I beg to move,
That this House believes that families need more support during school and college closures; and that those eligible should be guaranteed to receive the full value of free school meals for the duration of the school year, including during all holidays; and calls on the Secretary of State for Education to set a deadline to ensure that every learner has the resources required to learn remotely, and provide a weekly update to Parliament on implementing this.
Today, and at least until February half-term, millions of children have not attended school and will instead be studying at home. No one wants to be in this situation—we all believe that school is the best place for children’s learning and wellbeing—but for now, faced with a rising coronavirus infection rate, we understand that many children need to study at home. They, their families and hard-working school staff deserve to know that the Government are doing all they can to support them.
That is why we have brought forward a motion this evening that asks two fundamental questions: first, are the Government doing everything they can to support pupils to keep learning remotely; and secondly, are the Government doing everything they can to ensure that children do not go hungry when they cannot get a free meal in school? If the answer to those questions is no, which I believe it is, then Members, whatever their party, should vote for our motion.
These should be matters on which we can all agree. I am sure there is nobody in this House who does not believe that children should receive a world-class education and that every family in this country should be able to provide their children with nourishing meals, but the reality is that the Government have not done enough—too slow to secure digital access for those who need it, while overseeing yet another scandal in delivering free school meals to children in need of them. The Prime Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State claimed to be outraged by images of food parcels they saw on social media last week, but I and my party are outraged at Ministers’ consistent and unforgivable failure to stand with children and families throughout this pandemic. Pupils and parents deserve a Government who are on their side. They deserve better than this Government.
I pay tribute to everyone who has gone above and beyond to keep children safe and learning throughout the pandemic—the teachers, leaders and support staff across our education system who have worked hard in extraordinary circumstances to keep children learning safely; and the parents who face the unenviable task of balancing work, educating their children and childcare, too often without the support they needed.
At the beginning of this pandemic, 1.8 million children did not have the devices or internet connections they needed to work from home and, in that first national lockdown, many of those children struggled to access remote learning. Despite the best efforts of teachers, school leaders and support staff, some children fell behind their peers because they lacked the basic resources to continue learning when they could not be in the classroom. The Secretary of State rightly started to provide some devices to some of those children. He set a target of providing 230,000 devices by the end of June last year. Not only did that fall far short of the number of children who needed them, but he did not even deliver all those devices on time. Perhaps he could have learned a lesson from the Labour Government in Wales, which repurposed existing orders and were supporting pupils with devices by the end of May, according to the independent Education Policy Institute.
Being less prepared than the Welsh Labour Administration may have been understandable at the beginning of the pandemic, but the Secretary of State’s inability to learn from his failures and from their success is inexcusable. Instead of redoubling his efforts to get devices to all the pupils who lacked digital access as quickly as possible, the Secretary of State waited until the new national lockdown this month to up his target and accelerate delivery, leaving hundreds of thousands of pupils not only out of the classroom, but out of learning. So I ask him: why were these laptops not being rolled out on this scale months ago? Why was he once again too slow to act to secure children’s education in the face of huge disruption?
Today, we have reached about 700,000 devices delivered against a target of 1.3 million. It does seem that the Secretary of State is finally beginning to learn from at least one of his mistakes. This time, he has decided not to set himself a deadline that he will simply miss, but he cannot shy away from his duty to those children, so can he tell the House now when all the devices will be in the hands of the pupils who need them? Can he guarantee that when that is done, every single child who was locked out of remote learning will be able to participate fully when they are not in the classroom?
This is not just an issue in schools. In colleges, we have heard of adult learners struggling to access remote learning and not being eligible for Government support. Universities UK, ucisa, GuildHE and Jisc have written to the Secretary of State in just the last few days to request urgent action to support the thousands of university students who are still unable to access their education online due to digital and data poverty. Will he tell us what he is doing to address this?
I would like to move to the second part of the motion on free school meals. The images of food parcels that we saw last week were scandalous. Ministers have said that they are outraged by them, but they refused to accept that responsibility for those images is a direct result of their own policies. They pushed for a food parcel-first approach and set guidance for parcels worth only a fraction of the £15 made available to providers for families to feed their children. They cannot devise and publish a policy and guidelines and then be appalled when they are implemented. Will the Secretary of State now take responsibility for what occurred and apologise to the parents who received those unacceptable food parcels?
The Secretary of State then managed to outdo himself, with not just one but two free school meals scandals last week. Only days after we all saw those images, it was reported that schools will not be providing free meals over the February half term. Of course, the Secretary of State voted against such a measure in October. We thought he had learned his lesson, but now he is letting down hungry children again. I know that he will cite the winter support scheme, but that scheme does not guarantee that every child eligible for a free school meal will get one every day of the holidays, and he cannot guarantee that no child will go hungry when they are out of school this half term.
I am listening to the hon. Lady carefully. I am sorry that she has not picked up the tone of her shadow DWP colleague, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) —he got the tone right; she has not—but does she agree that there is clearly a long-term conversation to be had in this country about school holiday food for families in receipt of free school meals? It is something that never happened during the 13 years of the last Labour Government and that, to my knowledge, the Opposition have not pushed this Government on during the last almost 11 years of their being in office. Does she agree that there is a conversation to be had, sensibly, across the Dispatch Box and without the partisan nonsense, about the long-term provision of holiday food for some of the poorest children in our country?
I am aware that a number of organisations, representing food charities, anti-poverty organisations, educationalists and so on, have written to the Prime Minister suggesting a full review of that subject. I welcome that, and I hope that he will respond with the offer of the review that they are seeking. However, I point out that not only are we in the middle of the first global pandemic in 100 years, but that it is against the backdrop of rapidly rising child poverty. That is why the push to address the hunger that children are facing now has become more acute than ever.
I have a simple solution for the Secretary of State to the problem of holiday hunger, one that could solve the problem at the touch of a button: sack the companies that are providing a substandard service and just give parents the money—secure family incomes by using the existing social security infrastructure and put £15 a week into the bank accounts of the parents who need it to feed their children. He should put his trust in mums and dads, because we know that parents will do the right thing.
Anyone who has thought about these issues—I do not know about Government Members, but I have spent a large part of my career thinking about them—knows that cash transfers work. They improve outcomes for children, they remove stigma for families and they ensure that the full value of support provided goes to children. I know that there are some people—in October we discovered some of them on the Government Benches—who believe that parents cannot be trusted to use money responsibly to feed their children. That is wrong in every possible way. It is morally wrong to condemn families to insecurity and stigma. It is economically illiterate not to provide cash to families who most need it, and instead to slash their incomes in the midst of the worst recession that most of us will know in our lifetimes. And it is factually and empirically wrong to suggest that this money would not be spent by parents on food for children. So I ask the Secretary of State to do the right thing: to end the scandal of inadequate food parcels or vouchers that take days to arrive, and the scandal—in one of the richest countries in the world—of children continuing to go to bed hungry.
I want to turn briefly to the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Let me begin by saying that there are some things in the amendment that I am glad to see—not least that he has finally listened to teachers and to Labour and started to move towards zero rating of educational websites, though quite why it has taken him so long, I do not know. First, the amendment asks us to note that the Government are
“committed to supporting families to feed their children during both term-time and holidays”.
It then mentions a voucher scheme that has been hit by repeated delays in an outsourcing fiasco, a winter grant scheme that cannot guarantee that every child will be fed and a holiday scheme that will not be in place for months. It condemns the food parcels we saw on social media, while failing to take any responsibility for the fact that they were in line with the Government’s own policies. It ignores the Government’s plans to slash more than £1,000 a year from family incomes by cutting the lifeline in universal credit, plunging hundreds of thousands of children into poverty.
Then the amendment calls on us to note all the progress the Secretary of State has made in improving digital access. It lauds his half-delivered target of delivering 1.3 million laptops yet gives us no clear timeline for full delivery. It notes the support given to schools but ignores the fact that schools up and down the country have repeatedly reported that they have not had the support they needed from the Government throughout the pandemic, whether it is on funding, testing, exams—the list continues. I am afraid the amendment is not credible. In fact, it is insulting to schools and families across the country, who will see through this attempt to give Government Members something to vote for while failing to support the entirely reasonable motion we have tabled.
Poverty is, sadly, endemic across our country. In every city, town and community, it blights the life chances of children, causes unimaginable hardship and insecurity to families, and weakens our economy. The pandemic has made the situation far, far worse, and it is appalling that today, we have seen with our own eyes that the Government are simply not committed to the task of ending child poverty.
Earlier this evening, Government Members failed to support Labour’s motion calling for the £20 uplift in universal credit—a lifeline that has kept millions above water over the past nine months—to be made permanent. The consequences are simple: families and children will be plunged into insecurity, hardship and poverty. I am giving Government Members a second chance to do the right thing this evening and to put children first by voting for our motion—a motion that asks for nothing more than the chance for every child to learn and for no child to go hungry.
This Government have been engaged in a monumental battle to manage the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, to protect the NHS and to save lives, and also to minimise the damage that this ongoing disruption is causing to a generation of young people’s lives. This is not a challenge faced by this country alone; it is a challenge faced by nations right across the world.
On 5 January, escalating rates of covid infection once more forced us to ask schools to close their doors to the majority of pupils for the second time in less than a year. This is not a move that any of us in the House—certainly not on the Government Benches—wanted to see. So much learning has been lost already, but we know that one of the most effective ways of reducing the impact of being out of school is through high-quality remote education. I am glad to say that we are in a much better place than we were last March for minimising the worst effects of this disruption. School and college teachers and leaders have quickly adapted once more to delivering a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. I thank them once again, as I am sure all in this House want to, for the brilliant way that they have responded to the evolving health situation.
Last year, a group of 40 teachers founded and launched the Oak National Academy, with not just our moral support, but, more importantly, financial support from the Department for Education. It was a new venture that many people said could not or would not work, but in two weeks flat, it was able to produce thousands of high-quality, teacher-led video lessons with £4 million of Government funding. It now has 3.8 million users, and 32 million lessons have been viewed—not just in England, but in all four nations of the United Kingdom.
Will my right hon. Friend also note that the Oak National Academy today launched its virtual library, and congratulate all those who have taken part? It means that our children can be not only learning, but reading, which is so important—and this comes as we launch the all-party group on literacy tomorrow.
I echo what my hon. Friend said about the importance of the expansion of services at the Oak National Academy, and of encouraging the ever-greater availability of resources on this brilliant platform. I certainly wish him the very best with the new all-party group.
Online learning is a critical means of helping children and young people make the academic progress that they so desperately need at this time. Now that most children and young people are studying remotely, we have increased our expectations of the remote education that they receive. Schools have made huge progress in developing their remote education provision, and are now expected to provide either recorded or live direct teaching, alongside allowing pupils time to complete independently work that they have been set. Schools are now expected to provide a minimum of three hours’ provision a day for key stage 1—it is fewer hours for younger children—four hours a day for key stage 2, and five hours a day for key stages 3 and 4. Schools should also have a system in place for checking daily whether pupils are engaging actively with their work and learning.
We have set out clear, legally binding requirements for schools to provide high-quality remote education, and it is fantastic to see how schools and teachers have risen to the occasion, delivering a real step change in the standard of remote education compared with last spring.
Further education colleges are expected to continue to deliver as much of students’ planned hours as possible, to provide students with regular feedback on their progress and, wherever possible, to provide students with live online teaching when they cannot provide it face to face.
