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Education Settings: Wider Opening

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 11 June 2020


The following Statement was made on Tuesday 9 June in the House of Commons.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement regarding the wider opening of nurseries, schools and colleges as part of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is now over two and a half months since we asked schools, further education colleges and nurseries to remain open only for vulnerable children and those of critical workers. I continue to be immensely grateful for the way that our teachers and parents have responded to these challenging circumstances. I would like to say a big thank you to all those working in education, childcare and children’s social care for the huge efforts they are making on a daily basis to support families and make sure our children do not miss out on their education.

We all know how important it is for children and young people to be in education and childcare, and it is vital that we get them back there as soon as the scientific advice indicates that we can. I am very pleased that last week we were able to take the first cautious step towards that. As the Prime Minister confirmed on 28 May, the Government’s five tests are being met and we are beginning to ease the lockdown restrictions across England. Based on all the evidence, this means that nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, have been able to welcome back children of all ages. Pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 have been returning in smaller class sizes, alongside the children of critical workers and vulnerable children of all ages, who continue to be able to attend.

Ninety-seven per cent of schools that submitted data to the Department for Education were open at the end of last week. Last week, we saw the number of primaries taking nursery, reception, year 1 or year 6 pupils steadily rise as part of the phased, cautious wider reopening of schools. By the end of the week, more than half of primary schools were taking pupils from these year groups, and as of yesterday that had risen to over 70% of primaries that had responded.

I know that schools need time to put in place the strict protective measures that we have asked for, and we continue to work with the sector to make sure that any schools experiencing difficulties are supported to open more widely as soon as possible. Some schools, in areas such as the north-west, are concerned about local rates of transmission. I can assure them that SAGE’s R estimate for the whole of the UK is below 1. If robust data shows that local action needs to be taken, we will not hesitate to do so, but we are not in that position. I know that the House will be as impressed as I have been by the work and efforts of head teachers, teachers and childcare staff, who are finding ways to make the necessary changes while still ensuring that schools and nurseries are a welcoming place for children, as well as reassuring families who may be worried about sending their children back.

The next step of our phased approach will enable secondary schools and colleges to provide some face-to-face support from 15 June for years 10 and 12 and 16-to-19 students in the first year of a two-year study programme, who are due to take key exams next year. This is such a critical time for those students and this extra support will be in addition to their remote education, which will continue to be the main method of education for them this term, as only a quarter of this cohort will be able to attend at any one time to limit the risk of transmission. Children of critical workers and vulnerable children in all secondary year groups will continue to be able to attend full-time.

We have published guidance for secondary schools and ensured that schools have the flexibility to decide how they want to use face-to-face support in the best interests of their pupils. Since the announcement of our proposals on 10 May, my department has published detailed guidance for settings on how to prepare. This includes planning guides for early years providers and primary schools, and further guidance for secondary schools and colleges. Crucially, we have provided detailed guidance on the protective measures that schools and other settings need to take to reduce the risk of transmission. This includes restricting class sizes, limiting mixing between groups and encouraging regular handwashing and frequent cleaning. This advice was developed in close consultation with Public Health England.

The safety of our children, young people and staff remains my top priority. That is why all staff and children, including the under-fives, will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus. This will enable the right response where a case is confirmed, including using a “test and trace” approach to rapidly identify people most at risk of having been exposed to the virus, so that they can take action too.

We continue to follow the best scientific advice and believe that this cautious, phased return is the most sensible course of action to take. While we are not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps, where we would like schools that have the capacity to bring back more children—in those smaller class sizes—to do so if they are able to before the summer holidays.

We will be working to bring all children back to school in September. I know that students who are due to take exams in 2021 will have experienced considerable disruption to their education this year, and we are committed to doing all we can to minimise the effects of this. Exams will take place next year, and we are working with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach to these. While these are the first steps, they are the best way to ensure that all children can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.

