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School Openings: January 2022

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on preparations for school openings in January.

I am very grateful to you for granting this urgent question on a day when the Schools Minister is out of town, Mr Speaker.

The Government are committed to ensuring that schools open in January as normal. The classroom is the very best place for children’s and young people’s development, and we are incredibly grateful to teachers and all education staff for all they have done to maintain face-to-face learning. Protecting education continues to be our absolute priority.

The Government have taken action to help manage the omicron variant, and the Prime Minister has already announced that we are turbocharging our covid-19 booster programme to offer every adult in England a vaccine by the end of the year to protect people from it. We have set out clear plans for school openings in January, including on-site lateral flow testing for secondary school students on return; continued regular testing at home for the education and childcare sectors; and a comprehensive contingency framework to manage outbreaks.

As of 1 December, more than 95.2 million tests have been completed across all education settings, and the Government have made more than £100 million of funding available to education settings to support costs. Schools and education settings have a range of measures in place to manage covid and to reduce transmission, including regular testing, additional hygiene practices, increasing ventilation, and procedures for managing confirmed cases.

From Tuesday 14 December, a new national daily testing of covid contacts policy was introduced. That means that young people and fully vaccinated adults who are identified as a close contact of someone with covid may take an NHS rapid lateral flow test every day for seven days and continue to attend their setting as normal unless they have a positive result.

We also recommend that older students and staff wear face coverings in communal areas and we have supported education settings to improve ventilation. The Government committed to delivering 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors by the end of this term; we have already delivered more than 329,000, with more than 99% of eligible settings having received monitors.

Every child aged 12 and over is eligible to receive the vaccine. We encourage all children and parents to take up that offer as soon as possible, if they have not already. It is vital, though, that all of us, including parents, carers, teachers and everyone working in education, goes out as soon as they possibly can to get their booster jab to protect the NHS, our way of life and education.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.

Despite the heroic efforts of teachers and support staff in Harlow and around the country who have worked tirelessly to keep students learning, the four horsemen of the education apocalypse have been galloping towards our young people in the form of a widening attainment gap, an epidemic of mental health problems, a rise in safeguarding hazards and a loss of life chances. We know that the attainment gap between rich and poor students is getting worse, and that the number of children being referred to mental health support services has increased by 62%. We know the damage that school closures bring, and 100,000 ghost children are missing almost entirely from the school roll. Yesterday, the Department for Education released new figures showing that more than 230,000 children were not in school because of covid-related incidents.

The Government have stated that they want to keep schools open, but what is the plan in order to do so? What measures are being taken to ensure that, should education staff be required to isolate, there is a network of supply teachers ready to step in? Is additional funding being made available to provide adequate ventilation in schools?

The Health Secretary is right to say that we should protect the NHS, but why can the Department for Education not say that we have to protect our children’s futures? Why do we not have advertisements about that? What mental health support is being given to our young people affected by the pandemic? What assessment is being made of the impact of lost learning on students in critical exam years?

There is a nationwide campaign for an army of NHS volunteers, but not for education. Why is a similar army of retired teachers or Ofsted inspectors not being recruited to support schools struggling to cope with staffing requirements? Can we not have the same vision, the same passion and the same resource provision for the education service as we do for the national health service?

Despite the Government’s assurances, it seems to me that, sadly, we are moving towards de facto school closures. I urge Ministers to prove otherwise.

I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, for his question. I know how much the subject means to him, and I am sure he recognises how much it matters to everyone in the Department for Education. We are absolutely clear that the best place for schoolchildren is in school, that the best thing for schoolchildren is to have face-to-face teaching and that, as the Secretary of State said at the weekend, he will do everything in his power to ensure that that continues.

