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Covid-19: Educational Gaps

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they will take to close any educational gaps arising from the school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

My Lords, we will do whatever we can to ensure that no child, whatever their background or location, falls behind as a result of coronavirus. We have so far committed over £100 million to boost remote learning. We are working at pace with experts to understand and address the immediate and long-term impacts of school closures. This includes considering a targeted online tutoring offer and the feasibility of support over the summer.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer and for her personal commitment to this issue, but she will be aware that the vast majority of vulnerable children across all four nations of the UK have missed out on the home-schooling operation and the availability of school-based learning over these recent weeks. There is therefore a need for a national action plan in all four nations to ensure that these vulnerable children are not left behind. Will the Minister commit the Government to bring about the same level of effort as we have seen in the health service and in supporting businesses and jobs during the lockdown period, to make sure that these children recover their learning and deal with the trauma—and, potentially, abuse—that many of them will have suffered during the lockdown period?

My Lords, since schools closed to most pupils, teachers and support staff have been working hard to keep schools open for vulnerable children. However, as the noble Lord makes clear, only 15% of vulnerable children were taking up this offer. Yes, we are keenly looking at all the options to ensure that particularly disadvantaged children are given an opportunity to catch up on their learning; those in year 10 who are disadvantaged will have access to a laptop or device as part of the £100 million package that I outlined earlier.

My Lords, a lot of schools have gained considerable expertise in online education and are keen to pitch in to help provide that over the summer holidays and in after-school hours. Will my noble friend commit resources to ensure that this help is efficiently organised and delivered, perhaps through the good offices of regional school commissioners?

My Lords, as part of that £100 million, the Oak National Academy was set up as a result of 40 teachers putting 180 video lessons per week online. Some 2.3 million users have accessed that service and 8.6 million lessons have been viewed. We are pleased to see how online learning may perhaps be changing education provision for the future, but we will look at all options to support children—not just for the summer, but into the autumn term as we know that there is a lot to catch up on.

My Lords, according to a report from the Public Accounts Committee published last month, many of the 1.3 million pupils in England with special educational needs and disabilities are not getting the support that they need and end up being excluded from school, damaging their education, well-being and future life chances. What are the Government doing to remedy this situation for vulnerable children?

My Lords, in relation to the situation at the moment, we have of course made school places available to those with special educational needs who have an education, health and care plan, and we encourage them to attend school where the risk assessment shows that that would be best for them. In relation to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the Family Fund will provide £37 million over the next year to support disadvantaged families who need extra money, and £10 million has been allocated to cover the pandemic response.

Since the schools closed, children from better-off families have been spending 30% more time on home learning than poorer children, and the learning time gap between better-off and worse-off children is widening markedly. What specific further targeted support for disadvantaged students is the Minister suggesting to the Chancellor be included in his economic stimulus in July?

My Lords, since 2011 it was good to know that the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers had narrowed at every level, but of course we are acutely concerned at the moment about the widening of that gap due to those students perhaps not accessing as much learning, despite the efforts of many teachers who, for instance, even drop printed worksheets at their door to enable them to catch up. I assure the noble Lord that in addition to the potential targeted online support, we have also made available this year a further £9 million for the holiday clubs during the school holidays. Those are important in terms of activities but they also provide meals during the school holidays. He will be aware that during this period we have had a voucher system, and over £100 million-worth of vouchers has been redeemed by families who qualify for free school meals.

If there are local or regional outbreaks of Covid-19 and an area has to be shut down, what plans are in place for the continued schooling and learning of those children, particularly those from vulnerable circumstances or with learning difficulties?

Regionally, the react teams—Department for Education staff along with Ofsted inspectors—work closely with local authorities in looking at the situation for vulnerable children as well as for education in the area. Obviously the scenario for such schools reopening would be dependent on Public Health England guidance at that time, so unfortunately I cannot predict what a response would be to a local lockdown. That will have to be viewed on the scientific evidence at the time.

My Lords, I want to highlight another example of educational institution closures affecting the educational attainment of young people, particularly those aged 16 to 19. I refer to the report published recently by the Sutton Trust highlighting the impact of lockdown, with 36% of apprentices having been furloughed and 61% of apprenticeship providers saying that their apprentices had lost out on work and learning. What assessment have the Government made of the impact on apprentices unable to continue on-the-job training, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds? What additional support will Her Majesty’s Government offer to these individuals?

My Lords, it is not possible at the moment to assess the full impact of coronavirus on the apprenticeship scheme, but significant flexibility has been introduced so that any training can be delivered online. If, in accordance with PHE guidance, apprentices can return to work, there is flexibility to allow them to have that training in the workplace. From 15 June, training providers have been asked to provide some face-to-face training to 16 to 19 year-olds if possible, and there has been a comprehensive package of financial support for independent training providers. We are aware of the issues facing the sector and realise that entry for young people into work is a particularly acute issue for them in these situations.

My Lords, when some children go to school, they may experience anxiety, distress or low moods because of lockdown, which may affect their studies. Have teachers been trained to look at these issues? Will the children receive any counselling and will advice be given to parents?

My Lords, we have updated the guidance specifically in relation to mental health and safeguarding to say that mental ill-health symptoms that children exhibit might be connected to a safeguarding issue. Of course in every school there is a safeguarding lead, but there are currently 59 mental health support teams in our schools. There are 123 more in the pipeline, and we aim to train those to enable them to take their place as soon as the situation allows. However, schools are acutely aware of these issues for their children as they return and readjust to learning.

My Lords, I am concerned about the potential for discrimination against pupils who have been studying at a supplementary school for a GCSE in a less-taught heritage or community language. Will all students be able to sit their exam in the autumn, whether or not they were withdrawn on or before 15 May? Will Her Majesty’s Government endorse Ofqual’s proposal that exam boards be required in the autumn to provide exams in all the languages that would have been provided this summer?

My Lords, it is anticipated that the calculated grades that students receive in the summer will enable the majority of them to progress to the next stage as they had hoped. The noble Baroness is correct that the Ofqual consultation proposal reflects the Government’s intention that, for those students who do not believe the calculated grade reflects their attainment, all subjects should be on offer for examinations to be taken in the autumn.

My Lords, the Education Policy Institute has called for a catch-up plan to prevent a significant widening of the attainment gap between poor children and the rest of the pupil population. Does the Minister support a one-year doubling of pupil premiums for poorer pupils entering years 1, 7 and 11 and a doubling of the disadvantage funding made available for students set to enter year 13? If not, why not?

My Lords, the Government give £2.4 billion a year at the moment in the pupil premium. As the noble Lord will be aware, there was the announcement of an additional £14.4 billion to schools over the next three years, which will begin to feed its way into the system. He is correct: we are aware of the need for catch-up and for targeted support, including over the summer, but there is no intention at the moment for schools to be open throughout the summer.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for that Question has elapsed. We now come to the second Oral Question.