; that is our job. However, what really matters is how our constituents interpret the situation they find themselves in—life through their heartbroken eyes, facing tragedy day by day. Paul has asked me to read this out: “60 years ago, Neil Armstrong lost his daughter to DIPG. On the 1st of January this year, when we received Eva’s diagnosis, her treatment plan was the same as it was all those years ago. The lack of progress is solely down to one thing—funding. In a week where the UK Government approved a covid vaccine, having spent in excess of £6 billion on research and development, it is hard to feel anything other than anger. If some of that money had been spent on the cure for this horrific form of cancer, imagine how many parents would have been spared the conversation we had with doctors in January, and more importantly, imagine how many children would have been able to live full and happy lives, as every child should. All cancer is devastating, but the facts about DIPG and the devastation it causes parents, siblings, grandparents, friends and family make it the very worst of the worst, and more must be done where it can.”
Eva’s treatment journey has at every twist and turn been thwarted due to inaccessibility, cost, lack of understanding and research, different healthcare regimes between England and Wales, and covid-19 restrictions. This brave little girl with a beautiful smile has the arms of Wrexham wrapped around her.
Further research in this field is required. Existing DIPG treatments available around the world are not available here. However, we have the desire in this country to fund research on this childhood cancer, as this petition proves. We have the talent in this country to undertake that task, and we have the best—the unique—national health service, free at the point of delivery. We cannot let children lose their childhoods, cut short due to funding and research issues. Let us hope that this debate starts a reassessment of how we look at children’s cancer going forward.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), a fellow member of the Petitions Committee, for introducing the debate. There is no greater champion of families affected by cancer, and I thank her for all the hard work that she does for them, week in, week out. In the short time available, I will tell the story of Izzy Withers, a constituent of mine who tragically passed away last year due to childhood cancer. Her mother Tracey shared their experience in the hope that it would highlight the desperate need in this country for more funding for childhood cancer treatment.
In August 2018, 16-year-old Izzy fell ill, and in September that year she received the devastating news that she had DIPG and a stage 4 brain tumour. DIPG is a highly malignant childhood brain cancer that disables the nervous system, and the prognosis is grim—fewer than 10% of children diagnosed survive longer than 18 months. That meant that Izzy was effectively handed a death sentence. DIPG is very resistant to chemotherapy; it is extremely difficult to treat. Tracey Withers described the tumour as like sand in grass. The treatment of Izzy, like that of Karen Armstrong, Neil Armstrong’s daughter, therefore consisted of radiotherapy, which in turn destroyed their healthy brain tissue. The radiotherapy affected Izzy’s ability to walk and use the left side of her body. She eventually lost all capacity to walk. After seven weeks at the Royal Gwent Hospital and two weeks at the Teenage Cancer Trust in Cardiff, Izzy and her mother spent 13 weeks living at Tŷ Hafan hospice. Tracey described Izzy’s illness and the effects of the treatment as a bit like locked-in syndrome. Her body shut down and she lost the ability to walk and move, and eventually she struggled to swallow. Children with DIPG die a protracted, painful and horrendous death. That is why more funding is needed for research to ensure that, in the future, children diagnosed with childhood cancers with a low survival rate and their families have more options.
For children such as Izzy, care is inadequate, and other, more practical factors increased the problems that Izzy and Tracey came up against in trying to get access to treatment. As Izzy was 16, she was not classed as a paediatric patient or an adult. That put her in administrative limbo. Hospitals were unaware of where she should be treated, who should treat her and who would foot the bill. That left Tracey with the extra burden of chasing hospitals for treatment and looking for counselling and other support. Tracey was often the one who had to find out where Izzy could receive care and what sort of care she could receive. That was yet another stress that she should not have had to deal with.
It goes without saying that caring for a child with cancer is phenomenally tough. Those parents care for their children emotionally and practically while trying to come to terms with the intricacies of their illnesses, all the while having to process that themselves and realising that they face what every parent dreads more than anything: outliving their own children. They should not be faced with added stresses and tasks because their children fall into the limbo between paediatric and adult care. That was also frustrating for the senior clinicians in charge of Izzy’s case, who felt that they were going round in circles over who would treat her.
Tracey received invaluable support from the Teenage Cancer Trust, CLIC Sargent and the Tŷ Hafan hospice. Those charities do incredible work for children with cancer, helping children and their families to navigate the medical and emotional sides of their illnesses. Without those charities, families such as Izzy’s would be completely lost. That is a failure on the part of the state to provide adequate care and funding for children with cancer. Izzy was given a dignified death thanks to the Tŷ Hafan hospice, which relies entirely on charity.
I say this to the Minister: three children died last week from DIPG alone. That is three families who now face a Christmas of grief. We must do more. The ring-fenced funding is not enough for a country that prides itself on scientific research. We could be leading the way, but we have failed to do enough. Some things go beyond politics, and this should be one of them. Few of us can imagine what Izzy’s family have gone through, but we must do more to stop others experiencing the same.
I want to end by thanking Izzy’s mother, Tracey, for allowing me to share her story, for her bravery and, above all, for her desire to ensure that no other family goes through what hers have been through. She said that she is praying that this is the start of a change that gives hope to families such as hers. I hope the Government listen and bring about real change.
It was the privilege of my life to hold the role of cancer Minister in the previous Government. Through that work, I learned of the battles of DIPG patients and the all-too-tragic outcomes.
As ever, it is the personal stories that connect. I wish I could show Members the pictures, but I have the words of Emily, the mum of Atticus—a fantastic name:
“In June 2018 our happy, charming, caring 4 year old son started to exhibit very mild symptoms which gave us cause for concern. Slight issues with balance, difficulty concentrating and mild drooling. Nothing significant but… you know when your child is not ‘right’… Atticus went… for a CT scan and was the referred to Southampton General for an MRI. On 1 July 2018, 2 years ago, my husband and I were guided into a small room to be given the results. I will never forget that moment. The neurologist told us that… he had a likely survival time of 9-12 months. In one breath our whole world came crashing down and we began to grieve—even though Atticus was still with us… On 7 February Atticus fell asleep forever in the bed next to me. I’ll never, ever forget watching my child pass away. It is the most unnatural, unjust and devastating experience any parent can suffer.”
Emily wrote to me again the other day:
“As we face the second Christmas without our beautiful boy, we can take some comfort in the prospect of increased funding and research to help eradicate this terrible cancer. It is all we can hope for.”
I guess the question is whether we—and whether they—have hope. As has been said, a child diagnosed with DIPG today faces the same prognosis as a child diagnosed over 50 years ago. Survivable rates are near zero for this particular cancer.
It is true, as the Government said in their response to this petition, and as the Minister will almost certainly say today, that
“we have invested £1bn per year in health research through the National Institute for Health Research”.
Expenditure in this area is the largest it has ever been. I remember working with the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission. It was a privilege to work with Tessa and her daughter Jess, who were very forceful ladies and very good at lobbying Ministers, including me. We were able to promise an extra £40 million over five years for brain tumour research as part of the mission’s work. That included funding for childhood cancers.
One key point of their work was to stimulate the research market in this area, to see new research propositions come forward. Tessa understood that acutely. It is never the case that we have enough money for health research. I suggest that we need both investment and strategy. That is why I was struck by this particular recommendation in the campaign that led to this petition, which the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) touched on.
The UK does have excellent collaborative research at our medical facilities, but we must assign sufficient funding to DIPG research and implementation of the new treatments. I urge the Government to convene and appoint special UK experts directly to centralise efforts and bring forward that new prioritisation strategy, so that we can stimulate the research market, as Tessa and her campaign urged me to do when I was sitting in the Minister’s position.
The Minister cannot wave a magic wand and make this go away—I have sat in her place enough times to know that. However, we can agree to make this change and to work together to finally face DIPG and start to turn the corner, with the collaborative strategy that I have mentioned. That is the hope—to reiterate that word—that these families want. I do not think that is too much to ask.
I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing this important debate and all those who signed the e-petition. Cameron Truesdale’s name will not resonate with people in this room, but I am speaking of a little boy who is now safe in the arms of Jesus. He was a little 11-year-old boy from my constituency, who had so much to live for but who did not get the opportunity.
His mum described him as sweet, shy and popular. He never had a bad word to say about others. He was good at maths. In his own words, he wanted to be an “entrepreneur”. He was a super cool big brother and he adored his sisters Chloe, Courtney and Catlin. Sadly, Cameron’s life ended on 3 September 2018, but his memory is still alive.
When Cameron was diagnosed with DIPG cancer in January 2017, his family were told that he would have nine months to live, if he was to receive radiotherapy and steroids. “Go home and make memories”—the most chilling and heart-wrenching words that any family will ever hear. Cameron’s family were devastated that in the 21st century they would be told that there was no hope and, no matter what they did for Cameron, he would die anyhow. Cameron’s family believe that where there is life, there is hope. Cameron’s family immediately looked at therapies around the world. They raised thousands of pounds and travelled to Mexico, where Cameron received treatment. While it did not save his life, it gave them hope and extra time to make those memories.
Cameron and his family fought DIPG with courage and determination. Cameron did not want to die. Even towards the end, when he was very poorly and DIPG had stolen every function apart from his ability to know what was going on, his mum asked him whether he wanted to stop fighting and just rest, or for her to stop fighting. With tears running down his face, even in agony, he did not want to stop, because he loved life.
We have already heard today that the survival rate for DIPG is 0%. That is just not good enough and not what we should settle for. Cameron should not be a statistic and we do not want any other families to go through the pain and anguish of losing a child. In Northern Ireland alone, three young people are diagnosed with cancer every week. That means three young people facing huge physical and emotional challenges, doubts, fears and anxieties. We must ensure that science is being supported to increase survival rates and to break this dark, sleekid thief.
Globally, we have poured billions into finding a vaccine for covid-19, because the will has been there to do so. We need a similar will and focus on cancer. I recognise that the Government have invested millions of pounds into cancer research, but amid the myriad cancer types that exist, we must ensure that childhood cancer receives the specific attention that it demands. I fully support the call for ring-fenced funds for new research. We need a specific fund that targets childhood cancer, and particularly those cancers that have the lowest survival rates. We need transparency on specific cancer types and age data, and we also need exceptionalism and expediency. Every life lost is one too many.
The message of the last week, with the news of the covid vaccine, brought hope. It also highlighted that when science is supported, it can make the breakthroughs we need. The Government should do the same for cancer, because none of us knows whose family could be next.
I commend the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for opening this debate, and I also commend Fiona Govan for her incredible work to secure the signatures needed to trigger this debate. I know that Fiona would say that it is the least she could do following the loss of her grandson, but she, along with many other families suffering the same trauma, expect us to do something. The Minister understands that, as I know her to be a caring and compassionate individual.
In Fiona’s case, as we have heard, her grandson Logan died of a DIPG, which is a childhood cancer that wipes out hope and brings to an end a life of promise and potential. DIPGs, as we have heard, are tumours that are highly aggressive and difficult to treat, found at the base of the brain. But Fiona and her family are not alone; we all have families in our constituencies who have lost children to brain cancers.
I have the great honour of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on brain tumours. The charity that supports this influential APPG was born out of the loss of a girl following a diagnosis of DIPG. I cannot pretend to know what a family goes through when they are told such terrible news, but I can share a little in the pain, having lost a son at just nine months old. An account of Fiona’s family’s story can be found on the Brain Tumour Research website, and it is really powerful reading, for those who have not read it already. It sets out precisely the journey, and the trials and the challenges, that they had to go through, as their son and grandson lost his life.
When a family is told that their child has a DIPG, they do not have to search far to learn that just 10% of children diagnosed with this type of brain tumour survive for up to two years following a diagnosis, and that only 2% survive for as long as five years, and we know that few of these children, if any, survive at all for longer than that. As we have heard, this prognosis has not improved.
The work of the APPG is extensive, but what is particularly relevant to this debate is a recent meeting with Midatech. Midatech is a British-based company, which in October announced
“‘encouraging’ headline results from a phase 1 study at the University of California… in patients with… (DIPG)”.
We were told that in a cohort of seven children with DIPG who took part in a clinical trial whereby a drug is delivered directly to the brain via a catheter, five survived beyond 12 months and three continue to be monitored.
As always, it is important that we carefully manage the expectations of families with very sick young ones. However, the purpose of this debate is not to present the problem, which is well documented, but to seek to identify what will unlock the solution. We are aware of 200 failed drug trials relating to DIPG. There are very few promising signs, which is where I turn to the Minister. Will she investigate why a British company is limited to running clinical trials in the US—in the case of Midatech, in California and New York? Will she work with the National Institute for Health Research to find a way of committing and ring-fencing funds directly for research into childhood cancers, as the petition demands? Will she work with the APPG and Midatech to navigate a way to set up clinical trials in the UK? It seems that the only option for many parents is to travel across the world, at enormous personal expense. I associate myself with the recommendations of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), his work on the strategy and the need for absolute focus.