We have a range of work under way in response to this fast-moving situation. Currently, I believe that there are 14 hospitalisations from omicron and that the rate of the doubling of cases is about every two days. At the weekend, the Secretary of State was on “The Andrew Marr Show”, where he said that he thought that about a third of cases in London were omicron. That number is already now over 50%, so to deal with this we have set about four things: testing, vaccination, ventilation and hygiene. Those are the ways in which we will absolutely back schools to make sure that in-classroom teaching can continue. We are recommending that all secondary school pupils will be tested right at the start of next term. We are offering a small amount of flexibility on the time at which schools can go back in order to make sure that this testing can take place, and we are offering additional funding to make sure that this testing is available. I reassure the House that schools have and will have all the testing facilities they require.

On vaccination, six out of 10 of those aged 16 and 17 have already been jabbed, and more than 80% of everybody in the population aged 12 and over has received at least two jabs. That remarkable achievement has been made possible by our world-leading vaccine procurement and roll-out. As I mentioned, 99% of schools have received the carbon dioxide monitor, and schools are running comprehensive and advanced hygiene programmes. The key to our success in the battle against omicron will be the booster programme. This is a national mission of the utmost importance and severity. The Government are throwing the kitchen sink at making sure that before schools get back all adults will have had the chance to have their booster. That is the way forward; it is how we maximise our chances of making sure that our children get the world-class education they deserve.

First, let me thank school staff, governors, parents and pupils across the country for their dedication and hard work during a year of unrivalled difficulties. However, the Government’s complacency means that we are now in a race against time to protect children’s health and education as the omicron variant spreads. Yesterday’s absence figures showed that 235,000 children are now out of school because of covid, which is an increase of 13% in the past fortnight. An average of 175,000 children have been out of school every day this term. This ongoing disruption to education comes on top of pupils missing an average of 115 days of in-person school between March 2020 and July 2021. The Government have serious questions to answer about why further steps have not been taken to reduce the spread of covid among pupils.

We know that vaccination and ventilation are vital to these efforts, but Ministers are falling short on both. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies first highlighted the importance of ventilation in schools in May 2020, but 19 months on the Government have failed to act on its advice. This is literally a problem the Government could have fixed while the sun was shining, but instead their failure to get measures in place is pushing schools to open windows, despite plummeting temperatures and while school energy bills rocket. Therefore, will the Minister immediately publish interim findings of the Bradford pilot of air purifiers and work with all schools to implement recommendations from that?

On vaccinations, we find that nationally less than half of 12 to 15-year-olds have had a vaccine. Ministers missed their own target to offer everyone in that age group a jab by October, and they have not set a new one yet. Perhaps most concerningly, the weekly number of jabs administered to 12 to 15-years-olds has dropped by 80% since half term. Will the Minister commit to deliver a vaccine guarantee so that all young people can get their jab by the end of the Christmas holidays? Will he also set out what steps he will take to rapidly ramp up the roll-out? Will he adopt Labour’s calls for a clear, targeted communications campaign to parents on the benefits of the vaccination, access to pop-up and walk-in clinics, and the mobilisation of volunteers and retired clinicians? Staff, children and parents are now entering their third school year of disruption. Time and time again, this Government’s failure to plan ahead has left children bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Ministers must stop treating them as an afterthought and act now to avoid chaos next term.

I join the hon. Gentleman in his remarks about schools and school staff. We understand that they have worked enormously hard to do the best for children in extremely difficult conditions over the past 18 months. It is important to recognise that the work that they have done throughout has meant that we are now in a position where we have good and improving vaccination rates, good ventilation, good hygiene and good testing in schools. As I made clear in my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), that is the key recipe to ensure that schools are in the best possible position, but the national solution to the omicron variant must be—and can only be—boosters, which is why in the next few weeks we need as many people as possible to come forward and take up the Government’s invitation.

We are making an enormous effort to ensure that vaccine centres are available near people, that there are walk-ins, and that people can step forward and take the protection that they, their families and their communities need, and that will mean that we have the best chance for a normal school term in January.

I am reassured to hear the determination of my hon. Friend to keep schools open, but does he agree that the disgraceful campaign of intimidation waged by National Education Union managers to close down schools earlier this year wreaked huge chaos across schools that will take many years to overcome, including the one in six school-age children who now have mental health problems; the chaos caused to the examination system; the academic catch-up; and the problems from a lack of physical exercise? Will he welcome the measures being proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Select Committee, and will he agree that, given the extraordinarily heroic efforts of our headteachers and teachers through difficult circumstances, ultimately the decision on safety and keeping schools open should be left to individual heads?

