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Educational Settings: Reopening

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the Government’s plan for the reopening of educational settings.

Throughout the pandemic, the Government have been clear that education is a national priority. We had worked hard to keep all schools, colleges and universities fully open, but the scientific advice we received in January meant that we had no choice but to close schools and colleges to all but vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, and to restrict in-person teaching in university to those studying to be future critical workers.

It is the Government’s strong desire to reopen all schools, colleges and universities as soon as possible. We will prioritise the reopening of schools as we begin the process of lifting lockdown restrictions. We are acutely aware of the damage done to children’s education and development, particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils, by being away from school, and of the increased burdens that are placed on parents. That is why we allowed early years providers to remain open throughout this lockdown.

The decision about when and how we can reopen has to be based on clear public health data and guided by scientific evidence and the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, Public Health England and the chief medical officer, including on issues such as hospitalisation rates and mortality, the rate of vaccination, and the challenge of new variants. Ultimately, it was the pressure on the NHS that caused us to move into a national lockdown, and the Government are monitoring NHS capacity carefully as they review whether easing lockdown might be possible.

The Government recognise that headteachers, teachers, support staff, parents and carers need time to prepare for reopening. That is why the Secretary of State made it clear last week that we will give two weeks’ notice to schools, colleges and universities so that they can prepare for a return to face-to-face education. We want to give two weeks’ notice so that parents can make arrangements for the care of their children, and we will be making announcements in the next few days.

Until schools can reopen fully, it is crucial that they continue to provide high-quality remote education alongside the on-site provision for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. I would like to take this opportunity to thank teachers and school leadership teams across the country for working around the clock to keep schools open for some while also rising to the challenge of providing remote education for the millions of children who are continuing their education from home.

However, remote education can never be a substitute for days spent in a classroom led by a brilliant teacher, or for children being with their friends. We want those days to return as quickly as possible, and with them this Government’s continuing determination, made still more urgent by the pandemic, to raise standards in all our schools to improve the life chances of every child and to transform the start in life for those children facing the toughest challenges.

I was pleased to see the Schools Minister at the Dispatch Box—I have more hope of receiving answers from him than I am used to from the Secretary of State—but even he has failed to give parents, students and staff the credible plan they deserve. We simply do not know what the Government’s plan is for school reopening, other than what we read in the newspapers. In recent days, we have had reports that the Prime Minister wants pupils back before Easter, the Health Secretary saying he wants pupils back after Easter, and Public Health England saying overnight that primary schools are already safe to reopen. Which is it? What is the plan for full reopening?

The Schools Minister mentioned some metrics but was vague about the required performance against them. Can he give us some more clarity? Will schools return only if R is below 1? We have read reports that Public Health England believes that primary schools are safe to open. Are these reports accurate, and will he publish the scientific evidence? Will there be a credible testing plan in place as pupils return?

How will the Government get this chaotic system back on track? Can the Minister tell us in what order pupils will return to the classroom? Will it be exam years first, primary schools first, or a regional variation? What is the plan for the return of college and university students?

Why have the Government repeatedly ruled out the use of rotas to keep pupils in the classroom as a means of reducing transmission? What will be done to help pupils to catch up on the learning they have lost? Can the Minister guarantee that schools will be first to reopen when it is safe to do so, or will other restrictions be lifted if our children return to the classroom?

Parents need support and they need to be able to plan. They need answers to these questions and they need them now.

The hon. Lady asks for a plan. There is a plan. Schools were closed as part of the national lockdown, which was introduced to tackle the growing pressure on the NHS, and there are clear criteria for emerging from the lockdown, including hospitalisation rates and the other three criteria I mentioned in my opening comments. We have always been clear that schools will be the last to close and the first to open as we emerge from the national lockdown when on the criteria it is safe to begin to do so.

The hon. Lady asks about the safety of schools. We have always been clear that restricted attendances in schools are not because schools are unsafe but in order to reduce the overall number of social contacts in our community.

The hon. Lady asks about testing. Lateral flow device testing is taking place in our schools. We are testing staff twice a week to identify asymptomatic covid cases. Those pupils returning to secondary school, or in secondary school at the moment, will be tested twice as they return to school.

The hon. Lady says again, “Why aren’t schools the first to open and the last to close?” Well, that is something we have been making clear all along. The problem with her is that she repeatedly calls for action that we are already taking. She is always two steps behind. The Opposition have no plans, no direction and no clarity on what is the biggest crisis facing this country and the world for nearly a century.

