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Education: Return in January

Volume 686: debated on Wednesday 30 December 2020

With permission, I would like to make a statement regarding our plans for bringing children back to school this academic term.

Dealing with this pandemic has always been an exercise in managing risk. Throughout, we have been adamant that the education of children is an absolute priority and that keeping schools open is uppermost in all our plans.

The magnificent efforts of all the leaders, teachers and staff in all our schools and colleges have ensured that settings are as safe and covid secure as possible, but we must always act swiftly when circumstances change. The evidence about the new covid variant and rising infection rates has required some immediate adjustment to our plans for the new term. This is, of course, a rapidly shifting situation, but some things remain constant. We continue to act to preserve lives and safeguard the national health service, and we continue to protect education by putting children first. Above all, our response is proportionate to the risk at hand and makes every use of the contingency framework that we put in place earlier this year.

The latest study we have from Public Health England is that covid infections among children are triggered by changes in the community rate. The study also says that the wider impact of school closures on children’s development would be significant. I am quite clear that we must continue to do all we can to keep children in school. Taking all those factors into account means that we have had to make a number of changes for the new term in order to help break chains of transmission and to assist with keeping all our children and education settings as safe as we can. The fact that we have managed to do that so successfully throughout the entire pandemic is due to the incredible dedication of all our teachers, leaders and support staff, and I know that the House will join me once more in thanking them for everything that they continue to do to keep children learning as safely as possible.

Accordingly, we will be opening the majority of primary schools as planned on Monday 4 January. We know how vital it is for our younger children to be in school for their education, wellbeing and wider development. In a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest, we will implement our existing contingency framework such that only vulnerable children and children of critical workers will attend face-to-face. We will publish that list of areas today on the website.

I would like to emphasise that this is being used only as a last resort. This is not all tier 4 areas and the overwhelming majority of primary schools will open as planned on Monday. The areas will also be reviewed regularly, so that schools can reopen at the very earliest moment. Ongoing testing for primary school staff will follow later in January and we will be working to establish an ambitious testing programme, helping to break chains of transmission and reducing the need for self-isolation where students and staff test negative for the virus.

We have already announced our intention for a staggered return to education this term for secondary age pupils and those in colleges. Because the covid infection rate is particularly high among this age group, we will allow more time so that every school and college is able to fully roll out testing for all its pupils and staff. I would like to thank school leaders and staff for all their ongoing work in preparing that. This kind of mass testing will help to protect not just children and young people; it will benefit everyone in the community. It will break the chains of transmission that are making infection rates shoot up. That, in turn, will make it safer for more children to physically return to school.

All pupils in exam years are to return during the week beginning 11 January, with all secondary school and college students returning full time on 18 January. During the first week of term after 4 January, secondary schools and colleges will prepare to test as many staff and students as possible, and will be open only to vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

The 1,500 military personnel committed to supporting schools and colleges will remain on task, providing virtual training and advice on establishing the testing process, with teams on standby to provide in-person support if schools require it. Testing will then begin in earnest the following week, with those who are in exam years at the head of the queue. This is in preparation for the full return of all pupils in all year groups on 18 January in most areas. To allow this focus on the establishment of testing throughout the first week of term, exam year groups will continue to have lessons remotely, in line with what they would receive in class, and only vulnerable children and the children of critical workers will have face-to-face teaching.

As with primary schools, we will apply our existing contingency framework for education in areas of the country with very high rates of covid infection or transmission of the virus. This will require secondary schools and colleges to offer face-to-face education only to exam years, vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, with remote education for all other students if they are in one of the contingency framework areas. We are also asking universities to reduce the number of students who return to campus at the start of January, prioritising students who require practical learning to gain their professional qualifications. All university students should be offered two rapids tests on return to reduce the chance of covid being spread.

To support remote education and online learning during this period, the Government expect to deliver more than 50,000 devices to schools throughout the country on 4 January alone, and more than 100,000 altogether during the first week of term. That is in addition to the 560,000 devices that have already been delivered, as we continue to aim for a target of distributing more than 1 million devices for the children who need them most. The programme is now being extended to include students aged 16 to 19 in colleges and schools.

So often, we have had to close things down to try to beat this awful disease, but with schools our best line of attack is to keep them open, using the mass-testing tools that we now have available to ensure that children are able to continue to gain the benefit of a world-class education. As we continue to hear more encouraging news about the vaccine roll-out, I am more determined than ever that children will not have to pay the price for beating covid. I have spoken many times of my determination that we cannot let covid damage the life chances of an entire year of children and students. With these plans, which allow for rapid testing and the controlled return of schools, I am confident that we can minimise the latest health risks posed by the virus. I commend this statement to the House.

Before I begin, I put on record my thanks, and the thanks of the whole Labour party, to every leader, teacher and lecturer and the support staff, early years professionals and social workers who have moved mountains to keep children and young people safe and educated in the face of enormous odds. They deserve not just the thanks of this House but genuine support, and I hope that when he stands to speak again the Secretary of State will give more information about that support.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but the truth is that we should not be in this position. Only days before many schools should have been opening again to all pupils, the Secretary of State has announced that many will not be returning as planned. This delay and disruption to children’s education is a direct result of the Government’s failure: they have lost control of the virus and now they are losing control of children’s education. The cost to pupils, the pressure on staff and the challenges for families caused by school closures are huge, but we know that action must be taken to control the virus. Is the Secretary of State confident that the measures he has announced today will control the virus? Will he publish the advice on this issue from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies?

