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House of Lords Hansard
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Educational Settings
19 March 2020
Volume 802

Statement

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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made yesterday in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement regarding changes to the operations of educational settings as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We are facing increasingly difficult challenges, and once again I express my extraordinary gratitude to staff in all our schools, colleges, nurseries and universities who are doing so much.

I know that the situation has become increasingly challenging. I said before that if the science and the advice changed, such that keeping schools open would no longer be in the best interests of children and teachers, we would act. We are now at that stage.

The spike of the virus is increasing at a faster pace than anticipated, and it is crucial that we continue to consider the right measures to arrest this increase and relieve pressure on the health system. The public health benefits of schools remaining open as normal are shifting. It is also clear that schools are finding it increasingly difficult to continue as normal, as illness and self-isolation impact on staffing levels and pupil attendance. I want to provide parents, students and staff with the certainty they need.

After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon—tomorrow—they will remain closed until further notice. That will be for all children except those of key workers and the children who are most vulnerable. The scientific advice shows that these settings are safe for this small number of children to continue attending, but asking others to stay away will help us to slow the spread of this virus. Examples of key workers include NHS staff, police and delivery drivers, who need to be able to go to work. Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker and those with education, health and care plans. Looking after these children will enable schools to support the country through this incredibly difficult and extremely challenging time. We are expecting early years providers, sixth forms and further education colleges to do the same. We are working with Her Majesty’s Treasury on the financial support that will be required. I am also asking that independent schools and boarding schools follow the same approach.

We will give schools the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children eligible for free school meals. Some schools are already doing this, and we will make sure that those costs are reimbursed. As soon as possible, we will put in place a national voucher system for every child who is eligible for free school meals. I know that all this will not be easy. I am asking nurseries, schools and colleges to be at the forefront of our national response to this crisis.

Given the unprecedented asks that we are making of all those working in educational settings at this time, I recognise that we are asking so much of them. We will be asking them to provide for these settings to be open to children of key workers and to vulnerable children during the Easter holidays as well.

I recognise that what schools will be doing in these circumstances will look very different from the normal state of affairs, and we will ensure that leaders have the flexibility that they need to face this challenge. To allow schools and other settings to focus on this new operational model and the support they can give to these young people, we are removing various duties. Ofsted has ceased all routine inspections of early years, schools, colleges and children’s social care services. I can confirm that we will not go ahead with assessments or exams, and that we will not be publishing performance tables for this academic year. We will work with the sector and Ofqual to ensure that children get the qualifications that they need.

My department is working closely with local authorities, representatives of early years, schools and headteachers, regional school commissioners and bodies such as Ofsted and Ofqual on how to deliver this change as effectively as possible. We will do whatever is necessary to support local authorities, schools and teachers through the weeks and months ahead.

I know that many universities and other higher education institutions are already taking necessary steps to keep their staff and students safe and, where possible, keep providing education. I am confident that vice-chancellors are making the right decisions and my department continues to support them in doing so.

This is a testing time for the whole nation, but by asking schools and other settings to look after the children of key workers and the most vulnerable, we will be directly saving people’s lives. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, I want you to know that your well-being and that of your children is the absolute priority for me and my department. We are completely committed to ensuring that every child receives the best education possible, and we will be working with the BBC and others to provide resources for children to access at home.

I am deeply grateful for the civic spirit and selfless dedication that has been, and continues to be, shown by teachers and other school workers every single day. I am committed to giving my full support throughout every stage of this crisis to those who are doing so much for all of us. I know that our teachers and those working in education have the full support of the House and that honourable Members will do what they can to support schools and other providers in their constituencies through this period of great change. I wish to thank them in advance for all the work that they will do. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the party opposite, particularly the honourable Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, for their co-operation, advice and thoughts at this time.

Our headteachers and teachers are central to the country’s response to the current crisis, and I am reassured by their readiness to step up and take the lead in supporting families through this most incredibly difficult time. All of those who work in our schools, colleges and universities rightly take their place next to our NHS staff and other key workers as central to our efforts as a country in battling this virus, and I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for all of their support and all they do. I commend this Statement to the House.”

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We support the decision to close schools, which was clearly made on safety grounds. I have a list of questions for the Minister, and I ask her to write to me on any that she feels unable to answer today.