I thank all teachers and support staff for all the work that they are doing to try to teach children at this time.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that a number of paediatricians have written to The Times today about children’s anxiety, depression and self-harm—all at frightening levels because of school closures. Parents are showing signs of psychological stress and breakdown as a result of the pressures of trying to home-school their children and sustain their jobs and businesses. We need to get our schools open again sooner rather than later. Why not open schools and colleges in the areas where covid cases and the R are significantly lower? Will he put mental practitioners in all schools to help children and parents during this time? What discussions has he had with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on priority vaccinations for teachers and support staff so that we can help to put an end to the revolving door of learning that has characterised education this year? We just need to get our children back in school full-time as soon as possible.

My right hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to teaching staff in our schools. He is also right to point to the very difficult circumstances that both students and parents face when they are having to learn from home and are not with their friends. We all know that being in school is the best thing for young people rather than learning from home. All the decisions that we are taking are with the wellbeing of students at the forefront. We understand the disruption that the pandemic is causing to students’ education and the impact that it may have had on their mental health. We remain committed to introducing the new mental health support teams for schools and colleges. To support the return to school, we have put in place a range of measures and guidance, and a new £8 million training initiative for school staff to support children’s wellbeing. The health elements of the new RSHE—relationships, sex and health education—curriculum include teaching about mental health and wellbeing. The NHS continues to run 24-hour helplines for those people who have mental health problems.

My right hon. Friend asked about regional differences in infection rates. We will always be led by the science when making decisions about moving away from the lockdown conditions.

Finally, my right hon. Friend asked about vaccines. The JCVI advises that the first priority for the covid vaccination programme should be the prevention of mortality. For the next phase of the roll-out the JCVI has asked the Department of Health and Social Care to consider occupational vaccination, in collaboration with other Departments, including the Department for Education.

We are all acutely aware of the impact of school closures on our children, none more so than those of us who have children and are trying to juggle work and home schooling. Will the Minister assure the House, however, that schools will reopen only when the scientific evidence indicates that it is safe to do so, not because of pressure from the Back Benches?

I hope that the Minister has a set of key targets that must be met before reopening. Can he share them with the House today? Is there a maximum R value that the Government are looking at if we are reopening? I echo the call from the Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for the JCVI to look at the prioritisation of teachers for vaccination.

As I said to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), we have restricted attendance not because schools are unsafe, but in order to reduce the overall number of social contacts in our community. Both PHE and the Department of Health and Social Care confirm that the system of controls we have in our schools—the extra hand-washing, the hygiene, the ventilation, the one-way systems, the masks in communal areas and so on—create an inherently safer environment for children and staff, where the risk of transmission of infection is substantially reduced. This is about reducing transmission in the community, and it is one of the measures after tier 4 that we introduced to achieve that.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) asked about the criteria for emerging from the lockdown. As I said at the beginning of this UQ, those criteria include hospitalisation rates, mortality, the rate of vaccination, and the challenge of the new variants, but I can assure the hon. Lady that we will be led by the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, PHE, and the chief medical officer in any decisions we make regarding the reopening of schools.

On the previous point, I hope the Back Benches get louder about that, because it is more important than ever. We need to hear about the Stroud dad who contacted me because he is so desperately worried about the mental health of his children from being at home all day, and from the parents who are contacting me on Instagram. Instagram is for pictures of cats, but these parents are absolutely at their wits’ end juggling childcare and work. Will my right hon. Friend reassure Stroud’s parents that the reopening of schools is being treated as a national emergency? On his point about evidence, will he work with the six Gloucestershire MPs to see whether our falling covid case rates and the low transmission in schools will allow our primaries to reopen after half-term?

My hon. Friend is right; we take the mental health of pupils and parents, and indeed school staff, very seriously in all the decisions we make. Indeed, the Minister on the Front Bench beside me, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), is convening a mental health action group to look at the effects on children, young people and staff in the education system, and we will confirm the next steps on that as soon as we can. However, at every step we will be led by the scientific advice on when it is safe to reopen schools.

Following the question of the Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for many months the Children’s Commissioner, who leaves her post shortly and who is a terrific advocate for young people, has highlighted the effect of school closures on children’s mental health and wellbeing. Families in Kingston upon Hull North are struggling and as a nation we are storing up a time bomb of mental health issues for a generation. What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care about real and additional support for schools, child and adolescent mental health services, and the voluntary sector groups helping children and families now?