I want to end by thanking the childcare, school and FE staff who have gone above and beyond over the past eight weeks, and who are now working so incredibly hard to welcome our children and young people back, while also continuing to support those who remain at home. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I normally thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, but we take it as read. It represents an inevitable volte- face. Head teachers, education unions, school staff and many parents were right to describe plans to open whole primary schools before the summer as incompatible with implementing social distancing safely.

That is not to say that I welcome the continued closure of schools. There is a very real risk that so many children losing up to six months of formal education, socialising with friends and a structured routine to their day will have lasting serious consequences. Together with many others, I am extremely worried that a deepening learning disadvantage gap will be the result, with possibly millions of children lacking the education they need to progress in life.

Sadly, the current hole into which the Government have dug themselves is the result of education having been the poor relation in the response to this pandemic. In part, that reflects the fact that the Government have never had a coherent plan for dealing with Covid-19, frequently defaulting to panic mode, it seems.

Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition called for the establishment of a national task force to help the Government put together a plan for schooling not just in the months ahead but in the longer term. I urge the Minister to tell noble Lords that the Government will indeed adopt such a collegiate approach as a means of moving forward and helping those children whose education has been left in limbo.

The national plan must be robust. It should build consensus among key stakeholders—schools, multi-academy trusts and local authorities—which properly understand what is required and what they can do collectively to deliver it. It is about bringing together top-down planning with bottom-up planning to make the most difference in the shortest possible time. The key to developing such a plan and then making it effective may be the most demanding factor: strong leadership from the top—a factor that has been absent thus far.

More immediately, does the Minister accept that there is a need for all children of compulsory school age to have a one-on-one meeting with a teacher from their school, with parents if appropriate, before the summer holidays start? Without teachers being able to assess the needs of their pupils at this stage, there is a danger that valuable time will be lost when the new school year begins in September, as we all hope it will. Does she agree with the Children’s Commissioner that some schools should be open during the summer holidays, staffed on a voluntary basis, to provide classes as well as clubs and activities for children, enabling them to re-socialise and re-engage with a love for learning?

When the pandemic started, one of the Government’s few successes was the Nightingale hospitals, constructed within a matter of days. On a much smaller scale, could not something like that be done for education? Portakabins are hardly unknown in school playgrounds, and many could be built quickly to accommodate children during the summer to access the learning and other activities that they need while observing social distancing requirements. Rather than rely solely on regular teachers, many of whom have been working flat out to maintain education for their students and deserve some respite, why not invite retired or trainee teachers to assist? They all have much to offer in these critical times for so many children.

All that is required is some imagination. Has the Secretary of State considered, as Scotland has done, using public buildings, such as libraries, sports halls and other council properties to relieve pressure on classroom space? Surely the independent sector should be told that their wide range of facilities should be opened up to state school students during the summer. There are already examples of state/private collaboration of that sort on which to build, and opportunities should be maximised.

The Statement also concerns early years settings. If the Government do not act soon, there will not be many nurseries left to send children to. There is currently no additional funding to help childcare providers manage this difficult transition, or even pay for vital safety measures such as PPE and regular cleaning. Over two-thirds of nurseries and other childcare businesses expect to operate at a loss for at least six months, so without more support it is unclear how many will be able to survive. The Government need to wake up to the reality that millions of childcare places could be lost in this crisis unless there is a properly funded plan to save the early years sector.

I therefore ask the Minister: when does the Secretary of State intend to come forward with a realistic plan to protect these essential nurseries and other early years provision?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement.

We all want to see children and young people back in school as soon as possible, not least because if we are not careful, we will see a whole generation of children whose educational progress has been blighted, and we know that the children most at risk are those from disadvantaged circumstances, those in care, and those with learning difficulties.

