Skip to main content

Covid-19: Schools

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 January 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

First, I recognise that the Speaker is very keen for us to take part in debates remotely where possible, and I fully respect that. However, given that teachers continue to deliver face-to-face education to essential workers’ children in testing circumstances, it seemed only right that I should come here and represent them in person. Please be assured, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have seen no one, and I am extra careful with my personal hygiene.

The past 10 months have been extraordinarily difficult for schools and our teachers. They have learned to adapt at very short notice in response to a seemingly ever-changing environment. If nothing else, today I want to recognise this extraordinary effort, and the hard work of headteachers and their staff across west Cornwall and on Scilly, and around the UK.

The environment has been no less challenging for the Department for Education, which, rather than setting the agenda, finds itself sandwiched between the Department of Health and Social Care, whose job is, rightly, to get on top of this dreadful disease, and the Treasury, whose concern for livelihoods and jobs is equally valid. I am not here to find fault in anything or anyone, but rather to represent my constituents, who include teachers and parents, and see what can be done to reset the relationship with frontline teaching staff and the Department for Education as we set about 2021.

As I have children learning from home, I now share my living room with teachers, who present themselves each morning, in among the Thomas family chaos, via iPad screens to give my boys the best start in life. I see at first hand the engagement, commitment, patience and interactive capabilities of our teachers. I am in unity with many other parents on this, I am sure: let me put on record how ridiculously challenging it is to keep just two school-age children head down and eyes forward for any length of time at home. If my wife and I are alone in this, then please will someone send me the tonic they are using on their children?

Prior to this pandemic, I made it a habit to visit a school each week—I have at least 50 across the patch—so I have a reasonable idea of the challenges that schools face in normal times. Since March, I have kept in close communication with a number of headteachers, so that I can support them where possible, raise parents’ concerns in a constructive manner, and understand the Herculean efforts the schools have made to keep education going.

I said at the start that there is a need to reset the relationship between our teachers and the Department for Education. This unprecedented situation presents unavoidable difficulties. I fully accept this, as do our schools. However, there are some small tweaks that would make the world of difference, and I have identified these under three headings: communication, expectation and recognition. None of these will come as any surprise, I am sure, but it is important that they be laid out clearly.

From the outset, communication has been challenging for schools. Often they hear changes to guidance via the media first. Just as they are set to down tools for a much-needed rest at a weekend or school holiday, the requirements for schools change, and heaven and earth must be moved to inform teachers, support staff and parents. This guidance often comes out in yards of text, and then is shortly revised, but headteachers cannot always see what has changed. If the revisions were easily identifiable, it would be a leap forward for hard-pressed headteachers and their senior school managers. Last-minute changes in guidance can lead to confusion and frustration, and put schools at loggerheads with parents.

I fully support the Government’s determination to keep schools open and, where possible, to keep exams on the table. However, I hope we have learned that nothing is certain and that schools would be better served if they were able to anticipate various scenarios, so that they can be prepared to an extent. The landscape is unknown and has been for some time, and we must find a way to communicate with schools what the outcomes may be based on the rate of infection. The stress on children and staff should not be underestimated. If the profession is more involved in the process effectively, many pitfalls could be avoided. Schools have the experience to identify what will be the results of certain decisions before the mistake happens.

In relation to communication, all schools have a robust complaints procedure. Surely it is for us to stress that parents who have concerns about remote provision are encouraged to talk to the headteacher and follow the complaints procedure, rather than revert to Ofsted from the outset. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State encourage parents to refer to schools in relation to free school meals. Driving division between parents and teaching staff is not in the interest of children’s education and serves to wear down teaching staff further. It would be a helpful step if the Department for Education made it clear that parents should talk to schools in the first instance when they have a concern.

The expectation on our schools has been quite extraordinary, and their response has largely met that expectation. Who anticipated this time last year that we would be asking schools to stay open for essential workers’ children while teaching all other pupils at home? I have nothing but admiration for teachers who have navigated this seismic challenge. Teaching a group of children face to face and appreciating the individual curiosities of each child, responding to their personalities and capabilities and walking hand in hand as they grow, learn and develop is a most rewarding vocation. To be frank, very little of that can be replicated via a flat screen, and I imagine that thousands of teachers are exhausted and demotivated because the very act of classroom teaching has been so impacted due to social distancing and remote teaching, with schools now largely closed. These measures cannot and should not be ignored—they are important—but the impact on teachers should not be underestimated. We must work to reassure teachers that there is a way through this and keep them on board.