The hon. Member will be aware of all the work that the Department for Education, Ministers and the Secretary of State have done in recent months, and for more than a year, on the children and young people’s mental health Green Paper to ensure that we roll out, over the next few years, a serious series of support for mental health provision in our schools. It is a huge programme, which is designed to help children with serious mental health issues. It is also designed to alert and to take action when there are early signs of mental health conditions in children. It is a huge project, and one we are continuing with. We have put in place a range of measures to help tackle the mental health concerns that the pandemic is throwing up, including the action group set up by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford. The £8 million training initiative for school staff to support children’s wellbeing is already up and running.

The majority of parents in Kensington would like to see their children return to school after the half-term break, especially with proper testing in place. The Prime Minister assured me in early January that there was a “cautious presumption” for children to return at that time. Since early January, rates in London have fallen significantly. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that everything is being done to get children back into school and that we have not ruled out a return after the mid-term break?

As a schools Minister, no one in the House—not even my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) or, indeed, my hon. Friend—is keener than I am to see all schools back and open to all children and young people, but we will be led by the scientific advice when we make that decision, and that will be how we best tackle the transmission of this virus in our communities.

Parents and children have faced unprecedented pressures, in part thanks to the incompetence of this Government. We have had the failures with test and trace, we have had indecision about school closure and now schools opening, and we have also had huge issues with the distribution of laptops. In Tower Hamlets, we have 60% of children facing poverty—the highest in the country—and a shortage of 10,000 laptops. Can the Minister update the House on when my constituents can get the laptops so that they can get the education they need urgently while we are in lockdown? The Government have had nearly a year now, and we have children whose life chances will be damaged further if this is not sorted out immediately.

The hon. Member failed to mention of course that the Government have purchased hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine from a range of different providers, and that we were one of the first countries to begin rolling out the vaccine process. She failed to point out that we have already purchased 1.3 million laptops for disadvantaged children in our schools who may not have a device, on top of the 2.9 million laptops and tablets that already exist in our schools. So far, we have delivered to the hands of children, local authorities and schools 876,000 laptops, purchased in a demanding global market, built from scratch, imported and distributed. It is an amazing logistical exercise, and it would have been nice if the hon. Member could have paid tribute to the work of hundreds of staff in Computacenter and the Department for Education for such an amazing achievement.

I am sure the Minister will join me in paying tribute to the two special schools in my constituency, Alderman Knight and Milestone, as they carry out such amazing work with pupils who are very challenged. Those pupils are less aware of social distancing requirements, and school staff need to work in close proximity and come into frequent physical contact with them because, for example, of the disabilities that some of the pupils may have. Does the Minister agree that vaccinating teachers and staff at all schools, and particularly at special schools, would bring great benefits?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I pay tribute to all staff who work in our special schools. They remain open for vulnerable children and do a wonderful job. For children with special educational needs and disabilities, attending their educational setting is crucial so that they can receive high-quality teaching and the specialist professional support they need. He makes an important point about vaccines. The priority for the first phase is on mortality, but in the second phase the JVCI will be looking at different occupations. The Department for Education will be pressing the case for the education workforce.

For months, parents, teachers, unions, MPs and local authorities have been calling for: rotas in schools; school transport that is ring-fenced to a single school to reduce transmission; laptops and internet access for children; vaccinations for teachers; mental health funding for young people and the myriad costs facing schools; directly employing supply teachers for one-to-one catch-ups; and trusting local public health directors and schools to decide how best to reopen. The ideas are there on how to reopen schools safely, so why is there still no plan?

As I set out, there is a very clear plan for reopening schools, based on the fact that schools are part of the national lockdown. There are clear criteria for how and when we emerge from that national lockdown, which will depend on vaccinations, mortality and tackling new variants and, most importantly, on the pressure that the NHS is facing.

On all the other issues the hon. Member trotted out, we have been working on them. In May, we entered into a contract to purchase 200,000 laptops; we increased that in August, September, October, and November. These computers are built to order—there is a long lead time, but we anticipated and prepared for every contingency, which is why we have orders in place for 1.3 million devices, 876,000 of which are now in the hands of young people and schools.

On rotas, they are difficult for secondary schools to implement at the same time as providing full-time education for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Rotas do not prioritise exam years. We only ever restrict education as a last resort where transmission is exceptionally high, and rotas are a less effective means of reducing transmission risk than the approach set out in great detail in the contingency framework.

Yesterday, I took part in a mental health summit with Peterborough citizens, our local clinical commissioning group and many pupils from Peterborough secondary schools. Despite the best efforts of the Government, the mental health of many students has been impacted by school closures. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating local students on raising these issues with me? I heard what he said about following scientific advice. When considering the right time to reopen schools, will he put the mental health impact on students at the very top of his priority list?