The APPG has been told repeatedly there is a lack of research and clinical trials in the area of brain cancer. That can only be properly addressed if we build the skills and expertise base, but that is very hard if the Government are not proactively promoting and funding such research. We start at a low base, but with the right focus, as we have all heard, there is an opportunity to provide the hope that these families so desperately need.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. In July, I was fortunate enough to secure a question at Prime Minister’s Question Time. As Members across the Chamber will know, that is when we try to think of the best political hit we can get, but on that day there was only one question I was going to ask. It was about a young man, Daniel Caplan, a constituent of mine who had just turned 17 and had been diagnosed with diffuse midline glioma—a brain stem tumour. As I explained to the Prime Minister, it was a terminal diagnosis and, of course, an absolutely crushing one for Daniel and his family. As the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) said, I am so sorry to say that Daniel died last week.
I did not know Daniel, but I was really struck that one of his friends, Martin, who spoke to me earlier this year about something else entirely, made sure to tell me what a great person his friend Daniel was. It is crystal clear what a special and very much loved young man he was. If I, who did not know this lovely young man, am so devastated to hear of his loss, I cannot begin to imagine how Daniel’s family can cope with it, just at the time when, if things were different, he would be looking to make his way in the world and realise all of his potential. I have been thinking about them a great deal.
For families like Daniel’s, and all those we are hearing about who have received the devastating news of a childhood cancer diagnosis, among all that awful news is the terrible realisation—one they probably never had cause to be aware of before—that there have been no new treatments for these conditions for 40 years. There has been no progress in treating childhood brain stem tumours. That is stark and shocking. It is absolutely right and necessary that we heed the call of all those families faced with that terrible news when they ask for a renewed focus on research and for a light to be shone on awareness of childhood brain stem cancers so that others do not have to face what they have gone through. I was glad that the Prime Minister agreed with me when I asked for his commitment to shine that light and to bring focus to this issue.
The Scottish Government have also done a great deal of work to improve cancer treatment in Scotland over the last decade. All these things matter, but we need a commitment from all of us not to let it lie for these young people, because although cancer is rarer in children and young people than in adults, it is often more complex and more difficult to treat.
Earlier this year, working with the Brain Tumour Charity —an organisation close to my heart—and with other Members, I tabled an early-day motion to raise awareness of DIPG. That continued focus has to be our priority, because only 10% of children with DIPG survive for more than two years following their diagnosis and research into brain tumours represents less than 3% of the UK’s cancer research budget. Those statistics should stop us all in our tracks, because in the midst of all the medical advances of recent years, affected families find that crushing and inexplicable.
All of us in the Chamber need to ensure that this area is a priority. We need to have more research and to think of it as we go forward. For Daniel Caplan and all the other children like him, and all their families, a cure really cannot wait.
We can choose to be affected by the world or we can choose to affect the world. My constituent Isla chose the latter. In August 2017, seven-year-old Isla Tansey woke up unable to walk. After many horrible treatments, surgery and radiotherapy, in January 2018 she was diagnosed with DIPG. Isla’s mother described the terminal illness as the most traumatic and heartbreaking experience for a family ever to go through. Sadly, Isla passed away in July 2018, but not before inspiring thousands around the world with her positivity and creativity through her hobby: painting stones and pebbles.
Isla asked others to join in by painting their own stones, with any design, but she asked them to include the hashtag #islastones and the words “photo, post, re-hide”, and then to send a picture to a dedicated Facebook page for her to see. They were subsequently to leave the stones somewhere hidden, so that when they were found they could spread a little of the joy that Isla’s idea had given them—a little reminder of Isla’s joy. Isla’s mother, Katherine, hoped that a child might one day find one of the stones, learn about Isla’s story and become a researcher in childhood cancer.
Thousands of people took part in more than 149 countries. Although Isla could no longer walk, she loved to see where all the stones ended up and where they would travel to next. Places included the Taj Mahal, New Zealand, Disneyland and America, with a very special stone in Antarctica. Through the stones and the lovely people who made them, hid them and posted their photos, Isla travelled the world.
The hashtag #islastones grew to a Facebook presence with more than 75,000 members from all around the world. In 2019, a year on from Isla’s passing, at the Celebration of Smiles event in Hinckley in my constituency, a world record was set for the largest display of painted stones, with 8,542 stones—all in remembrance of Isla.
To continue her legacy, Isla’s parents, Simon and Katherine Tansey, set up the Islastones Foundation for raising smiles and helping to fight childhood cancer: a reminder of the fun and happiness that Isla brought to so many people’s lives. Isla is now permanently memorialised at Argents Mead in Hinckley, where her legacy of smiles and positivity will live on for ever.
Why does this matter? We have heard the stats in the debate, but these are the real stories behind the cases. Some 650 people in my constituency signed this petition to ask for transparency in the funding, for improvement in treatment options and for pulling together the clinical pathways that people who suffer in this situation have to go through. They ask for real understanding, for listening and for something to change. I am reminded of the quote:
“Your life is your message to the world. Make sure it’s inspiring.”
Isla’s message was truly that, and I hope the Government’s message on DIPG will be the same.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) not only for securing this important debate on childhood cancer, but for all the excellent work that she does as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cancer. I also thank the petitioners who promoted this debate today.
I want to talk about the work of the Bradley Lowery Foundation, which is based in my constituency, and I want to concentrate on the need, as other hon. Members have, for Government collaboration with smaller charities and research and funding into less common cancers. The Bradley Lowery Foundation was established in August 2017 after my constituent, six-year-old Bradley Lowery, lost his fight for life to stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of childhood cancer.
In 2013, Bradley’s mother, Gemma, started a fundraising campaign to raise funds so that Bradley could get treatment in the United States—treatment that was not available here in the UK. The foundation—one of its patrons is the former Sunderland and England footballer, Jermain Defoe—supports research on neuroblastoma and other childhood cancers, is developing plans to support a £600,000 holiday home in Scarborough, and runs a support line for families of children with cancer in the north-east. The Bradley Lowery Foundation has given £200,000 to neuroblastoma research and has just pledged another £15,000 to sarcoma research. It collaborates with other research charities to ensure that more funding can be put into the right places.
We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and others about the prognosis for patients who have brain stem cancer, particularly children. The prognosis is really quite dark. I point out to the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, that the Bradley Lowery Foundation wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer around June of this year and is still awaiting a response. In the letter, the foundation expressed its willingness to set up a meeting with the Chancellor regarding funding for childhood cancer research, and it was seeking to secure some support through matched funding from Government.
The charity finds that although the most common incurable cancers rightly receive a lot of funding, the rarer and harder-to-treat cancers get little funding. The funding that they receive is from smaller charities and organisations that, like the Bradley Lowery Foundation, might have been set up as a legacy for families who have lost children to a particularly rare cancer. I urge the Minister to speak to the smaller charities. I am sure she does so on a regular basis, but will she speak to the smaller charities and organisations that fund this vital research, such as the Bradley Lowery Foundation? After all, it is the smaller charities that fund the harder-to-treat cancers.
If the covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is that, with the will and the right funding and resources, treatment and vaccines can be developed. If the Government can pledge even a fraction of the funding that has been allocated for covid towards childhood cancer research, we could no doubt find better, safer treatments a lot faster.
When the Paul family in my constituency were told of their four-year-old daughter Georgia’s cancer diagnosis, their immediate reaction was not one of shock but of, “We can fight this; she is tough.” To then discover that there was absolutely no treatment was simply devastating for the family. Georgia had been diagnosed with DIPG—a brain tumour. She was enrolled on a trial, but it became clear that there was no chance of saving her. No matter what angle the family approached it from, DIPG is universally fatal, as we have heard already. No child has ever survived it.
DIPG remains the most fatal of all childhood brain cancers, and I fear that is in part due to a lack of funding for research. In seven short months, Georgia went from a happy, active and engaged little girl who loved life to losing her ability to walk, talk or swallow. The 28th November just gone marked exactly two years since Georgia died in her family’s arms, leaving them absolutely heartbroken.
Another constituent, Sue Farrington Smith, lost her beloved niece, Alison Phelan, to a brain stem glioma tumour in 2001, three weeks before her eighth birthday and 10 months after diagnosis. Sue went on to establish Brain Tumour Research, an umbrella group of 22 brain tumour charities that have campaigned to move the dial on funding for brain tumour research. Their campaign led to the establishment of the 2016 task group on research, and they are now working with the Government to see how the £40 million Tessa Jowell fund is spent.
The good news is that, in the past 50 years, there have been dramatic improvements in treating childhood brain tumours. Historically, 75% of children affected sadly died, but now 75% survive. That proves what research can do. In about 70% of cases, radiotherapy, which is the only treatment currently offered to DIPG patients, does shrink the tumour, which allows for a few months of normal life before it returns. Georgia, who I spoke of earlier, was one of the unlucky ones for whom radiotherapy did nothing.
I welcome the fact that improving cancer outcomes, including for children, is a major priority for the Government. I support the £1.2 billion that the Government have put into the cancer drugs fund, which has helped 95,000 people, including children, to access the latest and most innovative cancer care drugs. We have to recognise, however, that in the UK only 20.8% of childhood cancer research is Government-funded, and the rest of the funding comes from charities, the fundraising for many of which has been severely hampered by covid.
Let us commit to providing that new research funding for childhood cancers and ensure that a legal proportion of other funding must be used for childhood cancer research to adequately balance the years of life lost against the relative rarity of conditions. This is about the children who will be diagnosed in the future and who will face the same dreadful, awful news that Georgia and her family did. That will happen year after year, unless funding is allocated to research.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to follow many moving and powerful speeches.
I congratulate the petitioners, because securing a Westminster Hall debate through the petition route is no small achievement. We have heard many of their stories this afternoon, and I suspect that much of the campaigning activity has been driven by families whose children have died as a result of DIPG or are suffering from DIPG. When we think about the number of families who have gone through that—it is a very rare childhood cancer—it is inspiring to see the time and effort that they put into campaigning, in some cases long after their children have passed, because they are determined that no other family should go through what they have been through or the ordeal that they have suffered.
My constituent Kaleigh Lau died of DIPG. Her family, including her father Scott, her mother Yang and her brother Carson, are just as committed to making sure that we find a cure for DIPG. I have been thinking about how the families will feel watching the debate. More than anything else, unfortunately—with great respect to the hon. Members who have spoken and the way in which they have told powerful stories—too many of them will have a sense of déjà vu.
With great respect to the Minister, who is a good person and absolutely committed to what she does, those families are not looking for warm words, reassurance or sympathy. They want action. They want to know what the Government are doing. They want to be able to hold the Government to account for progress against that action. They want real commitments. So far, although we have undoubtedly had steps in the right direction from successive Ministers, progress has been insufficient. Certainly, that is how Kaleigh’s family feel and how I feel as their constituency MP, having raised the issue on a number of occasions in recent years.
We know from Cancer Research UK of some of the challenges of researching children’s cancers. There are too few researchers, too little discovery research, not enough industry support, poor awareness of particular cancers, fragmented expertise and a lack of research tools. That is absolutely true in the case of DIPG, which is incredibly rare, as we have already heard.
What could we reasonably ask of the Minister? What would we like her to say, if not this afternoon, then in the not-too-distant future? We want to ensure that the UK seeks to be a world leader in researching DIPG and in the efforts to find a cure. We want to ensure that the UK seeks to be a world leader in researching DIPG and in the efforts to find a cure. I was particularly struck by the experiences of the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who speaks with great authority and experience, having done the job and understanding the pressures on his successor. I think that the sort of action that he outlined would give families some reassurance that serious actions are being taken, but also that that is transparent and we can measure and monitor progress as personalities come and go—and hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, Governments too. In all seriousness, I think that the strength of cross-party consensus on this issue is obvious, and the Minister will get a great deal of support from those on the Opposition Benches if she is able to come forward with that kind of action plan. That is really what the families are looking for today.
I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for bringing such an important debate to the fore. Many people will know what the bond is like between parent and child, so just imagine what it must be like for families to then lose their child. That is a thought that, as a parent, I personally cannot bear, yet it happened in my community this summer. My community of North Norfolk is very close and loving, and things are very much the same in the Pitcher family. On 12 July, little Benny Pitcher lost his battle, after just over a year, with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma—DIPG. He was just six years old. Never before have I witnessed grief in my community like it, as people lined the streets to watch that bravest of little men make his way to Cromer crematorium. That little boy captured the spirit of everybody who met him. He was, like the characters that he adored, a little superhero.
I first became involved with the family, Julie and Kevin Pitcher, when helping them to achieve planning permission for their house so that little Benny could live a more comfortable life as his cancer took hold and his health deteriorated, but cruelly he was even robbed of being able to move into the extension when he passed away just a week before the builders finished. That was despite enormous work by the community—hundreds of people helped. I was not an MP at that time, but the Pitchers’ story touched me, like so many others. How could it not touch you to witness a family go through what Kevin and Julie experienced? I am proud to say that I helped them and now call them my friends.