My Department is acutely aware of our huge responsibility to all our children, but none more than those who are socially and economically disadvantaged. We made it a priority to deliver the necessary technology to children in that position very early on in this pandemic, and I am glad to be able to give colleagues an update. Prior to the pandemic, there were an estimated 2.9 million laptops and tablets already in schools’ stock. In March, we began the process of finding a supplier who could deliver hundreds of thousands of computers for disadvantaged children. In April, we awarded Computacenter a contract for an initial 220,000 computers. We extended our commitment in August by a further 150,000, and did so again in September, and in October. By December, we had procured and delivered 560,000 laptops and tablets. In November, we ordered an additional 340,000 devices, bringing our total procurement to 1 million laptops and tablets. This has been one of the world’s largest procurements of laptops and tablets, and it has happened despite intense global demand.
Despite the million laptops or tablets commitment, we wanted to go further, and this year we have already ordered a further 300,000 devices on top of our current order. Already, three quarters of a million computers are in the hands of schools and disadvantaged young people. All this is in addition to the 1.9 million laptops and 1 million tablets that schools already have, most of which can be lent out to those pupils who need them most.
The latest 300,000 devices lift our investment in online learning by another £100 million, meaning that more than £400 million has been invested in supporting disadvantaged children and young people who need the most help and support with access to technology through the pandemic. The 16-to-19 bursary fund was another, existing means of supporting disadvantaged learners in schools and further education settings. As for adults, we introduced a change to the Education and Skills Funding Agency adult education budget last July, so that the most disadvantaged adult learners could continue to join courses that have moved online because of the virus. We have extended the “Get help with technology” scheme, in order to provide disadvantaged 16 to 19-year-olds with further help with devices.
I have concentrated so far in this debate on making clear how we are doing everything we can to ensure all our young people can continue to learn from home during the latest lockdown. However, no child can do their best if they are hungry, and I emphasise clearly, so that there is no doubt whatever, the Government’s commitment to free school meals.
I want to stress that the overwhelming majority of schools have been successfully providing exceptionally high-quality free school meal support to their pupils. However, pictures were circulated last week of food parcels that were simply not acceptable. Along with the Minister for children, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), I have met those who are supplying these parcels, and I have left them in no doubt that we expect high-quality food and supplies in the parcels they deliver. Our guidance states that the parcels need to contain certain items that parents can use to make a healthy lunch for any child throughout the week.
The Opposition make it sound as though the only people supplying these boxes last week were private companies, but many of the pictures from Birmingham that were circulating were of packages provided by Birmingham City Council’s catering company, Cityserve. Rather than trying to set one part of society against another when it comes to private companies, Members of Parliament should be working together to tackle these issues head-on.
I think Members from all parts of this House will join together where there is unacceptable delivery, in terms of the standards we all expect. It is right to call that out, for action to be taken and for standards to be raised. People are admittedly working under extreme pressure, but we need standards to continue to increase. Equally, every one of us will have seen—not only in our constituency, but right across the country—amazing work done by so many of our catering staff in schools. They have pulled out all the stops, and provided wonderful, nutritious meals for so many children up and down the country. It is important to put on record our thanks to those who have done so much.
May I direct my right hon. Friend to the Connect4communities programme that Hampshire County Council is putting together? It includes a discretionary schools grant, a holiday play scheme, and free school meal vouchers for the February half-term. That is how we are spending £2.9 million or so of the covid winter grant to support families in my Winchester constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when we discuss these matters, it is vital that we stick to the facts and the practical help on the ground for our constituents?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend always makes excellent points, as my experience of working with him in the Whips Office always proved. He is right to highlight the brilliant work that Hampshire County Council is doing. So many local authorities are looking at this issue in an innovative and different way, and are able to have a bigger impact and offer more support to those families who are most disadvantaged, and to whom we want to see support and help offered.
We are well aware that free school meals play a vital role in making sure that disadvantaged children receive a healthy, nutritious meal each school day. They are aimed at families who are out of work or on low incomes, and I have no doubt that they represent a lifeline for many families who have been hard-hit by this pandemic. Any school, family or pupil will be able to raise concerns about their food parcels through the Department for Education helpline. We have had a minimal number of cases so far, but we will take action on each and every one of them.
I want to be clear that children will be receiving food over the February half-term, just as they did at Christmas. In November, we announced a £170 million covid winter grant scheme to support vulnerable children and families—not only with food but, importantly, with other essentials, because we on the Government Benches recognise that this is not just an issue of food; sometimes, for those families most in need and requiring greater support, it is about other elements of support, too. Many of those families were struggling with bills, and other support could be provided through schemes such as the one so brilliantly outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine).
We recognised that support needed to be put in place, and we are doing more to provide support for children over the holidays. As part of the winter package announced in November, we confirmed the expansion of our brilliant holiday activities and food programme, at a cost of £220 million. It would be remiss of me not to mention the work done by a former member of the Labour party, Lord Field, who has done so much to highlight this issue and has always been a great advocate for holiday activities. While we address the issue of food, we must not lose sight of the need to make sure that activities are going on, and the need to support young people, most importantly, families. The expansion of the programme means that eligible children in every local authority throughout the country will be able to access healthy food and take part in fun activities over Easter, summer and Christmas, if they require that.
The course of the virus has changed since December. As a result of the change in trajectory, and bearing the possibility of future changes in mind, the Government will continue to keep under review what they need to do to ensure that all children continue to be fed, and families continue to be supported. I am confident that, thanks to the measures that we have put in place, remote education will go from strength to strength during this lockdown, enabling young people to make the educational progress that every single one of us in this House wants. Of course, every single one of us on the Government Benches wants to see them return to the classroom at the earliest opportunity.
I can confirm that the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister will not be moved this evening. Government Members are focusing on making sure that we get social policy right for the children of this country, and that they and their families are properly supported. For those on the Opposition Benches, so often the tone of the debate is more about social media than social policy. What we see in this Government’s actions are long-term solutions in respect of not just food, but activity for children at Easter, summer and into the future, because we realise and understand that that can make a real difference to children’s lives.
For the avoidance of any doubt, the Secretary of State did make it clear that he has not moved the selected amendment, so the Question before the House remains that already proposed—that is, as on the Order Paper.
I remind hon. Members that there will be a three-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches following the SNP spokesperson. When a speaking limit is in effect for Back Benchers, a countdown clock will be visible on the screens of hon. Members participating virtually and the screens in the Chamber. For hon. Members participating physically in the Chamber, the usual clock in the Chamber will operate.
[Inaudible] This important motion, which the SNP absolutely supports—in fact, every Member with a conscience should be supporting this motion.
In my maiden speech, I talked about the difficulties of young people learning when they were hungry or living in a challenging environment. This pandemic has made those issues even more acute. There are some basics that every child needs, such as food and warmth, but for successful learning to take place, they also need a safe place to study and access to appropriate resources. I am sure that Members will join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s ongoing commitment to free school meals, including in holiday periods. This is currently a cash-first response or vouchers for those eligible for free school meals, based on the individual family preference.
Our support for our most vulnerable children goes beyond free school meals. This year, we have introduced the game-changing Scottish child payment for eligible children under six to ensure that these youngsters have the very best start in life. Thousands of children and young people in receipt of free school meals are being supported through an additional £100 payment for every eligible child in the household. Despite the financial challenge, this shows a clear political commitment by the Scottish Government to the wellbeing of our youngsters.
We need a similar commitment from the UK Government to ensure that no child is going hungry, and that includes school holiday support. Having seen the shameful images of free school meals from last week, I ask the Government why private companies are profiteering off the back of hungry children. It should not be up to a private provider to decide what constitutes a weekly lunch offering. One thing that I know for sure is that families living in poverty know just how to make their budget stretch, so rather than arguing over who exactly is responsible, the Government should follow the example of the Scottish Government by just giving the families the money and trusting parents to feed their own children.
The Scottish Government have acted quickly to provide digital devices and support for remote learning. The Secretary of State said last week that Barnett consequentials would be delivered to the Scottish Government for additional spending on laptops and tablets. It would be useful to know when we can expect this funding. There are some very good online resources. In Scotland, we have sites such as e-Sgoil and SCHOLAR, but despite the quality of these resources, they will always be second best to a normal classroom environment. They should not be considered a substitute for high-quality classroom teaching, where there is development—for example, of investigative and collaborative skills—and where teachers can identify issues and target support.
However, until we can reopen classrooms, access to these resources must be made available to all. Without this, all the digital devices that the Secretary of State describes are little more than glorified typewriters, so it would be good to hear a better explanation than he gave this afternoon as to why he refused BT’s offer of internet access for disadvantaged learners. If he is struggling to identify these young people, he can contact the schools; they know exactly who is in need of such support. Ultimately, if the UK Government cannot deliver for Scotland at this time, they should devolve powers over broadband and borrowing to the Scottish Government, so that they can consign digital exclusion to the past.
There is not a person in this place who does not want children back in schools as soon as possible. This pandemic has highlighted the incredible job that our teachers do, so my final plea is that teachers be prioritised for vaccination, to ensure they have the confidence to return to full class teaching.
Although I voted against the Government previously on free school meals, I firmly believe that they have come up with a comprehensive package that should be recognised: £220 million for holiday activities and the food programme, £60 million for frontline food charities, £120 million last summer to keep free school meals going, Healthy Start vouchers, and £170 million for local authorities, 80% of which is ring-fenced for food and essential items. It is worth noting that all of this was welcomed by Opposition Members and the teaching unions at the time it was announced. It is also worth noting that, as the Prime Minister reminded the Liaison Committee last week, free school meals were proposed and invented by a Conservative Government, and that in 2012, alongside other MPs and the Association of Colleges, I successfully campaigned for their extension to disadvantaged college students.
I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that the £150 million from the sugar levy that is unaccounted for is used to expand the national school breakfast programme, as we know that breakfast clubs increase attainment by up to two months. This debate should not just have been a political sugar rush for the Opposition, in which to score political points against the Government when they have done the right thing; it should have been a debate on how to deal with the fundamental problems around food poverty through, for example, family hubs, early intervention, and reform of the welfare system.
I turn now to the issue of remote learning. A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that poorer students spent less time learning than their richer peers, had fewer resources at home with which to learn effectively, and are less likely to return to in-person schooling when given the chance. I therefore welcome the Government’s guidance on remote learning, the 1,900 laptops delivered to schools in Essex, and the direction of Ofsted to work with schools not as interrogators or investigators, but as candid friends.
However, we can provide all the laptops in the world, but the £1 billion catch-up scheme will still be fundamental. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to confirm what he told the Select Committee on Education last week: that his Department will ensure all the national tutoring programme partners will be able to deliver online learning, and that the list of approved tuition partners will be flexible and rolling, allowing new and innovative tuition programmes such as the Invicta National Academy. Will he support teacher vaccinations to get our schools open, and will he carry out a risk assessment of the ongoing impact of school closures? Finally, does he not agree that the best solution to the issue of remote learning is to get our schools open as soon as possible, and get our children learning again?
Throughout this pandemic, a light has been shone on the poverty and inequality in our country like never before. The free school meals fiasco is another example of the Government’s complete lack of sincerity when it comes to tackling inequality in this country. A Government-contracted provider sent a food box that contained a pitiful spoonful of tuna in a tiny coin bag. Someone is profiting from these boxes, and it is not children or families. Perhaps the Secretary of State can throw some light on to that.
I find this a shameful state of affairs for the fifth richest country in the world. I welcome the fact that the Government have agreed with the public that these boxes are unacceptable; however, their contents are very close to the Government guidelines issued for them. Until they were caught out, the Government were happy that children should be fed nutritionally inadequate lunches. When Opposition Members raise such issues with the Government, they rebut us by telling us what they have done and how much funding has been committed—we have just heard an example of that. However, the problems still exist, so if Ministers are serious about this, I urge them to tell us what more they will do to ensure that no child in this country goes hungry.