My hon. Friend is right to raise these issues. Mental health concerns are at the forefront of all our decision making on schools and reopening schools, and I pay tribute to those students who have taken these issues as seriously as they have. It is why we are, over the longer term, putting in place the recommendations in our Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health. Once fully rolled out, I believe that they will transform the provision of mental health services for children in our schools.

The Minister is insistent that there is a clear plan for reopening schools. Schools are largely open for those important children with additional needs and the children of key workers, but surely we must do more than hope for the best; we have to plan for the worst and let school leaders and governors know what these proposals consist of. If they do not know, they cannot plan and prepare for the eventuality of being told what the plan is by the Minister. Can we also have laptops delivered that are free of malware? All too many of the laptops delivered to schools in my vicinity—and not all schools have them yet, by the way—have had malware on them.

Of course we want to give schools the appropriate notice, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said last week that we would give schools, colleges and universities two weeks’ notice. That is not just for the schools; it is for parents as well, who need to know precisely what their childcare arrangements will be. As for the malware issue, that occurred in a very small number of devices. They have been dealt with, and the virus has been removed.

I know that my right hon. Friend is as keen as everyone is to get schools fully open with children back in them. As we emerge from the national lockdown, it is likely that we will go back into some form of tiered approach. Can he update the House on what the plan is? Will all schools of a particular type be fully open, or will it be based on the tier an area is in? That will be vital in terms of heads and senior staff planning for how they reopen their schools fully.

My hon. Friend is right to raise these issues, as he always does. We continually talk to stakeholders and advisory groups, and we discuss all options for how to open schools when the scientific advice says that it is safe to do so.

I would like to put on record my thanks to the teachers and support staff in schools for the tremendous job they are doing at the moment. Some teachers who have covid-19 are absent for not just a few days but many weeks. Will the Minister ensure that when schools reopen, resources will be available to cover long-term staff absence, to ensure that children do not fall further behind?

The hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the teachers and staff in our schools. Sunday was International Education Day, and we should be paying tribute to staff in our schools, further education colleges, universities and early years settings. We should also pay tribute to parents during this time and to the resilience of children and staff. We monitor staff absence rates in our schools, and the regional schools commissioners’ offices will offer help and support to schools that are suffering excessive or high rates of staff absence due to covid.

Getting our children safely back into school is clearly a priority for this Government, and it is right that reopening next month remains under review. I am sure that many parents in East Devon will be concerned by significant delays, as we all know that, although schools across Devon are going above and beyond to provide virtual learning, nothing beats the classroom. Could my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will keep all options on the table for reopening schools, including reopening on a regional basis if the scientific evidence supports a phased return based on vaccinations and case rates in different parts of the country?

My hon. Friend is right that the Government want to see schools open. We believe that face-to-face education—being in the classroom, with their teacher—is best for the education of young people and their mental wellbeing, so we want to see schools open as soon as possible. As we have always said during the pandemic, schools will be the last to close and the first to open. We consult with stakeholders and advisory groups about the options for reopening, and we keep all those issues under review.

There are children in Bedford and Kempston who still cannot access remote learning today because they do not have a digital device or broadband. So will the Government urgently tackle that inequality and put forward a long-term IT strategy for schools so that every child can learn from home and catch up after a year of disruption to their education?

Yes, I agree with the hon. Member. We have already purchased 1.3 million computers. They have been built to order, imported and distributed. We have distributed 876,000 of those devices, but it is not just about devices; it is also about data. We have partnered with the UK’s major mobile phone operators to provide free data for disadvantaged children to get online, as well as 4G wireless routers. I pay tribute to Three, EE, Tesco Mobile, SMARTY, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile, O2, Vodafone, BT Mobile and Lycamobile for working with us on this service-.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public health risk of allowing schools, particularly covid-secure primary schools, to reopen is modest, particularly when set against the three quarters of covid-symptomatic people who are currently not self-isolating, with all the risk that that brings to public health?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know, given his background, that what matters is all of us obeying the rules that are set out very clearly and how, as a nation, we can manage the reduction in the transmission of this very deadly virus. It is beholden on all of us to obey those rules. The more we do that, the quicker we can reduce infection in our society and move out of the lockdown position.

I echo the concerns of the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) about the warnings given by paediatricians and the Children’s Commissioner today about children’s mental health. In particular, I want to ask about children who have not yet been assessed for education, health and care plans and are now at home. What progress is being made in trying to ensure that they get their assessments, even though they are not in school, because we know that any delay in getting them assessed could have a serious impact on their educational and social development?