As we all know, the Pitchers will not be the last family to suffer at the hands of the cruellest of childhood cancers, and it is because of stories like theirs that parliamentarians like us must do absolutely everything we can to provide help and support, and ensure that as much funding as possible is provided for scientific research. As we have heard, there is a 0% survival chance with DIPG. There has been no improvement over the last 50 years. In the 21st century, surely that is not good enough. We have to do what we can to turn around the fact that cancer is still the most common cause of death in the under-15s. As we have heard, if we can fund and produce a vaccine for covid in nine months, surely we can do more on childhood cancers and improve the fact that only one fifth of childhood cancer research is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care.
I would also like to make the point that when people’s lives are turned upside down overnight by the knowledge that their child will pass away in a very short time, we must do more to support those families, who end up being carers. Every waking moment should be spent with their child, not worrying about what forms need filling in or where they can go to get help. Where is the one-to-one handholding—the service that really could help to lessen the strain that those families experience?
I want to place on the record my thanks to the incredible communities that I serve and the selfless people who raised so much money to help the Pitcher family, and particularly to the Pitcher family themselves. Their work alone back in North Norfolk has raised the issue of childhood cancers. The incredible strength that the family have shown through such adversity is admired by everybody who meets them. Benny’s father, Kevin, made a promise to his son that he would run a marathon to raise funds for this cause, and it is the true mark of that family that Kevin will fulfil his promise in the spring and honour his son Benny.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank all hon. Members for the way they have spoken so movingly. I put on the record my thanks to Chris Copland, from my constituency, who helped me prepare for the debate, and to all the petitioners, who obviously signed the petition wanting to see real change in the life chances of children.
Grace did not lose her battle with cancer. The truth is that Grace’s battle was lost before she was even given a chance to fight. The battle was lost by the lack of research into the No. 1 medical cause of death of children in the UK: childhood cancer. I was struck by the words of Dr Jen Kelly, who told me of her little girl, Grace, and how she died in her arms, just four and a quarter years old, of a rhabdoid tumour. I am grateful to her for sharing the story of her little girl, Grace, with me. She continues to fundraise and champion the cause of all children.
Every year, 1,900 children receive the devastating news that they have cancer. Parents have to equip themselves to deal with that, often without the information that they need at that time being readily available. For Grace’s family, the time was too short, and they were simply told to do research on the internet. They have used the legacy of Grace to turn that around for other parents.
Just two weeks ago, many of us spoke in this place about the opportunity to extend research in certain medical areas. The Association of Medical Research Charities called on the Government to establish a life sciences-charity partnership fund. I listened intently to the Chancellor’s statement and was sorry that no announcement was made. Cancer Research UK alone has had to cut its research budget by £44 million this year due to covid. Charities have also lost £10 billion to date, and this year is not getting any easier for them. However, today marks the start of UK Charity Week, with its slogan, “What will you be doing?”. I put that question to the Minister, because this week again provides an opportunity for action. It is worth recalling that, for every £1 spent on childhood cancer, there is a potential £3 return, not to mention the human benefit that this brings.
There is an opportunity for us to go further. We trail behind our European counterparts in early diagnosis. A prime goal of at least catching up with all European countries would be a first step.
We also need to ensure that we are part of that global community of research, and that we play our role in leading that. Before the closure of talks with the EU, we need to make sure that opportunities to participate with other European countries are not diminished at this time but accelerated. There is hope on the horizon. There has been much discussion about Horizon research funding over the years. This new round, which is coming over the horizon, is very much related to cancer, and discussions are certainly taking place about the role it can play in advancing research into paediatric cancers. I trust that the Minister will tell us how she is participating in that debate in order to make what all of us have called for today a reality for the families who desperately need that help.
I am glad to participate in this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for the comprehensive exposition that she gave at the start of the debate, and all those who signed the petition calling for more funding for and focus on childhood cancers. The fact is that this petition was born out of a sense of frustration and grief. That is why more 109,000 people across the UK signed the petition, and why so many people in my constituency supported it.
Twelve children in the UK are diagnosed with cancer daily, and one in five will die within five years, often of the deadliest types, such as DIPG—brain stem cancer, which we have heard a great deal about. Yet as we have also heard, there has been insufficient funding for research into these childhood cancers, and little or no progress in the treatment of DIPG appears to have been made over the past 60 years, while treatments for cancer in general have made positive strides.
DIPG, or diffuse midline glioma, accounts for between 5% and 10% of all childhood brain tumours. They are high-grade, fast-growing tumours and can spread throughout the brain. The main treatment for this type of cancer is radiotherapy, but it remains difficult to treat and the prognosis is poor, as we have heard from several Members during today’s debate.
The fact is that young people who face cancer do so with unique challenges. It is the largest killer disease of young children, and as my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) reminded us, cancer is rarer in children and young people than in adults, but it is often more complex and difficult to treat. As such, greater funding of research and greater focus on childhood cancers are important and will undoubtedly contribute to prolonging and saving young lives in the future. What we are debating today is about saving the lives of children.
For a few years now, I have been in correspondence from time to time with a woman in my constituency called Fiona Govan, who also spoke with the hon. Member for Gower. Fiona is an ordinary woman, but in some ways she is also pretty extraordinary. Since the loss of her young grandson, Logan Alexander Maclean, who passed away at three years old on 17 October 2017, she has worked extremely hard to raise awareness of the disease that claimed his young life.
Logan was diagnosed with DIPG. His family were told that he would not see his fourth birthday, and he did not. What news to receive about your little boy or grandson. The family, like many before them, had never even heard of DIPG. Logan coped with his biopsy to confirm his diagnosis—apparently, some children do not and immediately lose even more function. He also responded well to palliative radiotherapy, the treatment that has been the only option since the 1960s. However, as advised, Logan’s family made as many wonderful memories with him as they could, treasuring every moment they had left with him. As we might expect, Logan’s family have nothing but praise for Logan’s treatment and the medical professionals who cared for him at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow, University Hospital Crosshouse in Kilmarnock and CLIC Sargent, and so many others.
Logan’s grandmother, Fiona Govan, does not want other families to suffer the loss that she and her family have. She was keen to let me know, in preparation for this debate, that we should remember that every year, children with their whole lives ahead of them—with all their unfulfilled potential—develop what seem like minor ailments, only for their parents to be told that their child will soon die of DIPG. It might be that the child develops a slight limp, as Logan did when he was two years old. It might be that they mention a pain in their hand, like Reece, aged 11, did. They might start to choke on their food, as Sofia, aged six, did. Like Eva, aged four, they might develop a lopsided smile, or like Evie, aged 13, they might begin to slur their speech. They may have night terrors like Ollie, aged 12, or migraines and vomiting as Izzy, aged 16, did. There are so many other cases. Gradually, these children lose their motor functions. Following diagnosis, some children survive only weeks, some are spared for a few months and, very occasionally, some will have a few years, but they will all die.
I mention these children as a reminder to all of us that the loss caused by childhood cancer must not become about abstract statistics. The loss is real, and families are never the same again after the loss of a child. The death of a child is unlike any other loss it is possible to experience, because it is the loss of a life unlived—the loss of a promised future—and defies all natural order. Parents burying children is a grotesque inversion of nature. It is the lot of children to bury their parents, not the other way around.
Just as many of my parliamentary colleagues did, I signed a letter calling on the Chancellor to uplift UK Government support for medical research to ensure that vital research on childhood cancers can continue, but not just that: research is needed to improve outcomes, with ring-fenced funding for children whose cancer is more complicated and difficult to treat than many cancers in older people. The fact is that so little progress has been made on DIPG, which is both distressing and alarming. That explains why DIPG is being treated in the same way it was in the 1960s. That cannot be right, considering that it is so deadly and accounts for so many childhood brain tumours, and given advances in treatment of other cancers.
We know that medical research budgets are under huge strain due to the restrictions on raising funds that covid-19 has created. That strain will impede and impact on medical research. The Government must ensure that research on DIPG is given greater priority. We cannot bring back the children who have been lost to cancer or the dreadful DIPG, but we can honour the memory of the children who have gone by deciding to renew our commitment to fund research into childhood cancers, which will help save children’s lives in the future. The Government must be able to say—we all must be able to say—that we are doing all we can to save children’s lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I commend the petitioners for securing this important debate about childhood cancer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said, it is hard to get the required signatures for these debates, and it happens only when the issue is as significant as this. I hope that the petitioners will see that their efforts have been rewarded with as full a House as we can have in the context of covid-19 and with the high quality of this debate.
I echo the comments commending Fiona Govan, who set this petition up following the tragic death of her grandson Logan in 2017. I am sure that many of the over 100,000 people who joined her in signing it have been touched personally by this issue. I say to Fiona and all those watching that the way that she and they have turned their grief into action is an incredible feat of bravery, which has had a powerful, important impact on all of us as legislators and has pushed us to drive change more quickly. I know that is what they want. I also thank Brain Tumour Research, which has been a phenomenal driving force in this area with the petition, the debate and all the other work that has gone on.
This debate has been an important reminder that, while we were elected by voting-age people almost a year ago today, we represent all of our constituents, including children. MPs have spoken today for those children: Logan from Ayrshire, Izzy from Islwyn, Daniel from East Renfrewshire, Georgia from Buckingham, Isla from Bosworth, Benny from North Norfolk, Kaleigh from Ilford, Grace from York, Cameron from Upper Bann, Atticus from Winchester, and Bradley from Easington. Their stories have been told by their representatives today, and their names will live on in the record for as long as this Parliament stands. I know that will not bring those children back to their families, but I hope that they can take some comfort from it. As we make progress in this place—we will make progress—I hope they can also take comfort from the fact that their children have been an integral part of this story. I am sure we all want to send our prayers to Eva from Wrexham and her family as she goes through her treatment.
We heard contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Easington (Grahame Morris), as well as from the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who all provide leadership through their relevant all-party parliamentary groups, which do really important work in keeping this at the top of the inboxes of busy Ministers. I know they will continue to make significant efforts to turn today’s discussion into activity and change.
I must talk about a few numbers, because we have to discuss this at a global level. But before I do, I want to say, as all colleagues have, that behind every number is a child who has had their life taken before they have had the opportunity to really live it, and their family, who have to live with this extraordinary pain. As a country, we must strive to do our best for children who are afflicted by cancers, as if they were our own. We must take the efforts of parents, which we have heard about today, and act with that level of urgency. As colleagues have said, covid-19 has shown what can happen when we join together in common purpose and are properly resourced to meet great challenges.
Cancer remains the most common cause of death in children, with around 240 aged 14 and under dying each year. Research has made significant inroads. Mortality has decreased by around 70% since the 1970s. The five-year survival rate for retinoblastoma is now 99%. There are recent examples, too, with a clinical trial for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia improving survival rates by a quarter, thus offering promise for the future. However, as colleagues have said, that picture is inconsistent. The incidence of childhood cancer has risen by about 15% since the 1990s, and there are many cancers for which the five-year survival rate remains devastatingly low: it is 67% for neuroblastoma, 65% for bone cancer and 32% for atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour.
Then, of course, there is DIPG, which Logan Maclean suffered from, as have many others, as has been mentioned today. When I spoke to people at Brain Tumour Research about DIPG, they labelled it the monster of all monsters: there is no cure, the two-year survival rate is less than 10% and the five-year survival rate is zero. As to treatment, surgery is rarely an option. Radiotherapy is the preferred option, but it is suboptimal, providing a temporary positive response but not a curative one. Chemotherapy has been trialled, but that is all. The only way out today —and the only way out for our collective energies—is through research. That is how we will make the difference for DIPG and for cancers in young people on a wider scale.
At the moment only about 20% of childhood cancer research is funded by the Department, with the rest funded by charities—most significantly Cancer Research UK. What assessment has the Minister made of how the gearing could be improved and what the results of that would be? Similarly, on brain tumour research, I know that the Minister will refer to the welcome £40 million that the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) spoke about, which was announced in 2018 as part of the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission. Two and a half years later, I understand that only about £6 million of that has been allocated. Will the Minister confirm that and set out what the plan is for the other £34 million? That money needs to be put to use for the things we want it to be used for.
Charities, as I have said, are playing a crucial role in research, but their fundraising avenues have been severely hit by covid, so research funding is in danger. Sue Farrington Smith, the chief executive of Brain Tumour Research, put it bluntly:
“The stark reality is that charity-funded research into brain tumours could stop and the vital progress we have made will be lost.”
What are the Minister’s views on that? What assessment has the Department made of the resilience of research funded by charities and of how we are, at least in the short term, going to fill the gap that covid has created?