I want to raise some specific examples of the expectation we place on teachers. The first is the expectation in relation to essential workers’ children. The Government have said that children of essential workers and children who do not have good connectivity can go to school. In some cases in my constituency, that has led to two thirds of the classroom turning up. Can the Government set out clear criteria for essential workers, so that those who need it least are lowest priority and schools have the opportunity to refuse when it is absolutely necessary?

There is the expectation on school budgets. Cornwall Council advised me that pupil premium funding will be allocated using October data, rather than January data, despite the changes in family circumstances due to the pandemic. Can the Minister confirm which data should be used to allocate the pupil premium and, in relation to that, free school meals? Furthermore, schools tell me that they cannot claim additional funding if they hold a reserve, yet they are told to hold a reserve for staff pay, cash flow and so on. For example, covid-related staff absence is not covered by insurance and is proving costly for schools in my constituency. Added to that, teachers are expected—and, rightly, willing—to deliver remote learning, yet I am aware of staff who still do not have adequate IT equipment. Can the Minister survey schools to identify how significant those problems are?

There is also the expectation on covid testing. Schools have been told to set up testing capacity for pupils and staff, but I am aware of a concern among schools and parents about whether this is an appropriate additional expectation on school staff. I am also aware of schools that feel they cannot accept pupils face to face unless parents consent to these covid tests. Could the Minister clarify what schools are expected to do and whether children can be barred from school-based learning if parents are concerned about the testing regime? We are in danger of another expectation on schools that serves to damage the relationship with parents.

Finally, I turn to recognition. As I said at the outset, if nothing else, I want to put on record my appreciation of and respect for schools and all school staff. If there was any particular time to appreciate the investment that our school staff make in our children, it must be now. I believe there needs to be a wider debate about the attitude to teachers as a profession generally. We must regain the confidence of schools that decision makers understand the grassroots of education. To do this, we must up our game in regard to consultation and trust in the workforce. That will deliver the best model for all our children. I honestly believe that there is a need for further respect and trust, which I do not believe for a minute is anything but the Department’s intention.

Looking forward positively, there are schools that have excelled at delivering a comprehensive teaching programme directly into people’s homes. Will the Department for Education look at permitting schools with this proven track record of quality remote learning to offer this to children who, for various reasons, do not access mainstream education in normal times? We all know that before the pandemic, there were many parents and many children who, for whatever reason, could not fit in or were not attending mainstream education. There are huge numbers of children in my constituency who are home-schooled. Even after the first lockdown, I began the conversation with the Department about whether, where that is the case and where it is unavoidable, schools that are good at remote learning could enrol these children in school and involve them in its teaching environment.

To conclude, I hope that the Minister can instruct his Department and senior figures in Government to look for ways to improve communication, balance resource and advice with the expectation we rightly have for our schools, and find ways of praising the fantastic work of teachers wherever and however possible. They have been incredible and continue to do what they do in an extraordinary environment. Having had my children home for most of last year, I, for one, truly appreciate the work of our teachers.

May I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this very important Adjournment debate? I am delighted to be able to take part in it and I thank him very much indeed. He and I have much in common: we are both Members of Parliament from the south-west, we both have very rural and coastal constituencies, and we both have fishing and farming communities. However, I like to think that West Dorset maybe leads the way a little bit in education. Of course, I was schooled in Sherborne —it was also the town of the school of Alan Turing, who solved the Enigma code during the second world war.

This pandemic has touched every aspect of society, and, as hon. Members will know, we have discussed and debated those extensively. Despite the fact that some have been urging schools to close, not least some unions, may I commend the Government and the Minister, particularly, for wanting to keep them open and doing all he can to do so? But the reality is that schools, headteachers and their teams are making valiant efforts to continue educating our children—their pupils—no matter what circumstances they face. While school is closed for many children in West Dorset, I have at least one school with 60% of its children who are children of critical workers, or who are those in particular need. I have been in regular contact with the headteachers in my constituency, and I have been consistently in awe of the way that they continue to handle the most difficult of situations.