The hon. Member raises an important point. This is something that my hon. Friend the Minister is monitoring very closely with our expert advisers.

Before I ask my question, may I take the Minister back to something that he said in his statement? I think he said that schools were closed to stop community transmission. In our evidence last week, Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, said that it was the other way around—that there was no evidence that schools drove large-scale community transmission; it was community transmission that led to infections in school. What I want to press him on is what he said about the criteria for reopening schools. He mentioned a number of indicators: hospitalisation rates and so forth. At what level do those indicators have to get to in order to trigger the reopening of schools? These are decisions not for scientists, but for Ministers, and we want to know: what point do those measures need to get to for Ministers to take the decision to reopen schools to all children?

The reason why schools have been asked to restrict access to children other than vulnerable children and the children of critical workers is nothing to do with the safety of the schools themselves. It is about reducing community activity. That in turn will help to reduce transmission risk in those communities. That is the reason behind adding school closures to the other closures in the economy that took place prior to that decision, which we were advised to take in January. My right hon. Friend rightly asks: what are the criteria that will determine whether and how soon we will move out of the national lockdown position? As he reminds me, I mentioned those in my opening comments about hospitalisation rates, mortality, the rate of vaccination and the challenge of new variants. We do rely on the advice of SAGE, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, Public Health England and the chief medical officer as well as the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, when those criteria are assessed and whether they believe that it is right to start to undo some of the national restrictions that we are now facing.

In Edmonton, almost 7,000 children live in poverty, and families living in multigenerational, crowded homes, experiencing food and job insecurity, are really struggling. What is the Minister doing to ensure that all vulnerable children are able to access the support and services that they need during this lockdown?

The hon. Member raises a hugely important issue that has been at the forefront of our decision making right from the very beginning of the pandemic. When we closed schools for the first time, we allowed vulnerable children and the children of critical workers to attend school, but the attendance rates were quite low—certainly compared with those children’s rates of attendance today. We took action to ensure that local authorities and schools made contact with the families of those children to find out why they were not attending school—whether there were good reasons for that—and to encourage the most vulnerable children to attend school. That remains our position now.

I thank all the teachers who continue to work so hard to teach our young pupils. Given that by mid-February we should have vaccinated those accounting for 90% of mortality risk, why cannot pupils return to their classrooms later that month? Surely, by that time the risks from school attendance will be lower than they were last autumn, when the school gates were open to all.

My hon. Friend is right to raise those issues, and I agree with him to the extent that vaccination is an important criterion that will determine how and when we emerge from the national lockdown position, of which schools are an important part. But vaccination is only one of the criteria; hospitalisation rates and mortality rates are also important, as is the challenge of any new variants. We rely on the advice of the scientists to weigh up those different criteria and to advise us on when and how soon we can undo the national lockdown.

I send my thanks and solidarity to all the teachers and support staff in my constituency of Liverpool, Riverside who are working through these very challenging times. The pandemic and school closures have widened the educational attainment gap for working-class black and white pupils. The catch-up funding is not sufficient to achieve the levelling up required. Will the Government review the progress made with the financial support allocated to schools and provide more funding where necessary?

The hon. Member is right. Everything that this Government have been seeking to do since 2010 has been about closing the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers, and we do not intend to let this pandemic divert us from that overarching objective. There is no question but that the pandemic has, during this period, widened the attainment gap, and our objective is to close that gap again as soon as we can. That is why we secured £1 billion of catch-up funding, of which £650 million is a catch-up premium for pupils. Some £350 million of that is funding the national tutoring programme, which is designed to help the most disadvantaged young people with one-to-one and small-group tuition, which is an effective way of helping children to catch up.

I refer to the declarations I have made relating to the Covid Recovery Group.

Will my right hon. Friend please either open schools or justify the decision to keep them closed by quantifying the harms and benefits of his policy?

I am always happy to debate these issues with my hon. Friend. The national lockdown was based on very clear criteria, and our emergence from the national lockdown will also be based on very clear criteria. The schools element of the national lockdown is very much part of that process. We continually talk to stakeholders and advisory groups, but ultimately we will be led in our decision making by the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, the chief medical officer and the Department of Health and Social Care.

We all want schools and other educational settings to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so, and it is absolutely right for the shadow Education Secretary to be calling on the Government to publish their plan defining the conditions for this safe reopening, given, once again, the confusing mixed messages from this Government. The Minister has said that NHS pressures and the level of covid circulating in the community are key criteria for determining lockdowns, including of schools. So what discussion has the Education Secretary had with the Transport Secretary about the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency outbreak and the impact that workplace transmissions are having on covid case levels?