I want to finish by majoring on the points that the petitioners asked us and the Government to focus on in moving towards solving childhood cancer. First, transparent data classification systems, coming through from the National Institute for Health Research, could be dealt with relatively simply and quickly, so I hope the Minister will support that. The petitioners also ask for the ring-fencing of funding for research on childhood cancers. Finally—this is important for rare cancers and rare diseases more broadly—they want the incentivising of research in these areas, where the incentives will not, clearly, be financial. Taking those steps would make a significant difference for future children and families, who will not know that we are having this discussion. I would like to hear the Minister’s assessment of those asks. Will she let us know more broadly what steps the Government will take to reach those goals?
The debate has been a poignant and moving one, but those who signed the petition and triggered it want action. They have set out what those actions might be. It is time for us to pull together and get on with it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.
I want to begin by congratulating the petitioners, as other Members have, and by thanking the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing this important debate. It has been one of the most poignant I have attended—I am sure we can all agree about that—and it is my fourth debate about cancer in the past five days. Each one shows the devastation that that disease brings to families, but that has been particularly so today, because we have been speaking of children. As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, there is no way to feel, in burying a child or grandchild, that that is the right order of things.
I agree entirely with those Members who said that we are stronger when we act together—particularly in the world of cancer. That brought me to this place, and I hope to do a little good while I am here, in this sphere in particular. I want to add my voice to the chorus of tributes to Fiona Govan, who, as we have heard, started the petition after the death of a much-loved grandson, Logan.
As many Members have expressed, DIPG is a brutal cancer—we are seeing success with some cancers, but DIPG is particularly difficult. Fiona has vowed to do everything she can so that future generations will never have to experience the pain of losing a child, as her family did. As we have heard today, however, Eva, Izzy, Atticus, Cameron, Daniel, Isla, Bradley, Georgia, Kaleigh, Benny, Grace, Reece, Evie and Ollie have all been treasured and lost. It is to their families that I address my remarks. Nearly 110,000 people stand in solidarity with Fiona, and I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for its important work.
I am honoured to speak about this most important of petitions on behalf of the Government this afternoon. My heart goes out to all families affected. The pain of the diagnosis of DIPG and the subsequent treatment is something that no mother, father or grandparent should ever have to go through. The very thought of it in the 21st century is unbearable, yet Fiona’s experience and others’ experiences, which we have heard about through the many powerful and compelling contributions to the debate, remind us too painfully that although we have come a long way—there have been improvements over the past 40 years—we have not come far enough, particularly with DIPG. The dial has not shifted.
In the past 40 years, we have seen good progress in the treatment of childhood cancers. Thankfully, the majority of children will now survive cancer. However, the most pernicious cancers, such as DIPG, remain a deadly threat. Our research must continue, and I agree with hon. Members that it must intensify. The National Institute for Health Research is the largest national clinical research funder in Europe. As has been said, we have invested over £1 billion so that some of the finest researchers in the world can work on this puzzle and try to find the answer. The largest of the disease areas is cancer, and such research receives over £130 million each year.
Many tributes have been paid, and I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), for the work he did in this space, particularly with the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission in 2018. The Government have announced £40 million of funding over the five years, including for DIPG. The money is being invested through NIHR, making full use of its talents as an internationally recognised centre of research excellence. At the heart of the mission is translating the discoveries of scientists and doctors into treatments and diagnostics that can transform the lives of all young patients.
We know that research takes time. It is through heart-breaking experience that brain tumours give us one of the most persistent challenges, even for the greatest medical minds in this country and across the globe. We want researchers to submit high-quality research proposals in this area. In 2018, we made an appeal to the research community for more funding applications for brain tumours. The response was fantastic, with an immediate increase in proposals, and we have been able to fund the very best of them. As the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) alluded to, £5.7 million has been spent so far, but we need to make that appeal loudly and clearly so that the research proposals that come forward can be assessed.
One of the challenges of ring-fencing just for DIPG is about the scientific potential of the research and what we are looking at. When we ring-fence funding, sometimes it actually stops great research. Although I want to go full pelt behind intensification—I want more proposals to come forward—the challenge of ring-fencing is a difficult one.
Research has been a major part of covid, as many hon. Members have said. We have shown that we can do more, that we can speed up research, that we can do things in parallel, and that we can deliver speedily from the bench to the bed to the patient. We need to take every one of the lessons that we have learned from the pandemic and translate them, particularly into cancer research.
We know well that cancer in children presents unique challenges. The Royal Marsden’s biomedical research centre is a world-leading centre for children with cancer that does genuinely groundbreaking research, such as the work to develop a 91-gene panel test that can detect certain genomic mutations in childhood tumours. The study used next-generation sequencing and involved children whose tumours were no longer responding to treatment; we have heard about the limited treatment options available to parents.
The study found that 51% of tumours had mutations that could be targeted by anti-cancer drugs that are used for different tumours in adults—51% is really encouraging. That is the challenge of ring-fencing funding in a different area, however: we need to look at how we can use different treatments to target other cancers, as we are seeing more and more. We need to make the most of that. For example, drugs that are ordinarily used to treat skin cancer in an adult might be effective in treating a child’s brain tumour. That could clearly be a game changer.
The Royal Marsden is also a leader in DIPG research. As we know, DIPG is difficult to treat because it is comprised of multiple generations of different types of cancer cell. The biomedical research centre’s pioneering work has used genetic sequencing of individual cell types to explore how they interact, co-operate and stimulate the growth of that tumour. That opens up new avenues for the interpretation of tumour evolution and opportunities for new drug interventions. All that groundbreaking work is transforming how we think about childhood cancers, with powerful technologies that offer hope for future generations. What unites us all is that we never want to see parents go through that pain if we can work towards a solution to stop it. We are determined that the biomedical research centre at the Royal Marsden should remain a home for groundbreaking research. Since 2017, we have provided £43 million over five years.
The University of Nottingham is another such centre of excellence and the National Institute for Health Research is funding research there to look at the early diagnosis of childhood cancers. Early diagnosis is crucial across all cancer types. We know that we get much better outcomes when we diagnose in stages 1 and 2, rather than being presented with stages 3 or 4 when, obviously, the prognosis is much poorer. This represents a potential pathway that might avoid the painful journey that lies ahead.
In Nottingham, researchers are looking at cancer symptoms that are often non-specific and can mimic other more common childhood illnesses. We heard from many hon. Members how an initial tremor in the hand, a dragging of the leg or feeling unwell would perhaps not immediately be thought of as cancer in a child. Doctors do their best, but parents do not want every visit to the doctor to be a worry that their child has cancer. It is very difficult for those who diagnose. The research in Nottingham aims to address that challenge by increasing awareness of symptoms among healthcare professionals and addressing the lack of paediatric-specific diagnostic tools.
I say in answer to several hon. Members that the Department is working with charities large and small, such as Cancer Research UK and other medical charities, and Cancer52 and the smaller charities, as well as with many research bodies, including the Medical Research Council and others. Only by co-ordinating funding can National Cancer Research Institute partners maximise the impact of research for patients and the public. I pay tribute to those centres of excellence, but this journey is not theirs alone. We are seeing an ever more powerful network of partnerships and likeminded organisations that care passionately about brain tumours. In addition to the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission, we work with Cancer Research UK and many others. For example, in partnership with CRUK, the NIHR has funded £1.2 million for an experimental cancer medicine centre and a paediatric network, which brings together triallists, scientists, clinicians and NHS research infrastructure to increase availability and access to novel treatments. Several Members spoke of the challenge of having to go abroad to America or Europe to access those treatments. We want people to be able to take part in trials and access treatments here.
The Brain Tumour Charity does incredible work and provides £2.8 million of funding for the study of more targeted brain tumour drugs. The fantastic Tessa Jowell BRAIN MATRIX is pioneering a new trials platform to give people with brain cancer, including children, access to trials and treatments that are best suited to individual tumours. There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of different cancers. The Tessa Jowell BRAIN MATRIX is working across the four nations, and across the globe. Nobody has the sole right to make the discovery. Working together, we are much stronger. We are all here to make sure we deliver for young patients.
I pay tribute to the incredible partners across the country for the effort that is going into this generational challenge. I also pay tribute to the charities for their additional work in supporting families. When a person gets a cancer diagnosis, that is a horrendous journey. It is awful as an adult, but worse when it is someone’s child—my heart goes out to all those parents.
No child should have to suffer in the way the children we have heard about today did and do, and no adult should have to bear such a loss. Fiona and everyone else who has lost a very loved child or grandchild before their time have my deepest sympathy and respect. As we have heard, that is often not enough, so they have my absolute commitment that the Government will stop at nothing to make childhood cancer a thing of the past for generations to come.
We will look at getting better data. Transparency can be a challenge, because it is obviously important that we do not divulge too much about an individual patient. I have talked about the challenge with ring-fencing, but that does not mean that we should not be spending the money and calling for more research. We will also incentivise research, and I am happy to carry on the conversation about a UK strategy.
We will stop at nothing to make childhood cancer a thing of the past for generations to come. We will achieve that only through research, and we will do it better together.
I thank the Minister for her positive response. As chair of the APPG on cancer, I welcome it, and so do Members across the Chamber, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who works very hard alongside me. I thank the Minister on behalf of Fiona Govan and all the petitioners. We will continue to hold her to account. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 300027, relating to research into childhood cancers.
Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams
[James Gray in the Chair.]
[Relevant Documents: First Report of the Education Committee, Getting the grades they’ve earned: Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and ‘calculated’ grades, HC 617, and the Government Response, HC 812.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 326066, 550846, 316404 and 549015, relating to the impact of Covid-19 on schools and exams.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. This is a timely debate as only last week the Secretary of State for Education laid out the Government’s plan for the delivery of GCSEs and A-levels next summer. I want to put on record my sincere thanks to Libby Harris, Alex D’Arcy and Ellis Rogers, whose petitions we debate today, for giving me time to speak with them at length about their reasons for starting their respective petitions. I also thank Dame Glenys Stacey from Ofqual for giving me her time to explain the processes for exams next summer.
I start with Ellis’s e-petition calling for the reclosure of schools and colleges due to an increase in covid-19 cases, which has been signed by 416,000 people—990 of them are from my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke—as well as Libby’s petition asking the Government to mandate schools to close two weeks before the end of autumn term, enabling students to self-isolate before joining loved ones in their Christmas bubbles.
Ellis began his petition because of his mum and aunt, who both work as teachers—unsung heroes during the global health pandemic—at the same secondary school. When all year groups returned to Parrs Wood High School, where Ellis’s mum and aunt work, it was only a matter of weeks until his mother caught covid-19. Ellis feels that, despite all the measures introduced by the school to be as covid-secure as possible, they simply are not enough, in large part because not all pupils are following the rules of wearing masks in corridors, keeping socially distanced from staff and peers, and not mixing with different bubbles. He also highly doubts the regularity of people hand-sanitising or washing. That causes only more anxiety for Ellis as his aunt was classified as extremely vulnerable via her GP during the first lockdown, and his first concern is—rightly so—the safety and wellbeing of his family.
Ellis has some questions for the Minister that he would like to have answered. Why can we not move back to online learning for all pupils? What have the Government done to invest in technology to enable learning from home since the start of the 2020 summer term? Have they invested in better ventilation in schools, as has happened in some countries across Europe? Lastly, what are they doing about vocational qualifications? Many students felt let down by having to wait an additional two weeks to receive their grades last summer. Are vocational qualifications an afterthought?
Libby’s petition, which goes along slightly similar lines to Ellis’s, is about providing safety for elderly relatives and preventing another spike in cases, as we have recently witnessed. She has asked whether it is possible to move all learning online for the final two weeks of this term. In that way, young people could self-isolate, potentially get tested and ensure that they had no symptoms, so that when they met loved ones they could do so knowing that they were not endangering them.
Libby referred me to Stephen Reicher from Independent SAGE, who has suggested allowing pupils off a week earlier than usual and adding those days back into the school calendar next summer, in order to protect loved ones and the NHS. Libby also referred to Kit Yates, also from Independent SAGE, who has said that if we took year 13 alone as a region, they would be in tier 3. To be clear, Libby is not a teacher. She is a concerned citizen who understands the need to compromise and is willing for her idea to apply only to secondary schools where the spread of covid-19 cases seems much more prevalent. Libby therefore asks this question of the Minister: if schools remain open, will the Government implement the safety measures recommended by Independent SAGE, and if not, why not?
I come to the final petitioner, Alex, who has called for the cancellation of all GCSEs and A-levels in the summer of 2021. His petition has just over 169,000 signatories, with 292 from my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Alex is a year 11 student preparing to sit his GCSEs next summer. A northern lad living in Liverpool, he argues that his local community in his region has been more greatly affected than some in other parts of the United Kingdom. Since September, some of his peers have lost out on six weeks of face-to-face learning. Alex was happy to share that he is a beneficiary of Merchant Taylors’, a private school that he attends in Liverpool. It has the resources and capability to deliver high-quality online learning, but that experience is not fair and not true of many in his community.
Alex referred to statistics showing that during the first lockdown, when most students were asked not to attend school, a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research team concluded that a third of students had not engaged in lessons while at home, 42% had not bothered to return their work, and pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were the least likely to engage with remote learning. Alex feels it is highly unlikely that a level playing field can be created because, as some surveys suggest, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are up to four months behind in their learning, which the three-week delay to the start of exams simply cannot make up for.