When schools and colleges closed earlier this month, many pupils went home knowing that they would not be able to access classes the next day. While some children and young people are rightly able to attend school and engage with learning, the wide eligibility of critical workers has led to schools being oversubscribed. I have heard from schools in Brightside and Hillsborough that have had to prioritise children and turn others away. One school with 200 pupils has said that it can accommodate 80 of those safely, but 140 applied for a place. There is a similar story in many schools in my constituency.
With so many pupils unable to attend school, ensuring access to laptops and the internet is vital to mitigate the impact of the learning lost by so many children and young people already. A recent audit by Sheffield City Council found that, across the city, 7,000 children are without suitable devices and 4,500 have no connectivity. We are now into our third week of the national lockdown. Only this week has a free school meals voucher scheme been launched. More than 10,000 children and young people in Sheffield are still waiting to access home learning, along with many more in the country. It is a source of shame for our country to have let our children down so badly. The Government must accept that it is too little and it is too late.
The Government must no longer deny many thousands of children and young learners their right to good nutrition and the learning that they need and deserve. They are our country’s future, and I beg you not to let them down again.
In the interests of trying to get on to more people on the speakers list, I will try to be brief. However, I will do so without the toxicity, party rhetoric and empty claims from Opposition Members.
What we do need and what I do welcome is a much more holistic approach to a food strategy moving forward. So while I did vote against the Government previously on the topic of free school meals, I was pleased—as were Opposition Members, as were the teaching unions—when the covid winter support scheme came through and when the holiday activities support scheme came forward. This actually will make a serious and meaningful change to the lives of our young people.
As we heard from the Secretary of State, over 700,000 devices have been delivered, and that should be applauded. Yes, we all want more to be delivered. However, we do need to wait for some of these laptops and devices to actually be manufactured. We have bought the capacity for the manufacturing to be proceeded with as quickly as possible. However, we cannot give devices that have not actually been built. Yes, I would like to go further and say that maybe we should devolve the budget to schools so that they can try to use their own procurement methods and perhaps find a more local solution, and I would urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to see if that is an option. However, we are limited to the manufacture, and I do applaud what we have done so far.
On school meals, we have heard from Opposition Members that now children all of a sudden will be going starving in the February half-term. However, their own union members welcomed the commitment back in November, saying the
“£170m channelled via local authorities to the end of March appears to address the immediate need to ensure that children do not go hungry over the Christmas and February half-term holidays.”
So I ask: if it was welcome back in November, why is it not welcome now?
I would also like to echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) when he was calling for a wider view to be taken about the sugary drinks levy and the School Breakfast Bill in the name of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), which I am proud to be a sponsor of. I think that, if we are to take a wider view as to how we tackle not only at school and children hunger, but the attainment gap, this has to be something that we explore and explore meaningfully to try to tackle these problems.
When we look at the issue of laptops, on even my own Labour council, the deputy leader of the council and cabinet member for education has said there is no issue with laptops locally. With that in mind, I would like to thank the Department for what it has done. Yes, we could do more, and yes, we could try to get things quicker, but this is similar to the vaccine: it is a matter of supply, not of being able actually to deliver.
In the north-west, a quarter of a million children qualify for free school meals. Nearly 6,500 of those children live in my constituency. To put that in perspective, more children are claiming free school meals in Manchester, Gorton than in the constituencies of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Education combined. It is no wonder then that the Government continually fail to comprehend the reality of life for children and families who rely on free school meals.
Schools, food banks, mutual aid groups and my constituents have helped throughout this difficult month. I am incredibly grateful to every single person involved. I must also thank Marcus Rashford for his tireless work through the crisis. I am sure that he knows this already, but Manchester is immensely proud of him.
For families struggling to make ends meet, free school meals are a lifeline. Yet, once again, we are having to persuade the Government to continue that support through the school holidays. Without free school meals, half-term would be devastating for the 6,327 children in my constituency who, without this support, would otherwise go hungry.
The link between poverty and digital exclusion is clear: if people are poor, they have less chance of being online. For children this year, that has meant missing out on vital learning. I have spoken with headteachers across my constituency, who say that they are desperate for digital devices for pupils. Not a single one I spoke to said that enough devices had been received for all the children who need one. Sadly, children growing up in poverty are once again being abandoned by this Government. They are left to go without schooling and without food.
If the Government wanted to, they could change that overnight by extending the provision of free school meals over the upcoming half-term, introducing a cash-payment system for parents while schools are closed, and rapidly upscaling the delivery of digital devices to those schools that need them. I hope they will do so soon. Until then, I will continue to be a voice for the poorest and most in need in my constituency.
Nourishment is fundamental to learning, as to so much else. In recognition of its importance, of course, eligibility has been extended three times since 2010—among infants, in further education colleges as my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) mentioned, and with the extension of the universal credit roll-out.
In current circumstances, it has been right to extend support into the holidays, during the depths of this crisis. I support the covid winter grant scheme. In Hampshire, I welcome the programme elements that go considerably beyond lunches and children eligible for free school meals, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned, to target help where it is most needed, with things such as discretionary school grants, community pantries, provision of fuel cards where needed and other elements and channels.
Looking beyond covid, I hope that it will be possible to maintain and indeed extend the holiday food and activities programme, which a number of colleagues have mentioned and which we grew while I was at the Department for Education. The best programmes in that scheme include a variety of purposeful activity and family food-preparation workshops. I was very impressed when I visited to two such programmes run by Connect4Summer in my constituency of East Hampshire, in Headley Down and in Bordon.
Turning to the other part of the motion, on resources for learning remotely, this has clearly been an immensely difficult time for teachers, parents and children and I commend them all for what they have done. I support the unprecedented effort to provide extra hardware on top of the devices that schools already had, but of course, this is not only about that tech. That is far from the only aspect of remote education. Indeed, there are limits on it, especially further down the age range. Many schools have created fantastic paper resources, and old technology such as textbooks continue to play an important role. It is important to maximise the effectiveness of the less new technologies, which are widely available, and I am pleased that the BBC has now announced more programming. I wish that that had happened earlier, because although there are many companies that can make great online resources, there are few that can do broadcasting.
The move to remote learning was so rapid that teachers and others did not have time to plan, but much has been learned since then by schools, ed tech suppliers and others. We have seen how to improve the balance, for example, between live lessons and at-your-own-pace work. We have learned more about what tech can and cannot do, and about how it can augment learning. The range of ed tech available now is truly outstanding, and the all-party parliamentary group on education technology is looking at the lessons that can be learned from lockdown. The road ahead is surely challenging for this generation of children and their amazing teachers in terms of getting back on track and re-narrowing the attainment gap, and it is essential that what we have learned in this time through the albeit enforced distance learning is put to best use when, in time, we return to normality.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). I want to share a few thoughts from the frontline here in Europe’s youngest city, Birmingham. It is fair to say that many people will have a degree of sympathy, in that this was a crisis that could not have been foreseen, but nor could anybody else have foreseen it, and yet somehow here in this country we have had more lives lost than almost anywhere else, livelihoods have been hit harder than almost anywhere else, and now, as we are going to hear from this debate, more lessons are being lost here than anywhere else. The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to say that young people have a very hard road ahead of them. Here in Birmingham, like everywhere else in Britain, our children have really suffered from the exams fiasco last year. Here in the west midlands, youth services have been cut by two and a half times more than the national average, we have youth unemployment that is over 20%, and now our young people are being punished because they cannot get the education they need at home.
I was glad to hear that the Secretary of State is now interested in social policy. Let me share some data with him. We surveyed 443 schools last week in Birmingham, and I thank Ian Ward, the leader of the council, and cabinet member Jayne Francis for organising that. All but one of the respondents said that they had problems with technology for children at home. Some secondary schools are saying that they are 400 laptops short, 70% said that there were problems with connectivity and almost all of them said that there were problems getting through to the DFE. Listen to Maddie Bromley from Court Farm Primary School: “Deprived school. Allocation 51 laptops, only 10 arrived. Still waiting on the rest. Had to chase Government repeatedly.” Or Helen Slack, the head of Twickenham Primary School: “No allocation for years 1, 2 and 3. Parents ringing in tears. Can’t get an answer from the Department for Education.” Another school said: “We are an infant school. We have been ignored by the DFE.” And another: “As an infant school, we were not eligible for laptops.” Another head said: “We have been in desperate need for laptops. Any help appreciated, thank you.”, and another told me: “We have requested over 15 times now from the Department for Education and still haven’t had a response.” Some are reporting that there are anywhere between 70 and 250 parents in desperate need of technology support. This is a shambles. I say thank you to Birmingham City Council and thank you to Graeme Brown, the editor of the Birmingham Post and the Birmingham Mail for offering to jump into the breach and organise laptop collections, because where the Department has failed, we now need the good people and the good companies of Birmingham to come together to fill the breach.
I would like to focus my remarks specifically on remote and online learning.
I would like to express my incredible admiration for all teachers who have managed to turn around at such fast pace and such short notice a fantastic programme of online support. I am the father of a six-year-old girl, a four-year-old son, and, in addition, a 14-month-old baby screaming in the background. I have just managed to wrestle this laptop away from their learning today. The level of support in what I have seen has been wonderful. Regardless of my ability to have access to a laptop, a number of people who are both working parents struggle to provide these three hours. I hold my hand up and say that I struggle to do the home schooling to the best of what I would like to be my ability. After this pandemic has ceased, we will need a national education recovery plan to look at all children’s ability and see where they need to recover. That covers not just the disadvantaged but every single pupil who will have fallen behind on the track. I know that my children are not receiving the experience that they deserve with being present in school, but I would never think to suggest that the money that is being invested in schools should be returned for not providing that level of support, because what they are providing digitally is the best they can do in difficult circumstances. I am sure that that view is shared by millions of parents across the country.
Why, then, should it be any different for other learning arenas—in particular, our universities? Thousands of lecturers have gone above and beyond to provide additional online resourcing materials, and yet these lecturers, who are sometimes paid less than primary school teachers, are supposedly providing an inferior service. The other day, one Labour MP talked about degrees being conducted by Zoom as if that was some kind of substandard process. It is not. Universities have invested more money than ever before in online procedures in just the same way that schools have. It costs more to provide online resources at university. To suggest that there should be a reduction in the fees level would simply lead to increased redundancies in universities. We need our universities, just as we need our schools, to be there to help students to recover when this pandemic ends. It is right, therefore, to support all educational settings and to fight for the fact that we need them for the future and must not put any of them under particular under attack.
I have spoken before about growing up on free school meals and how important they are to children and families, but also about the stigma that was palpable and what it actually felt like to grow up poor. Colleagues will know that I am incredibly passionate about this issue. I set up, and have chaired for over 10 years, the all-party parliamentary group on school food.
Progress has been made. However, the images of some of the food parcels given to families in the past few weeks have shocked us all and rightly shamed the companies that provided them. Families deserve dignity and should expect high-quality food to ensure that their children continue to eat healthy food throughout the school closures. But stale bread, browning bananas, peppers and tomatoes cut in half and processed cheese do not meet those expectations for the standards of meals in our schools. There is no silver bullet for replacing the lovely hot, healthy meals that children were due to receive in school, but the Government must accept that families have agency to go shopping and buy and prepare the food that works for them by themselves. Extensive research by the World Bank in all world economies, not just the poorest, proves that cash transfers work and that concerns around their use on “temptation goods” are “unfounded”. We should trust parents to do right by their children and give them the means to do so when schools are closed.