These criteria are, of course, monitored the whole time, wherever there are outbreaks, in whatever segment of society or the economy increasing or decreasing transmissions take place; they are the criteria upon which the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, the chief medical officer and Public Health England will advise us about when it is safe to reopen schools.

Contrary to the mood of this urgent question so far, may I point out that today is the day we have surpassed 100,000 deaths in the UK, that 37,000 people are currently in hospital for covid and that now is not the time to set arbitrary deadlines for the opening of schools, or arbitrary targets that mean that schools can then be opened? We must go by the medical advice. In connection with that, may I ask the Minister whether he thinks it is a good idea to vaccinate every adult who works in a school sooner rather than later, to stop public transmission of covid?

My hon. Friend is right to point to that tragic milestone. My thoughts, like those of everyone in this House, are with the families and friends of people we have lost during this covid pandemic. He is right, therefore, to point out that at the moment there are 37,000 people in our hospitals with the virus, which is higher than at the peak of the virus last year. That is why we have to take these decisions about the national lockdown very seriously, to rely on the advice of SAGE, the JBC and PHE and to look at the pressure on the NHS when reaching those decisions.

My hon. Friend is also right to highlight the issue of vaccines. The priority initially is mortality, which means that there is a focus on age and where the rates of mortality are higher. However, once we are through that phase 1, we will be looking at occupations and the Department for Education will certainly be making the case to the Department of Health and Social Care for staff in the education sector.

I was one of those advocating for schools to stay open as long as possible, but I agree with the Minister that, given the height of the pandemic we are in now, this was the right thing to do—I say that very reluctantly. However, the longer it goes on, the worse it is for pupils, as we all know. There is a lot of fanfare about the national tutoring programme, but what serious consideration are he and the Department giving to providing proper catch-up summer lessons and so on, particularly for young people going into exam years, because they will not get that time back, no matter how good the online learning is?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and we are considering this issue the whole time. The £1 billion catch-up fund is important, as is the national tutoring programme, but of course we also have to take into account what we are going to do when children are back for the longer term to make sure that we help these young people to catch up. The older they are, the less time they have left in school before they leave. So we are giving this issue a great deal of thought as we plan further announcements in the near future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Scotland would be better served if the SNP bothered to care about more than its fixation on yet another independence referendum and, rather than callously exploiting the crisis, began prioritising the education of Scotland’s children? The SNP shamefully continues to let them down through years of failing education policy due to the SNP’s poverty of positive ideas and responsible leadership.

My hon. Friend is preaching to the choir when it comes to advocating prioritising education policy about all other policies in government—as a Schools Minister, I would say little else.

Special schools in my constituency, including Brent Knoll, Riverside and Watergate, remain open. They are doing a tremendous job and often provide personal and medical care on top of teaching. I echo calls for making school staff a priority for vaccinations, but will the Minister also consider treating staff in special schools akin to frontline care workers and prioritising them for the vaccine without delay?

That is an important point. As I have said previously, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s priority is mortality, which is based principally on age, and it also prioritises those working for the national health service and in care homes. The second phase will be occupationally based, and we will be making the case for staff in special schools as well as other staff in the education sector.

Will the Minister join me in thanking teachers across Cheadle, who have educated vulnerable children and children of critical workers in school while managing the challenges of remote learning? When schools fully reopen and the Minister assesses the inevitable variation in children’s learning throughout covid, will he look at the educational impact of regional covid restrictions? Our higher local case rates in the autumn caused pupils to lose even more time in the classroom. Will he consider additional targeted educational resources and teaching support to address any educational disadvantage as we move beyond covid?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to teachers in Cheadle. Combining teaching vulnerable children and critical workers’ children full time in school with providing high-quality remote education to pupils at home is a huge challenge. Of course, teachers also have to maintain the safety measures that are in place to ensure that we minimise the risk of transmission in school. I am aware of the very real challenges that teachers face. Ensuring that children who have not coped as well with remote education as they would in the class are able to catch up as swiftly as possible when they return to school is a key priority for the Department, and we will be saying more about that in the weeks ahead.

Schools need a return plan, but what about the children who are unable to learn remotely in the meantime? The Government are slowly distributing laptops that are unusable without connectivity, but 1 million children have only mum’s mobile as their connection and a further half a million have no connection at all and so cannot receive network data boosts. Nine months on, why has the Minister still not ensured that those children can connect from home so that they do not fall even further behind?