All my discussions with Alex predate last week’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Education, but Alex did email me with some thoughts and questions for the Minister. How will the Government and Ofqual ensure that fair marking is applied across all exam boards, as marking can be very subjective? The Government must ensure that the advance notice of topics and additional support materials is announced as soon as possible to ensure that teachers and students can prepare. A U-turn must not happen. Lastly, will the Government pledge to spend any additional money on resources in case of a third lockdown, and use Oak National Academy, BBC Red Button and textbooks suppliers so that schools have all the resources they need?
I hope I have done justice to the petitioners. I will respond with my own views on the petitions. All petitioners have been told in advance, and I am grateful for their trust in me to deliver their views today. For the record, I do not believe that schools and colleges should close, and I believe that exams must go ahead next summer. I am pleased that we now have the details about how that will run. Such large numbers of students being asked not to attend school for six months still saddens and horrifies me. I understand why that was necessary as we tackled and learned about covid-19, but I think many Members will agree that that is something we never wish to see again.
I represent an area with one of the worst level 3 and level 4 qualification take-ups in the country. Students in my area are below average in achieving a pass in English and in maths at GCSE, and far too many lack access to high-skilled, high-quality apprenticeships or job opportunities. Lockdown has meant that we are rocking on our back foot as a local area after taking a right hook from covid-19. I therefore ask the Government to ensure that the last things to be closed in this country are schools and colleges.
I was extremely disappointed to see the National Education Union executive campaign so heavily not to have schools open to all students, and spending time running a political campaign asking for Facebook graphics to be shared, rather than working with the Department for Education. The damaging actions taken by NEU leaders, who I do not believe speak for most of its members, will have negatively impacted the reputation of and respect for some in the teaching profession. I sincerely hope the NEU will pause and think about its conduct.
Since the start of September, 99% of state-funded schools have been open each week, with the rate of face-to-face attendance maintained at close to 90%, although we have seen a drop to 83% as of 26 November, due to an increase in covid-19 cases. This shows that many students are present in school, and there has been an expectation for schools to provide remote learning when students have to self-isolate, with recent guidance about how that must be done.
Of those pupils who did not attend on 26 November due to covid-related reasons, it is believed that only 0.2% had a confirmed case and 0.4% a suspected case, and 7% to 8% were self-isolating because of coming into contact with someone who had covid. UK scientists have constantly demonstrated that children are less susceptible to infection than adults, which has also been shown in studies from South Korea and Iceland. Data from this summer demonstrated that under-18s in the UK accounted for less than 2% of all infections detected, and research led by University College London concluded that children are 50% less likely to become infected than adults. Data has also indicated that schools are a low-risk setting for transmission and that there is no significant transmission among children or from pupils to teachers. Details of a study in the Netherlands that were published by SAGE in April support these claims.
I believe that the Government have worked to create a comprehensive list of measures—including regular hand washing, enhanced cleaning, bubbles and staggered timings of the day—to ensure that school can be an effective place of learning. However, although lots of good work has been done, it is still fair to ask questions and raise concerns.
I note that the Department for Education has announced recently that money will be made available to schools to assist with the costs of cleaning, the provision of laptops, supply teachers and other costs. Although that is welcome, it is not yet clear what the size of the budget will be nor how the money can be applied for. Schools in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, such as St Mary’s Primary School in Tunstall, have lost out, because they have a well-managed budget and therefore were not entitled to claim back for the cost of making sure that they were covid-secure after the first lockdown. Will the Minister say how big the budget will be, whether schools be able to backdate claims and when the money will be distributed?
I acknowledge and welcome the Government’s £195 million to purchase 340,000 laptops and tablets. However, not all children have access to wi-fi, and nor do they or their parents know how to use the internet and online apps properly, as is the case for 44% of residents across Stoke-on-Trent. While the digital divide exists, with 9 million people struggling to use the internet independently, as the Good Things Foundation has found, we can anticipate huge problems. That is why I back the call by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for a digital catch-up scheme.
With regard to exams, I will not revisit the past, as I think we have all learned a valuable lesson from that ordeal. The scheme announced by the Secretary of State for Education seems to take a balanced and detailed approach. I am particularly pleased with the advance notice of topics, as it enables teachers to plan accordingly. Again, I urge the Minister to work with the profession to create accessible online resources and also videos on these topics for TV, accessed via the red button, to aid teachers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, has regularly called for. These additional support materials will give students the support to ensure that they can demonstrate the very best of their ability.
However, the Minister must keep the pressure on Ofqual to ensure that advance notice is given by the end of January, as promised. Contingency plans—additional papers for those who miss the exams and enabling clinically vulnerable students to do tests from home—would also be good news. However, I hope that those with special educational needs and disability will also be taken into account much further, with consideration of home examination adjusted for.
Using Ofqual’s special consideration process for those who may sit only one or two of the exams in a subject is also good news, as this is a system that has been in place for decades. However, I ask the Minister to ensure that the system has been stress-tested, because it is highly unlikely that it will have had to handle the numbers in this summer’s exam series, in order to give certainty to year 11 and 13 students across England.
I also urge the Minister to work with me to have the DFE set up an online portal for the volunteer army of retired or ex-teachers to be exam invigilators, an idea that the Secretary of State has supported. This way, the DFE can enable schools to waive the costs of conducting CRB checks and access those stepping up in the national effort.
The Minister also needs to set out how additional exam markers will be hired to ensure that papers can be marked in a shorter timeframe and to ensure the quality of exam board marking.
I welcome the £1 billion catch-up fund, but I am seriously concerned that some schools, such as the King’s Church of England School in Kidsgrove, have not been able to find tutors via the approved suppliers, and by the announcement that the £350 million of funding for the national tutoring programme is not only for the 2020-21 academic year but will now be spread over two years. I have long stated my scepticism that this scheme will deliver for students in disadvantaged areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, as these large, centrally controlled schemes do not always end up where they are intended to.
Will the Minister explain why funding from the national tutoring programme will now be spread over two years, what progress has been made in hiring tutors and how they will be distributed? Lastly, the school holidays are a really important opportunity to catch up. Following comments last week from my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), will the Minister explain how we can use the holiday periods effectively?
I am really pleased that we are having this debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for introducing the petitions so well. This is a really difficult time for all students and their parents, just as it is for everybody else. We know of the uncertainty and damage that will be done if the right provision is not available. I agree with the hon. Member that it is absolutely right that schools stay open. I point out that all schools, or nearly all schools, have been open all the way through since 23 March for the children of essential workers and for many other children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We should all pay tribute to staff, who have worked incredibly hard, have been on the frontline, are essential workers and have often been infected with covid. Sadly, too many teachers and other school staff have died.
I wanted to take part in this debate because of my constituent, Alex D’Arcy. The hon. Gentleman mentioned him. He lives just around the corner from me, and I have known him on and off since he was about eight. I did not know that he had started the petition in August; I had absolutely no involvement whatsoever in encouraging him to do it, but I am thrilled that he did. When I spoke to him last week, he had not realised how quickly the petition had grown. He had not looked at it for several months, and suddenly 169,000 people had signed it. He was demonstrating his solidarity with many of his friends—people who live on the same street as him—who are not in such a fortunate position as he has been: he is one of only five students in his school who has not had to self-isolate at any time since going back in September.
Many others are not as fortunate, and many go to other schools where it has been much harder. As the hon. Gentleman said, children have not had the online support, and they have not had the in-school support either. That is the context in which Alex launched the petition. Because of the missed hours between 23 March and the end of the summer term last year, he did not see how it was possible for the exams to take place this year.
Much of that still applies, including the point about whether exams should go ahead, because there has been a serious gap between those children and young people who have had very good access, like Alex, and those in the north-west who have had to go home and self-isolate on up to five different occasions since just September. It is hard to see how those children and young people will catch up. The Government announced the national tutoring programme, but the hon. Member pointed out that that funding is over two years, not one, and it is being introduced very late. There are questions about why it took so long, and about where the tutors will come from. How much support will be available? One headteacher in my constituency said that, as far as she can tell, it will be 15 hours for one subject only. For students taking eight or nine GCSEs, that will be a drop in the ocean. I am afraid that having advance notice or support in the exam hall will not make the slightest difference. If a student taking an exam does not understand the topic, it does not matter how much notice they get or how much help they get in the exam hall—they will not be able to answer the questions. I am afraid that setting up a working group, which was the big reveal from the Government, really does not go far enough at this stage. The Government have to answer quickly some serious questions about how this will all work, how the catch-up will be possible and how it will be possible for all children and young people to have a fair chance at their exams in the summer.
The Government need to have a plan B in place. Given the reform, we know it will be difficult to deliver the kind of classroom assessment that the current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster put through when he was Education Secretary, whereas it is possible in Wales. There are alternatives to exams, and the Government will have to come up with an alternative, just in case the infection rate increases and we are not able to see a fair system for exams. We have not heard that so far, and we have yet to see exactly how they propose to make exams work. Unless they do—this is a point that was made to me by Alex—we will have a real imbalance between the nations of the United Kingdom, whereby children in England will face real unfairness and inequality. They will face a system whereby grades are being awarded in Scotland and Wales on a different basis. How will that enable A-level students to compete fairly for university places, and will it be fair to GCSE students? Those are the questions for the Minister and Secretary of State.
I am incredibly proud of Alex for launching his petition. He has done a terrific job in highlighting this issue and he deserves enormous credit. We should encourage our young people to do as he has done. I hope that his getting 169,000 people to join him in signing the petition is the kind of impetus the Minister needs to take the action that all our children and young people need to have a fair crack this year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. We had a really good start to the debate from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), and it is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for the first time ever.
Many of our nation’s schools face an unprecedented challenge. The lockdown has had a severe impact on every aspect of education in this country, and many students have fallen behind in their studies. The entire student population, from primary right through to university, has been forced to learn from home for almost a full academic year. Teachers have risen to the challenge of adapting for digital delivery, and many say they want to keep some techniques as we return back to the new normal, but the lack of available equipment and connectivity for disadvantaged young people during the lockdown has widened the educational divides. In my constituency of Southport and many others across the country, there are homes where children simply do not have access to a computer. If we are truly to level up our communities, we must address the problem and ensure that such children are not disadvantaged further by this pandemic.
My second point is about closures and the impact that they have had on examinations and the continuity of students’ grades. Of course, exams were cancelled this year. Thousands of students, who had been relentlessly told for years about the importance of exams, were suddenly left without a conclusion to their studies. Indeed, Ofqual established a system for teachers to estimate grades. Like a great number of MPs present, I received hundreds of emails from constituents after the grades were given out. They were concerned about their son or daughter and the grades that they had been given—they were nothing like what had been predicted. Many students missed out on a place at university. We must ensure that that does not happen again and that integrity is put back into the system.
That brings me to my final point, about the impact of this virus on students’ mental health, an issue that I have raised on numerous occasions since becoming the Member of Parliament for Southport in 2017. We know that the coronavirus pandemic has a profound impact on the lives of millions of children and young people across this country. In some cases, they have been through other traumatic experiences at home as well, such as abuse or death, as well as the direct impact that covid has had on families. Some have struggled with missing friends, others with losing the structure of the school day and no longer having access to the support network that they relied on. Although returning to school is likely to be positive for many young people’s mental health, the readjustment following a long break and the changes that schools are having to make to their environment and timetables will be challenging for some.
Schools need to make wellbeing their top priority as we return to normality, and they need Government support to help them to do that. We know that about a third of schools do not provide school-based mental health support and that many young people who are struggling to cope may not meet the criteria for NHS mental health services in their area. When the Minister responds, I ask her to carefully consider that issue and the campaign of the charity YoungMinds, which calls on the Government to provide ring-fenced funding to ensure that schools can bring in extra support where it is needed to help pupils and parents.
It is vital to ensure that, through no fault of their own, this generation of students do not fall back in terms of the educational support they receive. Let us get them back on top of their studies. I strongly believe that we need to return to full in-person learning and examinations, which are the only way to ensure fairness between year groups and parity between students from low-income and more fortunate backgrounds.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this timely debate, Mr Gray. I am pleased to be discussing the subject again. I congratulate the young people who stand in solidarity with their peers, their teachers and their family members and who started the petition, and those who have signed it. Pupils in Bath and across the UK have responded with remarkable resilience to this challenging year. Our teachers and school staff have also adapted brilliantly; I thank them all for the work that they have done to make sure that our schools can remain open. It would be an insult to their efforts to repeat the exams fiasco next year.
I have said before that I believe a return to exams in 2021, even with a three-week delay, is the wrong decision. It is about fairness, about which we have already heard a lot in the debate. The time that students have spent in school varies massively across the country, and more may need to self-isolate. I am not convinced that the measures announced by the Secretary of State for Education last week will be enough to level the playing field.
