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Covid-19: Schools

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to keep schools open during July and August to ensure students are not disadvantaged by the school closures put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the coronavirus outbreak has caused disruption to young people’s education, as teachers and parents have had to adapt to remote education. We are working at pace with partners to look at what additional measures may be required to ensure that every child has the support they need to deal with the impact of coronavirus on their education. We will do whatever we can to make sure that no child falls behind as a result of coronavirus.

Has my noble friend the Minister seen Monday’s statement by the Children’s Commissioner that schools should remain open in the summer to enable children to catch up with their studies? In view of the fact that 70% of teachers have not been giving lessons online and hundreds of schools are still refusing to open, will my noble friend take powers to ensure that schools remain open during the usual summer holiday period so that children are not disadvantaged any further?

My Lords, the Secretary of State has made clear that schools will not be expected to be open throughout the summer holidays. That is not to say that there will not be specific, targeted interventions to help young people who have lost out due to the interruption of their education.

I refer your Lordships to my interests in the register. We certainly need action to tackle the widening of the attainment gap during the crisis, and summer schools can work if the targeted pupils attend, but those same children also need well-qualified teachers. How is the department planning to ensure that newly qualified teachers, who have been denied classroom practice this year due to lockdown, have a successful induction in September?

My Lords, the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their comparator group has narrowed at every level since 2011, and we are keen to ensure that that is maintained. Of course, the role of teachers is vital to that. We are aware that initial teacher training has been interrupted and that there will be certain challenges for newly qualified teachers teaching for the first time in classrooms in the autumn. We are developing the early career framework and are looking to that to support these newly qualified teachers and deal with the challenges that they face.

My Lords, the Prime Minister often mentions that he is indeed the Minister for the Union and his Government talks about their desire to adopt a four-nation approach to tackling Covid-19. What discussions has Mr Johnson or his Ministers—perhaps even the noble Baroness herself—held with their Stormont counterparts about how children in Northern Ireland can safely return to schools in August?

My Lords, education is a devolved matter and it is therefore up to each jurisdiction. There are also certain differences in term dates and, in Scotland for instance, different examinations are taken. It is therefore appropriate, looking at the disease in each of the four nations, for those jurisdictions to make detailed decisions based on the information on the ground. However, at both ministerial level, including the Secretary of State, and official level, there are regular meetings between the four nations on education.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which supports university technical colleges. I am concerned about disadvantaged students, of which there are many. Some 300,000 students a year fail to get above level 4 in maths and English. They have lost 10 weeks of education and will be out of school for nearly five months of the year. To expect them to take a GCSE next summer would be very unfair. The Government have two alternatives: either reduce the content in the GCSE exams next year or suspend them for a year, which they have done this year and is the preferable solution.

My Lords, we are acutely aware of the gap in education, particularly for disadvantaged students but, throughout this period, vulnerable children have been eligible to attend school and that group of course overlaps significantly with disadvantaged children. On the examinations next summer, Ofqual is currently consulting over the impact on those examinations.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the most vulnerable children are those in care. What extra learning support is being given to those children?

My Lords, in the specific provision for disadvantaged children, one of the main initiatives has been to increase the number of devices, so that they can access online learning. The criteria for distributing the 200,000 laptops and tablets purchased include whether they are care leavers, children in contact with a social worker or disadvantaged students currently in year 10.

My Lords, so many individuals in the department and within schools are working positively and enthusiastically to ensure that children will be not only safe but educated. Sometimes, I wish the teaching unions would be as positive and enthusiastic. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that the department has worked closely with the sector, including the unions, throughout the period of partial closures and during preparations for wider opening?

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to all the teachers and support staff who have, during this period, kept most of our schools open for vulnerable children and the children of critical care workers. The department has indeed, at both ministerial and official levels, been consulting and engaging with the unions, mostly on a daily basis, to ensure that their views are put forward in the difficult decisions that we have to make about reopening schools.

My Lords, government statistics show that 75,000 vulnerable children were at school on 21 May, yet 80% of schools were open, so we know that not all places that have been on offer have been taken up. We also know about the distribution of tablets, but what plans do the Government have to ensure digital interconnections for pupils over the summer, particularly those who live in poverty or are in rural areas, where there is real difficulty with some broadband connections?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct that about 15% of vulnerable children were in school at the end of that half-term and the numbers had been rising. On the provision of laptops, for those who do not have connectivity they will come with 4G wireless to try to get over some of those issues. All schools have been offered free expert technical help to enable them to access Google Classroom or Microsoft 365 Education, but of course we have also worked closely with the BBC for those children whose only access might be through the television. BBC Bitesize has been hugely successful, with more than 2 million households visiting that service in the first two weeks. In discussions with leaders of academy trusts, it is clear that many teachers and support staff have been delivering printed worksheets to students to ensure that they can access education.

My Lords, if there has been any upside to this crisis, it is perhaps the newfound concern of many in the Conservative Party for disadvantaged pupils. I do not include the Minister in that category, but it has become clear that the demotivating terminology—[Inaudible.] It is surely not a positive approach. We agree with the Children’s Commissioner that—[Inaudible.] Will the Minister say what additional support the Government will provide to schools to enable that to happen? What efforts will be made to encourage schools in the independent sector to allow access to their premises and resources over the summer?

My Lords, I did not catch all the detail of that question, but I believe the noble Lord was asking what support we can give schools during the summer. We are specifically looking to see what interventions we can make, including interventions particularly targeted at disadvantaged young people, and I can assure him that this is a focus; the attainment gap is so important for those young people. I am pleased to tell him that holiday clubs, which are so vital to disadvantaged young people because they also provide food during the school holidays, will take place this summer and a further £9 million of funding has been given to that initiative. I apologise if I missed some of the detail of that question.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I want to pass on a message that I have received from the Lord Speaker, who experienced a power cut on the Isle of Wight, meaning that his internet connection has gone down. He sends his apologies to the House for missing half of Question Time. That concludes the Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions. Virtual Proceedings will resume at 12 noon for the Private Notice Question on the victims payments scheme in Northern Ireland.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.