There is consensus across the House that the best place for children is in school, but the Government have failed to give schools the support they need to make that happen. For months, Labour has been calling for mass testing in schools. The Secretary of State announced it just before schools broke up for Christmas, creating huge additional work for overstretched school staff, but just two weeks later it is clear that his plan has failed and that many schools will not open as planned next week. Can he tell us how many schools now have testing infrastructure in place and how many will have it next week and the week after? Can he guarantee that every school will have the testing it needs when it is due to open again?

The Secretary of State’s announcement that some primary and secondary schools will not reopen to pupils in January will be a cause of huge concern to parents. Can he tell us how many primary and secondary schools will not open and how many pupils will be affected? Will students not in exam classes receive remote teaching while their school is closed? I am hugely concerned that even with school open to them, the most vulnerable children may simply not attend. Can the Secretary of State tell us how he plans to keep them safely in school in the weeks ahead?

I am glad that the Secretary of State announced an expansion to remote learning, but I remain concerned that it is not sufficient to support all pupils. Can he guarantee that every pupil will have the device and the connectivity that they need to learn, and will he ensure that that is available for every child whose school is not open?

Will there be any support for parents with children who cannot attend school? Can the Secretary of State confirm that parents can be furloughed if they have childcare commitments? Can that happen on a flexible basis that allows parents, particularly mothers, to balance work with caring for their children?

Many people who are clinically extremely vulnerable will be concerned about a return to school, whether they are a vulnerable parent of a child or a vulnerable member of staff. What reassurance and support can the Secretary of State give them?

It has been reported in recent days that teachers will be prioritised for vaccination, but an announcement today suggested that there would not be prioritisation based on occupation. I understand the clinical priorities for the first phase of the vaccination programme, but does the Secretary of State believe that not only teachers but all school staff, including in special schools, should be prioritised for vaccination thereafter in order to protect them and safeguard children’s education?

Turning to exams, the Government’s failure to get a grip on the virus has caused huge disruption to pupils’ education—disruption that will continue into the new year. Will the Secretary of State be making any changes to his plans to reflect that? Labour has said time and again that there needs to be a credible plan B in the event of disruption continuing that means exams cannot take place fairly. This is now urgent. Over 100,000 young people will be taking exams in the next few weeks for BTECs and other vocational qualifications. Can the Secretary of State tell us what he is doing to make those exams fair?

The Secretary of State told us weeks ago about the expert group on learning loss, but at the time he could not tell us who was on it, when it would sit or when it would report. Can he answer those questions today?

I welcome the decision to delay the return of students to university in January, which is sadly necessary for public health. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he has discussed this with unions and university and student representatives?

We should never have been in the position we are in today. If the Government had acted more quickly, followed the science and given schools the support that they needed throughout this pandemic, we would not be facing a new year with this new wave of infections and huge disruption to the lives of pupils, their families and staff across our education system. The Government have lost control of the virus, and it is children and young people across the country who are paying the price.

I thank the hon. Lady for echoing my words and my thanks to all teachers, leaders and all those who work in our schools, colleges and childcare settings for the wonderful work that they do.

The hon. Lady talks about what extra support we are giving those schools in rolling out the largest mass testing exercise that this country has seen to ensure that children are able to get back into school and have the benefits of being in school. We are supporting them not just by making sure that they have the equipment that is due to be delivered to all secondary school settings on 4 January, but with extra finance—a package of £78 million —in order to help them get this mass testing programme set up, established and there to test all students and all staff as they return to secondary school. This is about taking the opportunity to beat back this virus, have a real understanding of where the infection is within the community, and ensure that schools are even safer than they have already been.

The hon. Lady asks about the SAGE advice. As she knows full well, SAGE publishes its advice, and it will of course do so soon. The contingency framework was published and has been a public document for a number of months, so I am sure she will have had the opportunity to look at it. It makes clear that for schools that have been placed in part of a contingency framework, there must be the continued delivery of remote education. To be clear: children who are in exam group years will be returning to secondary school on 11 January, even if they are in a contingency framework area.

The hon. Lady rightly highlights the issue of vulnerable children. Those in our school system, as well as our local authorities and social workers, can be proud of the amazing work that they have been doing with those children who are most vulnerable in society. We must ensure that we do everything to get them attending school, so that they have the protection of school around them. Those efforts, working with local authorities, the police, and schools, will continue. Finally, as the hon. Lady says, many students are about to take examinations in technical and vocational qualifications in early January, and those assessments will continue, as planned, in the educational establishments that are delivering them.

I believe that my right hon. Friend wants to keep schools open and teachers and children safe, but I have real worries about the effect of school closures particularly hurting vulnerable children, and putting enormous pressures on parents. What risk assessments have the Government made regarding the impact of school closures for millions of pupils on educational inequality, wellbeing and mental health, especially when the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has stated that eating disorders among young people have gone up fourfold, partly because of school closures and social isolation? Will the Department introduce a tracker on individual pupils, at least those in exam years, working with schools and local authorities, to ensure that those at home get the learning they need? Will he ensure that teachers and support staff get priority for vaccinations, so that we can get our schools open again soon? Finally, will he thank teachers and support staff in my constituency of Harlow, who are doing all they can to keep children learning?

I join my right hon. Friend in thanking the teachers and support staff who have done so much in his constituency of Harlow to keep children learning. The importance of school is why we continue to proceed with opening primary schools on 4 January. The importance of education is why we are rolling out the mass testing regime, to ensure that secondary school students across the majority of the country will be able to return to school. We know how important this is. Children need to be in school, which is why we will always do everything we can to resist knee-jerk reactions to close schools or colleges. We recognise how important it is for children’s life chances for them to be in schools.