We have seen that teacher assessment works. Teachers are fully capable of assessing their students’ ability. The Welsh Government have announced a flexible approach to assessments that will be delivered in a classroom environment. Those assessments will be externally set and marked to ensure consistency across the nation, but they are not national exams as we know them. Most importantly, the Welsh approach gives pupils the chance to use the summer term to catch up on lost teaching time and to continue learning and building the skills and knowledge that they need for the next stage of their lives. Why should pupils in England not be given the same opportunity?
The Government have yet to answer many questions. Moving grade boundaries may help some students to get higher grades, but will it make up for the huge variation in teaching time? When can students expect the list of topics that will be covered in exams? That must be provided as soon as possible so they can make the most of the rest of the school year. Teachers also need to prepare. If we go ahead with exams, how can we make sure that they are fair? Announcing an expert panel to monitor that is all very well, but again, when can teachers and students expect clarity on what it will mean for them? It is completely unacceptable to continue to kick that decision down the road.
There is a real human cost to all this uncertainty for pupils and teachers. We have already heard much about pupils’ mental health. Behind every exam result is a young person ready to take on the next stage in their life, whether that is an apprenticeship, a place at university or something else. We cannot begin to know the full extent to which this disruption will affect them, but the exam situation is causing them a great deal of stress and anxiety, and the power to reduce it is in the Government’s hands. The Government owe it to those young people to learn from the summer exams fiasco, rather than rely solely on exams at all costs.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on his introduction and on bringing forward this debate on the impact of covid on schools and exams.
This is an important debate. Few issues are as important as our children’s education, especially in a year when that has been more disrupted than at any time in recent memory. As a principle, I believe that for children’s progress and wellbeing it is vital for them to remain in the education setting for as long as possible. I will therefore focus on the impact of covid on exams and the case for a two-week lockdown in schools before Christmas. I will build on representations I have had over the past week from the headteachers of three schools in Rugby: Siobhan Evans of Ashlawn School, Mark Grady of Rugby High School and Alison Davies of Avon Valley School.
On the issue of exams, I recognise the very great challenge to the Government and Ofqual—I am sure the Minister will explain this—of putting in place a system to treat pupils who will be sitting GCSEs and A-levels next summer. How are we to treat those pupils fairly? Many pupils have lost an awful lot of school time. Ofsted, in its recent annual report, notes:
“While we do not yet have reliable evidence on ‘learning loss’ from the pandemic, it is likely that losses have been significant and will be reflected in widening attainment gaps.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) referred to that.
We know that the amount of home study in this time has varied dramatically according to the circumstances of the children and their parents. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have missed out significantly in comparison with their more fortunate peers. Mrs Evans drew my attention to the fact that her own son, who attends a different school from the one where she is head, missed out on 150 teaching hours during the first lockdown and is on course to miss a further 120 in this academic year—a total of 270 hours. I understand that a GCSE is typically 120 guided learning or teaching hours, so her son is missing the equivalent of two GCSEs’ worth of teaching time. That is a huge amount, even when parents are able to monitor their child’s learning, support them and put additional resource in place—and of course we know that that has not been possible for every child. Many have not had the support at home to make up for that lost teaching time. I have heard accounts from teachers and parents of pupils who have spent that time at home on computers, playing games and staying up late, rather than completing their school work.
There is a range of solutions, varying from cancelling the exams altogether to going ahead and pretending that nothing has happened, but I believe that what the Government have announced is a pragmatic suggestion. It includes delaying exams for three weeks to provide extra teaching time, giving advance notice of the topics that pupils will be examined on, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, and providing appropriate aid to pupils during their exams.
It is essential that exams go ahead, because they are the fairest and most accurate way we have to measure attainment. Of course, pupils themselves deserve to have the opportunity to demonstrate their hard work and show what they know. Today, I spoke to the equality club at Rugby Free Secondary School—a fourth secondary in my constituency—to talk about equality. The Government should take steps to ensure that no pupil is unfairly disadvantaged simply by virtue of having been born in a particular year—in this case, 2003, 2004 or 2005—and sitting exams in either 2020 or 2021. It is imperative that there is a level playing field on applications for jobs and universities for the children who sit exams in these two years as there was for those in the years preceding them and as there will be in the years afterwards, when, we hope, everything will settle down.
I now turn to the case for a two-week lockdown from 10 December, which has been made to me by Mr Grady and Ms Davies. They have told me that, following the announcement of the relaxation of the rules to allow the formation of Christmas bubbles, there should be a two-week school lockdown from 10 December. I understand that that is because if a student is identified as a contact and required to isolate after 10 December, their self-isolation period will have a direct impact on their family’s plans for Christmas—through no fault of their own, a student could cause their family to miss out on a family Christmas.
Any child going to school from Monday 14 December and required to self-isolate will have to do so for the whole Christmas period. The case for closure is that if schools were to close on 10 December, that risk could be eliminated. But I believe that that would be incredibly disruptive to the majority of children and, as with previous school closures, a two-week school lockdown would have a disproportionate effect on students from disadvantaged backgrounds at a time when those students have missed many hours of education already.
My hon. Friend the Minister will tell us that there is a judgment call to be made between the impact on family Christmases and on children’s education. If we had not lost so much teaching time already in the year, it might have been reasonable to close early for Christmas, but I do not buy that. I think it essential that children do not fall further behind, and for that reason I am not supportive of a pre-Christmas school lockdown.
If I may, I will raise one or two issues that have been drawn to my attention by my local headteachers and particularly in respect of Ashlawn School, which is very heavily subscribed because of its outstanding Ofsted rating. A big and busy school, it has done exceptionally well to maintain social distancing on the school estate, but in practice the limitations of the classroom sizes have made it very difficult to meet all the Government guidelines. Mrs Evans has contrasted the reality that schools face on the ground with some of the images that have come through from the Department, showing students in spacious classrooms with plenty of room between them. That is not always the case, particularly in a well subscribed outstanding school. She has also drawn my attention to the cost of maintaining social distancing measures in a big school: she estimates that the cost is £200 a day, with £70 a day spent on hand sanitiser alone.
The Government have done the right thing in prioritising education and ensuring that pupils get the best possible education. They have demonstrated that they have the best interests of the most disadvantaged at heart, and I very much look forward to the remarks of the Minister in summing up the debate this evening.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this debate. I certainly concur with the comments made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) about the national tutoring programme. I know that school heads across York, who come together in an organisation called YSAB—York Schools and Academies Board—say that the money could be better and more effectively targeted had they got control of the resources. They also have relationships with people who could deliver such a programme. That would make such a difference, and not only in delivering the programme far more quickly, which is something that we would all want to see.
I also concur with some of the comments made in Libby’s petition on looking at closing schools down earlier before Christmas and being able to displace that time to another point in the calendar in order to keep families safe. Every day, we are seeing hundreds of children in our constituencies not at school. In York, 545 children are not in school in one of the lowest areas of infection in the country. We have to hold things in balance: we have to look at how we can put the right measures in place to keep families safe, but also ensure that there is minimum disruption to children’s education.
This has been the most challenging time for teachers and support staff, as well as students. The stress placed on our young people today, who have worked incredibly hard through this time, has had a profound impact on their mental health, which must be recognised. People do not want to be absent from their education: with every single absence, they see their future slipping away, not least because they are still uncertain as to what the end of the year may bring for them. One thing that they are certain of, though, is that those absences have driven greater inequality.
In researching for this debate, I decided to go back to some source reports, drawing on academia in particular and looking at Ofqual reports too, to examine the assertion that Government keep putting forward: that exams are the best form of assessment. From Ofqual’s work and that of others, that is not what the evidence is saying. For instance, an inequality is hardwired into the system: the evidence shows that male students perform better in exam-only assessments than female students, and we therefore need to look at that issue. While female students perform well in exams, they also excel where there is coursework involved, and therefore the hybrid model that Labour championed during its time in government struck the right balance. That is certainly borne out by the evidence put forward by academics.
That evidence has also shown that having proper access to IT and broadband, and a safe and secure learning environment, removes so much of the inequality around socio-economic status that we see. That is why it is absolutely right for the Government to prioritise those things, although sadly that has been lacking throughout this pandemic: there has been greater divergence, particularly for pupils who already have lower attainment, and that growing inequality in our education system is of great concern.
As set out by the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry last year, teacher assessment during compulsory education is as reliable as formal external exams. That journal also found no bias on the grounds of ethnicity or gender in that type of assessment. It did, however, recognise the impact that exams are having on wellbeing, as did the Mumsnet survey of 1,500 parents, who identified the impact exams are now having on children’s mental health. Two in three children experience anxiety and sleepless nights. For one in 10, exams have a severe impact on their mental health, with 9% seeking medical help, one in five pupils in tears, and 31% experiencing exam stress. Research has shown how exams—not least the gold-standard exams—have exacerbated poor mental health, resulting in an increase of a third in medical referrals, as well as panic attacks, breakdowns, crying, fatigue, and children imploding emotionally.
That poor mental health is creating a new disadvantage through exams, where those who are breaking under the system are performing worse in exams. That must be taken into consideration, not least with the escalation of pressure when a pupil knows that they are sitting exams having had many days of absence, while other pupils have been able to attend school. Now, we have a system where four different nations have four different systems and pupils are applying to universities for the same places, and therefore greater inequality is being built into the system. Sadly, while it is welcome to hear about the work that the Government have been doing, their announcements last week have not addressed the deep concerns about inequality in our system. Certainly, most young people still do not know what lies beyond that point.
An extension of only three weeks to the academic year, as needed as it may be, will not address the missed opportunities children have had. I spoke to one parent whose daughter had had only 16 days since March of her A-level biology course, for which she sits the exam next summer. How will she compare with the pupil who has been constantly in education over that time, when she has had no contact with her educational establishment for three months? The gap is so large that it is clear we cannot depend on an end-of-year-exam-only assessment. I am sure that after the Government have sat in their workgroup, they will be coming back to make further announcements.
However, there is one more question that I want to put before Government, which is maybe a bigger question: what is education for? Surely we need to return to the classical understanding that education is the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to apply it. Passing exams has little to do with that, and therefore the Government’s assertion that exams are the best form of assessment and of advancing pupils’ education is not proven by the academic evidence.
We can trust our professional teachers and educators to nurture and assess our young people with centre-based assessments for all—yes, absolutely, nationally moderated— and turn the stress and tears to joy and prove that education is not just about exams. If the Minister fails to do that, I trust that the higher education sector will take control of how it will admit its next generation of students and force the Government to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. First, I thank the petitioners, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and, of course, the around 600 people in my constituency who have signed these petitions, which I am pleased MPs have the opportunity to discuss. I will focus my speech on two main aspects: the call for schools and colleges to close due to covid-19 and the call to cancel examinations.
While I appreciate colleagues’ arguments, I am not supportive of closing schools or colleges. School closures are incredibly damaging to young people—to their education, health and mental wellbeing—so they must be used only as a last resort. I am grateful for the best efforts of teachers and parents to provide high-quality remote learning as well as in-house learning for vulnerable children and children of key workers during the previous closures earlier in the year. We owe our teachers an immense debt of gratitude as they have worked tirelessly right through the year to support students, often going beyond teaching to ensure that emphasis is placed on young people’s wellbeing.
However, the period of partial school closures inevitably led to many children—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds—falling behind. We cannot put the futures of our young people at risk. There is simply no substitute for face-to-face learning for those at a young age, so I will continue to support the Government in keeping schools and colleges open.
While inevitably there have been covid outbreaks in schools, those have often been controlled thanks to the collaboration of national and local government and schools. There is clear evidence that children are much less susceptible to the damaging effects of covid-19 and ONS data identifies teaching as a low-risk profession, in part thanks to the monumental efforts of schools over the last few months to ensure their facilities are covid-19-secure. It has not been easy to implement and maintain new safety measures, so I thank all managerial, administrative and teaching staff for their hard work.
I would like to mention in particular Cobden Primary School in my constituency, where during a recent visit I saw at first hand the lengths gone to so as to keep children and staff safe while ensuring that the impact on education was as little as possible. Rawlins Academy has also done a fantastic job on that, although it has found it more difficult than others due to its limited space and the nature of its facilities. The staff and head especially have done their utmost to reduce the impact on education, but in some cases school bubbles have been out of school for some time, which is far from ideal. I raised that specific case recently with the Education Secretary.
Instead of closing schools, which only hinders social mobility, widens the disadvantage gap and places a burden on working parents, we should continue to work with them to ensure they have the resources and infrastructure they need to accommodate students and teachers safely on site or supplement their current facilities with additional local buildings and resources, should that be necessary. On that, I ask the Minister to look at the specific case of Rawlins Academy in Loughborough.
I am not in favour of cancelling exams, because we would be denying the child their moment of demonstrating all they have worked for and achieved, which gives them confidence to progress further. However, we should look at what adaptations could be made to aid schools in delivering the examination timetable, should social distancing still be in place next summer. I am pleased that the Minister is looking at this matter and ask her to consider what steps can be taken to secure examinations in 2021 and provide consistency and a firm plan for pupils.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this evening, Mr Gray, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this important debate.