If I am allowed, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her assiduous work on remote education. We have purchased 1.3 million computers for children and young people in our schools and colleges at a time when there is huge global demand for those devices. They have been built to order, imported, shipped and distributed, and 876,000 of them are now in the hands of schools and pupils. It is also right to point to data. We have partnered with the UK’s major mobile phone operators to provide free data to disadvantaged children so that they can get online using, for example, their parents’ smartphone. They will not have to pay data charges for downloading educational material.

Will the Minister join me in thanking the teams at our schools in Great Grimsby for all their hard work? As Grimsby now has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and reducing hospitalisations, will he consider allowing at least infants and primary schools to return in the town after the half-term break?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the teachers in Great Grimsby for the work that they are doing in keeping schools open for vulnerable children and children of critical workers, as well as all the other work that they do in continuing to teach children while they remain at home. We take the advice of SAGE, Public Health England and the CMO on how and when we can remove the restrictions on access to our schools. It was part of the national lockdown decisions, and we will take their advice when we make those decisions.

Can the Minister tell me, did the PM’s much trumpeted army of catch-up tutors from the first lockdown ever happen, or was it just Ealing that got left out? How will he fund, after a second year of disruption, not just the academic deficit but the emotional damage done, not just to pupils but to teachers? We expect them to be superhuman, with their own bereavements, bursting bubbles, kids and long covid, yet they have had no recognition in pay or vaccines, and child and adolescent mental health services had a two-year waiting list even before coronavirus.

The national citizenship programme is a big programme, which is overseen by the Education Endowment Foundation. There are 33 tutoring companies, 15,000 tutors are signed up and we intend to reach 250,000 of the most disadvantaged pupils. That is a very effective, evidence-based approach to helping catch-up. If there are particular circumstances that the hon. Lady wants to bring to my attention, I shall be delighted to have those details and I will take the matter up with the Education Endowment Foundation.

I am increasingly concerned about the mental health of our young people while schools remain closed. I should like to thank Wolverhampton’s Youth MPs, Tutsirai Rukarwa and Ruby Cochrane, for discussing that with me recently. Many young people are struggling with feelings of isolation and are worried about falling behind with schoolwork. They are anxious that that will impact their future exam success, their choice of university and their career path. What measures will the Government take to really support these people with their mental health?

The Government have made children’s wellbeing and mental health a central part of our response to the pandemic. We have already set up the wellbeing for education return project, backed by £8 million, to help support the wellbeing and resilience of pupils, parents and staff in light of the covid pandemic and lockdown. We are very aware and concerned about the impact that the pandemic has had on the mental wellbeing of so many children in our schools, or at home, trying to learn remotely.

Before the lockdown, children in the north had missed many more days than their counterparts in the south. Their schools have also suffered a financial crisis, as the pandemic has cost them eye-watering sums of money just to keep things safe. How will the Minister ensure that children in constituencies like mine in Stockton are not left behind, and that their schools will have the extra funding they need to ensure that regional attainment gaps will not be even wider than they were before the pandemic?

We did secure a very good three-year settlement for school funding with the Treasury, and that was confirmed in the spending review 2020, despite all the other challenges on the Treasury. In addition, we have secured £1 billion of funding for schools for catch-up, and there are also specific funds to help schools tackle and pay the additional costs that they have incurred due to covid—such as the costs incurred between March and July last year and extra staffing costs incurred in November and December last year and in January when the schools went back. Schools that are in difficult financial constraints are always able to talk to their local authority, or to the Education and Skills Funding Agency if they are an academy.

The Minister will be aware of a letter from HMC—Ipswich School is one of its schools, and it has shown great spirit in really rolling its sleeves up and saying, “We want to help. We think we can vaccinate all teaching staff within a very short period of time.” If the JCVI takes the decision that after all of the most vulnerable have had their first dose, teachers should be prioritised, would it not be the appropriate moment—at the point at which all of the most vulnerable and all teaching staff have had their first dose, which provides a significant amount of protection—to say that at that point the harms and the dangers posed by schools’ remaining closed will become greater than any potential public health risks.

My hon. Friend makes an important point; I am sure that it will have been heard by the Department of Health and Social Care. I have a lot of responsibilities on my plate, as does my hon. Friend, but I am not responsible yet for the roll-out of the vaccine programme, which is going extremely well, with more than 6 million people vaccinated so far.

Kensington Primary School in East Ham is the Pearson national teaching awards primary school of the year. The school asked for 100 devices for children to learn, although it needs more than that. It has received 32 so far. When can it expect the rest? The Minister has indicated that there are about half a million devices that have been purchased but not yet distributed. When will they all get out, and will the Department be purchasing more?