What steps are the Government taking to facilitate co-operation between nurseries, schools and childcare providers and local communities? In particular, can she offer clarification on childminders, who are not mentioned in the Statement but play a significant role in out-of-school care? Does the Minister anticipate that education providers will need to pool resources, including staff and premises, in order to care for vulnerable children and the children of key workers? This raises safeguarding considerations because usually DBS checks apply to specific schools and premises, and it may not be possible for people simply to transfer to another establishment. What planning have the Government done in that regard?

What provision will be available for what would have been the Easter holiday period? The Minister will be aware that working parents usually rely on recreational groups, clubs and camps, which will of course not be operating, as well as on grandparents and relatives, contact with whom is being discouraged. The Statement mentions that schools will have the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children eligible for free school meals, but as noble Lords will be aware free school meals are a passport to benefits. Given that more children are likely to become eligible for them in coming weeks as the economic impact of this pandemic claims jobs and wages, can the Minister give an assurance that these newly eligible children will also be entitled to the voucher system? I am sure she will acknowledge that we cannot afford a lead-in time for such changes.

We understand that the list of key workers will be issued tomorrow. The Statement mentioned NHS staff, but that term encompasses not merely doctors, nurses and paramedics. Hospitals need countless other categories of staff to function effectively, so I hope the Minister will confirm that they will be regarded as key because that is precisely what they are. There must surely be an absolute guarantee that we can look after the children of parents needed to carry out essential work at this time, including food distribution workers, police, fire and rescue staff and those who are working to produce medical equipment, not least those in industries that have been repurposed to produce essential ventilators. Although she will not want to list the categories of staff at this point, can she clarify whether the childcare being provided in schools will apply to children where only one parent is a key worker, or will it require both to be so categorised?

A major concern to thousands of students and their parents is the abandonment of GCSE and A-level exams. The Statement says that the DfE will work with the sector and Ofqual to ensure that children get the qualifications they need. On Radio 4 this morning, the Secretary of State provided little elaboration on those words, although he seemed to suggest that grades would be awarded based on classwork, but will that be all? I have to say that Education Ministers over the past decade have demonstrated something of an aversion to teacher assessments, which suggests that there might well be an additional measurement, perhaps some form of online assessment. I hope that the Minister will rule that out, as it would impact disproportionately on disadvantaged students, whose home environment, not least the availability of suitable IT, could leave them in some difficulty. Awarding grades may be suitable for those who are doing well, but what about those on the margins? The difference between a 4 and a 5 grade at GCSE can be crucial, and of course all sorts of options are closed to young people who do not have passes in English and maths. What comfort can the Minister offer to those students and their families?

Predicted grades may be sufficient to enable young people to go up to university later this year, but what of those who are already there who will be unable to sit their finals? Most of the restrictions announced in the Statement do not apply to universities, but I hope that the government are not willing to leave all aspects of entry to and graduation from universities in these unprecedented times in the hands of individual institutions. That would produce a patchwork system, not a level playing field, which surely must be avoided.

Never before, not even in time of war, have all schools been closed. These are extraordinary times, and naturally, parents and carers are very concerned. I put on record our thanks to and support for all those working in our education and children’s services through the crisis. They, along with parents and learners of all ages, now seek both reassurance and guidance from the Government.

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My Lords, I associate myself with the last few comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson. This is an unprecedented time and an unprecedented challenge. However, we still need a bit more clarification. If we are going to hear later on today about who are the key workers and the categories, can the Minister give us more of a hint about which groups they will go into? Delivery drivers would probably not have been regarded as key workers before this occasion. Where exactly will this go? If a little more guidance could be provided today on the categories of people, if not the exact job descriptions, that would help the situation.

Then we come on to the list of those who will be going to school. I and the Minister have had, shall we say, a bit of cut and thrust already on education, health and care plans, although she has not been in post that long. This is probably an occasion where, to be perfectly honest, the health and care part of that plan is probably more important. Are all people with the plans to be treated in exactly the same way? When I listened to the Commons yesterday, people in special schools was a particularly popular topic of discussion. Will all special schools with a residential capacity automatically be gathered in? Is there any categorisation within them, and so on? The plan seems nice and comprehensive, but it covers a great deal of things. For once, I do not think that dyslexics are a special case here. My group is not the highest priority. Can we make sure that we look at this so that we get practical solutions? It might be a little bit too soon to do this, but then again it has to start functioning by Monday. What will happen there?