Covid testing in schools has been a great logistical challenge, but none the less, our schools, particularly those in West Dorset, have been willing to put all those measures in place to carry on. Teachers across the nation, I know, have gone above and beyond to support our young people through the pandemic, which has been no mean feat. West Dorset schools have made the transition to online learning extraordinarily quickly, thereby ensuring that students do not fall behind. They have kept their doors open for the children of critical workers, as I said, and they have built covid-secure infrastructure entirely from scratch in many cases.

The Government have kept schools open for as long as possible to reduce the disruption to education, and I know that the decision to close them was not taken lightly. Despite the short notice for many of these decisions, teachers in my constituency have been enormously responsive to these changing circumstances. Staff classed as clinically vulnerable or shielding have been unable to go to work, sometimes for their own safety, while frequent and unfortunately necessary isolations have contributed to some staffing arrangements being under pressure. Those staff able to come in have indeed put in extraordinarily long hours, and I commend them all for that. This is despite some of the difficulties they face and some undermining their efforts, writing letters urging teachers and staff to refuse to come to work. We are privileged to have such a committed teaching profession.

I have been personally very moved by the many emails and replies from teachers, sharing with me what they have done, as I am sure has been the case for my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives—the weekends they have given up to prepare for new guidance, new processes and new arrangements. I would particularly like to mention special needs schools, which I know have had a particularly tough time.

I want to make particular mention of the schools that I know have totally gone above and beyond in delivering education to our children in West Dorset: the Woodroffe school in Lyme Regis, the Gryphon School in Sherborne, Mountjoy School in Beaminster, St Mary’s in Bridport, and Trent Young’s Church of England Primary School and St Osmund’s Middle School in Dorchester. There are many, many more in West Dorset that I would like to commend. Unfortunately, I do not have the time this evening to do that, but their work in education—for logistics, for care, for the health and support of their pupils—has been absolutely excellent.

Going forward, I would like to ask the Minister to consider, hopefully in wrapping up, that the vaccination of our teachers be put higher on to the agenda. I know how strongly he and many of his colleagues in the Department feel, but I know too that the teachers who have been in touch with me over the previous weeks would very much value it if he took that forward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate, and both he and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on their introductory speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives is right to pay tribute to the extraordinary way in which teachers, support staff and headteachers in the 50-plus schools in his constituency and elsewhere around the country have responded to the demands placed on them by the covid pandemic and by the Government’s response to tackling it.

From introducing covid security measures in our schools over the summer holidays, maintaining and enforcing the new rules in schools during the summer term, increased hygiene—I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend’s commitment on the personal hygiene front —increased hand washing, one-way systems and staggered breaks and lunch times for all pupils, while at the same time helping their pupils to catch up from the lockdown from March to July, to teaching the curriculum and continuing the work to prepare and improve the curriculum for online teaching, these have been demanding times for the profession. With high attendance rates and more than 99% of schools open throughout the autumn term, we should all have enormous admiration for the achievements of schools and their staff. Indeed, I very well remember visiting some of the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency just a few short years ago and meeting some of the very same teachers and support staff he referred to in his speech.

However, the situation has now changed again. It is vital that we take action, given the very high transmission rates, so since 5 January we have asked schools to limit attendance during the lockdown, because the Government are taking every possible measure to reduce overall social contacts, bringing down cases in the community and protecting the NHS. This will undoubtedly have a big impact on children and schools once again. We will continue to review the restrictions on schools and ensure that children get back to face-to-face education as soon as possible, which I know is the preference of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. I suspect that deep down it is also the preference of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, despite all the support and the enjoyment he has with his children being at home.

In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to ensure that children continue to learn and make progress. Schools have always been required to assess and manage risk. Before the end of the summer term, we published clear guidance for the autumn so that they could put in place proportionate control measures in response to their risk assessments, while still providing their pupils with a high-quality education. The 11 control measures run from enhanced cleaning and ventilating occupied spaces to managing confirmed cases of the virus. This is a fast-moving situation, and as the pandemic has evolved, guidance for schools has been needed on a range of issues. I am aware of feedback on guidance, and I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives that we have made changes to improve our approach in response, making clear any changes at the start of documents, so that school staff can quickly see updates, without having to re-read the whole document.