My right hon. Friend raises the important issue of the impact of lost learning, and that is why we commissioned work with the Education Policy Institute and Renaissance Learning to do a close study on lost learning. We will be looking closely at the impact of that, especially among exam year cohorts, as well as on the wider school population, to ensure that that work is there to inform us in any future policy decisions.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I join others in recognising the work our teachers and school staff are carrying out in very challenging circumstances, and I hope they are managing to get some well-deserved rest over the Christmas break.

This new covid strain means that it is difficult to make concrete decisions and commitments for the future, but the problem is that Secretary of State is once again making last-minute decisions that leave schools with absolutely no time to plan. Will he therefore outline how his actions align with the advice received from SAGE?

Ongoing testing for school staff is welcome, but anyone who has spent any time in primary or secondary schools will know that these are busy, often tightly packed environments. According to Professor Neil Ferguson, this new strain hints at a higher propensity to infect children. We are therefore asking teachers, some with underlying health conditions, to work in a potentially risky environment. NHS and frontline care staff must of course be prioritised for the vaccine, but will the Secretary of State ensure that, following those groups, teachers are a priority for getting the vaccine?

Let me finish by saying that there is a massive difference between posting activities online and actual live online teaching and learning, with realtime interactions between a teacher and their class. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that schools have the capacity and bandwidth to deliver proper online learning? Will he accept that he may need to amend his current strategy if the need arises?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for recognising that we are in a rapidly changing situation. We sometimes have to adapt our responses as a result of the changing coronavirus, and I know that the Scottish Government have faced similar challenges to the UK Government.

We recognise that this new strain means that we have to take a different approach. That is why we are saying that the mass testing regime we are rolling out in our secondary schools has to move from being optional and an offer to schools to being something we require schools to do. Schools are a unique environment, and it is important that we put as many protections in place as we can.

Like the hon. Lady, I want to see all teachers right up there in the best possible position to be vaccinated, so that they can carry on the incredibly important work of keeping children in education. I am incredibly pleased that we are in a position to ensure that primary schools are opening on 4 January and that secondary schools will be welcoming back children in the exam cohorts on 11 January and all other pupils on 18 January.

We have obviously had fantastic news today about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. May I therefore join the previous two speakers, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, and urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to do what he can within current policy to ensure that teachers are priorities? Does he not agree that were we to vaccinate as many teachers as possible as soon as possible, that would not only make schools safer and boost teacher morale but reduce the pressure to close schools in the first place?

I often agree with my hon. Friend, and I do not disagree with him on this occasion. Obviously, we have to prioritise decisions on vaccinations, taking into account a whole raft of areas. The key thing is prioritising those people who are most clinically vulnerable, but as we get through that stage of clinical need, I certainly hope that we can look at how we can vaccinate those who are in the teaching profession and who support education.

We are in a race against time to stop a new catastrophe of educational inequality. Some children have lost more than six months of learning and some schools still cannot access the covid workforce budget because of absurd criteria. It is shocking that only half of digital devices have been delivered and that mass testing is being rolled out only four months after school has returned. When will the Secretary of State give schools the rota powers, the funding, the devices and the trust that they need and deserve to stay open safely?

We had announced the additional £78 million of funding just before the Christmas period in order to help and assist in the roll-out of a mass testing regime in all secondary schools. We announced the distribution of an extra half a million devices on the half a million that had already been distributed just the other week. If the hon. Lady had listened to my statement, she would have heard that we are planning to distribute 50,000 on 4 January and another 100,000 over the following week. I am sure that, at some point, she will look at my statement in detail and pay attention to it.

My children are in the next room paying rather more attention than is usual to the House’s proceedings this afternoon. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help schools and colleges to take up the offer that the Government have made to provide rapid testing, which will be so vital in helping to keep children, teachers and, indeed, parents safe?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is not just about helping schools, or just about helping pupils and that workforce within the schools, but about helping the families with school-age children. It is helping the whole community push back the tide of this virus, because we will be testing more people than ever before. We will be testing literally millions of children every single week. Yes, we recognise that schools need that extra support. That is why we created the £78 million fund in order to be able to support them. The other week, we shared with schools information on how much money they will be eligible to get, but we do understand that there will be some schools that have unique problems or challenges in rolling out this mass testing. I am incredibly grateful to both Her Majesty’s armed forces for making themselves available and to Ofsted for supporting schools that are facing challenges in rolling out the mass testing programme to ensure that it is implemented in all secondary schools and all colleges, because this will benefit everyone in school, everyone in college and everyone in the community.

Like so many frontline workers, teaching staff are deeply committed to their profession, but they have also been among the most vulnerable, particularly given that 12 to 17-year-olds have been a major vector for transmission. I spoke with head teachers just before Christmas and they were left angered by the Government’s late announcement to introduce testing without any support and little direction. Today we hear that there will be a delay to schools reopening. May I ask the Secretary of State just two points? As I asked him back in November, will he prioritise frontline line teaching staff for vaccinations given the political will to keep schools and colleges open as much as possible? Secondly, given that so many students will be taking BTECs and other technical and vocational exams in the next few weeks, what support will the Government be providing to those students and the staff assisting them?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the issue of those children taking BTEC qualifications, and we have made the decision about the importance of those youngsters being able to continue to take those qualifications over the coming weeks. On vaccination, he has picked up on a thread raised by previous questioners. Obviously, as Education Secretary, it is not within my remit to determine who will be receiving vaccinations. However, when we have worked through the groups that are most vulnerable to covid, I certainly hope that those working in our education settings are looked at in the most positive way to ensure that they are high up on the list of those receiving vaccinations.