The Government seem to have gone to the BBC, saying “Give us a hand”. Have not times changed a wee bit? However, it has a huge resource available to it via iPlayer to enable large numbers of students to continue their courses and study. Will the Government work with the BBC to get particular packages together to help people? For instance, I think you can probably do it at the moment off the top of your head with history programmes for history and English language, and there will be other subjects which I do not bother looking at, so I do not know about them. What are the Government doing there? Also, surely the other public service broadcasters should take this up as well. Is there a co-ordinated approach coming so you have this available? A large amount of support is actually almost at our fingertips here. How are we going to use it? That would be valuable to know.

On free school meals, once again, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, how will this work? The voucher system, again, has to be functioning by Monday. What is happening there, and when will the general public know what is happening? They have to know. It is no good us finding out and then finding out in a week or two. They have to find out what is going on by Monday. Could we have a bit more guidance on that?

Nobody wanted to do this, but if the Government feel that this is the correct thing and they have the advice, we can only go with them. However, we need to know how it will work. Clichés come to mind, but the one about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is nagging at the back of my head here.

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My Lords, I am grateful for the support from both the noble Lords. This action has been taken primarily to protect the public from the spread of this disease. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for accepting that some of his questions I will have to answer by letter. Registered childminders are covered by our request, and during the Easter holidays, school leaders—including those from independent schools —and local authorities will work collaboratively on the ground to deliver this. That is not just an expectation; we know it will happen. We expect that during the holidays they will be pooling so that staff can get a break as well, because the provision for key workers and this vulnerable group of children is significantly less than for a normal pupil cohort.

Eligibility for free school meals was dealt with directly by the Secretary of State yesterday afternoon, and included those who have or will become eligible for free school meals. I had to read out yesterday’s Statement verbatim, but the voucher system is sorted out and schools will be reimbursed. Certain schools have already been purchasing supermarket vouchers and will be reimbursed for those costs, while others are continuing to provide food. We are leaving to the discretion of head teachers which they choose to do.

Today, the Cabinet Office will issue a list of what are key workers in relation to school attendance. Regarding disadvantage to students, I say that the system for awarding examination grades will be fair to all. A proper and fair qualification will be awarded. We will know tomorrow what it will look like, as a lot of consultation and engagement was needed with Ofqual, universities and head teachers, about how to handle fairly and justly a situation that is unprecedented, trying to honour, respect and award properly the work that these students and young people have been putting in. It is taking some time to work out.

Every child with an EHCP is covered in the definition of a vulnerable child. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred to this. There will be guidance regarding atypical settings, including the special schools that are residential. There are issues around keeping children in those environments, and around what household isolation means when you are in a boarding school, because we are aware that there will still be young people in those boarding houses, particularly looked-after children within that education system. The guidance will, I hope, be the practical solution that the noble Lord was talking about, and will think through all the detailed implications of the decisions.

This is a time of national unity. Everyone is being engaged, including of course the BBC, which, along with other providers, will use its iPlayer system to broadcast educational material, enabling children to still learn while they are at home. Guidance will be going out to teachers about remote teaching. Some have a lot of experience of this and some do not. We are trying to give them the best help that we can. At a time when we are prioritising the curtailment of this disease—trying to stop its spread—it is important that we all work together. We are seeing that on the ground between different schools and with local authority staff, particularly in adult and child social care, who are working above and beyond the call of duty at the moment.

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My Lords, in the light of these Covid-19 emergency measures, which are entirely understandable, what help will the Government provide to our excellent universities, which, as we heard earlier, are contributing significantly to our understanding of this emergency and to its solution? We need to recognise that those universities now face the triple whammy of uncertainty over A-levels and admissions for the autumn, and therefore fees from UK students, the loss of overseas student fees and other income—for example, from residencies—and, in the light of the falls in stock markets internationally, a potential emergency revaluation of the USS pension scheme.

