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Education Settings: Safe Learning

Volume 708: debated on Monday 31 January 2022

1. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that pupils can learn safely in education settings. (905326)

Mr Speaker, I am answering this question on behalf of the Secretary of State, who, as you know, is isolating having tested positive for covid over the weekend.

May I offer my condolences to the family and friends on the day of the funeral of the late Member for Birmingham, Erdington?

Our top priority remains to protect face-to-face education. To reduce transmission of covid-19, regular testing continues across education and childcare, with over 109.5 million tests completed. A further £8 million will support the in-school vaccination programme. To improve ventilation, we have delivered over 353,000 carbon dioxide monitors and purchased up to 9,000 air cleaning devices.

I express my sincere condolences to the Mother of the House and the entire family on the sad loss of the Member for Birmingham, Erdington.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in thanking and congratulating the headteachers and staff at all our schools—those in Harrow in particular—for keeping schools open as often as possible so that children can learn, as they should, in the classroom. Will he, however, join me in expressing the view that forcing young children to wear a face covering for seven hours a day is unfair, particularly for those who are hard of hearing?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the immense contribution of teachers, leaders and all who work in our schools. We have consistently seen 99.9% of education settings open to support face-to-face education. The Secretary of State always said that, while masks in classrooms were brought in for a period as we tried to study the impact of omicron, they should not be in place for a day longer than necessary. We no longer recommend them, and no child should be denied the opportunity to study for refusing to wear a mask.

Safety includes warmth. What will the Minister say to schools such as the one that contacted me this morning to say that, due to its £30,000 energy bill, it will not be able to manage its budget this year? It is very worried about what it can spend on fruit, books, salaries and all the other things that a small primary school needs. What urgent action will he take?

We recognise some of the pressures facing schools and, indeed, all parts of the economy as a result of rising energy costs. That is part of the reason why we have provided a £4 billion increase for schools in the next financial year, which is allowing them to deliver on all the pressures that they are currently facing.

The Centre for Social Justice report published yesterday showed that more than 100,000 “ghost children” are still not returning to school for the most part, almost 800 schools are missing entirely a class-worth of pupils, and more than 13,000 children in year 11—a critical exam year—are severely absent from school. Will the Department get the proper data to find out where those children are and what is happening to them? Will it do as the CSJ has recommended and use the forecast underspend from the national tutoring programme to appoint 2,000 attendance officers to work with families to get those children back into school and learning again?

I share my right hon. Friend’s passion for ensuring that children are in school. I have discussed with the Children’s Commissioner the designation of “ghost children”, which we both feel is somewhat unhelpful. These are flesh and blood children who deserve to be in school and have the chance to benefit from face-to-face education. I assure him that addressing attendance and ensuring that they all have the opportunity to be safely in school is a top priority.

I, too, want children to be taught in safe spaces. That brings me yet again to the plight of Russell Scott Primary School in Denton, where, as the Minister knows, a botched £2.7 million refurbishment by Carillion has left the school with wrecked footings; a leaking roof; defective fire safety measures; inadequate drainage that floods the school with raw sewage; and playing fields that still resemble the Somme. It needs £5 million for that to be put right, or a new build. Baroness Barran wrote to me last week and basically said, “Tough—there’s no money.” That is not acceptable, is it? This is not levelling up. Let us get the purse strings opened and rebuild Russell Scott.

The hon. Gentleman is clearly a champion for that school—he has made the case for it many times before. I would be surprised if that was the content of my noble Friend’s letter, because a programme is due to open shortly, as he will know. Of course, we cannot pre-empt the programme, but I know that he has made a strong case for his school.

Ofsted’s inquiry last year into the Everyone’s Invited campaign, which exposed sexual harassment and other safeguarding concerns in schools, focused on the importance of mandatory sex and relationship education, as did Ministers. As a result of the actions of this Government, such education is mandatory for all school-age children. Will the Minister look to Ofsted to do further work on how schools are implementing relationship and sex education, because I am sure Members across the House are concerned about that?

I know from discussions with Her Majesty’s chief inspector that this is a priority for Ofsted, and we continue to work together on it. We are also supporting teachers to build their confidence in teaching this newly required subject, which my right hon. Friend has campaigned for strenuously.

With much more school work being carried out online and with digital literacy among pupils rising extremely quickly, what protections are the Government putting in place to ensure that online platforms are a safe learning environment for young people?

This is an important area of work within both the computing curriculum and the advice on keeping children safe in education. We certainly want to ensure that children are safe whether they are learning in the classroom or online.