Order. We do not need any extra comments, Mr Gullis. You were hoping to catch my eye and I was thinking about coming to you next, but you obviously do not want me to.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), the former Children’s Minister, for his remarks. We are absolutely determined to do everything that we can to keep schools open. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow asked how we are going to maintain the workforce. I remind the House that during the surge of the delta variant, the Department created the workforce fund, which enabled the vast majority of schools to stay open, even in the teeth of that variant. We still have the workforce fund, and intend to say more about it in the next few days.

I urge the Minister to take very seriously the morale out there in schools. We spend a lot of time, quite rightly, thanking NHS staff as frontliners, but teachers and the whole school community are also wonderful, hard-working people, so let us look carefully to morale and to the health of our children, which is paramount. Will he also look at early years and nursery provision, which is essential to people who want to go to work and have their children looked after properly? Will he please talk to the people at the National Day Nurseries Association, which is based in Huddersfield, because they are the experts?

The hon. Gentleman obviously has enormous expertise in this field, as former Chair of the Education Committee. I reassure him that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the Children’s Minister, is in regular contact with the group that he mentions. Education being open is vital to the national effort. It is education settings being open—particularly for key workers, as they were at all stages throughout the pandemic—that means that the NHS can function, that people who are seriously ill can get treatment, and that the rest of the economy, where possible, can keep functioning. I absolutely understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

May I put on record my thanks to the headteachers, teachers and all the staff at schools in the Forest of Dean for the huge effort that they have made both during the period when they were closed and delivering remote learning, and since they have had children back at school?

Once again, there are rumours—only rumours at this point—that the Prime Minister is intending to hold another press conference today. Will the Minister confirm whether that is indeed the case, and, if it is, that there will be a statement in this House setting out whatever measures are to be announced?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is an experienced Member of this House and he will know that Under-Secretaries of State are not always informed of what is happening right at the very centre, but I am sure that the powers that be will have heard his question.

The Prime Minister has been very clear that Christmas concerts and nativity plays should go ahead, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has said exactly that to me from the Dispatch Box, and we have heard what the Minister has said today, yet Zoom has never heard more “Silent Night” and we have state schools already closed for Christmas and teaching unions calling for a staged return in January. I have heard what the excellent Minister has said and it is very welcome, so I do not require the list again, but what are the Government actually going to do, legally, to see that their will is enforced and that schools are back, as they should be—as they need to be—in January? Where on earth are the Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs? What could be more important than this?

In answer to my hon. Friend’s second question, I think it is clear that they are off on their holidays. In answer to his first question, we absolutely want and expect education settings to be open, we want and expect children to be taught in person, and we want and expect school life to go ahead.

Our children cannot afford for schools to close again or to miss more face-to-face teaching through absence. As has been mentioned previously, evidence shows that ventilation equipment in schools reduces the airborne risk of coronavirus by up to 70%. Other countries have already rolled out ventilation equipment to their schools and are seeing the benefits. When can we expect the results of the Bradford pilot scheme to be published, and when can schools expect ventilation equipment to be delivered? It is needed now.

As the hon. Lady will have heard me say already, we take ventilation and the quality of air extremely seriously. That is why we have achieved our public commitment of delivering 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors over the autumn term; in fact, we have excelled on our target. We are absolutely clear that ventilation is one of the four pillars that will help us best maintain school in person.

May I put on the record my thanks to the hard-working teachers and heads in East Surrey for keeping the schools open during the delta variant? During that time, one teacher told me that they were more worried about the fear that was spreading in children than they were fearful of the variant itself. I have never been more ashamed of the Labour party than in its inability to stand up to the unions when they were muddling the story of safety in schools. Will the Minister please reassure us that he will be able to try to maintain confidence in schools and keep them open? That is the best thing for the future of our children.