Food and access to it is going to be so important to our covid recovery. That is why, when children return to school, I want them to return to the hot and healthy meals they need and deserve. That means the Government supporting the schools’ food supply chain and making a commitment that we will not see any move away from hot and healthy free school meals when schools reopen. Free school meals have been hard fought for for over 115 years, and it is crucial that we protect them for children and families of the future who will need them too.
On Friday, I met headteachers in my constituency who told me of children working well into the night because their parents had to use the only laptop in the house for work during the day. In other homes, children are expected to share a device with five siblings. How can we hope for our young people to develop when we feed them poorly and force them to learn on one sixth of a shared computer with limited data access? The Government really must do better, and they have a chance tonight to accept that.
This is an important subject, and I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate. We can be proud of the support that the Government have put in place for those who are most vulnerable to the dangers of the coronavirus, but there is no hiding from the fact that this has been, and continues to be, an incredibly difficult time for many in our communities. We have all had to adapt to the changes that the pandemic has forced upon us. Of all those conversations, one of the most important is about how we brace our young people, both in the here and now and against the difficulties they may face after we defeat the virus.
Colleagues are right to make reference to the package that the Government have put in place. I voted for the previous Opposition motion on free school meals, and I would do it again, but the Government have now put in place increased support. The ambitious covid winter grant scheme introduced by the Government will fund holiday free school meals through local authorities for those children that need them, and the holiday activities and food programme will follow. Those are meaningful, real-life packages of support that local authorities and schools are using right now to help children. They are tailored to those who need them most. I was pleased to work alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and local council leader Rob Waltham on this in our area.
Talking about this is important, and what hon. and right hon. Members say in this Chamber is important, but what matters most is what we do to improve the life chances of our young people. I am proud to work alongside those on the ground who get on with it and put that Government support in place. This issue should never be about headlines or the opportunity for political advantage. On that note, I want to thank and acknowledge those people at the frontline on free school meals and the provision of remote learning devices. Throughout this pandemic, our schools, our teachers and all our school staff have had to take on additional roles. They are now social workers, councillors and, with remote learning in place, IT consultants too. I hope that the Government will recognise those contributions in future pay reviews.
With our schools working hard to catch up, I call on the Government to continue their support for the catch-up premium and the national tutoring programme—important policies that can make a meaningful difference to children in areas such as Scunthorpe. Moving forward, our priority must be to ensure that the measures in place meet the needs of those supported, and I will carry on working with my local authority and the schools in my area to make sure that we do our best—
The shocking pictures we have all seen of the tiny portions of grated cheese, half-sliced tomatoes and, if lucky, half a pepper are a measure of the contempt that this Government have for low-income families. During the pandemic, we have seen the Government squander billions of pounds awarding contracts for failed systems and sub-standard produce to friends of the Tory party, whether qualified or not. Every tight-fisted parcel put together with as little food as they could get away with, and every carrot baton and half-cut fruit, is a symbol of the Government’s having been dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing on free school meals every step of the way. They would have got away with the penny-pinching food parcels for our country’s poorest children if one parent had not posted a picture online.
It is a similar story with the laptops. Barely any of the promised laptops materialised last year. The Government had months to plan for the likelihood of the winter lockdown. Their reluctance to do so has meant that today kids in my constituency cannot access their online lessons because they do not have hardware. Schools and children are relying on charity to bridge the shortfall. I am extremely proud of the way the people of Bedford and Kempston have responded to the Government’s failings during the pandemic. I want to thank Susan Lousada, the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, who is leading a fantastic campaign to get laptops to pupils, with Bedfordshire Learning Link, Bedford Modern School, Bedford Borough Council, local businesses and rotary clubs, donations from the Harpur Trust, the Blues Foundation, and the generosity of other charities and individuals. It has been truly inspiring and a world of difference from the cynical, can’t-do attitude I have seen from this Government.
The gap between the haves and the have-nots has never been wider. The digital divide has never been more obvious. It is not just low-income families who are really struggling; it is the just-about-managing, whom the Prime Minister’s predecessors identified but did nothing to help. If the levelling-up agenda of this Government was anything more than an empty slogan, the Government would support the motion and invest in our children, starting with a comprehensive review of free school meals. Food poverty is an entrenched, long-term issue that requires a considered, long-term solution. Getting free school meals right is a good place to start.
I appreciate that we are living in unusual times, but we should not forget that not once did Labour provide free school lunches for children when schools were not open. Not once did they provide free lunches for three to four-year-olds. It took a Conservative Government to ensure that that happened.
The Opposition motion asks for children to receive the full value of free school meals, yet nobody is arguing against that. Of course, some of the food parcels we have seen are not sufficient. Some have been excellent, but for some reason we have seen less coverage of those. They need to provide for a proper lunch for a child who needs it. That is not in dispute. Neither is the fact that we need to take action. There is no dispute that we need to help families at this time. The difference is how we support them.
What is really needed here is practical support for families who are having difficulties at this time. Handouts without support simply propagate dependency. We need to be empowering families to assist themselves, not chaining them to an overreliance on the state. We need to provide choice. That is why our package of support aims to do that for schools: the choice of a parcel of food or a voucher; the choice over which caterer to use; the choice of a local or national voucher. We have given £170 million to local authorities to provide targeted support to families who need it through the winter support fund. Even more is going to local authorities to support holiday programmes. This gives local authorities the ability to provide assistance not just to children eligible for free school lunches, but to families who have just missed out on eligibility for them or for struggling families who have children who have not started school yet. Nothing in the Opposition motion makes any mention of those people, yet they are very much a consideration for us. Over Christmas, we ensured that there was targeted support for children and families. That policy worked. The approach can be used again during the February half-term, with confidence that it will be a success.
The other part of the Opposition motion relates to laptops and other devices. Providing 1.3 million new laptops and tablets empowers families to help their children to learn when they otherwise would not. Thousands have been distributed in my constituency, with over 1,000 to one trust alone. No child should miss out on an education and this huge effort has helped to ensure that children do not miss out. There are hardly any other countries in the world that have provided more laptops to schoolchildren during this time than we have.
We can say that we have assisted children with both school lunches and technology. We have helped them probably more than any other country. There will always be more demanded of us. We will never reach the state where somebody says, “That’s enough, you can stop now.” But what we have provided and will continue to provide is a package of measures that provides empowerment, choice and assistance for thousands of children, and that should be fully recognised.
The challenges currently facing
teachers, school support staff and childcare providers are daunting. Our teachers and education professionals in Enfield North have worked tirelessly, and for that I wish to thank each and every one of them. However, they have been trying to deliver world-class learning with one hand tied behind their backs. The lack of support from the Government has piled pressure on to families, who are struggling to juggle childcare, education provision and their jobs.
Labour’s motion calls for action now to alleviate the pressure on families by guaranteeing that children receive the full value of free school meals support, including in school holidays, and for a date to be set by which every pupil will have the equipment needed to learn remotely. We are not asking for the earth. We simply call on the Government to act swiftly and with compassion. It has been nearly a year since the pandemic began, yet we still see a Government chasing their own tail; a Government whose indecisiveness and lack of compassion have undermined public confidence in their capacity to act in the public interest.
The pictures we have seen of supposed free school meals being opened by families have incensed a nation. They not only demonstrate how the Government’s own rules are providing inadequate food to children but raise serious questions about how taxpayers’ money is being misspent by the Chancellor. It should concern us all that contracts continued to be agreed that happily swap £15 of Government funding for £7-worth of food. In Enfield North, almost 5,000 pupils are eligible for free school meals. Each one of those children has talent, skills and knowledge waiting to be unleashed, but they are being held back by a flailing Government that have had nearly a year to correct their own errors.
Families are also living with the consequences of under-resourced schools. The Government pledged to provide 1.3 million laptops, yet 600,000—the equivalent of more than 600 secondary schools full of children—have not been delivered. Sadly, things are no different in my constituency, where hundreds of children are still without a laptop. Kingsmead School still requires 100 laptops. Enfield County School for Girls requires 212. Lee Valley Academy still needs in excess of 120. I could go on. Each missing device represents a child being held back. Each empty plate represents a family deciding whether to put the heating on or to buy food. What remains constant under this Government is that families are being left behind due to incompetence and dithering.
This is an incredibly important debate. We need to ensure that remote learning is high class for all pupils, regardless of the school they go to. I had the opportunity to raise in a question earlier the issue of live lessons and why they are so important for pupils with special educational needs, who may not have an education, health and care plan, which entitles pupils to still go to school. I spoke to a headteacher of a school that caters purely for dyslexic students this morning, and she explained to me how her school has all live lessons and how she thinks that is so important for pupils with dyslexia. I would like the Government to take that on board.
On free school meals—an issue with a lot of heat around it—I am proud of the support the Government have provided throughout the pandemic. I do not think there is an example of any Government in modern British political history that have been so ambitious in the support they have provided. I am talking about the £170 million winter grant scheme. I am talking about the more than £200 million committed to holiday activities and the food programme. Suffolk got £2 million from that £170 million fund, and less than half of that will be spent on guaranteeing that all eligible pupils got free school meals over Christmas and will get them over February. That leaves more than £1 million for other kinds of interventions to help all sorts of families—not only those with children eligible for free school meals but those who do not but are struggling as well. That is very much to be welcomed.
It has often been portrayed by the Labour party that that incredibly expensive and ambitious package of support was somehow cobbled together at the last minute. It absolutely was not. So much of what the Government have committed came directly from the national food strategy, which was commissioned in June 2019. Just this summer, I had the pleasure of the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), visiting my constituency, where we were a pilot for the holiday activities and food programme. She spoke passionately about how it was her ambition for that to be extended across the country. This has been a Government priority for a long time, and I have absolutely no concerns about whether this Government have at their heart the desire to support and cater for children who are struggling the most at this time.
In terms of the quality of free school meals, I support the comments made by a number of Members that the images we saw were unacceptable, but the reality is that these food parcels come about as a result of lots of individual decisions made by different local councils. Some decide to have vouchers. Some decide to have food parcels. Some food parcels are high-quality and others, as we have seen, are completely not. That is a result of many decisions—some made by Labour councils, might I add? I think that virtually all of us do care about this issue, but I do not think that supporting this particular motion is the best way of progressing. I am focused on results and action, not virtue signalling.
May I just say that I do not want to turn this into a typical debate where we blame the Government for everything? We have a covid crisis that has shaken everyone’s lives. We have much higher unemployment than usual and many families are struggling, but the fact is that we know that the Government have shown less than the surest touch in many of the educational challenges that we have had over this last year.
However, to put that to one side, may I make a plea tonight to trust parents? I listen to a lot of parents. I happen to have three daughters, a son and 12 grandchildren, so it is easy to do that, but I also do it rigorously in my constituency all the time. The fact is that parents would prefer to have cash rather than any other kind of package of food. We all know that that leads to a divided society, with some kids thinking that they are lesser than their equals.
Trust parents on home schooling. Home schooling can be very good and it can be very patchy indeed. My experience and knowledge is that using technology is difficult if someone is a teacher. I am a pioneer tutor in the Open University. We thought we could do it all with computers, television screens and all that, but we could not. Teachers have to be trained to use the technology. University teachers have to be trained for something they never anticipated—teaching online. It is a highly difficult skill to learn.
I am sorry that the Government took so long to get in touch with the Open University and enable it to use all its resources, knowledge and experience to help teachers and lecturers up and down the country. That being said, let us also trust teachers themselves. I have seen the best example of teachers who phone every five-year-old in the class every week. That is wonderful—their experience, showing every way of reaching out to children. I believe that that is what we must encourage—every school learning to learn again—because we will have this situation for much longer. So well done, parents; you have gone through a hell of a lot. Well done, teachers. And well done, colleges of further education, which are so often neglected. It is not just about computers—it is about people.