I pay tribute to school leaders, teachers and support staff across my constituency, who have worked tirelessly throughout the coronavirus lockdown to keep schools open for the children of key workers, deliver teaching online in difficult circumstances, and reopen schools to all students. Their commitment has been extraordinary, but they have not had the support from the Government that they should have been able to rely on. First, in relation to laptops, tablets and wi-fi provision, it was completely obvious at the very beginning of the coronavirus lockdown that the impact on education would be far worse for students who did not have dedicated access to a laptop or tablet, and reliable wi-fi. Yet across my constituency the number of laptops provided has not come close to meeting the need, and in October the allocation was revised down. One headteacher tweeted that in September the school was promised
“115 laptops for disadvantaged students”,
that on 22 October schools had a
“legal requirement to deliver remote learning”,
and that on 23 October as the school broke up for half term it received 23 laptops. The headteacher added that the children had not “got less disadvantaged” between September and 23 October.
Secondly, in relation to costs, schools have incurred significant extra costs as a result of introducing covid-safe measures. Many schools in my constituency are seeking to reclaim between £12,000 and £20,000 in extra costs—money that they have already spent; but there is no transparency from the Government about reimbursements. Some schools’ applications have been refused entirely, others have had a partial amount, and others have received the full sum for which they applied. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain how she expects schools to balance their budgets in those circumstances, when the Government do not fully account for and reimburse the significant extra costs. Will she commit to reimburse all the additional costs that schools have incurred related to covid-19?
Finally, on exams, it is important that children can be confident that everything possible will be done to ensure that they do not suffer long-term disadvantage as a result of the terrible year of coronavirus. The handling of exam results was a fiasco. It caused deep, lasting distress to many students and their families, not all of which could be repaired by the Government’s U-turn. Even after that U-turn, there was still a widening of the disadvantage gap in results, with private schools seeing the biggest improvements in grades. Applying blanket measures to all students in the coming year will not address the disadvantage gap either. Students who have had good access to online learning will still fare better than students who have not had the laptops or wi-fi that they need, even with knowledge of the subjects that will be on the exam paper.
Coronavirus has scarred our country enough. The Government must ensure that they do not do long-term damage to young people in relation to either the quality of their education or their mental health. Funding laptops, reimbursing schools for additional costs and delivering a fully functioning, comprehensive catch-up programme are the minimum requirements that children should be able to expect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on leading today’s debate.
I thank all the schools in Darlington—the teachers, headteachers and other school staff—for their amazing efforts throughout the last nine months in keeping schools open and continuing to educate our children online and in the classroom. In preparing for tonight’s debate, I have spoken with Nicole Gibbon, the fantastic head of St Aidan’s Academy in my constituency. She said to me:
“Children need to come to school for their mental health, their stability and their routine. They need goals to work toward and I welcome the announcements in respect of next year’s exams although I would have liked them sooner.”
I agree with Nicole and I believe that it is right for schools to be open and children to be at school. It is also right for exams to take place.
We are of course living in unique times, and that is why I welcome the measures that were announced last week, including a three-week delay to exams, more generous grading, advance notice of some topics and exam aids. I am conscious that some of my constituents want schools closed and exams cancelled, with more than 1,000 people from Darlington signing the petitions before us. However, as the chief medical officers of each of the four nations set out, schools are the best place for children to be, while the Children’s Commissioner stated that Ministers should ensure that schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen.
We are all conscious of the risk to children of missing out on education in the long term and of social isolation and the potential damage to their development. I firmly believe that the best place for our children in the future is in school, for their education, their social development and their mental health. I am proud of the work undertaken by schools and colleges right across Darlington, which have responded to the challenges of 2020 and have remained open in a covid-secure manner. To close them now would be a betrayal of their hard work and the trust placed in them. It is right that the Government remain committed to exams going ahead in 2021, and they have responded to the challenge that that poses with a number of sensible measures.
I welcome the steps taken to tackle the digital divide, which needs to cover kit, connectivity and skills. I urge the Minister to continue to send out kit to children in Darlington as soon as it rolls off the production line. While I am issuing a Christmas list to the Minister, will she please commit to the additional costs being reimbursed to all our schools?
I know that schools and colleges right across Darlington have been working hard to ensure that no pupil misses out. I want that to continue, with our schools staying firmly open and vital exams taking place.
I congratulate my good friend, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), on setting the scene, as he often does. He has brought his knowledge of education to the House, which we all benefit from. Well done to him. I also thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me the opportunity to speak.
Education is clearly a devolved matter, so the Minister has no responsibility for what happens in Northern Ireland. However, I will add my comments, which will replicate the comments of other right hon. and hon. Members on what is important in education and the best way to achieve the safety and education of children. This debate has illustrated that I am not the only MP inundated with parents’ concerns; I believe that much of the mail I receive every day in relation to education will be the same in Strangford as elsewhere. The queries of parents uncomfortable with their child being on the bus to school, in class or taking part in after-school activities are valid, and their concerns are entirely understandable.
However, the other side of that is a letter from an equally concerned parent that their child’s academic and social development is being adversely affected by remote teaching, as the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) clearly referred to. Queries about the focus on home learning and children being prevented from attending normal after-school activities are equally valid and understandable. The Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, Peter Weir, said that schools will remain open right through to the normal school holidays. That is good, because children need a routine; that is important, as has been coming through to me. He is in regular contact with the Education Minister here, and they try to ensure continuity between what happens here and in Northern Ireland.
I hear from teachers concerned for their families. It seems that every day we hear of more community transmission. Although the rate is lessening thanks to the steps taken, it is still in schools, and I hear from teachers concerned for the health of their loved ones at home. There was a covid-19 outbreak in my granddaughter’s school, and year 8s and year 9s had to go home as a precaution. I will not mention which school, but it is good that they are now over that, that there were no fatalities and nothing serious came out of it. All teachers and pupils have recovered.
I hear from other teachers who highlight their concern for children who are unable to learn at home due to a lack of support or the need for enhanced professional support. One teacher told me that their heart was breaking for a child she believes soaks up the kindness from teaching staff; there are children who really need that more than anything else. When she went to call the child’s mother on Zoom to check on the child during the covid lockdown, she was unable to get through. The child returned to school after lockdown ended, but was withdrawn, quiet and uncertain. In the teacher’s own words, her heart “literally ached” for that child.
Let me be quite clear that this child is not in any physical danger; she is fed and clothed in clean clothes. Nevertheless, this teacher urged me to tell the story of all the children who need to be in school for the kindness and encouragement that they receive, even for that little two minutes that the teacher spends with them on a one- to-one basis. Other children look forward to the structure of school, while for many children it is the nutritious lunch they get at school that they look forward to; that is valid to me and it is valid to their families as well.
One teacher highlights the need for an additional week of school holiday, to give the two-week buffer after the five-day Christmas period relaxation. However, another says that she cannot do that:
“I have GCSE and A-level students who need to be in”.
Both views are valid, and there is a balance that education Ministers and even schools themselves are always trying to strike in the education system. But herein lies a problem for schools. What one family needs is not what all children need; what will work for one teacher might not work for another. Are any of those teachers wrong in what they say? No, I do not think they are.
So, what can we do? How do we design a place to satisfy the valid concerns of both sides, who have opinions that are polar opposites? The question is difficult, yet what every teacher and every parent agree on is that there is more riding on this issue than an attendance percentage on a report. For many children, it is about establishing their foundation for learning; for others, it is the difference between excelling and merely attaining.
I got no further than GCSEs at school, or their equivalent at that time; I will put that on the record. I often say to children at exam time that through hard work, determination and working my way up, I ran my own business and managed to make it to this place. Exams are not the be-all and end-all, but education is, and we must do all we can to protect the education of our children, to protect the necessary social interaction between them and to protect a generation of innovation and hope. Are we getting things right? I am not really sure. Do we need to keep listening and reacting to new information and situations? The answer to that is, “Absolutely.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I begin by thanking all those who signed the petition and in particular the two people who started it, and I echo what we have heard already around the Chamber, namely that it is particularly encouraging to see so many young people engaging in the democratic process and making their voice heard in this year of all years.
For all the reasons that we have heard during the debate, Labour Members believe that it is absolutely essential that we keep pupils learning. In fact, the big challenge that our pupils face this year—and I fear that it will be the big challenge that our country will face for many years to come—is that pupils have spent so much time out of school. So, we certainly cannot support a proposal that would take pupils out of school for even longer.
We also believe, not least because of the experience last summer as well as because of other well-known and well-recognised concerns about the potential for bias outside of examination conditions, that it is in the best interests of pupils for examinations to go ahead. Our argument has been that the Government need to take action to ensure that exams go ahead in a way that is fair and accessible to all pupils, and that takes into account the levels of lost learning this year. I am afraid, however, that the Government have failed England’s school pupils. They have failed on exams, failed on attendance, failed to protect the vulnerable, failed on home learning and failed on funding.
Let me take exams first. We all saw the unmitigated disaster that was last year’s exam results; 31.9% of teachers’ A-level predictions in England were downgraded by the algorithm and pupils from poorer backgrounds were more likely to have received a bigger downward adjustment. Indeed, under the original algorithm, the subject in which students did best relative to their predicted grades was Latin.
That information was known by Ministers in advance of results day. They were presented with evidence of the inequities but proceeded anyway, into a results day where the disaster was not just foreseeable but actually foreseen. I cannot imagine any Labour Education Secretary over the years being presented with such evidence and not taking immediate action ahead of the disaster.
Even then, the current Education Secretary mishandled the fallout. Alternatives to the algorithm were put in place at the last minute. The Education Secretary announced that the system would switch to a triple lock before Ofqual signed it off. Ofqual was only told about the plan on 11 August, just two days before results day.
With the lessons of last summer’s disaster not having been learned, we have seen dither and delay. Surely, the one lesson we should learn from the exams debacle is to ensure that preparations are made for the coming set of exams, and that those positions are well understood by pupils, parents and schools alike. Instead, the Government have dithered and delayed, announcing only a three-week delay in October as the grand sum of their package, until last week, when the Education Secretary came before the House and presented a range of measures, many of which we could support, but which did not go far enough.
The measures are not targeted. We know that lost learning is disproportionately impacting pupils from different backgrounds and schools in different communities, yet we saw a blanket approach with standard measures put in place for all schools and pupils regardless of their circumstances. There was no real focus on tackling the severe disadvantage that some have faced disproportionately.
The big announcement was the proposal to establish
“a new expert group to look at differential learning and monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country.”
This is really obvious stuff. We know there has been a differential impact. We know that pupils and schools have been affected differently. Why was the Education Secretary not announcing the outcome of such a review last week, rather than simply commissioning one just before Christmas? It is absolutely unacceptable.
Despite measures announced such as providing schools and pupils with topics in advance of exams, and proposals around revision aides and written materials to take into exams, the Education Secretary has not said when that information will be available. We were given a commitment of late January, but there is such little teaching time left this academic year before pupils are meant to be revising that he really ought to have that information out to schools by the beginning of term in January at the latest.
On attendance, we have all talked about the importance of getting pupils to school, but in recent weeks we have had as many as 1 million children missing school each week. Worse still, the Government are hiding the extent of the crisis by refusing to publish a regional breakdown of data. Finally, we have a commitment from the Department to publish that regional breakdown before the end of December. If we do not know the extent of the problem, how on earth can we work to tackle it?
On vulnerable children, we know that rates of absence for children with social workers and special educational needs are even higher than the general figures. We also know that prolonged absences have been a disaster for the most vulnerable children. Only last week, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector said:
“Covid-19 has exposed an already crumbling infrastructure that fails to meet the needs of our most vulnerable children all too often”.
That would be shameful enough, were it not that the Education Secretary and the Department were dragged before the courts to be held to account for their failure in their statutory duty to protect the most vulnerable children. That is not to say anything of the reprehensible decision by this Government not to provide the necessary support to feed vulnerable children over the October half-term. If Treasury sources are to be believed, the Education Secretary and the Department did not even ask for the money to provide that support.
On home learning and catch-up support, we have seen a failure to provide enough laptops. Only this Department for Education led by this Education Secretary could be so incompetent as to provide schools with a new statutory duty to provide home learning on one day and to cut the provision of laptops by 80% the next. Of course, some people are doing very well out of this incompetent and overly centralised means of providing laptops. Computacenter founder and director, Philip Hulme, has given thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. His wife gave £100,000 to the Tories during last year’s general election. Of course, companies like Computacenter just happen to have been given lucrative contracts by the Government. Even where the Government could have exerted some influence, we have seen some pathetic attempts to make sure that pupils can access learning from home. If there is one thing that we have come to understand from the pandemic, it is that devices are only part of the story. Without internet access, they are as good as useless for home learning.