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Universities are separate to this Statement. It is down to the discretion of vice-chancellors following the Public Health England guidance, but we are working with universities and the Treasury in relation to the financial implications. The Secretary of State mentioned particularly the anticipated drop in international students later on in the year, so we are working closely with them and anticipate that on a case- by-case basis they will keep some of their accommodation occupied along with some of their boarding houses. Looked-after children, estranged students and students who are care leavers will potentially need to stay on campus. We are dealing with those issues, and I will write with any further detail to the noble Baroness.

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My Lords, following on directly from that question, is there any clarity at this stage about predicted grades and university entrance for those currently doing A-levels or equivalent qualifications? As my noble friend will be aware, many schools and colleges predict grades that end up being higher than the actual grades received by students. Universities such as mine—I declare an interest as the pro-vice-chancellor of a university—will often take on children who have not attained the grades that they were predicted, so a large amount of our intake and that of other universities lower down the league tables, if you can say “down”, is during clearing. Has any consideration therefore been given to those universities that will be oversubscribed based on predicted grades, if that is what the requirement will be, and those that will clearly be undersubscribed? What financial packages will be put in place to ensure that we do not lose any university during this time?

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The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, raises some of the detailed issues that arise in this unprecedented situation. These matters are being taken into account. Whenever you think about the situation, another implication arises. All that she says will be noted and taken back. As I say, though, the assessment of grades for examinations is something that will be out, I believe, tomorrow.

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My Lords, I have to say that in the 33 years I have sat in this House this is by far the worst education Statement that I have ever listened to. It is wholly inadequate. As the National Association of Head Teachers has said, far more questions arise from it than answers. Before a Statement of this sort is produced, the work should have been done. The Department for Education and the Government have had plenty of time; they have been considering this issue for some weeks yet have come up with something that leaves parents, teachers and pupils in disarray.

I shall just give two examples—I would like to give many others but I must not take up too much of the House’s time. First, the Government have said that schools are going to be kept open for people in the workforce who are in key jobs, not only in the National Health Service but in many other areas. There is absolutely no clarity about how these schools will be chosen. The schools are closing tomorrow night, so what happens on Monday morning when a nurse who works in a crucial ICU does not know what to do or where to send her children? This preparation should have been done properly and it has not. How does the Minister think the system is going to work from Monday when there are so many uncertainties?

Secondly, there is the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams. Any Minister who has been responsible for this area knows that you cannot play about with the exam system until you have done the necessary preparation so that pupils’ and teachers’ questions can be answered. We have a generation of young people now whose mental health is being jeopardised by the fact that they have not a clue what is going to happen to them regarding their university or job applications—or their college applications, if we are talking about GCSE.

Does the Government agree that it is vital that there is clarity about university entrance? Does the Minister agree that the simplest system would simply be to take the predicted grades, which are all centrally collected and every university has them for the applications they have received, and that any young person who has been made an offer at those predicted grades or below should be told within the next fortnight that their place will be guaranteed? If not, they will be left in extreme uncertainty and misery.

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I agree with the noble Baroness that this is the worst Statement, but considering the situation the country faces, if it were possible to provide all the certainty with one click, it would be done. However, parents can be certain that, under the announcement, all schools will be open on Monday, but only for key workers and vulnerable children. In her example, that mother or father needs to go to school as normal if they are a key worker or their child is a vulnerable child. There could not be more consideration and importance being given to the disruption that we are aware will be caused to families as of Monday and to this generation of young people. As the noble Baroness accepted, it is not simple to work out a fair and just qualification for students, but if students are unhappy with the grade that they have been given in whatever the system that will be announced tomorrow is, there will be a way for them to have some form of redress. I assure her that all our education professionals, local authority professionals and central education staff are working as quickly as possible to provide accurate guidance, which, unfortunately, takes some time.

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My Lords, I declare an interest: I have two grandsons about to take A-levels and one about to do music exams, all of which have been cancelled, and a granddaughter about to do GCSEs. There is very little reassurance in this Statement about what the Government intend to do for the thousands of young people who will see all their hard work being done for nothing at all. They need some solid measures about their futures urgently. The noble Baroness said that something is coming tomorrow that will provide a fair and just solution, but what are the Government planning to avoid mass distress and demotivation among our teenagers? Finally, there has been very little mention of further education and what is happening with technical qualifications. Are they equally going up in smoke?