I put on record my thanks to all the staff at the schools in Wantage and Didcot who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic to make sure that children and young people get at least some education. I do not think that there is a Member of this House who does not want to see all children get high-quality, nutritious food, and have laptops and high-quality internet access. It is right that the Government have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on providing this.
However, when it comes to remote education, I am afraid that nothing we do could ever be a substitute for being in the classroom. If the Government were to provide a laptop to every home, along with the best internet connection in the land, I do not think that would solve the disadvantage gap or deal with the huge mental health crisis that is coming for children and young people. I am not even sure that it would lead to every child getting a full timetable of remote learning.
We saw a huge gulf in the remote learning that pupils received last year. There were many reasons for that, but one reason that the Labour party does not like to mention is that when we went into the first lockdown, the largest education union, the National Education Union, put out a statement saying that teachers should not be teaching a full timetable or routinely marking work. It said that we cannot educate children and young people remotely. Whereas the Labour party would suggest that the only barrier to remote education is whether the Government have provided laptops fast enough, I would say that the leadership of that union took a clear stance—personally, I do not think that it reflected the views of teachers—that inhibited the remote learning that pupils received last year.
Similarly, the shadow Secretary of State for Education says that she wants to see schools open—I am completely with her on that, because I think that is how we will tackle these issues—but when we wanted to reopen schools, I did not hear her criticise the 180-point checklist produced by the same union, on safety grounds, as though teaching children was like working with radioactive material. Similarly, I did not hear her criticise the constant drumbeat of stories suggesting that schools were unsafe and needed to be closed again.
We need to work to get all children back to school as soon as possible. Labour’s motion could have been about that, but it is not. I hope that when we come to reopen schools, Labour will call out anybody who stands in the way, because as much as children and young people need laptops, most of all they need to be in the classroom.
The concept of remote learning leans heavily into the topic of digital exclusion—the exclusion of those who do not have the devices or data needed to access education. The Government may talk about addressing the issue, but yet again they are simply not doing enough, and what they are doing is at the latest possible moment.
The digital divide and the impact it is having on people’s lives was known about before the pandemic. It meant that people struggled to access services and information, and to engage with the digital world around them. When the pandemic arrived, it forced everyone indoors and into a digital world. It shone a light on the digital inequalities that already existed and, as time went on, exacerbated them. It was no longer a choice to work or access services from home, or for young people to access their education from home; it became a necessity. This situation accelerated the existing inequalities tenfold.
Remote learning became the only way for the vast majority of our children and young people to access their education. A clear divide opened up between those who had internet connection, data and devices, and those who did not. If the Government had invested in the procurement and distribution of devices on the first day of the pandemic, they would have been a Government acting too late, but 10 months later they have still not taken adequate action. We must remember that every day lost in education is a day of potential lost. There are still thousands of children up and down the country who are unable to access their education.
The Department for Education might say that it is going to provide 1 million devices, but that is not good enough. The actual digital divide, according to Ofcom, means 1.8 million people not having adequate connectivity. I am proud that organisations such as Laptops for Kids North East and the Good Things Foundation are reaching out to those in need in our communities and supporting people, giving them the data and devices they need, but they are having to do that because the Government have failed to do so.
This debate is rightly combined with the issue of free school meals. I applaud my neighbouring MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for campaigning on this issue for years; I agree with everything she said. It was heart-wrenching to see the images posted online last week of food parcels. Our children deserve so, so much more. The Government may try to pass the blame on to others, but it was their policy that got us into this mess. It is the Government’s responsibility to put this right and put it right fast by guaranteeing a substantial, healthy free school meal to all children who need one.
I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to this debate on current educational issues. I should like to begin by praising teachers in my constituency and across the whole of the borough of Bexley, who have continued to work hard and professionally during this pandemic. Teaching today is more challenging than ever before, and certainly more so than when I was a teacher and lecturer in the past. We also need to praise the support staff in our schools.
The past year has been very difficult for everyone, and the Government have had to adapt their approach to the changing situation. The Government have been correct in their approach of making the education and welfare of our young people a top priority. Children need to learn and to socialise and to be in school when it is safe to be so. Parents, too, must be praised for rising to the challenges of combining work, home life and helping their children with virtual and remote school learning. There are real concerns about school closures, including mental health issues and the inadequate free school meal boxes. However, I want to concentrate on the issue of learning and studying at home during the pandemic.
Despite the totally unprecedented situation we have all faced since the start of the pandemic, the Government have worked tirelessly to ensure that every child has access to the world-class education they deserve, including by strengthening the minimum standards for remote learning and introducing binding requirements for schools to deliver high-quality remote education. Schools are now expected to provide between three and five hours of teaching a day, depending on a child’s age. Remote education provision is much better than it was a year ago, and we praise the Government for the money, the laptops and all the things they have done to make sure that schools can carry on with remote learning for our children.
A lack of internet connectivity is another significant barrier. As part of the continued efforts to support disadvantaged children through the get help with technology programme, the Government have partnered with the UK’s leading mobile phone operators to provide free data to those students without internet access, as well as delivering 54,000 4G routers to schools and colleges.
While the Government have strived to keep schools open, it is regrettable but necessary that they recently had to close them because of the pandemic. I have some concerns, as we all do, about remote learning, including the lack of physical and social interaction, the possibilities of experiencing technical difficulties and the effects of increased screen time. Education is very important for improving social mobility. It helps shape our young people’s futures and gives them opportunity. A good education provides the knowledge and skills required to succeed. I am a big supporter of social mobility for disadvantaged young people; it is absolutely essential.
This debate on free school meals cannot be separated from the earlier one on universal credit, because both prompt the question: why are over 14 million people living in poverty in the sixth richest country on earth? This endemic poverty is the result of a broken model and an ideological choice—one that the Conservative party chooses to make. Poverty has soared in this crisis, and the Government choose not to do all they can to tackle it, just as they made the choice to impoverish families with a decade of austerity.
The school food parcels fiasco highlights so much that is wrong with the system. It shows that when services are privatised and outsourced, profit is put first. How else can we explain Government guidelines that mean a £15 food parcel leaves kids with just £5-worth of food, with the vast majority going to the private companies? This is food literally taken from a child’s mouth, while the CEO of the company responsible for those shocking food parcels is paid £4.7 million per year—280 times more than its dinner ladies. It does not have to be this way. Leeds City Council gives proper food parcels to children by keeping the services in-house—public services run for the public good.
The food parcel scandal also shows that the Conservative party’s contempt for people in poverty knows no bounds. My party wants to see cash instead of food parcels going to families. The Conservatives disagree. They do not trust people in poverty to do what is best for their children. As a Conservative MP once disgracefully put it, the money could go direct to “a crack den” or “a brothel”.
But people are not in poverty because of a character failing, or because they do not work hard. People are in poverty because the broken economic model cannot provide them with a job that pays enough to live on, and because the Government refuse them the services they deserve. They include the tens of thousands of children in my region waiting for laptops so that they can work online. These kids deserve a proper chance in life. Their futures are not worth less than those of the children at the elite private schools that many members of the Cabinet attended, but the Government act like they are.
Finally, my party stood at the last election on a manifesto pledging both free broadband for the whole country and free school meals for all primary school children. Such policies are needed now more than ever. If this crisis has shown us anything, it is that the social safety net is broken. It is time to move back to a universal model.
School is and always will be the safest and best place for a pupil to learn. Delivering remote education is a real challenge, as not every pupil has an environment at home that is easy to work in or has the necessary technology and connectivity. It is equally challenging for teachers to try to replicate as much as possible the learning environment of a normal classroom setting. Some £400 million has been spent on supporting schools and colleges in moving to remote provision, so that every child can access the education they deserve, with 700,000 laptops and tablets and 54,000 4G routers delivered. That is alongside the £5 million spent on our unsung heroes of the pandemic, the Oak National Academy.
With regard to free school meals, it is disappointing and disheartening to see the Labour party wanting to politicise such an important topic. I spent eight and a half years working as a teacher and a head of year in state secondary schools across London and Birmingham. Every day, I worked tirelessly to ensure that the next generation had the education they deserved, as well as looking after their welfare and wellbeing, in the privileged position of loco parentis. I understand how important free school meals are to young people and their families, yet the Labour party spreads misleading graphics, creating anger due to falsehoods, which leads to people calling colleagues and me “Tory scum”, to echo the comment made by the deputy leader of the Labour party towards my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson).
Those in the Labour party seem to believe that they own the monopoly on compassion; they believe that my being a Conservative somehow means that I do not care about the most vulnerable in my community. This is student union politics, intent on pitting people against one another, whereas we should recognise that child holiday hunger is an issue that should unite rather than divide us.
To help to tackle holiday hunger over the winter, including the February half-term, the Government announced a £170 million winter support package for not just those eligible for free school meals, but those of pre-school age and vulnerable and elderly adults in our local communities. That is in addition to the £63 million given to local authorities last June for food and other essential support. Stoke-on-Trent City Council has used the collected £1.5 million of funding wisely. Some 80,640 free school meals will be provided for students, with £110,000 for Stoke-on-Trent Foodbank, £30,000 for the amazing Hubb Foundation, which will partly fund slow cookers, ingredients and recipe cards for families for 12 weeks, and £60,000 for local charity Beat the Cold to provide 100,000 fuel vouchers to vulnerable households affected by fuel poverty.
I fully support the £220 million for the holiday activities and food programme, which means that this calendar year, a place can be offered to every child who is eligible for free school meals, enabling them to benefit from a healthy, nutritious meal, alongside physical and mental stimulation, which is equally important to a young person’s health.
The digital lottery is hindering the life chances of children and the next generation. If the Government mean what they say about levelling up education, the standard of education and the life chances of working-class children must be front and centre of that agenda.
In early 2020, Ofcom’s technology tracker estimated that between 1.4 million and 1.78 million children under the age of 18 in the UK lived in households without access to a laptop, desktop computer or tablet. Add to that up to half a million people living in households with no access to the internet. A further 900,000 live in households where the only access to the internet is via a mobile phone. Those are very stark figures indeed.
Unlike in the previous lockdown, it is now a legal requirement for schools to provide a remote education. Perhaps that is driving the Government’s decision to relax the criteria on children being in schools, which is resulting in dangerously high attendance rates. The Government know they have yet again failed to plan, and are once again playing catch-up. A prime example of that can be seen in Northway Primary School in my constituency; it ordered 37 iPads from the Department for Education in October, but they were only delivered on 13 January. That is just one of many constituency examples that demonstrate that the Government were not even meeting demand prior to the school closure; they were failing to keep pace with smaller orders from schools supporting children isolating at home. This is simply not good enough, and clearly contributes to the fact that the gap in England between some pupils and their wealthier peers widened by 46% during the school year.
Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledge of free broadband was roundly mocked by professional commentators and Government politicians in the last election. The greatest tragedy of all is that the very thing that policy sought to address, digital exclusion, is wreaking havoc with the learning of the next generation. It is time for the Government to actually deliver on their “whatever it takes” promise, to ensure that the gaping inequalities in our education system are closed once and for all, and to prevent a whole generation of children from being robbed of a decent education, and the life chances that go hand in hand with that. Every child matters and deserves to succeed. Nothing less is good enough. Nothing less is acceptable.