I am very happy to look into why that particular school did not receive its devices, and I will be in touch with the right hon. Member. There is a lead time in all this, which is why we were putting in orders in August, September and October last year. We put in an order for 340,000 in November, and those devices are now being delivered. On 12 January, we put in another order for 300,000 computers, which will begin to come on stream shortly.

As a paediatrician, I can see the damage that is being done to children’s mental health when they are not in school; as a constituency MP, I am hearing about the difficulties that families are facing when their children are trying to learn from home while they work from home; and as a parent, I can see some of these challenges for myself. With the vaccination programme steaming ahead and levels of covid falling—and in some cases lower than they were last term, when schools were open—does my right hon. Friend agree that the balance of risk is now in favour of reopening schools, and that they should reopen at February half-term at the very latest?

My hon. Friend, with her experience in the NHS and as a mother, is right to point to the importance of children being back in the classroom. It is right for their education and for their mental wellbeing. It is right for them to be with their friends. Education will be a national priority for this Government during this pandemic. Schools will be the last to close and the first to open, and that remains our position.

Teachers have taken on many additional tasks during the pandemic, as well as developing online learning, which is a substantial job in itself. Will the Minister therefore consider providing extra support to schools to deliver the testing that is needed? Will he also say a little bit more about plans to address lost learning, which affects all years, not just those with imminent exams?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of testing. We are testing staff in schools twice weekly to identify any asymptomatic cases. That is an important measure that we have taken. We are helping schools with the cost of rolling that out; there is £78 million of funding available for schools to employ agency workers and others to help them to deliver those lateral flow device tests. He is right to point out that lost education is important. That is why we are supporting the Oak National Academy, which was set up by a group of teachers. We have funded it with over £4 million. The academy has had 3 million individual users, and 32 million of its lessons have been viewed online.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment that it is the Government’s absolute priority to reopen schools and get undergraduates back to university. I am reassured that he keeps open the option of returning after half-term. In the meantime, I would like to thank all the teachers and heads in Arundel and South Downs for their hard work during this crisis, and also the Minister himself for his help in getting free laptops to Upper Beeding Primary School after I raised the matter with his Department.

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend and neighbouring MP in paying tribute to the teachers in his constituency, and if I may, as he is a neighbour, I would like to add my thanks to all the teachers in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton for the sterling work that they are doing, as are his teachers, in supporting children during a very challenging period.

Schools are currently doing a fantastic job of providing remote education and reaching out to vulnerable families, but inevitably some pupils will fall through the cracks. As our 2020 Youth Violence Commission report highlights, the links between young people disengaging from school and an increase in the likelihood of them being victims or perpetrators of serious violence are well established. Until our schools reopen, what extra support can the Minister put in place to ensure that schools are able to support those most at risk?

The hon. Member raises an important point. This is why we have kept alternative provision and special schools open, and it is why we keep schools open to vulnerable children to ensure that they are in a school where they can be protected. I share her view that the most important risk factor for young people, leaving aside the pandemic, is not being in school, so we need to do everything we can to help children remain in school in normal times. That is why we want to reopen schools for all pupils as soon as the science allows.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the teachers across Harborough, Oadby and Wigston, who have done an incredible job in keeping schools open for key worker and vulnerable children during very difficult circumstances? Given the huge uncertainties about how fast infections will fall, the risks from new variants and the effects of the vaccine roll-out, does he agree that we have to make the decisions on schools reopening, which we are all desperate to see, based on scientific advice rather than on arbitrary deadlines?

Yes, I will join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the teachers in his constituency, who, like teachers up and down the country, are working round the clock to ensure that the children in their schools have a safe and caring environment, and also helping to educate children while they are at home. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which he has analysed a lot of the scientific data and helped those of us who are less scientifically minded to understand the huge raft of data and science that is out there. He is absolutely right to say that, in all the decisions we take, we need to ensure that we are led by the science.

I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question for over an hour. He has answered 40 questions, of which 34 were remote, so let me also thank the technicians for making that possible. We will now suspend for three minutes for hygiene purposes.

Sitting suspended.

Bill Presented

Armed Forces Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Ben Wallace, supported by the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary Brandon Lewis and Secretary Simon Hart, presented a Bill to continue the Armed Forces Act 2006; to amend that Act and other enactments relating to the armed forces; to make provision about service in the reserve forces; to make provision about pardons for certain abolished service offences; to make provision about war pensions; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 244) with explanatory notes (Bill 244-EN).