If I was being kind to the Government’s handling of the reopening of schools, it would be to describe their approach thus far as cack-handed. This is not a time for Boris Johnson’s high-command approach but a time for bringing education stakeholders together to agree the way which is rooted in good practice, which can work and be implemented, will provide a safe environment for pupils and staff, give the reassurance to parents that their children are safe and, as the Children’s Commissioner said, use some imagination in what we are able to do. That imagination might include keeping children in nurseries for longer and admitting them to reception for the term of their fifth birthday. It may include part-time schooling, or changing the school day and school holidays, and staggered starts—anything which helps our children.

Can the Minister now agree that the Prime Minister’s proposal to have a big plan will bring together council leaders, teachers’ unions, experts, opposition parties and parent voices to agree that big plan for the reopening of schools in England before the disadvantage gap becomes a gulf? My party has a five-point national plan, which our education spokesperson, Layla Moran, has sent to the Prime Minister.

As well as getting schools open safely in September, we also need to ensure that we are providing high-quality educational provision now and over the next three months of the summer. As good as the BBC has been in providing Bitesize, this is only a small-bite step in what is needed. Parents who have finances will buy in resources, pay for online tutors and will have the time to go on walks of learning, but for a large number of families this is not possible.

It is interesting to note that the hubs that were set up for key workers and disadvantaged pupils, not surprisingly, saw a massive drop-off rate of the disadvantaged pupils. Can the Minister tell us of any ideas that she might have to ensure that those pupils are being mentored and encouraged to do their work?

The Minister previously has told us of the IT provision that the Government are providing, but in reality it not available to all disadvantaged pupils. In my home city of Liverpool, the laptops provided for children in care were for only 40% of those children. Can the Minister assure us that there will be IT equipment for all children in care so that they can access learning?

Many families are worried about family budgets and how they can provide the resources their children need. Can the Minister take back to her ministerial colleagues the need to look at extending the free school meals over the summer holidays, recognising the scheme is flawed and so combining it with an emergency uplift in child benefit of £150 per child per month, with £100 for every subsequent child, during the crisis? They could also implement a catch-up premium of £700 per disadvantaged child to enable schools and charities to give them a much-needed boost for the next academic year.

Also, could the Minister take on the idea of creating a summer learning fund so that councils can run summer learning camps for children, focused on local authorities in the most deprived areas? Incidentally, that proposal was first made by the Children’s Commissioner for England.

We are living through very difficult times. We need to look to our future as well as our present. Just as the Prime Minister wants our economy to bounce back, surely we want to see our young people and children bounce back. That means doing whatever it takes to make that happen.

Finally, will the Minister agree to abolish SATs and Ofsted inspections during this period and give us regular updates on plans laid and progress made?

My Lords, I am glad to join the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in his desire to welcome everyone back to education. It is the Department for Education’s desire and ambition to see all children back in school, when the scientific evidence allows. We are very concerned about the learning disadvantage gap that experts tell us is probably growing during this period.

As in many other countries, schools have been open throughout this period for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. The Secretary of State made it clear in the other place that we need a plan for beyond the summer. We are working with the stakeholders that have been outlined to ensure that we can deliver the catch-up across the summer and into the next academic year. In fact, local REACT teams are working jointly with redeployed Ofsted workers, department officials and local authorities to ensure that we are in touch with what is happening on the ground, both locally in schools and in children’s social services departments in councils. Indeed, as of Monday, year 10 and year 12 pupils will be back in school for some form of face-to-face contact, with a maximum of 25% being in school at any one time. We are looking at all of the options for targeted support through the summer and beyond, as I said.

On premises, there are thousands of varieties of school buildings across the country. Some of them do not have the outdoor space that would be appropriate for temporary buildings such as Portakabins. We are grateful to the independent sector, however, which has worked closely with the state sector in many areas; we welcome those collaborations.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, raised concerns about the early years sector. I am happy to say that, as of Thursday last week, 48% of those settings were open. Over the next year, it is planned that the £3.6 billion of early years entitlement will be paid to that sector, regardless of the children who attend. It is clear from Public Health England advice that normal education settings do not need personal protective equipment and that a very limited supply is needed for circumstances where a symptomatic child may be on the premises. Of course, it is different for special schools if they are open and providing care akin to medical care. Only in those very limited circumstances—which education settings can manage through their own supply chains, or, if needs be, can approach the local resilience forum—do they need to think about personal protective equipment.