Tonight, I will focus on remote learning. That will give me the opportunity to pass on some of what I have heard from teachers about their experiences during the pandemic. My understanding is that, to put it simply, remote learning puts at a massive disadvantage the most vulnerable pupils, who may not have the same resources as others. They may not have somewhere quiet or even safe in which to work, and may be less inclined to continue their learning when not in school. We saw that those who did not attend live lessons during the first lockdown had an evident knowledge gap when they came back to school in September. According to teachers I have spoken to, we are seeing that play out once again, as those same pupils are not participating now. So that gap is becoming ever wider.
Significant investment has certainly been made in remote learning; millions have been invested in supporting remote education and access to online social care. As we have heard, more than 700,000 laptops and tablets have been delivered to disadvantaged children at schools and colleges, with hundreds of thousands more on the way. Ministers are working with major telecommunication companies to improve internet connectivity for disadvantaged and vulnerable families who rely on mobile internet connection, but we must go beyond those initial interventions, as some pupils are still missing from lessons.
Two key issues remain. The first is that children need interaction with their peers; mental health issues, with potential social care effects, arise from not having that. Of course, the best way to address that is to reopen schools safely, as soon as possible, which brings me on to the second issue. Although most teachers want to get back in front of children as soon as possible, many do not feel safe doing so. Many express anxieties about household mixing, and the hundreds of close interactions per day. To make them feel safer, school staff must be made a higher priority for vaccination, particularly those with underlying health conditions who are under the age of 50. They should get the vaccine soon, at least before the suggested reopening after half-term. Widespread vaccinations will engender a feeling of safety among school staff, and I believe this is the quickest way for schools to return to normal.
Teachers have made massive sacrifices. They have been unable to see their families for months. The only safe and fair way to reopen schools is following a vaccination programme among school staff, and I ask the Government to prioritise that. The future of schoolchildren, especially the most disadvantaged, depends on it. Our teachers have been nothing short of heroic, and they need our support. They are on the frontline, so now is the time to put them at the front of the line.
I shall focus my remarks on free school meals, because the public simply do not understand why struggling families are having to fight the Government again and again on this issue. Last week alone, there were two such fights: first, on the appalling-quality food packages that were sent out for children in place of free school meals, and secondly, on the Government’s instruction to schools not to provide free school meals during the February half-term, which left families confused and anxious about whether and how they would be able to access this lifeline.
In my constituency of St Albans, children in at least one primary school got boxes of food from HCL—Hertfordshire Catering Ltd—a preferred provider of Hertfordshire County Council. In that box, for a week, were just 10 items, including bread, baked beans, carrots, tomatoes and baking potatoes. There was a tin of tuna and two slices of processed cheese, but they were no good for the child who is dairy and fish intolerant. According to the guidance, there should also have been sweetcorn, yoghurts, apples, oranges, biscuits and a muffin, but they were not there. The public are sick of this Schrödinger’s school meals policy.
A few months ago, some Conservative MPs argued against extending free school meal provision to the holidays on the basis that it was the responsibility of struggling parents to feed their children, but in Hertfordshire, the Conservative-run county council is, so far, refusing to give parents responsibility for buying their own food, leaving them at the mercy of contractors who are dishing out half-empty boxes.
Let us not forget how many children living in poverty still do not get a free school meal at all, including children who would be eligible but have no recourse to public funds, and those kids whose parents are in receipt of universal credit. If the Government were serious about improving child nutrition and helping the families who are struggling the most, they would look at this issue again.
Liberal Democrats are proud of our track record on free school meals. In England, free school meals were a Liberal Democrat policy introduced by the coalition Government. Last autumn, Wales, which has a Liberal Democrat Education Minister, was the first UK nation to ensure that pupils received free school meals over the summer holidays, and it quickly delivered IT kit for the most disadvantaged pupils. Liberal Democrats are now calling on the Government for a “No ifs, no buts” long- term commitment on free school meals. Whether a child is in school or at home, during term time or holidays, every child in poverty who needs a decent meal a day should get one.
I join colleagues in paying tribute to the teachers involved in delivering remote learning. Let me also say how proud I am of those teachers who are still going to school to teach the children of key workers; they greatly deserve our praise, because it is important to provide the best education that we can for those children. We have heard from the Secretary of State how he is doing that, and I am impressed with what we have done: we have spent £400 million and ordered 1.3 million laptops and other devices for children.
There are, though, some problems with delivery. I am pleased that the BBC has come into this debate, although one thing that that disguises is the difficulty of getting good broadband. Even in my constituency, one need not go more than a couple of miles outside the town of Henley to find poor broadband.
I am proud of what parents are doing, but I wish they were all like one of my constituents, who makes sure that her daughter dresses in school uniform to do her remote learning. My constituent, who is a teacher herself, says that is important; it brings about a noticeable improvement in the child’s concentration while learning remotely.
I heard the Secretary of State set out time limits for individuals to follow in the delivery of remote learning, but we will need to keep an eye on that because, while some schools are sticking to those limits, others are going well beyond them and are providing whole days of teaching rather than the bits of days of teaching that we have heard about.
Finally, let me ask just one question, which I do not think that anyone has mentioned so far. Can the Minister tell me what is being done to help blind students to participate in remote learning? They have needs of their own and it is very difficult to see how, on the face of it, they are being allowed to participate in this learning.
One of the greatest tragedies of this pandemic is its impact on our children. Millions of young people have lost months of face-to-face schooling, missing out on their education and denied the social interaction that is so crucial to their development and wellbeing. Virtual schooling can never replace face-to-face learning, but while school buildings remain closed to most children, access to online education is vital. For some children, one of the barriers to online learning is a lack of equipment, which is why the Government are providing 1.3 million devices to schools across the country. This drive to purchase such an enormous quantity of laptops and tablets has involved co-ordinating multiple manufacturers, dedicated factory runs, and prioritising shipping. Against a backdrop of soaring global demand, the Department for Education has become one of the largest buyers of IT in the world. We must continue to deliver these devices at pace.
I commend Ministers and officials for their extraordinary efforts, but online learning also depends on schools’ ability to deliver virtual lessons. A year ago, teaching the entire curriculum remotely would have been unthinkable, but now teachers up and down the country are logging on to Zoom or Google Classroom, greeting their classes face to face and using innovative resources to teach lessons.
Having been in contact with local headteachers throughout the pandemic, I know that schools in Penistone, Stocksbridge, Ecclesfield, Chapeltown and Dodworth have made sustained efforts to create and refine their remote learning provision. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor helped to deliver a virtual maths lesson to year 6 at Oughtibridge Primary School in my constituency. He saw for himself just what is possible with interactive remote learning. I am pleased to report that the Chancellor’s maths is of a very high standard.
Our schools have transformed the way that they work while working to strict new public health guidance, operating test and trace and delivering catch-up schemes. On behalf of children and parents across my constituency, I want to say a huge thank you.
On free school meals, we need to differentiate between lunches provided by schools during term-time and wider welfare support offered to struggling families. The continuation of free school meals has never been in doubt. During lockdowns, the Government have offered the choice of food parcels or supermarket vouchers to support children and learning from home. In terms of wider help, the pandemic has caused real hardship to many families. I welcome the covid winter support grant, providing £170 million to local councils to tackle food poverty this winter, including during school holidays. I support the measures that the Government have taken to help families over the past year, but what our children need now is a rapid return to the classroom, and I wholeheartedly support the Secretary of State in his determination to make that happen.
I am dismayed, but not surprised that, yet again, we are having to put pressure on this Government to do the right thing by hungry children in the middle of a pandemic. In the first five weeks of the initial lockdown, more than 2 million children experienced food insecurity. More than 4 million children are living in poverty. They are hungry every single day, every day of the year with no let-up in sight. Any decent Government would be proactively doing everything in their power to make sure that every single one of those children had access to nutritional healthy food.
The Secretary of State, at the outset of this debate, predictably reeled off schemes and grants that the Government have put in place. They were schemes and grants that they had to be shamed into providing, just as we saw last week, when yet another one of their associates was given public money to deliver meagre food parcels that, disgracefully, met the Government’s own guidelines. The Secretary of State is also missing the point. If the winter covid grant, the holiday activities and food programmes, the national school breakfast programme, and school meals vouchers and parcels were leaving no child without why are food banks inundated with desperate parents seeking help for their children? Why is it that UNICEF, for the first time in its 70-year history, is feeding hungry children? Of course, in the absence of any other support, I would not wish for these piecemeal and short-term schemes and grants to disappear. I will continue working with the Magic Breakfast scheme to press for the implementation of my School Breakfast Bill, because when the scheme ends in July, many children will be left with that gnawing hunger in their stomach at the start of their school day, and we all know that no matter how talented or amazing a teacher is, that hunger will impact on learning.
Just last week, Sustain found that £700 million from the soft drinks levy that was intended for school breakfast provision is unaccounted for. I hope that the Minister can confirm where that money has gone when she sums up. As the Food Foundation has recently called for, we need to rethink school meal provision, but we also need to stop looking at school meals in isolation. The reason that so many children are in poverty and going hungry is that we have had over a decade of cruel policy making that has plunged families into destitution and despair. That there are hungry children in a country as rich as ours is no accident, and it is not purely a result of this pandemic.
To those Government Members who have spent all day claiming that tonight’s debates and votes do not matter, I simply say this: they matter to millions of children and families; and they matter to the 3,000-plus children in South Shields who receive free school meals. How Members vote tonight lets them and all our constituents know what we stand for, who we are, and, more importantly, who it is that we really care about.
Last week, I emailed all the headteachers in my Birmingham, Northfield constituency to see what the situation was like on the ground in respect of free school meals and laptops. I just want to go through some of their responses. Many reported to me that parents preferred the voucher system that is coming back this week, as opposed to the packages, because the vouchers allow greater flexibility and choice. There can be a stark difference between schools. Some schools said they were preparing over 100 packages, but only 20 were being picked up; I think the voucher system was having a near 100% take-up rate, so it is really important that it is restarting this week.
The vast majority of the schools said that they were using the city council’s Cityserve scheme, and there were a range of views about the adequacy of those food packages, from “okay” to “severely inadequate”. Unfortunately, many teachers have really had to push back on the city council to ensure that they are getting value for money, with some estimating that the £15 packages were really only worth about £4. Birmingham City Council has often been very critical of the Government’s approach, and it is about time that its words and actions met in the middle, but it did also step up to the mark.
On laptop provision, there was quite a bit of disparity between schools. Some had received 100% of their allocation. Others had only a few, but were expecting big deliveries this week. I will be following up with them later this week to ensure that they get what they have been allocated. One headteacher suggested that schools should be given a budget so that they could buy some laptops themselves. That would add some capability to the procurement system, as they could probably find some local providers. Some of my infant schools suggested that some laptops be allowed for use in infant schools, because of the three hours of remote learning each day.
I thank the many teachers who have been working extremely hard to ensure that children are being educated at the moment, balancing the very difficult task of teaching in a classroom and digitally. They have been working incredibly hard, and everybody in the House recognises that work. I also thank the many parents who are juggling working from home with helping to home school their children. I was talking to my best friend Michaela last night, and we were giggling at some of the things she was having to teach her young boys because it took us back to our school days. It is very difficult—I probably would not remember some of it myself now—but it is important that those parents are going above and beyond every day. We must all be thankful to them.
On the whole, the Government have got this absolutely right. It is incredibly important that we tackle these issues head-on, and provide these vital food vouchers and laptops for children.
First, I pay tribute to teachers, as well as those at my local authority, Calderdale Council, working alongside them to support children, their wellbeing and their education at home and in the classroom. Schools throughout this difficult period have been beacons of resilience and innovation, and I am in awe of the personal contribution that teachers have made to this national effort.
