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Covid-19 Management in Schools

Volume 702: debated on Monday 1 November 2021

Teachers and school leaders have made a huge contribution to the nation’s efforts, and we are grateful for their hard work. Schools continue to receive core funding throughout the pandemic, regardless of any periods of reduced attendance. The 2021 spending review has confirmed significant funding increases, with a cash increase for schools averaging £1,500 per pupil by 2024-25.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s answer. I have met heads at Bosworth Academy in Desford and Hastings High School in Burbage, who welcome the funding they have had throughout covid but are concerned about what could happen to staffing budgets in particular because of absenteeism through covid. Does the Secretary of State have a plan to deal with that, and will he meet me to hear their concerns so that we can work out a solution?

Of course I will meet my hon. Friend. We recognise that some schools are concerned about pressures and have made available a range of school resources and management tools to help them get best value from their resources. I just remind the House that the increase of £1,500 per pupil by 2024-25 is compared with 2019-20.

England’s near 400 maintained nursery schools were not eligible for exceptional costs funding, and they therefore had to bear the burden of covid themselves. The Government’s announcement last week of the continuation of supplementary funding for three years is a welcome step in the right direction, but will the Secretary of State confirm that it will cover inflationary pressures and the national living wage increase? Will he meet the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly), me and the other officers of the all-party parliamentary group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes to ensure that those outstanding centres of excellence in some of the most deprived communities in the country get the funding that they deserve?

The hon. Member will recall that when I was Minister for Children and Families, I met the all-party parliamentary group, an incredibly important group, which I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the current Children and Families Minister, will continue to engage with. We have confirmed that continuation of supplementary funding for maintained nurseries through the spending review period, which provides the sector with long-term clarity. I am happy to meet the hon. Member and the APPG to go through the details.

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend to his place and thank him for the big Budget increases in education, particularly the 42% increase in cash terms for skills.

Will my right hon. Friend continue to make the case for a longer school day? We know from the Education Policy Institute that it increases educational attainment by two to three months, especially among disadvantaged pupils. According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a longer school day increases numeracy by 29%. Will my right hon. Friend at least consider some pilot schemes in disadvantaged areas around the country whereby we can have a longer school day?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Education Committee for his question. The priority has to be those children and students who have the least time available to recover. That is why the £800 million for 16 to 19-year-olds for an additional 40 hours of education is so important, plus the £1 billion going into secondary and primary, making a total of £5 billion of recovery money. There are excellent examples in some multi-academy trusts of a longer school day, which I will look at. The average school day is now six and a half hours, and I would like to see everybody moving towards that.

The NHS covid recovery fund is an important measure to help address the backlog of operations and patient care. Will the Secretary of State set out, following any conversations between the Department, the Treasury and the Department of Health of Social Care, how much of that budget has been earmarked for additional capacity for children with disability and care needs, children and adolescent mental health services, and special educational needs and disability provision, which is quickly becoming a crisis in our schools?

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, has been championing the additional £2.6 billion investment in SEND that we have received from the Treasury. That includes money going into mainstream schools to increase that provision. It is important, as we await the review of SEND, that we make the investment now to create places so that parents do not feel that they need to go to court with their local authority to get an education, health and care plan.

May I press my right hon. Friend on the issue of maintained nursery schools? Of course, I welcome the three years of supplementary funding that has been confirmed, but those schools are in severe financial distress, they have found it harder than any other schools to cope with the cost of covid, and the schools in my constituency do not quality for supplementary funding. When are they going to get the help they need to survive?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who was a doughty champion of her maintained nurseries even in my time as Children and Families Minister. I am happy to meet her to go through the details that are specific to her schools, but the additional funding has been welcomed by the maintained nursery sector.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his post, and I welcome the other Ministers who are new in post. Despite our political differences, I hold them all in very high personal regard.

On 19 July, I put it to the Secretary of State, who was then Vaccines Minister, that the only way to have stability in schools come the autumn term and to protect the wellbeing of students would be to offer the vaccine over the summer months. He chose not to. As a result, just in recent days, I spoke to a principal who said that schools are no longer primarily places of learning; they are logistical centres, performing twice-weekly testing, facilitating the vaccine roll-out and dealing with local covid outbreaks. Instead of having a wall of protected adults, which the Secretary of State told me would be the case, students are faced with a wall of pinched and angry anti-vaxxers, who are preventing them from getting into school by bullying and harassing, and interrupting their school flow. Will he accept Labour’s proposal for exclusion zones around schools for the duration of any vaccine roll-out programme, and will he apologise to the 200,000 students and their families who are currently off school because he chose not to implement the measures that would have kept them there?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his question and his remarks about the team. I remind him that it was the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that initially did not make the decision and then went further and asked the four chief medical officers to make that decision. Throughout the vaccination programme, we have operated by taking the advice of the JCVI and of the chief medical officers. We moved swiftly the moment the advice was made available to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds. Of course, through the holiday period, that was expanded to out-of-school vaccination, and now that they are returning to school, that continues at pace.

However, the shadow Minister is right to highlight the dangerous behaviour of some anti-vaxxers. There is no place for anti-vaxxers harassing or coming anywhere near school leaders, and I have the reassurance of the Home Secretary that she will make available any resources that the sector needs to ensure that those people in our schools are protected and able to get on with the job of teaching and protecting children.