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. Like her, I have been extremely impressed at how calm a head the education settings I have visited and spoken to have managed to keep in the midst of a crisis, despite the quite unnecessary pressure that certain groups have put on them.

I thank the Minister for his positive answers. Does he agree that for some children, Christmas at home is not a time of joy, and that the mental health and wellbeing of pupils must be weighed as a concern? Will he outline what discussions have been had with the Northern Ireland Education Minister to share information in an attempt to see that every region of the United Kingdom implements the right strategy in terms of health and education?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that, at official level, we are in constant dialogue with our friends and partners in Northern Ireland. There is a great deal that we can learn from each other and that we continue to learn from each other.

This week, for the second year in a row, I am delivering nearly 7,000 Christmas books—one to every primary school child in my constituency—to spread a bit of cheer after another difficult year. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the militant unions that a majority of teachers and heads share his desire to keep all children in school at all costs? Will he commit again to doing all he can to support the hard-working teachers and heads across the Workington constituency who share the desire to keep their schools open in the face of pressure from a loud minority?

I have always considered my hon. Friend to be a spreader of good cheer, and I now have a wonderful image of him traipsing around his constituency with a large sack upon his back. I can only echo his remarks; the headteachers and school leaders I meet share his and the Department’s determination to do the best for their children.

May I take this opportunity to thank all the teachers and school staff in Meon Valley for their amazing work during the pandemic? May I ask my hon. Friend to give schools and headteachers plenty of warning—hopefully not at weekends—if there are to be any changes to the system?

I fully hear what my hon. Friend says. As of this morning, all our guidance is up to date. We maintain a very good conversation with school leaders in what is obviously a very fast-moving situation.

I would like my hon. Friend to thank all the school teams and college teams in and around Great Grimsby, as well as the employers who are offering placements to our students.

An issue that we have in Great Grimsby is literacy and numeracy. Our primary schools have told me that their in-school additional tutoring is making the biggest difference, so we need to make sure that parents understand that it is important for their children to be at school and not to be afraid. Will my hon. Friend make sure that we now get the message out to parents: “School is safe, and school is the best thing for your children”?

I am very happy to echo my hon. Friend’s remarks about Great Grimsby. I look forward to telling education leaders myself when I visit in the new year. Absolutely, the message goes out: we know what is best for children and we are trying our very best to make sure that it happens.

Testing for school pupils has become something of a regular occurrence for households across the country, including my own. Can my hon. Friend confirm that covid-19 tests will continue to be distributed to schools and pupils so that we can monitor the incidence of outbreaks of the virus?

Absolutely. I am very happy to confirm that schools have and will have the testing capacity that they need.

It was fantastic to be out last week in primary schools in Ipswich handing out certificates for Christmas card entries. The artistic future of Ipswich is looking very bright indeed.

When I visit schools in Ipswich, learning loss is often a concern but not the main concern, which is the impact of lack of socialisation and the mental health implications. Will the Minister confirm that if there is a big struggle with teaching unions that do not put enough value on children’s education, he will stand up not just for learning, but for the mental health and social development of all our young people?

Absolutely. We have been very keen to make sure that we invest in the mental health of children and young people, following what has been an extremely difficult 18 months. I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in praising the primary school children of Ipswich and their artistic prowess.

School closures have been a welfare catastrophe for millions of vulnerable children. During the pandemic, there has been a 77% increase in self-generated sexual images of children online, and referrals have doubled for paediatric eating disorders. Some 2.2 million children in England live in households affected by addiction and abuse, yet in the first lockdown just 6% of vulnerable children attended school. What will my hon. Friend do, and what can we do as parliamentarians to support him, to make sure that this tragedy never again happens to our vulnerable children?

My hon. Friend is a very powerful advocate for the cause that she raises. Those are shocking statistics.

We kept education settings open throughout the pandemic for the most vulnerable children. Where pupils who are self-isolating are within our definition of “vulnerable”, it is very important that we have systems in place to keep in contact with them, particularly if they have a social worker.