Teachers do a really good impression of superheroes, but they are human beings, and they cannot perform magic tricks, nor can they create more hours in the day. Asked to respond to testing announcements on the last day of term, heads were notified at 8 pm that schools would close to some children from the very next day. They will make happen what needs to happen, but I urge the Government simply to respect what is humanly possible when introducing changes and the timeframes in which they expect those changes to be delivered.
I have been delighted to see brilliant local teachers from Halifax, including Matt Perry, Gugsy Ahmed and Mungo Sheppard, on local and national news outlining the challenges they have been faced with and their constructive asks on behalf of the kids to whom they dedicate their lives. Their biggest challenge has been securing equipment for children who do not have it, as so many other Members have already said, to allow learning to continue remotely. Just one secondary school in Halifax, in a ward where a third of children aged nought to 15 live in income-deprived households, has been unable to secure the 171 further laptops it needs to equip just those children on pupil premium with a laptop or tablet from the Department for Education, and the picture is not dissimilar right across the borough.
I take this opportunity to thank the Community Foundation for Calderdale and Calderdale Council, which together have launched the “Laptops for Learning” campaign today, which follows the success of their much-needed “Never Hungry Again” campaign. They are stepping in to fundraise for laptops, in addition to ensuring that children are not going hungry throughout this period. What do towns do when they have not got a community foundation? Ours has supported Calderdale through so much, alongside a council that goes over and above to do whatever it needs to for our families and their children. This Government need to understand that they are failing children on both those fronts.
The final point that I will have time to make this evening is that a school today told me that because of the private finance initiative arrangements on its school building, which only opened in 2016, Interserve, which has the ongoing catering contract as part of that arrangement, has notified the school to expect a loss of earnings bill for between £30,000 and £50,000 due to the lack of children coming through its canteen to buy lunch. That is outrageous, and I anticipate this problem is about to creep up on schools across the country. In closing, I very much hope the Minister will join me in calling on those companies to rule out such grossly unfair bills for our schools.
May I put on record my thanks to the hard-working teachers, headteachers and school staff of Darlington for their tireless efforts in keeping going during what has been the most difficult year they will ever have faced? We were all shocked by the images of the substandard food packages that circulated last week, which were not acceptable on any level.
I also record my thanks to Conservative-controlled Darlington Borough Council, which has done so much with the funds from Government to support people, such as investing in additional vehicles to work with the Bread and Butter Thing, a food redistribution scheme that I have been privileged to support. It has diverted 180 tonnes of food from landfill, delivered 250,000 meals and been supported by more than 2,500 hours of volunteering.
From the £170 million covid winter grant that Darlington received, £364,000 has enabled the council to ensure that every child eligible for free school meals was fed over Christmas and will continue to be fed over the half-term holidays. The Government’s innovative holiday activities and food programme, which is being rolled out across the country this Easter, will continue to ensure that no child goes hungry, and that they can also engage in enriching activities. The Opposition wish to drive a divisive agenda, feeding a narrative that it is only they who care—a narrative that fuels the hateful campaigns seen by many of us on the Government Benches. Kinder, gentler politics it is not.
We all know that children learn best when they are at school, but for many it is not possible, and it is wonderful to see the schemes that have been brought forward by the Government to step up the delivery of devices. In Darlington, more than 70% of the devices requested by schools have already arrived and are being used. Darlington’s secondary schools have received all of what they asked for, and it is right that examination-level students have taken priority. The picture among primary schools is still emerging. I have written to the Minister in that regard, and I thank her for her engagement with me on that. I know that devices are continuing to arrive as quickly as they can be delivered.
This Government’s commitment to delivering one of the world’s largest programmes of technology is remarkable, and they deserve credit for making such a huge commitment to our children, the benefit of which will continue into the future. When the chips were down, this Government have stepped in, putting food on the plates of our children so they do not go hungry and equipment in their hands to ensure they can continue to learn. That was the right thing to do. Tonight we have seen Labour play its games and drive division, and already it is pushing its hateful posts in every seat it lost in the north. It is clear that it will never learn.
One thing we have learned with this virus is that sometimes drastic steps have to be taken at very short notice. I know from personal experience that nothing can be a substitute for in-person teaching, but I also know that we have a profession committed to doing its best to make sure it can offer as near an experience to that as possible. Schools of course have never been closed. Our schools have stayed open throughout to support the children of critical workers and our must vulnerable pupils. Our teachers are doing an incredible job, sometimes having to balance both virtual and physical teaching simultaneously. I also want to say thank you to all the other staff working at schools, who are sometimes forgotten.
That is why I am delighted that this Government have helped to provide extra support for remote learning—be it laptops or routers going out to those in need, the work we have done with mobile phone companies on data allowances or the excellent resources on Oak National Academy. We have provided a £400 million package to support children and their families, including the £170 million covid winter grant scheme to help with food and bills. To spread this money too thinly would be a mistake, and it is absolutely right that we use that to target those most in need.
We have also increased spending on school meals to £15 per child. It is a shame, then, that some have misrepresented free school lunches as meals for the entire day or, indeed, for the entire family; they are not. However, the support is there for those who genuinely need help. We have been clear in our guidance throughout about what we expect to be in food parcels. When school contractors do not provide that, it is right that they are pulled up and challenged.
Opposition days should be a chance to have a healthy debate, not an exercise in generating fake news and misrepresenting parliamentary votes by the likes of The London Economic or TheyWorkForYou. We have seen some disgraceful abuse of colleagues, particularly female colleagues, and attacks on their offices. Last week, somebody even threatened to cut the brakes on my car because they did not like my last speech in an Opposition day debate. Unfortunately, Opposition day debates are fast becoming to effective scrutiny and democratic engagement what “Mrs Brown’s Boys” is to quality television and comedy.
Children cannot learn when they are hungry, and children who are malnourished cannot possibly reach their potential or lead happy and fulfilling lives. Last week, we saw another appalling episode in the Government’s approach to the wellbeing of children in the delivery of food parcels. The parcels, which were nearly identical to the Government guidance on food parcel content, were an insult. It is time that the Government treated families with respect and gave parents the money that they need to feed their children. The Government’s refusal to provide free school meals over half-term is a real blow to families up and down the country.
The Government are failing families over food, and they are failing them too over access to online learning. They dithered over school closures. On 3 January, the Prime Minister said that primary schoolchildren should “absolutely” be in school in those areas where schools are open; then the very next day, he changed his mind and announced that schools across England must move to remote provision from the following day except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Yet again, this Government heaped pressure on families, leaving them practically no time to sort out childcare, and yet again, they created chaos for teachers and school support staff, giving them insufficient time to prepare. The Government have been warned repeatedly about the very large number of children and young people who do not have a device and access to the internet. Hundreds of thousands of pupils are still waiting to get connected. Instead of delivering the equipment that pupils need, the Government redefined those children
“who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study)”
as vulnerable. As a result, there has been a massive increase in the number of children attending schools during this lockdown. A primary school teacher in my constituency wrote to me, saying,
“Overall we have 50% of children in school and my class actually has 70% of children in school…I am working to meet the needs of my class and then coming home to meet the needs of my home learners”.
The Government are causing unnecessary stress to teachers, pupils and parents. They are also putting at risk the public health programme by increasing the risk of infection in our communities. What is more, they are putting our less affluent communities at the highest increased risk of infection, fuelling existing health inequalities. Did the Government not think this through? Their disregard for the health outcomes of those who are disadvantaged, and cannot afford space or laptops for their children and the people who teach them, is shameful.
Instead of reclassifying children as vulnerable, the Government should make sure that every child has internet access at home if they need it. They must make sure that pupils who are eligible for free school meals get the support that they need all year round, and set out an ambitious strategy to tackle child poverty that addresses low pay and insecure work. They must rebuild the social security system, and finally, they must put the health and wellbeing of children at the heart of Government policy.
It is generous of the Opposition to call a debate on an area of policy in which the Government are leading the way. Ministers, faced with a backdrop to public policy decisions that is the most challenging possible, have worked tirelessly to deliver. Across the country most people have made huge efforts in response to covid, none more so than our teachers. I have seen the efforts made by teachers in Stoke-on-Trent, who deserve all our thanks for continuing the learning of our young people and protecting the most vulnerable. We are all struggling, and it is right that we debate how the Government’s good intentions can be delivered most effectively, especially for the most vulnerable.
The Government are not alone in having a responsibility to tackle this crisis: we all share a responsibility for our younger and future generations. Unfortunately, not everyone has recognised this. It is appalling to see some Labour-backed unions playing politics and doing everything possible to prevent the learning of our young people, even suggesting that remote learning is an invasion of privacy, when we all know that it is possible to use a filter on most remote platforms. The Government were right to try to keep schools open for as long as possible, and I know they are keen to get schools reopened as soon as they can. No matter how good remote learning is, it is a poor substitute, and I know from teachers in Stoke-on-Trent South that the last time pupils returned to school from lockdown, there was a notable performance gap, especially among the most disadvantaged pupils.
Schools being closed also has a more serious consequence. Last week, I met remotely with representatives of New Era, which provides domestic abuse services in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire—I am grateful to them for sharing their insights. It is worrying that the number of children and young people seeking support dropped nationally by 6,000, while the number of domestic violence victims has increased significantly during lockdown. I hope that issue will be investigated further. According to the Local Government Association, referrals to social care have tragically increased to a 10-year high.
Lockdown has also hit a whole range of families mentally and financially when it comes to juggling their work and childcare responsibilities. In many cases, the strain has been too hard, and the school and community support networks that families rely on are just not there now. It is therefore particularly welcome that through the Government’s covid winter grant scheme, Stoke-on-Trent City Council received over £1 million to support the hardest-hit families. As a father of a three-year-old, I am personally grateful that the Government have also kept early years education open to all, and I am glad that support bubbles, which provide vital support for families at this very difficult time, have been maintained.
As we get the virus under control thanks to everyone’s efforts, and with the increased roll-out of vaccines, there is understandably a real eagerness among parents to get children back into the classroom as soon as possible. When we do reopen, we must ensure that there is intense catch-up, so that no pupil is left behind.
The provision of home schooling is really important, because in the lockdown last year we saw that education provision for those in the private sector was very different from that for those in state schools. We all know that the state school budget is a bare minimum, and the schools were not able to respond to the crisis properly.
The Office for National Statistics reports that 700,000 11 to 18-year-olds had no home internet access from a suitable device, and 68% said that they could not do their work without it. For some reason, last year the Government decided to cut the allocation of laptops by 80%. They have now found another £100 million to get more laptops, but we know that £135 million is required.
Last year, when Scotland used predicted grades for exam results, the Government caused another problem that affected poor people and students in state schools by insisting on using the algorithm. Many constituents rang me about their futures, crying their hearts out, and although the Government did a U-turn, it was too late for some of them.
Now the Government have cancelled GCSEs and A-levels, which I welcome. However, no decision has been made on the BTEC, which about 1 million students will be taking. My local community college principal, Bill Webster, contacted me to ask what he should be doing. In the end, he decided to cancel the BTEC. I have to say, I agree with him. Frankly, the lack of preparation by the Government is unacceptable.
On food provision, since 2010 in my constituency child poverty has gone up from 25% to 39%. That is unacceptable, bearing in mind that we are the fifth largest economy in the world. Recently, we saw those food packages—£5-worth of food from a company given £30. It is not surprising that the company is linked to the Tory party. We have also had countless PPE procurement scandals from using the VIP lane without scrutiny. I ask the Government why track and trace was given not to local authorities, but to Serco, whose bosses are connected with the Conservative party.
A number of Conservative Members have said that we in the Labour party are making a party political point. We are not. The fact is that the children who are suffering the most tend to be in our constituencies, and this Government have not bothered about them. The Government should provide decent food and decent education.