May I join the Education Secretary in paying tribute to all those working in schools at this difficult time? I welcome his statement and the announcement that all secondary school and college students will receive two rapid tests at the start of the new term to identify asymptomatic cases. However—I know this as a father myself—it is the self-isolation that has caused such disruption for teachers, students and pupils, so will he confirm that his intention is to use rapid testing for staff and students who have come into contact with confirmed cases to help to reduce the need for self-isolation? Will that testing be available daily, if necessary?

I can absolutely confirm to my hon. Friend that testing will be available both to students and to staff members in secondary school settings. Importantly, that means that we will be in a position to reduce the number of children and teachers who are having to self-isolate, and that it will be easier for education settings to work fully and as normally as possible. Most importantly, however, students will be in a position to maximise the amount of time they spend studying.

New College Pontefract is currently having to organise twice-weekly mass testing for 2,500 sixth-formers, but it has had no allocation of funding and no contact from the military. The college is having to find additional staff, and it has no space in which to do the tests.

Why have the Government not given schools and colleges a clear allocation of funding that will cover additional staff, Disclosure and Barring Service checks, and the other practicalities of delivering mass testing? They all want to do it, but the support from Ministers and the Department for Education is always too late or too chaotic. Frankly, they are not getting the support they need to keep children safely in education.

I will certainly ensure that where schools can get that information is passed on to the right hon. Lady. It was published and made available to colleges and schools before Christmas, but I will ensure that my private office forwards it on. Information is readily available, and should hopefully be of assistance to her in her duties as a constituency Member of Parliament.

I pay tribute to all teachers in Kensington and Chelsea, who have been heroic in their efforts to keep schools open, even with the very high case rates in London. Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether London will be part of the contingency framework? He mentioned a two-week delay, so can he clarify whether schools will definitely reopen after two weeks or if there will be a review at that point?

My hon. Friend is right to ask that question, and there will be a review after the two-week period. The hope and desire is that areas in the contingency framework will be moving out of it, but we will obviously be guided by the available public health and scientific advice. It is important that such decisions are made not on a regional basis, but on a local basis, because I want the maximum number of children in school at every stage. I do not want sweeping decisions; we should minimise the disruption to children, schools and parents as much as possible.

It was disappointing that the Secretary of State did not make a statement to the House before the Christmas recess, and that mixed messages from his Department throughout Christmas have led to much anxiety among parents, teachers and students. I doubt whether his statement today will reassure many of them. On testing, what will be the role of local directors of public health? Who will support local schools and colleges, because 1,500 Army personnel will not be enough to fill that role? More importantly, what will happen to the data collected from that testing? Without a comprehensive locally based plan, he is in danger of making all the same mistakes as we have seen with the national test and trace system. Cannot the Government wake up to the fact that local plans need to be put in place, rather than plans being dictated nationally? That will not work.

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point about how vital it is to work with local directors of public health and local authorities. We believe that this will be of enormous assistance to those local authorities in identifying where more covid cases are. It will be an opportunity to deliver more rapid testing than has been delivered so far—not just in County Durham, but across the country. The right hon. Gentleman might have heard that extra support is being provided to schools and colleges so that they can stand up this testing. In some areas where schools and colleges have particular problems, we will look at supporting them with a team to help to get the mass testing up and established. Of course, the data being collected is vital. When youngsters test positive in a lateral flow test, that data will be fed immediately into the test and trace system, which is shared with local authorities.

Teachers, parents and pupils all need certainty. They need to be able to plan the return to school and prepare for exams if they are going to happen, and they need to know whether they will need additional childcare. I commend my right hon. Friend for his ability to make changes when required, but will he please assure my constituents that this is a plan that will stick and that it will give them all the certainty that they are desperately calling out for?

I certainly hope that it does give people confidence to know that primary schools in my right hon. Friend’s constituency of Romsey will be opening on Monday, that exam year groups will be returning to secondary school and colleges on 11 January, and that all year groups will be returning shortly after that.

The Secretary of State has just said that we can be confident about what is happening next week but, frankly, as a parent and as a legislator, I have no confidence in what he has just said. I am none the wiser after his statement, having heard privately from health experts this afternoon. Parents have one question for the Secretary of State: how will we know, when we send our kids back to school this week or the week after, that it is safe to do so?

What we have seen consistently since the start of June is that millions of children have safely returned to school thanks to the amazing efforts of so many teaching and support staff to create safe and secure environments for children to learn in and others to work in. We recognise that this new strain means we have to go that bit further—so much further. That is why we are introducing this mass testing scheme, the largest that this country has ever seen, to give parents and those who work in secondary schools extra confidence and belief that it is safe for those children to return, to help all who are engaged in this battle against covid to root out the disease, and ensure that those who are infected by it know that they are and can self-isolate.

I stand steadfast behind the Government in their determination to protect young people’s education, and Ministers are right to say that it is a national priority. There is a theme to my questions today, and rightly so, as we end what has been a difficult and challenging year for those working on the frontline. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all those who work in schools in my constituency—from teaching assistants to teachers, heads of department, heads of schools, those who transport children to school, those who keep schools clean and safe and those in schools who have fed and watered our children—who often go above and beyond and are doing their utmost to protect our children’s education and keep our schools open? We owe them a debt of gratitude.