During the current period of national restrictions we have asked schools to allow only vulnerable children and young people, and the children of critical workers to attend. The guidance is clear that families where at least one parent’s work is critical can send their child to school, if required. If parents and carers who are critical workers can keep their children at home, they should do so. We know that every school will have a different number of children of critical workers who need to attend, and it is important that on-site provision is provided for these pupils, and schools should not limit attendance of these groups. That is because we are reducing overall social contact across areas and the country, rather than individually by each institution. The Department publishes weekly national level data on pupil attendance, and the data for 11 January shows that attendance in state primary schools in England was at 20% and attendance in state secondaries was at 4%, although this will of course vary on a school-by-school basis, as my hon. Friend has pointed out.

On 15 December, we announced the roll-out of rapid result asymptomatic testing in secondary schools for the workforce and for pupils, and I am pleased to hear that schools in St Ives are already benefiting from that. This month, we are also rolling out that programme to primary school staff. Primary schools should expect to receive a delivery of home testing kits from today. Schools can access workforce funding and military support to help them implement the programme, as well as engage volunteers through one of the national volunteering networks. Where schools are unable to identify enough staff or volunteers, they can call our helpline for additional support, which is provided on a case-by-case basis. Testing those without symptoms is vital in reducing the spread of covid-19, and these lateral flow tests will be able to indicate in just half an hour whether somebody has the virus. Participation in the programme requires the consent of the person being tested or their parents, if they are under 16. Pupils who are not taking part in testing will still be able to attend school as normal, where they are eligible to attend, unless of course they develop symptoms or need to self-isolate after being in close contact with somebody who has tested positive. All those steps help make schools as safe as possible and will help limit the amount of time that pupils miss from the classroom in the future.

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government have a catch-up package worth £1 billion, including a catch-up premium, worth a total of £650 million, to support schools to make up for the impact of time outside the classroom. This academic year the forecast catch-up premium for Cornwall will be £5.8 million. Alongside that, we have a new £350 million national tutoring programme for disadvantaged pupils, which will increase access to high-quality tuition for the most disadvantaged young people, helping to accelerate their academic progress and tackling the attainment gap.

It is crucial that all children continue to learn during the lockdown, so we have updated the remote education guidance for schools to clarify and strengthen expectations, drawing on our evolving understanding of best practice in remote education. The Government are spending £400 million on remote education to help schools and colleges meet those expectations. That includes three quarters of a million laptops and tablets that have already been delivered to schools and local authorities since the start of the pandemic. A comprehensive package of support is available and the Department has also made £4.84 million available for the Oak National Academy, both for the summer term of the academic year 2019-20 and for the 2020-21 academic year, to provide video lessons in a broad range of subjects for reception to year 11, and there have been 32 million views of those very high-quality lessons from the Oak National Academy.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives raised the issue of funding, as he so often does on behalf of his constituents and schools. School budgets are rising by £2.6 billion in 2020-21, £4.8 billion in 2021-22 and £7.1 billion in 2022-23, compared with 2019-20. On average, schools are attracting 4.2% more per pupil in this financial year, compared with 2019-20, and will attract 3.3% more per pupil in 2021-22. This increase in funding will help schools with costs associated with the covid outbreak.

We have also provided additional funding to schools on top of existing budgets to cover unavoidable costs incurred between March and July 2020 due to the covid outbreak that could not be met from their budgets. Schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency have received £94,238 so far through the first claims window of the covid exceptional costs fund, which supported schools with the most significant costs they faced between March and July. Schools nationally have received payments of more than £100 million for all claims within the published scope of the fund, and we are currently processing claims from the second window, which ran in December. We have also promised a further £78 million to support schools with the costs of rolling out testing this term.

We know that children and young people may be experiencing a wide variety of emotions in response to the coronavirus outbreak, such as anxiety, stress or low mood, and the return to remote learning for most will limit their social interaction with their peers. Some pupils may need support from their school to readjust— either to return to learning at home or to being in school without some of their friends. Our £8 million wellbeing-for-education-return training programme is supporting staff in schools and colleges to respond to the additional pressures that schools may be feeling as a direct result of the pandemic. My hon. Friends will be delighted to know that there are similar schemes to help teachers’ wellbeing during this very pressured time.

Ultimately, it is our ambition to ensure that all pupils have the chance to make up for education lost during the pandemic, so that they can reach their potential in the long term. We are doing everything in our power so that schools can make this happen. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said about prioritising vaccines for teachers. The Government are considering that, along with other critical workers in the second phase of the roll-out of the pandemic.

School leaders, teachers and support staff have done truly tremendous work since the start of the pandemic to maintain high-quality education for all their pupils. I thank them once again for their exceptional efforts.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.