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The noble Baroness is correct: the reassurance that we need to give will be given in the guidance regarding exams tomorrow. All the qualifications, including, for instance, the independent training providers and the apprenticeship training that goes on, are up for consideration and we recognise that they are all affected in the same way.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as the mother of a teacher at Graveney School, a secondary school in south London. She is working hard with her A-level students to see that they get the best support possible. However, she and other teachers I know well have expressed concern that the IT equipment they have to provide distance learning if they have to work from home is not necessarily of the order that you would expect, for example, a university lecturer to have been given. Will the Government consider emergency help for schools to purchase up-to-date IT equipment for teachers to work effectively, certainly over the next six months?

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I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I will take that specific request back, but I know that we intend to do everything we can to support remote learning and teaching.

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Is my noble friend aware that the 1,300 independent schools belonging to the Independent Schools Council want to do all they can to assist their local communities? I declare my interest as a former general secretary of the council. Has my noble friend noted in particular that they are anxious to help with childcare? To that end, they are getting in touch with their local authorities to concert practical plans. Finally, I ask the Government to bear carefully in mind the grave difficulties that independent schools will suffer if they are unable to secure help from insurance companies for business interruption.

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I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. Yesterday afternoon, I had the pleasure of speaking to the heads of both the ISC and the Boarding Schools’ Association. They passed on that message, particularly in relation to looked-after children who are in their care and will remain in their care for the moment. We are grateful for their offer of support, which I have passed on to the Secretary of State. When we talk about collaboration locally, that means all schools and colleges, including the independent sector.

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My Lords, I welcome the assurance that we will hear more tomorrow about the future of exams, particularly A-levels, but I want to return to the issue. I cannot see the building blocks that are in place for a good decision to be arrived at. Given the move to end-of-course assessment, were we not to have exams, there is no national, universal, commonly agreed coursework that has been assessed and moderated and could be put towards the final grade. I would guard against using predicted grades as a decisive factor in determining whether a child goes to university. All the evidence shows that children from working-class backgrounds are constantly underpredicted in their A-level grades. I want the noble Baroness to address this question in particular: when the decision arrives tomorrow, what are the building blocks on which the Government are trying to make a vehicle for us to go forward? I just cannot see them, which concerns me the most.

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I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I reiterate that this will be a fair and just situation for all students. It is good that we are aware of factors such as underpredictions; all these matters are being taken into consideration. At the moment, I am not able to give details on the building blocks, but I expect that tomorrow’s guidance will give the noble Baroness the answers she requires.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as a chair of governors at an inner-city primary school. I want to share some of the questions that my head teacher seeks clarification on.

First, only in the last hour have we had a communication from a social worker who is now working from home; they are attached to a vulnerable child but will be unable to see them. They are therefore asking the school to be the lead player in this relationship, rather than them. If the Minister does not have answer on this, it would be very helpful to have clarification soon on who leads in such a relationship. Whether people are working from home, or vulnerable families are self-isolating at the moment, who is the key worker who owns that relationship? If it is the school, then by all means it is the school, but we lack clarity on that at the moment. We already have a specific problem there.

My second question is about those families who are not in the free school meals category but are in-work poor. What are we going to do about them? For instance, would the Minister allow a head teacher discretionary powers to determine which families should get additional support, rather than the statutory voucher version of free school meals? Where is the ability for a head teacher, who knows the community well and can identify the children they know will not have a decent meal during this period, to use their discretion?

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I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I invite all noble Lords to keep these specific questions coming. We want to hear about the issues on the ground. I will confirm to the noble Baroness who the key worker is when the social worker is at home. In relation to head teachers, we are in collaboration with local authorities and expect them to use their discretion as they know their communities best. I will have to come back to her to clarify whether all those costs are covered by the reimbursement of free school meals provision that the Secretary of State announced yesterday.

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My Lords, I first commend my noble friend and her department on the heroic efforts they are clearly making to deal with the consequences and complexities of this difficult decision. I would like to ask a slightly different type of question. As an economist, I have seen so many times that models based on extrapolations or assumptions can turn out to be incorrect. Should we find ourselves in the fortunate position in a few weeks’ time that the predictions have turned out to be less dire than we might currently expect, is there some leeway to look at reviving the examination prospects for this younger cohort with respect to either GCSEs or A-levels, albeit perhaps a bit delayed, so that the knock-on consequences for universities might not be so significant and we might be able to pick up through the summer?