I would certainly like to join my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour in thanking all those working in education settings in Derbyshire and right across the country. Many children in my constituency travel into Stourbridge to benefit from some of the brilliant schools in her constituency. Teachers and support staff have done an amazing job, and it is true to say that we are asking even more of them, but we are asking them to do more because we understand how vital it is to do everything possible to keep schools open and ensure that children continue to benefit from the education that we want every child to get.

We all know that children benefit from being in school, and we have seen the gap between those from the richest and the poorest households widen during covid. The Secretary of State’s permanent secretary put great store in the tutoring programme when she appeared before the Public Accounts Committee nearly two weeks ago. Could the right hon. Gentleman give us an update on that, as well as on the steering group in his Department that is looking seriously at this issue and at the impact on more vulnerable pupils? Can he be precise about what he is doing to ensure that that gap, which had been narrowing massively in some of the excellent schools in my constituency, will not stay wide and get wider still as we come out the other side of the pandemic?

The hon. Lady is right to talk passionately about the brilliant schools in her constituency. We have seen a transformation in schools in London as a result of reforms that were introduced by this Government and changes that were made in the latter part of the last Labour Government. We have seen education as an incredibly powerful tool in closing the attainment gap and the disadvantage gap, and London has been one of the real powers in driving that forward. The roll-out of the national tutoring programme is going as planned and we are very pleased with it. I am sure she will have noticed that, as part of the spending review, we want to see this as something that happens not just for one year, but over multiple years, because we believe that that is where the real benefit will be had.

I must confess—I am a little bit old-fashioned about this—that I will constantly do everything I can, whether it is in the hon. Lady’s constituency or mine, and take quite extraordinary measures, to keep schools open wherever it is possible to do so. If they do have to close, I will ensure that it is for the minimum time, because we see children suffering as a result of isolation. Both my children have had to self-isolate as a result of being in contact with other children with covid. Whether it is the national tutoring programme, the covid catch-up fund or the continued reforms that have been made to education, which have driven up standards so much in her constituency and mine, we must not lose sight of the fact that these reforms have to carry on to continue to drive standards and reduce the attainment gap.

I have been contacted by school leaders who have highlighted their need to get clarity over future changes to school opening arrangements as quickly as possible. Will my right hon. Friend consider a suggestion from one deputy head in my constituency: publish the real-time data that influences these decisions via an online dashboard similar to the one published by the Department of Health and Social Care so that schools have as much time as possible to plan? Will he meet me and my constituent to discuss that in more detail?

We are certainly always more than happy to look at different ways of being able to share as much information as possible with schools and communities about what best informs decisions. The Minister for School Standards, as I was about to leap to my feet, immediately wanted to meet my hon. Friend and her constituent, so I know that he will be organising that swiftly to be able to listen in greater detail to the thoughts and ideas not just about the current challenges that schools face, but about how we can continue to drive our reforms and improvements within the school system not just this year, but for decades into the future.

Finally, the Secretary of State has come to Parliament to address the issues that have been swirling around everywhere over Christmas, which began with him ordering schools to go online for the first week of term on the last day of term, having taken legal action against councils that wanted to do the same thing only three days earlier. Today, he tells us that some primary schools will not open, but he has not actually published the list of those schools. This really now is a catalogue of incompetence from this Secretary of State. After months of our asking, he still has not answered the critical question of how the differential impact of missing school will be addressed, especially for the most disadvantaged. There has been no word on how exams this year can proceed on a level playing field, so if the test of his legacy is the attainment gap, I am afraid that it is one he is going to totally fail.

It is always lovely to hear from the hon. Lady, and with such a festive backdrop behind her. Frankly, whatever we do, she will probably always be a little bit miserable about everything. We put in a £1 billion covid catch-up fund, making sure that we are supporting children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We go above and beyond at every stage to ensure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are given the most assistance. We on the Government side of the House have always understood that by actually preserving education, by making sure that children are in the position to be able to return to school at the earliest possible moment and to benefit from being in school, is the best way to give them the greatest advantages in life. I know the hon. Lady—it is not in her DNA to be able to give credit to any Government. I am not sure whether it would take £1 billion, £2 billion or £3 billion for her to acknowledge the fact that we are taking action.

I welcome the—[Inaudible.]—showing at this stage. Given that Amber Valley as a local authority area has some of the higher levels of cases in the country, will the Secretary of State confirm whether we are in the contingency area where schools will not be allowed to open at all? I hope that we are not, but will he publish the criteria for deciding in which area schools cannot open?

We will be publishing details of those local authorities within contingency framework areas later today on the website. We would want to see schools entering the contingency framework very much as an absolute last resort, where the public health evidence and public health advice are that it is important and vital to do so in terms of the management of covid infections.

This academic year has been significantly disrupted. It is clear that many children have missed significant portions of their education while others have missed none, resulting in major inequalities, and, of course, disruption is getting worse. I ask not if but when will the Secretary of State announce an alternative plan to end-of-year assessments beyond this exam plan? Will he publish a full equality impact assessment on all end-of-year options so that we can see which will be the fairest?

We all recognise that this has been an incredibly challenging year for all students. We have seen the impact on our own children and, of course, on children in our constituencies. As those who have been involved in education recognise, exams are the fairest and best form of assessment. We recognise that this is a unique year that has presented unique challenges. That is why we have taken the unusual and unique steps of ensuring that the generosity of grading is similar to and mirrors that of children who took exams in the previous year, and of taking action to make sure that there is advance notice of the areas that children will be tested on to make sure that they are in the best possible position to succeed and do the best they possibly can in those exams.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for adopting a pragmatic approach to the changing situation. I also thank all schools locally, many of which have been open and welcoming students throughout the pandemic. If all schools and students are not going to return as expected, however, I am concerned that students, particularly those from less well-off backgrounds, will miss out on their education. Can he confirm what extra support he and the Government will give to move to quality remote learning and maintain it for as long as it is needed?