I congratulate headteachers and staff across Harrow, who have kept schools open during very difficult and challenging times. I am a very strong supporter of the vaccine programme and testing, but many of our children will be mixing over Christmas with people from across the country and may inadvertently and regrettably catch covid. Will my hon. Friend and the Department issue guidance telling children and families that they should be tested before they go to school, not when they get to school? Inadvertently, they could spread covid once they are in school being tested.

We encourage everybody to test regularly. To do our very best to ensure the next term starts well, we will be encouraging all secondary school pupils to be tested right at the start of term and we are introducing a degree of flexibility on start dates to achieve that. Schools are now very experienced in making sure they take precautions so that infection is not spread when children are together and preparing to be tested.

I welcome the Minister’s words about keeping educational settings open as a priority, but will he go further and guarantee that primary schools will be kept open? We know that children that young cannot learn properly online, and that the damage to their education and wellbeing is immense. It is unthinkable that we will not keep them open to all children, whatever happens.

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. She is a very powerful advocate for the position she has just set out. I repeat what the Secretary of State said at the weekend: he is doing everything in his power to ensure that schools will stay open.

I would like to put on record my thanks to Stroud schools and the fact that I have registered with the Department concerns about additional costs arising from tackling covid. On the rumours of lockdowns or further lockdowns, I have spoken to many Stroud parents throughout the pandemic who are incredibly worried about the welfare of their children due to school closures. With the cruel and devastating deaths of young Arthur and Star keeping us up at night, many Stroud parents are worried not only about their own children but about hidden children, and teachers feel the same. Will my hon. Friend confirm that in all discussions with unions, scientific advisers and medical advisers, he refers constantly to the fact that we now know that lockdowns hide evil and damage children’s health?

I know my hon. Friend understands these issues extremely well. We very much want to keep schools open. We think schools are the best place for children in the midst of a pandemic, particularly vulnerable children who are in care or on the edge of care. We are determined that social work contact should continue, so that we can ensure those children will be protected.

I take this opportunity to thank teachers, lecturers, support staff and other educationalists across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke for their fantastic efforts. I spent eight and a half wonderful years working as a secondary school teacher in London and Birmingham, and it is absolutely essential that schools are kept open. I do not want to hear from the Minister that we are going to do everything we can; I want to hear simply that they will stay open. More than ever, secondary school teachers want assurances that exam plans for summer 2022 will go ahead as normal. The Labour party is stuck in the vice grip of the National Union of Teachers, so we need to ensure that we do not listen to them but to teachers who know that exams are always the best way forward.

It is always a pleasure to answer questions from my hon. Friend, who is an extraordinarily passionate advocate for children and education. He will have heard what I said. We want schools to stay open. We want exams to go ahead. We are working to that end.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You heard me ask the Minister, in the urgent question, whether there were plans for a press conference today. No. 10 has now confirmed that the Prime Minister and the chief medical officer will be carrying out a press conference. No. 10 has briefed the media that new information and the latest data on omicron will be provided. I understand that the chief medical officer was scheduled to give evidence to a Select Committee this afternoon. That has now been postponed until tomorrow, so it looks like the new information, instead of being provided first to Members, will be provided to the media. Have you had any notice of an intention of a Minister to come to the House at the end of business today to update Members on the booster roll-out and the latest information about omicron so that we can ask questions on behalf of our constituents?

Nobody has been to see me about a statement, but of course my office door is open, and I hope that those on the Front Bench will be listening to me say that I would welcome that statement. Once again, I say that Members of Parliament are elected to this House to hear things in this Chamber, not on the media. I hope the message goes back that new information should be shared with Members of Parliament. I would like to believe that somebody will be knocking on my door very shortly to say, “Can we have a statement later?”, and of course I would welcome that statement.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) asked where were the Lib Dem MPs at this very important urgent question. I may be new to the House, but I point out that I am a Liberal Democrat and I asked my question right after the hon. Gentleman, who is no longer in his place. I am sure it was an oversight and that all can be forgiven, but can I please ask that he withdraws that comment for the record?

The good news is that you have corrected the record, and yes, we can all see that you are here.