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My Lords, on the latter part of the noble Baroness’s question, we are acting on the scientific evidence; that is what has informed this decision. It would be utterly inaccurate of me to speculate at all about the future; we are making decisions on the basis of the scientific information that we have. I agree with her that there are heroic efforts happening on the front line as we speak, for schools and local authorities to prepare for what will happen on Monday. I welcome the comments of all noble Lords. We want to hear, whether directly through noble Lords or through local authorities, about all these granular issues that we know we need to address over the coming days.

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My Lords, clearly the educational world is working extraordinarily hard—one welcomes that—in its determination to deal with an extraordinarily difficult situation very quickly and under huge pressure. If we follow the Imperial College analysis model that was recently published, we can see in certain circumstances the repeated waves of Covid-19 going on for 18 to 24 months. At what point will we begin to move towards a longer-term view of what needs to happen? Clearly, schools cannot be closed for two years. I wonder whether the Government have in their mind the planning for the eventuality of longer-term infectious prevalence in this country.

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I am grateful to the most reverend Primate. At the moment, the Government are responding step by step to the scientific evidence that we have. Unlike in many situations, it is not possible for us to predict what might happen in the medium and longer term. We have only the scientific information to hand at the moment. I add to the tributes paid when I say that I had the pleasure yesterday of speaking to the head of the Church of England Education Service and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who are leading on Church of England schools, and the Catholic Education Service. We are going to need all their assistance. In particular, these groups have a lot of DBS-checked people who can give further assistance to our schools, and they are sometimes geographically placed right next to the local school.

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My Lords, as a non-affiliated Member, I would like to raise a special plea with the Minister. Parents will be forced to make very difficult choices between care provisions for their children and work. This will have dire economic consequences, particularly for those on zero-hour contracts and the self-employed. The hospitality sector, where a lot of these people work, is decimated, including theatres, art establishments, cinemas and other associated venues. Therefore, I plead with the Minister, to make the case to the other departments that it is absolutely vital that we have employment protection, as well as access to benefits, for the self-employed and those on zero-hour contracts.

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My Lords, the Government are keenly aware that, in taking the decisions that we have in relation to movement of the public and schools to suppress the peak, there are massive implications for the economy, and a raft of measures have been introduced in relation to that. We have made changes to arrangements for statutory sick pay: it is now payable on first day off, and self-isolation is viewed as a sickness. The minimum income floor has been lowered in relation to self-employed people. But, yes, there is much work still to do on alleviating the effects on the economy for us all.

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My Lords, we have 10 further minutes for Back-Bench questions on the Statement if noble Lords wish.

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My Lords, I am sure that the Minister recognises that it takes quite a while to get an education, health and care plan in place. I have been approached overnight by a number of teachers who are very concerned that there are children who are half way through the process and who will not yet have a plan, but who are vulnerable. Schools would definitely want to welcome them in. Can she confirm that it will be for the schools to decide which children come into the vulnerable category? Can she further confirm that the vouchers, which have been put in place very quickly, will actually be redeemable and that there will be somewhere for them to be redeemed, and that schools which want to keep their kitchens open will in some way or other be assured of food deliveries?

As the Minister said, local authorities will have a role in ensuring that all schools, whatever their governance, type and style, are encouraged to work together through the local authority to make provision in the most effective way. Can the Minister confirm that teachers are also key workers in these circumstances, and that their children have to go to school so that they can be at work providing a place for other people’s children to be looked after and, we hope, in some measure educated?

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My Lords, on vulnerable children, the EHC plan process and the needs assessment, we expect head teachers to collaborate with the local authority. There will be discretion for them on who is considered a vulnerable child. We trust them to make the appropriate decisions.

It has been clarified by the Box that the vouchers we are talking about are supermarket vouchers. Some schools have already been purchasing supermarket vouchers, which is why we say that they will be reimbursed for that cost. I know that all schools, including those in the independent sector, and childcare providers will be working closely on the ground to ensure that we can deliver this change in education to enable key workers to keep the services going that we need to protect us from the disease. As I said, the list of key workers will come out today, but I can confirm that teachers are key workers.