My hon. Friend will be aware that I want to see all children in schools at all times, if possible. As he highlights, however, there will be certain areas of the country where additional action needs to be taken that will lead to the temporary closure of schools. That has happened across the country all the way through the pandemic, but we will probably see a little more of it over the coming term than we saw in the previous term. That is part of the reason why we made the announcement of the distribution of 1 million laptops to support remote learning in schools, and that is why we have made and continue to make increased investment in the Oak National Academy to support online learning and to make sure that there is a whole suite of lessons for every subject and every year group to support schools. It is an important resource for them to be able teach their children. That support will continue, as well as the covid catch-up fund of £1 billion, which has been made available to schools and colleges.

Order. We still have a lot of business to get through today. I appreciate it is more difficult when people are participating virtually for them to work out how long they are taking in asking a question, but can I remind Members that a question should be a question? It is not a speech; it is just a question. If we have short questions, I know the Secretary of State will be able to give short answers.

Greater Manchester has been under restrictions since the end of July. Many areas got the virus right down only for rates to spike again when schools, colleges and universities went back. What happened in the autumn term did not work; it was too disruptive for too many. What guarantee can the Secretary of State give the House that that will not happen again? Where schools are closed, will he guarantee that all students will have the laptops and digital access required to learn remotely, because not all did last time?

In tribute to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will be very brief in answering the hon. Gentleman. He probably heard in my earlier response that we are rolling out the distribution of 1 million laptops, more than 150,000 of which will be going out over the first couple of weeks of the coming term. The measures that we have seen meant that, actually, 99% of schools were able to open. We had excellent attendance at schools across the country, including in areas with high infection rates, and areas with high infection rates were able to maintain schools being open. The measures that we are taking, in terms of a mass testing regime, will ensure that schools can continue to remain open, which I am sure he will celebrate.

I want to thank all the teachers and support staff across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to mass testing. My main concerns, however, remain about children—particularly those in disadvantaged homes—and the work with catching up. The national tutoring programme is helping students in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke to catch up, but we can also use alternatives to the Oak National Academy, which is online. Will my right hon. Friend speak to textbook publishers to see whether they will be willing at cost price to send textbooks to some of our most vulnerable children to enable them to sit their exams this year?

My hon. Friend so often has brilliant ideas, and I would be very happy to sit down with him to look at how we could do that. The Minister for School Standards is one of the greatest advocates in this country of textbooks and of their real impact and the support they offer students in their learning. We can sit down and discuss my hon. Friend’s thoughts and ideas.

All teachers want rapid testing, but at a time when they feel exposed and scared by the new variant—80% of my schools have cases anyway—will the Secretary of State develop stronger guidance in partnership with the profession, rather than see it as a unionised enemy to spring last-minute changes on? Can he provide any funding to the head of a convent I spoke to who is desperate to roll out testing? It operates on tight margins, but as it is an independent, she has been told that there is none.

While we are not in a position to be able to provide independent schools with funding to roll out testing, we are providing them with facilities, testing equipment and all the other additional equipment that is required for the full testing regime. That is being provided to all schools and all settings that are teaching and providing education facilities for children in years 7 and above.

My right hon. Friend has been consistent throughout the crisis in insisting that we balance the need to keep people safe with the vital need for children to continue their education. In the light of that, can he reassure parents of primary school children in tier 4 areas such as Aylesbury that he has fully considered the safety of pupils and staff in reaching his decision that those primary schools can reopen next week and continue their very valuable education?

As my hon. Friend will recognise, at every stage the safety of pupils and those who work in schools is at the very heart of every decision we make. We all recognise the impact of not being in school on children’s life chances. It is always important to balance the need to get children in with ensuring that they are in a safe environment. The measures we are taking on testing go so far to ensure that children not only get the benefit of that brilliant education but have the surety and confidence of knowing that they are going into a safe and secure environment.

Surely, given that Cheshire West and Chester has now been put into tier 4, we require an update from the Secretary of State on whether primary schools are going to reopen on Monday, and surely teaching staff should be prioritised for the vaccine. That just makes sense.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that primary schools in Cheshire West and Chester will be open on Monday.

May I join the previous questioner and ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that the best way to get schools back and working properly is to prioritise vaccines for teachers and pupils, who may be spreading the virus asymptomatically? Will he urge the Department of Health and Social Care to prioritise that?

I would certainly urge the Department of Health and Social Care to prioritise vaccination of those who work in schools. All the vaccines currently available have not had or have not completed trials on people under the age of 18. I am sure my hon. Friend recognises the necessity of completing those trials before rolling out any vaccination programme to the younger cohorts.

If Greenwich schools are included in one of the contingency areas, I hope the Secretary of State will have the decency to apologise to parents in our borough. With that in mind, if mass testing shows up high infection rates among children in schools, what is the contingency plan other than disruption to children’s education continuing into the future? Surely the end point has to be vaccination in schools when it becomes available. Is he planning for when that can be done?

I am not sure the hon. Gentleman heard my reply to the previous question, but none of the vaccines has been through full trials on children under 18. It would not be ethical to vaccinate children before the completion of the trials.