We asked the Department for Education what work had been done to encourage mobile internet providers to zero rate educational websites. In a reply to a written question, it said:
“To further support disadvantaged households who rely on a mobile internet connection, the major telecoms companies have zero rated the Hungry Little Minds site.”
No doubt the Hungry Little Minds site is great, but it is just one site. What about the BBC? What about the Oak National Academy? We asked if any other websites had been zero rated and the Government could not list any. It is absolutely outrageous.
As we have heard, there has been a £350-million intervention this year to fund the national tutoring programme. Although that is not sufficient, we had hoped that it would give some support to those who need it. Last week, however, we found that the Department is fiddling the figures, so £350 million is not £350 million for this year; it is £350 million over two years, which is effectively half the funding. One big overriding problem with the Department and its Secretary of State is that they are not focusing on or targeting the most disadvantaged enough, so to find an already limited pot cut in half is deeply disappointing.
As we heard from many hon. Members, it is a cross-party concern that schools have been seriously short-changed, and so have their pupils as a result, because the Department is not covering the true cost of covid and all those measures. Headteachers have enough to worry about. They need to be able to put in place safety measures in the certainty that they, their schools and, most importantly, their pupils are not going to be short-changed by the Government. What we have heard so far is simply not enough.
I am sorry that, for the second time that I can recall in recent weeks, the poor Minister has been sent along to take a brickbat for other people. She had to take brickbats on the disgraceful decision to scrap Unionlearn, which no doubt came from the Secretary of State and some of his bizarre ideological hobby-horses, and now she is having to take brickbats for the Minister for School Standards, no doubt because he is absolutely sweating it ahead of appearing before the Education Committee and its difficult questions. I welcome the Minister, but I am sorry that she has to account for it all.
We want to hear from the Minister, so I will conclude by saying an enormous thank you to all the staff—school leaders, teachers and support staff—in our schools who have been busting a gut to keep pupils learning. When I compare their efforts with the work of the Secretary of State for Education, they are truly lions led by donkeys.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate. I am also grateful to the petitioners, Ellis, Libby and Alex, and to the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss these important topics of opening schools and colleges and ensuring that exams can fairly take place in 2021.
I offer my thanks, as I am sure all hon. Members would, to teachers and educational leaders for their phenomenal efforts in recent months as they have adapted to the changing environment we all live in. The work of schools and colleges has been critical to ensuring that students have continued to access education in some way, and have continued to feel connected to the classroom and their peers. We accept, however, that that has not been an equal experience across the whole country.
When developing our approach, the interests of students and teachers have always been our priority. Since the pandemic began, we as a Government have rightly put education first, and we will continue to do so. We cannot and must not let covid destroy this year of education, which is why we have taken steps to keep schools and colleges open and exams on track.
The return to school in autumn was driven by the clear benefits to young people and children of a return to educational settings. Those benefits remain unchanged. As many hon. Members said, keeping schools and colleges open is important to mitigate some of the largest risks that have materialised during this period for children and young people who have spent time away from educational settings.
There is clear evidence of the negative educational impact of missing school for all students, but particularly younger children, as investments in children’s learning tend to accumulate and consolidate over time. School and college closures put educational outcomes at risk, especially for disadvantaged students, due to existing inequalities and attainment gaps being exacerbated. The opportunities for early identification of things such as emerging learning problems are also missed when pupils are not in school.
As was mentioned by many hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), school closures have been found to cause a deterioration in children’s mental health. Evidence suggests that the mental health of adolescents is particularly affected and that their cognitive, social and emotional development outcomes are at risk, as is their physical health. For vulnerable children, the impact of school closures has had an adverse effect on their wellbeing and educational outcomes due to reduced access to essential services. One regional study presents evidence that schools have been the source of 40% of child protection and safeguarding referrals.
Keeping settings open remains the Government’s priority, and we have taken other steps across society to manage down virus prevalence by closing other sectors in order to allow schools to remain open at full attendance. We have prioritised education at all local restriction tiers. The Government’s policy is that education settings will remain open, and parents should therefore continue to send their children to school. Schools have implemented a range of protective measures to minimise the risk of transmission. The risk of children becoming severely ill from coronavirus is low, and there are negative health impacts from being out of school. Senior clinicians, including the chief medical officers of all four nations, still advise that school is the best place for children to be.
To respond to Libby’s specific question—several hon. Members have raised the issue of finishing school two weeks earlier—we will provide guidance to schools and colleges on the end of term and on how to manage the short period afterwards, when their support might be required with contact tracing. Further guidance will be issued, but let us be clear: this will not be a typical Christmas for any of us, and we will all need to take extra care, as the Prime Minister has said. We want to maximise the time in school as much as possible. Young people have missed simply too much of their education.
Let us turn to some of the support that we provide to schools, particularly on their use of technology and on whether they have been able to access technology. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), who is no longer in his place, mentioned that. We have taken access to technology very seriously. By the end of this year, over 500,000 laptops, as well as 50,000 4G wireless routers, will have been provided by Computacenter, which has always been on the procurement framework. We have also introduced a service to provide more flexibility and to make sure they get to the right places, if there are specific lockdowns or large areas where kids need them. People can call that service and receive a laptop in just two days—I am sure the people of Darlington will welcome that.
The EdTech strategy, which we published in April last year, set out the Government’s commitment to support and enable schools and colleges to use technology more effectively. Of course, that has been really important, as we have all had to go and do pretty much everything online. The strategy set out the building blocks for effective use of technology in education: good digital infrastructure, capacity building, capability building across the sector, and a better understanding of the things that work in practice.
The same building blocks from the strategy have been an essential part of our response, but at a greater pace than we could have ever anticipated, to ensure that both schools and parents feel supported and that young people continue to thrive. That includes a whole host of measures, such as the introduction of the EdTech demonstrator network, which is a peer support network of schools and colleges that aims to increase expertise in their use of technology. That includes targeted support, weekly webinars and an online library of resources that can be shared. That is to help schools that are not as comfortable or familiar with the technology, so that those that are further ahead on the tech journey can help others in need.
In recent months, the network’s support has included how to maximise the investment that the Government have made to freely access Microsoft 365 or the G Suite for Education digital platform; how to ensure that pupils are safe online, including anxiety-busting strategies and activities; and how technology can help better support pupils with complex needs. There is a lot of work going on in this area. Crucially, that support also considers how our investment in technology can offer long-term benefits for pupils and teachers, as disruption to education could continue. Even after it reduces, there will be a legacy of blended learning.
On 27 November, the Department announced a new covid workforce fund for schools and further education settings to help them remain open. It will fund the cost of teacher absences over a threshold in schools and colleges for those with high staff absences that are facing significant financial pressures. The fund will help schools and colleges meet the cost of the absences that they have experienced from the beginning of November until the end of this term.
A number of Members mentioned budgets and additional costs. Schools have already received payments of £102 million for exceptional costs during the summer months, and there will be a further opportunity later in the year for schools to claim any costs that fell between March and July in the same approved categories for which they did not already claim in the first window. We will continue to review the pressures that schools and colleges are facing in the next term.
Despite having claimed for costs incurred over the summer, some schools in my constituency have received no reimbursement from the Government. Will the Minister explain why that is happening and how those schools can be expected to balance their books this year?
Obviously there are criteria for each of those funds—I do not know the particular situation, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady—and those schools may not have met them. One of them is to look at the whole of the school budget, and reserves in particular.
Let me turn to exams and Alex’s petition to cancel GCSEs. I understand Alex’s concern and it is admirable that he is concerned, on behalf of others, about the unfairness due to unequal access to education. We are continuing to do everything in our power to ensure that young people are evaluated fairly in the coming year. We have to realise that there is no perfect system. All the other systems have flaws and downfalls. In the current climate, the decision to hold exams demonstrates our commitment to ensuring the fairest possible outcome for all students.
As the Secretary of State set out last week, the fundamental problem with this year’s exams is that we tried to award grades without actually holding exams, and we are not going to repeat that mistake. This is really difficult to do. It got me, like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), thinking back to my own experience. I come from the same area as Alex—Liverpool. I passed 10 O-levels, and I am sure there was not a single teacher in my Knowsley comprehensive school who would have thought that I would do that. The culture of education was such that we had to hide our homework and what we were doing. I am pretty sure that if I had been in school during this period, I would have been lucky if I had passed four. I was not confident enough to think that I could have passed 10. Exams are a really important way of enabling people to show just what they can do.
Holding a successful exam series in summer 2021 remains a vital component of our strategy to maintain continuity of education and support our young people to ensure they can progress with their qualifications, fairly awarded. We will ensure a successful delivery of the 2021 exams. We will consult with key stakeholders, such as schools, unions and exam centres, to discuss the logistics of the series, in terms of venues, invigilators and so on.
We support Ofqual’s decision that, in awarding next year’s GCSEs and AS and A-levels, grading will be generous and aligned with the overall standards awarded this year. Ofqual is working with awarding organisations to ensure that vocational and technical qualifications—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North—lead to similar progression opportunities as A-levels and GCSEs, and that students studying them are not advantaged or disadvantaged.
To help students target their revision, at the end of January they will be given advance notice of some of the topic areas that will be assessed in their GCSE and A-level exams. We will also provide exam support material, such as formula sheets, in some exams to give students more confidence and reduce the amount of information they need to memorise for exams. We really are trying to reduce the stress that students feel when taking exams by narrowing what they know to expect in exams and providing aid so that they do not need to worry about memorising the formulas and so on.
The announcement that the Government are going to give pupils advance notice of topics at the end of January hardly gives them an opportunity for their mock exams and to experience this new world of exams. How will the Minister ensure that young people will have confidence going into that new environment?
On the point about the end of January, the objective is not to reduce the amount of teaching, but to provide an aid so that pupils can focus their revision and catch up if required. It is not to narrow the curriculum or what is being taught, but to enable catch-up—we have all mentioned catch-up—and to enable them to focus their revision on those areas. That is the point and that is why the end of January is deemed the right date.
Students studying for vocational and technical qualifications can also expect additional flexibilities, including the reduction of assessment for optional units. We want as many students as possible to be able to sit their exams, so we have also got a contingency package if they miss an exam because of self-isolation, illness and so on. In the minority of cases where they cannot sit all their papers, there will be additional means by which they can take a future exam or still be awarded a grade, including additional papers available after the main A-level and GCSE exam series. It is the same for VTQ students who have not been able to complete all their necessary assessments.
This is not easy and not perfect. We are dealing with a situation where there has not been equal access to education. The catch-up is happening right now, but we have taken steps to make sure that students and teachers do not lose out because of covid. We have taken them to make sure that they can still achieve their aspirations and to make sure that coronavirus does not drag down educational standards. Instead, we continue to try to level up across the country.
I am sorry, but I cannot. I would love to, but I want to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North.
I want to thank all of our dedicated teachers and support staff for their continued commitment to supporting children and young people. We all know, when we go to schools, how much young people love being back in school. Even if they are trying to catch up, they still want to be back there. I remain confident that the measures we have put in place, together with the continued dedication of educators and support staff, will suffice. I thank all hon. Members for taking part and the petitioners for raising the subject.
I want to place on the record my thanks to all right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House who have taken part in this very important debate.
Some really strong points were made about fairness in the United Kingdom by the hon. Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I completely concur with their comments. I am concerned about the fact that we have different systems in different parts of our United Kingdom. This would have been a good opportunity for all regions of the United Kingdom to come together as one to agree a system to ensure fairness.
I also have concerns—this was raised by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)—about the deferment of students from 2020 going into this year along with the students who will apply for university at the end of their summer exams in 2021, and whether universities will be able to handle that and whether students will miss out on their first choices.
I should mention my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey). I was a teacher at Ashlawn School, which he named, so I suppose I should put that on the record in the interests of fairness. I brought him to the school to speak to students on numerous occasions.
I want to go back to the hon. Member for York Central, because she made excellent points about how it would be far better for the £350 million for tutoring to go to local areas to make local decisions to hire local tutors, or for local university or student tutors or ex-teachers like me to go out there and actually do the work. Before I get the Twitterati trolling me, I place on the record that I would not expect to be paid if I did volunteer.
I thank all teachers, supply staff and exam officers from across Stoke-on-Trent North and the UK. I look forward to sparring with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), on education. He referred to the Government’s handling of exams last summer, but I remind him that Labour-run Wales and the Scottish National party, which runs Scotland, also had to realise that their algorithms had gone wrong. He talked about the issues with advance notice. There are 1,000 exams that need to be written, so there is obviously an issue because exam boards need time to work with Ofqual to make sure the topics are fair and balanced.
When it comes to lions led by donkeys—I do enjoy that old line from when I taught history—I thought at one moment that we were talking about the NEU leading the Leader of the Opposition with regard to his constant non-committal in June over whether schools should be open or not. Perhaps I misheard or misunderstood.
I thank all Members for taking part in this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 326066, 550846, 316404 and 549015, relating to the impact of Covid-19 on schools and exams.