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My Lords, I have considerable sympathy for the Minister, because she has not been dealt a particularly strong hand. Perhaps I might ask her a question which appears to raise a slightly improbable issue: security. As I understand it, head teachers will be receiving on Monday those children who are qualified to be admitted. May I put the scenario of a desperate parent whose job may be on the line if they do not go into work? If such a person, through perfectly good motives, feels determined to press the issue, there is a severe risk of unpleasantness, if not something more. What consideration have the Government given to the notion that there will be a division between, if you like, sheep and goats, and that those who fall on the wrong side may, to put it mildly, cut up rough?

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My Lords, all I can say to the noble Lord is that it is for head teachers, in collaboration with the local authority, to be making these decisions. Obviously, we do not expect hordes of parents to be presenting at school when this information will have gone out. But there may be isolated cases, which we know and trust the head teacher, in collaboration with the local authority, will deal with—safely and respectfully, I hope.

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My Lords, I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister about childcare funding. Can she confirm that the Government will continue to provide the funding for the free hours of childcare, even if children are not attending? Given that nurseries often rely on additional hours and private funding to keep going, what further support might the Government provide to those nurseries so that they remain a going concern during this time?

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I am grateful to my noble friend. We are aware of the situation for early years funding. Yes, all the three and four year-old entitlements and disadvantaged two year-old entitlements that the Government pay will continue to be paid regardless of who walks through the door. As of yesterday, the early years providers were included in the business rates exemption. We are working closely with Her Majesty’s Treasury because we are aware of the mixed model of free entitlements funded by the Government and private income from other parents that is used by most early years providers.

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First, can the Minister tell us the legal basis under which the Government are acting? She will have picked up the concerns around the House about what happens when people feel that their livelihoods are at stake if they cannot place their children in school. If they do present on Monday and head teachers seek to turn children away, what is the precise legal basis on which they will be acting? Is there one? Secondly, on the issue of social equity, year 11 students’ whole future is at stake—whether they can go on to sixth form or college next year. I do not think that they or their parents will find it satisfactory that the arrangements for tomorrow are being put in place on a hit-and-miss basis. Would not the fair way of doing this be to guarantee that all year 11 students who wish to study in the sixth form of their school should have the right to do so, and the department should make that clear to schools, and that where their school does not have a sixth form, they should have the right to study at the local FE college? If not, there will be a massive sense of discontent and inequity in the country.

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My Lords, in relation to the sixth form issue, I will have to come back to the noble Lord. In relation to the legal power, obviously the Bill in relation to the coronavirus will be published today. As a lawyer, I will have to write to the noble Lord in relation to the precise legal basis that head teachers will have. But they will have protection to make the decisions that we have asked them to make.

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We are told that very few children get infected. This has been proven in other countries as well. So why are we panicking so early and closing the schools when we were going to have the Easter holidays in about two weeks’ time anyway and they would all be revising at home? In which case, we would not be possibly ruining the potential future careers of this generation of children. Some children perform much better in exams, some on coursework, so we are now going to bias it towards those pupils who have a good relationship with their teachers rather than a bad relationship and who perform well on coursework. There are gender issues in that as well.

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My Lords, there is no panic in relation to this. As the Statement said, the spike of the virus is increasing at a faster pace than had been anticipated. If it had been possible to introduce this later, coinciding with the school holidays, obviously that would have been ideal, but that is not the situation that we have. We have a disease that we are trying to protect the public from and that is our absolute priority. We are aware, as I say, of all the issues in relation to having a model that will give students a fair and just qualification but which is not based on their having sat an exam.

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My Lords, as a former Schools Minister and Minister for Higher Education, I can begin to imagine the immense pressures under which officials and Ministers labour as they seek to find practical solutions to the myriad difficulties that become apparent in this crisis. I thank the Minister for her candour in her responses. My question to her is about the Government’s plans for communication. She has kindly said that she will write to my noble friend Lord Watson; I am sure she has more ambitious plans for communication than that. Can I urge the Government to err on the side of excess in their communications? Will she, for example, ensure that we receive emails containing detailed answers to all the questions that noble Lords today have put and to the other questions that are being asked across the country, so that all of us can assist the department in this very important challenge of communication?

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Yes, I have reassured noble Lords that communication is going out daily from the department to head teachers, as it has been since early March. However, as noble Lords have requested it, in looking for the will of the House I will write to all noble Lords to answer in one fell swoop all the questions they have raised.