I declare an interest in that my daughter is a teacher. I agree with the approach the Secretary of State has outlined today. In a constantly changing situation, it is a sensible approach, but may I return to the question of vaccinations for teachers and staff? Clearly, in tier 3 and 4 areas it would be valuable, and coupled with the testing regime it would give teachers and parents the confidence that is needed. I accept that it is not in his remit, as he said, but may I urge him to press his Government colleagues to look again at it?

I can absolutely confirm that I will respond to my hon. Friend’s pressing me to press others to do that. I know how important it is and what a heroic job so many in our schools have been doing to ensure continuity of education for all our children.

Pupils in Liverpool, Riverside have suffered disproportionate learning loss. We have heard the rhetoric on how this Government are levelling up, but it is time to move from the rhetoric to the reality. How many of the thousands of laptops have made it to those in the greatest need? Has that been monitored? The national tutoring programme is projected to reach just 1 in 6 pupils on free school meals. Will the Minister join me in thanking and supporting all education and support staff in my constituency, who have gone above and beyond since the first lockdown to support both children and our community throughout this pandemic?

I join the hon. Lady in thanking all those in her constituency who have done so much to ensure continuity of education for so many children. The great city of Liverpool is one of the areas that have experienced very high infection rates. The teaching staff and communities making sure that schools stayed open and that children were able to get the benefit of education are a real testament to the hard work done by so many in the teaching profession.

Over 500,000 of the laptops have already been distributed to children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Many hundreds of thousands more will be distributed in the coming weeks. That will benefit the hon. Lady’s constituents, mine and the constituents of us all.

Those who are due to sit their A-levels and GCSEs in 2021 have suffered, and continue to suffer, far more disruption than those who were due to sit them earlier this year. Will the Secretary of State accept that the only sensible and fair course of action is to cancel these exams too, to ensure that those students’ prospects are not damaged by taking exams that will have been rendered virtually meaningless?

That is why we took action to ensure that the generosity of grading mirrors that of 2020 and have announced the exam subjects with advance notice, so that teachers and students, in the final months in the run-up to the exams, can focus on the topics and areas that will be examined. We believe that unless there are exceptional circumstances, exams are the fairest and best form of assessment. All the evidence points out that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and children from black and ethnic minority communities are most disadvantaged by non-exam assessment and are given the greatest advantage when they sit exams.

Headteachers at primary schools, and at all schools, are willing and able to be partners in ensuring that our children get a proper education, but the Secretary of State has said that some primary schools will not open next week. What will the criteria be for schools not opening? When will the headteachers of those schools be given the courtesy of advance warning and treated with respect by the Secretary of State?

I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware of the gold command chaired by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, which looks at all the decisions on tiering and other measures that need to be taken to deal with the pandemic. Those decisions will be made as part of that health structure through joint working by the Health Secretary and me, because the powers to close sit with me as Education Secretary. The hon. Lady will be familiar with; notice and details of the areas that will be put in the contingency framework are published on that website.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he join me in thanking all education providers in Southend West for their heroic efforts during the coronavirus pandemic? Most importantly, will he ensure that when they return to school there is clarity in a practical sense regarding testing and the arrangements for the summer examinations?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the wonderful work that educators, teachers and support staff have done in providing the Rolls-Royce education that we want all children to benefit from. We have already published considerable guidance and support for schools as they roll out mass testing; we have also published information about the funding that they can receive, so that they can properly budget and provision for the type of support that they need to roll out that mass testing. With respect to the—I hope—small number of schools that have particular problems in establishing a testing regime, the armed forces have kindly stepped forward, along with Ofsted, to provide and establish support in the exceptional circumstances in which schools and colleges are having real problems.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words about the educators and teachers in Liverpool, who have done such an outstanding job.

Hundreds of thousands of working-class children educated in the state system are facing exams in complete despair. The inequality of opportunity for those children is due to the ineptitude of the Government’s response, including a lack of resource allocation and a complete failure to listen to teachers’ concerns. Will the Secretary of State meet me and headteachers in Liverpool, West Derby as soon as possible to discuss the resources and measures that are urgently needed from the Government?

We always listen to what the teaching profession says and act taking its advice and guidance into account. That is how we crafted our response, including the creation of the covid catch-up fund and the national tutoring programme, which were very much targeted at children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. My right hon Friend the Minister for School Standards said he would be absolutely delighted and looks forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman and the wonderful professionals in his constituency who are so committed and dedicated to delivering the very best education for every child in Liverpool, West Derby.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and recognise the invidious choices he has to make as Secretary of State. I also thank all the teachers and, in particular, the leaders of schools in the Hazel Grove constituency for their hard work over the Christmas holidays to prepare for mass testing on the schools’ return. Does my right hon. Friend think it somewhat ironic that later on today’s Order Paper is a motion to extend the Adjournment of the House to 11 January? What message does that send to our schools?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in thanking the teachers and support staff in Hazel Grove for all the work that they do. We all recognise that we are placing great burdens on so many public servants. Our job as a Department is to give them as much support as possible. As a former Chief Whip, I think it is always best to focus on the Department and job that one has, which is why my focus is on education and schools.