Thank you for squeezing me in, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I take the opportunity to add my thanks to the teachers and parents, but let us also remember the children themselves, who are working hard in awful circumstances to further their education. However, hungry children do not learn. Last Friday alone, I was contacted by five constituents who, faced with the withdrawal of vouchers, simply would not have enough food to feed their children. The cost of living has been raised because children have to stay and eat at home—not by much, but so many families are living on the margins that it does not take much to push them over the line into absolute poverty.
Most of those families are in work. In insecure, low-paid work and facing rising household debt, they rely on food banks and voluntary aid run by churches, community groups, Feeding Britain or, in my area, the brilliant Welcome Network. Next time hon. Members who support the Government go to a photo opportunity at a food bank, they should remember that, in Chester at least, not one volunteer wants food banks to continue a day more than they must, or thinks that they are a thing to be celebrated—they are a mark of shame and of the failure of our society and the Government.
The Government must start taking this seriously, not lurching as we seem to do from one crisis to the next, as they face the anger of the public, roused by Marcus Rashford. The Government need to invest and to review food for children in the whole day and the whole week—Healthy Start vouchers, universal credit, free school meals and support during school holidays all need to be joined up, looking at whether they are fit for purpose.
Last March, I raised with the Minister the clawback of unspent money from free school meals. I am unclear yet that things have changed. Things will not change until the level of in-work poverty is properly addressed in this country. It drags the country down not only economically, but socially and morally. It now seems as if there is appetite for real change and real justice from the Government.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) in what has been a heavily over-subscribed debate. I regret the fact that we will not be able to deal with every single speech individually.
In closing the debate, let me return us to some fundamentals. First and foremost, this place matters, resolutions of this House matter and this vote matters. It is about whether families receive the money they need to make sure that no child goes hungry. It is about whether we trust parents to spend that money, or whether we prefer to see it top-sliced and going into the pockets of others. It is about getting every child online, making sure that no child learning from home is excluded from education. Frankly, for all the complaints about politics, which always strike me as ironic in the House of Commons, this motion would not be necessary if the Government had simply been doing their job.
The second fundamental is that it is our responsibility—the responsibility of all Members of the House, whether on the Opposition Benches, the Government Benches or the Government Back Benches—to expect high standards from Ministers and to hold them to those high standards on behalf of our constituents. We all recognise that the Government have a difficult job in these most extraordinary circumstances. That is why we sought to be a constructive Opposition, facilitating the passage of Government business, often with little debate and insufficient scrutiny. It is why we supported a range of measures brought forward to help our country through the pandemic.
However, we should not and will not be bystanders to the level of failure we have seen from the Department for Education: the free school meals rows, with Ministers not once, not twice, but three times having to be dragged to do the right thing; the nine months it has taken to deliver 700,000 laptops and 50,000 dongles, which still falls so far short of what is needed; the exams debacle last year that saw the futures of young people plunged into chaos—and worse still, no plan for this year either; the way in which the Department for Education has short-changed schools, leaving headteachers worried about how they will balance the books by the end of the year and whether they have put enough funding into their safety measures; the fact that the Government failed to listen on testing, and rushed out a plan on the last day of term, only to change those plans again and again and again. They announced a plan for the January reopening during the school holidays and then changed it again and again and again—on one occasion changing the helpful infographic on the Department for Education’s social media channels three times within a matter of hours, such was the confusion and chaos—allowing millions of children to return on the first day of term, only to close schools the very same day, having told those headteachers, parents and children that that absolutely would not happen.
We cannot praise staff in schools and school leaders in one breath and then in the other defend the leadership they have been subjected to under this Secretary of State for Education. If the Prime Minister had any judgment, he would have sacked the Secretary of State, and if the Secretary of State had any shame, he would have resigned. That is the problem I have with the speeches we heard from Government Members this evening: the tyranny of low expectations—expectations for other people’s children that they would never accept for their own. On free school meals, it is not only that the poor quality delivered by providers was so obviously abysmal but the fact that it only barely fell short of the standards that the Department set for those providers, in collusion with those providers, with maybe a couple of tins of meat, a tin of sweetcorn or a couple of tomatoes missing. That is absolutely not the sort of lunch any Member of this House would expect for their children.
I mentioned the delay on getting the laptops and dongles out, but here is the real crux of it: even if the Government deliver the 1.3 million laptops they promised —they still have not told us when those laptops will arrive—that still falls well short of the demand that we know exists, with 1.8 million children not having access to a device at home, and ignores the reality confronting many parents. As we heard from one of our own this evening, even if there is a laptop at home, and maybe an iPad too, it does not mean that a parent with more than one child—maybe two or three—has devices for them all.
We heard a rosy picture painted by the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), who told us that there is no problem in Bury—everyone is fine. That was curious, because the cabinet member for children’s services there tells me this evening that, in fact, the laptops are on order, and if those laptops arrive, perhaps then there will be fewer children in overcrowded classrooms. Right now, they are in school because the Government did not get them a device. As we heard so powerfully from my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), there is example after example, school after school, where we have not seen sufficient provision of laptops.
But the most fundamental failure of all is that we went into this pandemic with a digital divide. We went into this pandemic with a widening attainment gap. We went into this pandemic with rising child poverty. It is no good Government Members talking about social policy as if it had just been invented; the last Labour Government lifted nearly 1 million children out of poverty. If they want our help, we will help them to end child poverty; the problem is the poverty of ambition from the Government.
We cannot surrender to the idea that any of this is good enough. We cannot give in to the inevitability of higher poverty, lower standards in education and a wider gap in attainment because of a pandemic. Nor should any Member of the House give in to the idea that this House does not matter, that the Government should ignore the will of the House or that Members should sit on their hands when something as fundamental as keeping every child learning and fed is up for debate and decision.
On the Opposition side of the House, we are ambitious for our country. We are ambitious for every child. We are ambitious that beyond this difficult and dark period of our national story, there is a better and brighter future to be built. We are willing to work on a cross-party basis if the mission is there to end child poverty. We are willing to work on a cross-party basis to get every child learning. We are willing to work on a cross-party basis to get children back to school as quickly as possible. The problem is not a willingness to co-operate, the problem is not politics; the problem is leadership, a lack of ambition from this Government and the grotesque display of incompetence we have seen from Ministers in the Department for Education throughout this pandemic.
This Government want to see children, young people and adults fully connected so that they can access our world-class education, and we recognise the importance of a nutritious lunch to help children concentrate while they learn. I thank all the Members who have spoken in tonight’s debate. Many of them have taken the time to thank staff in schools, and I agree with them. I say thank you to our schools, but I also thank our early years, our colleges, our social workers who support vulnerable children, our families—and I say thank you to our children, too.
We must all do everything we can to support those who need help most at this time. On free school meals, the Prime Minister has said again and again that no child should go hungry because of this pandemic, and every single Member of this House agrees. Children should not miss out on a school lunch because school is closed to them. The contents of some of the lunch parcels that we saw on social media last week were completely unacceptable. Lunch parcels should be balanced and nutritious. The Secretary of State for Education and I immediately met leading school food suppliers to demand urgent action to make sure that lunch parcels are of a high standard.
We are in a global pandemic and no one should be profiteering on free school meal contracts, but some Opposition Members suggested that those contracts were with the Government. That is simply not true. Schools are responsible for their relationships with their own caterers—through the local authority if the local authority runs schools. Schools are doing a phenomenal job at this time. If parents have a problem with a school meal parcel, they should contact the school first to resolve it, but if that does not sort it out, we have set up a hotline so that parents can call us. The small number of complaints that we have already received have been individually investigated and sorted.
Schools can decide whether to offer lunch parcels or local vouchers, or use the national voucher scheme. Some schools and parents prefer those parcels, because that helps them keep in contact at this challenging time. The all-party parliamentary group on school food recommends and supports the use of lunch parcels. That all-party group is chaired by a Labour MP.[Official Report, 21 January 2021, Vol. 687, c. 6MC.]
It is up to schools to decide how they want to sort out their own provision, but our national voucher scheme has reopened today. As of 5 o’clock this evening, more than 6,500 orders had been placed by schools, worth a total of £12.7 million. Parents have already started converting over £1.1 million-worth of codes into supermarket vouchers. That is well ahead of the schedule expected.
The current advice on school meals covers the time up to half-term, because that is the period when we currently know schools will for many children remain restricted. However, I want to be absolutely clear that children will be receiving food over February half-term. We started planning for that many months ago when we announced the £170 million covid winter grant scheme. Many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine), for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson) spoke about how it is working in their own constituencies with parcels, vouchers or holiday clubs. The covid winter grant scheme is there to support the most vulnerable families, including children not of school age. It is there to help not only with food, but with other essentials such as energy bills. It is there to help with food for the whole day, not just at lunchtime. It is there for families and individuals who need extra support at this time. It was there in the Christmas holidays and it will be there through term-time. It will be there at half-term.
We have also announced our brilliant holiday activities and food programme, which will run all across the country from next Easter. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) all praised the scheme. It means that eligible children in every local authority area will be able to access healthy food and take part in fun activities over Easter, summer and Christmas if they need it—food, fun and friendship.
On technology, during the summer term we delivered more than 220,000 laptops and tablets, prioritising children with a social worker, care leavers and disadvantaged 10-year-olds. We have now distributed over three quarters of a million. Just last week, the Government confirmed the purchase of a further 300,000, which will take the total number of laptops and tablets we will be distributing up to £1.3 million. That is on top of the 2.9 million that were already owned by schools before the start of the pandemic. We are literally ordering and delivering laptops and other devices as fast as manufacturers can make them, at a time of peak global demand. Some 139,000 devices were delivered between 4 and 11 January—the first week of term. It is a phenomenal logistical effort.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) asked about British Telecom. We ran a pilot in partnership with BT to provide our children and young people with free access to a BT wi-fi hotspot, but we did not extend it because the pilot found that it did not suitably meet the needs of children and young people for a reliable and consistent internet connection. However, we have partnered with all the UK’s leading mobile providers, including BT, to provide free data uplifts to disadvantaged families. We have provided 54,000 4G wireless routers and we will continue to provide more. They have a roaming sim card so the router can find the strongest signal for 4G locally, making them more reliable even in areas where the signal may not be strong. We have extended our technology programme to 16 and 17-year-olds, many of whom already got devices through the bursary scheme. We are also extending more technology to our adult learners, because we support everyone who wants to access education at any stage of life.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich, and for Henley (John Howell), mentioned the importance of accessibility for those with special educational needs and disabilities. There has been massive progress and innovation in this area during the pandemic, which will make a huge difference for some of our most vulnerable children.
The best place for children and young people to learn is at school, and I am very proud that we are one of the few countries that have kept schools open for our most vulnerable children. We know that it is not possible for all to attend at this time, but we are doing everything in our power to make remote education a reality for all. No child should go hungry because of the pandemic. We are prepared. We are providing free school meals to children over the half-term and in the holidays ahead. Our Government projects do that and so much more.
Order. Before I name the Tellers, let me make it absolutely clear, for those who appear not to understand our procedures, that it matters not on which side of the House a Member sits; if he or she chooses to oppose a motion, that is up to him or her. If two Tellers present themselves to me now to vote against a motion, I will take them at their word and at face value, and we will have a Division. There is no discretion for the Chair.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
That this House believes that families need more support during school and college closures; and that those eligible should be guaranteed to receive the full value of free school meals for the duration of the school year, including during all holidays; and calls on the Secretary of State for Education to set a deadline to ensure that every learner has the resources required to learn remotely, and provide a weekly update to Parliament on implementing this.