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Covid-19: Remote Education

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 January 2021

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of remote education for children during the covid-19 lockdown. (910835)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of remote education for children during the covid-19 lockdown. (910853)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of remote education for children during the covid-19 lockdown. (910860)

Teachers and leaders are working incredibly hard, making tremendous efforts to provide and to improve their high- quality remote education. We have set clear strengthened expectations for schools and further education providers, and our “Get help with remote education” page on gov.uk provides a range of support, training and good practice for schools and parents to look at.

All schools are under huge pressure, delivering teaching both in class and online at the same time, and many are doing an absolutely fantastic job. However, some parents are naturally worried that their children are not getting as much direct live teaching as pupils at other schools they have heard about, and they have a right to understand why. Does my right hon. Friend agree that parents should challenge their school directly and discuss their concerns with the head of the governing body and that making a complaint to Ofsted, as Ministers have suggested they do, should only be the last resort?

Absolutely. We have always been clear—and I stated this to the House just a couple of weeks ago—that we encourage parents, in the first instance, to speak with a teacher or headteacher, and only as a last resort to go to Ofsted. We want to see and encourage as much live teaching as possible, which is shown to be the best way of delivering teaching, but a whole spectrum of resources can be offered. It is really important to work with schools, with parents supporting those schools, to ensure that we get the best solutions for all our children.

I know from my experience with my own children that having live lessons taught online is much more effective than simply placing learning resources online. With more than 750,000 laptops already delivered and 2.9 million laptops already available in schools for the use of children, the digital divide has been substantially overcome. With that in mind, can my right hon. Friend give an indication of the percentage of schools providing live teaching online? Does he have plans to increase that further?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the great strides that have been made in supporting schools, and in schools supporting parents, on the provision of remote education. We obviously encourage schools to put on as much live provision as possible, which is very beneficial, and we are working with the whole school and further education sector to support them with that request. We are seeing substantial gains, and we are monitoring the situation closely, as is Ofsted.

I thank all the teachers in Ipswich, many of whom are balancing still teaching some kids physically and teaching some remotely. On the theme of live learning, does the Secretary of State consider the impact on those with special educational needs? For them, live lessons are particularly important, especially if they have speech and language difficulties, because live engagement gives them the opportunity to question and is very valuable. Live lessons can also be hugely beneficial for the mental health of many pupils, because even if it is just a couple of hours a day, they have that live engagement, and they see other pupils and their teacher.

As always, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head: it is so important to ensure that we get the right balance for young people, especially those with special educational needs. That is why we took the decision to ensure that children who have an education, health and care plan are able to go into school, as part of the category of vulnerable children who may need extra face-to-face support from their teachers.

The fact is that up to 1.8 million children in this country do not have access to a device at home, and more than 800,000 do not have access to the internet needed. Even with the laptops that the Secretary of State has already provided and those he intends to provide, the provision of devices and dongles falls well short. Why is the Secretary of State willing to accept standards for other people’s children that he would never accept for his own, and why is it that, once again, the incompetence of his Department has left children across the country seriously disadvantaged?

At every stage, we on the Government Benches—and, I am sure, those on the Opposition Benches—want to deliver the very best for every single child, wherever they live and whatever background they come from. The hon. Gentleman may want to play politics over children’s lives, but we are focused on delivering for those children. That is why, on top of the stock of 2.9 million laptops and tablets that are already out there, we took the decision to invest £400 million in purchasing and distributing an additional 1.3 million devices, making a total of 4.2 million devices in the school system.

Of course, a laptop or a device is really just a glorified typewriter if you cannot access the internet. We know that nearly 1 million youngsters in the UK are in that situation. Given that BT’s offer of free internet access was rejected by the Secretary of State, how does he plan to help such children to access the internet for remote education?

At every stage, we work with many companies, including EE, Three and BT, to ensure that we maximise the amount of data that is available for those children who are most vulnerable. The hon. Lady will be pleased that many children in Scotland are able to benefit from the work we have been doing with those providers. I imagine that she will be keen to pass on her thanks and appreciation for that work, which has been undertaken to the benefit of all children in the United Kingdom.

Of course, I welcome the support that these internet companies have provided; I only wish the Secretary of State would take his responsibility in this area more seriously, and had moved more quickly. The success of remote learning is not just about the right equipment. It is also about youngsters’ readiness to learn, and that includes whether or not they have eaten. The Scottish Government are ensuring that no child is left hungry during remote learning by ensuring either a cash-first response or vouchers, depending on the preference of the family. Having seen the meagre offerings in these free school meals from some private providers in England, will the UK Government make a similar commitment, and provide either cash or voucher support to the families who are entitled to free school meals?

As the hon. Lady is probably aware, we have opened up the national voucher scheme to all schools in England. We give those schools the option of providing food parcels or locally procured vouchers, or of making use of the national voucher scheme. This is a broad range of options for schools, enabling them to ensure that all children are fed, which I believe is both her priority and mine.

The Department for Education’s own pre-pandemic study found that pupils’ wellbeing predicted their later academic progression. Children with better mental health and wellbeing at age seven had a value-added key stage 2 score 2.46 points higher—equivalent to more than one term’s progress—than pupils with poorer wellbeing and mental health. While schools are closed and children are remote learning, mental health worries for millions of children have rocketed, as highlighted by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and others. Will my right hon Friend work with charities such as Place2Be to put mental health councillors in all schools now, so that children can access support whenever they need it and their attainment levels will not suffer even further?

I know that my right hon. Friend speaks for many in the House who have particular concerns about children’s mental health, and about making sure that, as we work through this pandemic, this is not something that is forgotten and on which no action is taken. We have already undertaken work on helping schools to train staff to support not just pupils, but staff. I would be very happy to sit down with my right hon. Friend to discuss the work that many charities and voluntary organisations undertake, and how they can properly and fully support all children and all those who work in the education sector when it comes to their mental health.