According to Sutton Trust research, 15% of teachers report that a third of their students do not have adequate facilities to learn remotely from home. While I accept that some attempt has been made to rectify that, there are still too many pupils unable to learn online. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many pupils in those schools not reopening next month do not currently have access to online learning?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the best place for children to learn is in school, which is why we have at every stage driven as hard as possible to ensure that schools are open and remain open. That is why we are taking the actions we are—whether that is the mass testing regime or the fact that primary schools will open up on 4 January—because we realise that the best place for children to be is in school. We looked at the needs of schools for additional laptops and digital equipment and have expanded the original provision of 200,000 laptops to more than 1 million. As I touched on earlier, that distribution of additional laptops is currently ongoing and will continue over the coming weeks.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s flexibility and pragmatic approach at this difficult time, and also his determination to keep schools open. I praise all the teachers in my borough of Bexley for their commitment and hard work. However, as a strong supporter of social mobility, I am naturally concerned about the effect on the education of our most disadvantaged children during this coronavirus pandemic. Can he confirm that the additional financial support he has given will help to prevent them from being left behind in their education?

I thank my right hon. Friend for highlighting something that he and I care so passionately about: ensuring that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not left behind. That is why the national tutoring programme and the covid catch-up fund are so vital, not only for his constituents but for my constituents and all our constituents from those most disadvantaged communities. We recognise that this pandemic has impacted every community up and down the country. It is vital that we do everything we can to get them back on their feet, learning and closing that gap once more.

If I may continue on the theme of resources for home-based learning, we know that it is less satisfactory than children being at school but infinitely better than nothing. Unfortunately, nine months into the pandemic, only 700 laptops have been distributed in my borough, despite there being 5,000 children on free school meals. Will the Secretary of State explain why it has taken so long to make sure there is adequate access to laptops? Will he also advise everybody how many children in each constituency are deemed to be in need of capacity for home-based learning, so that we are able to assess just how effective the distribution of laptops has been?

I will certainly happily provide the latest information on the distribution of laptops in the hon. Member’s constituency. The reason we announced the uplift to the distribution of 1 million laptops is that we recognise that the challenges of the pandemic require more digital provision. That is why we took the move to increase it from 500,000 to 1 million.

This feels slightly like my own first day back at school, though rather near the bottom of this particular class.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the importance of his mass testing programme for schools derives from the danger that infected children may be spreaders without symptoms?

If my right hon. Friend is a new boy back in school, I think the Chief Whip is the headmaster, so he will probably be keeping a close eye on my right hon. Friend. However, it is good to see him back with the Conservative Whip, as I very much felt it was a great privilege to work so closely with him when he was Chairman of the Defence Committee and I was in a previous role.

My right hon. Friend is right that, actually, many children who have coronavirus do not exhibit symptoms of having coronavirus. This is why the move to mass testing in secondary schools is so important. It gives us the opportunity to identify so many more children who have the virus and just do not know it. That means that so many more households can be informed that they also need to be tested as they may also have the virus. This is an important step in defeating this virus and taking the battle to covid to ensure that we defeat it and are triumphant in doing so.

Testing for the virus is key to supporting a child to stay in school. When children are not in school, their learning is disrupted. It causes a lot of anxiety in relation to family plans and affects the ability of the adult or adults in the home to work. Can the Secretary of State confidently say to my constituents and to parents that schools will have adequate testing infrastructure and support in place for pupils and staff when both primary and secondary schools reopen, and does he agree that the vaccine should be prioritised for all staff working in education?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I can absolutely assure her that the roll-out of mass testing in secondary schools is properly supported. Schools will be getting the first batch of both equipment and tests on 4 January, and this is being distributed right across the country, with additional tests very rapidly following, to ensure that all pupils and all staff within schools can be tested. As I touched on in my statement, we are also looking at rolling out the testing mechanism, the screen testing and the serial testing for staff in primary schools. As I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate, the ability to deliver testing in primary schools does present some challenges, because the age of pupils in primary school means they are not necessarily able to do it themselves. However, when we are in a position to go further on testing and home tests can be distributed, we will look at expanding the role of mass testing in schools even further.

I would like to thank all the wonderful teachers and support staff across my constituency and to welcome plans for all secondary and college students to receive two rapid tests at the start of term. The Royal Air Force has already been helping to deliver rapid tests across Kirklees as part of mass community testing. Has the Secretary of State considered using military support on the ground in schools and colleges, having done such a wonderful job in extreme circumstances in the past few months, to help deliver mass rapid tests and take the pressure off some of our teachers?

I join my hon. Friend in his thanks. I know that he served in the Royal Air Force for a number of years, so he has a particular fondness for our armed forces, as we all do. The armed forces have done an amazing job. Looking at the sheer number of schools across the country and the whole workforce within them, we felt that it would not be right or proper to ask the armed forces to deliver testing in every single secondary school. That is why we have provided additional financial support for schools to help them deliver the mass testing regime. We are very fortunate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has agreed a Military Aid to the Civil Authorities request that means that we are able to provide military support to schools that are really struggling to set up a testing regime. We believe that when they are set up, schools will be in an excellent position to keep running and have a real impact in driving down coronavirus infection rates in my hon. Friend’s constituency and all our constituencies.

I, too, pay tribute to schools, teachers, support staff and young people in my constituency for the incredibly effective way that they responded to the coronavirus crisis in the autumn. However, as the Secretary of State knows, the pressures on schools in tier 4 areas are significant, and they are growing all the time. Will he commit to reviewing the level of support that is being provided? It is clear that, with just half a member of the armed forces per English secondary school, that level of support is quite meagre.

We are providing schools with the resources to deliver the testing programme themselves. We would look at providing armed forces personnel only in the most exceptional circumstances where a school, for whatever reason, is unable to set up a testing regime. We have given schools the extra time as well as the £78 million in order for all secondary schools to establish a regime. In exceptional circumstances we have teams, supported by the armed forces and Ofsted as well as the Department for Education, to help get a regime up and running and support schools so that every secondary school can have a mass testing regime.

Sitting suspended.