The early years sector has a blend of incomes. The sector’s loss of private income is one reason why the comprehensive schemes made available by the Chancellor of the Exchequer are open to the sector, on the basis that salaries that they pay were previously paid using income from private sources. The sector can go to the job retention scheme or apply for a business interruption loan and, if they are eligible for small business rate relief or rural rate relief, they are eligible for the £10,000 small business grant.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that we are very concerned about disadvantaged children and children in care. We are working with all the sector’s stakeholder groups. We based our guidance on the PHE guidance, outlining to schools the measures that they can take to provide a safe environment in which to learn.

On reception admissions—I thank the noble Lord for his advance notice on this question—we do not anticipate that, as a general rule, children will need to delay their admission to school purely as a consequence of the coronavirus outbreak. However, where parents genuinely believe that delaying admission is right for their summer-born child, we expect admissions authorities to give careful consideration to the needs of that child. Admissions authorities must provide for the admission of all children in the September following their fourth birthday. However, parents cannot be required to send their children to full-time school before they reach the compulsory age.

As the noble Lord mentioned, we are deeply concerned about the attainment gap, which has been narrowing since 2011. That is why we have now made available the Oak National Academy for remote learning, which offers 140 lessons a week. The noble Lord mentioned the BBC. In the week commencing 11 May, there were 5 million users. This is not an insubstantial resource and we thank the BBC for making it available. This is why we have prioritised disadvantaged students in year 10 as well as care leavers and children with social workers for access to the over 200,000 remote devices that we have purchased and for which delivery is in train.

I am pleased to say that yesterday the Prime Minister announced an additional £63 million of funding for local authorities over the summer, as they are best placed to know who might be in acute need of food over that period. Some £9 million has been made available for summer provision; there will be holiday clubs, building on the programme of 2018 and 2019, that can be accessed.

During this period, routine Ofsted inspections have been suspended. That is why Ofsted has been redeployed in other areas. It can still inspect settings when safeguarding has been raised. GCSEs, A-levels, SATs, the two year-old assessment and the assessment at the end of the early years foundation stage have all been suspended; no performance tables will be published this year. However, this Government stand by their ambition that every child in this country should have a world-class education and were right to have an ambition to bring all children back to school. It is sad, particularly for those children, that in the circumstances of the scientific evidence that has not been possible.

My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I emphasise that it is 30 minutes, not the 20 minutes that was on the Order Paper. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, would it not be appropriate to extend to the secondary sector the flexibility that primary schools have been given to allow more children back when they can do so safely? Can my noble friend confirm that independent schools, which are actively engaged in the national effort to bring pupils back into school, as she has mentioned, can bring children on to the school site as long as the correct protocols are observed?

My Lords, the flexibility is to respect the professionals on the ground. Unfortunately, because of the specific risks that secondary pupils travel greater distances to school, often use public transport and usually have a wider range of social contacts, we have not been able to have the numbers back in a secondary setting. We are grateful to the independent sector. The guidance is that boarding schools should not expect year 10 and year 12 back; if they can have that face-to-face contact on a day basis, that is permissible. I am grateful that, as they have atypical transition years, they have heeded the Government’s guidance to bring back reception, year 1, year 6, year 10 and year 12, as I have outlined.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that schools play a vital role in not just academic learning but the development of social and emotional skills that lead to better mental health and academic outcomes? It is shown that the relationships built at school serve as a buffer against psychological and social risks, so the continued closure increases the vulnerability of many children, especially disadvantaged ones. Can the Minister help ensure that schools prioritise social and emotional learning when they reopen, alongside academic learning, and that they have access to adequate resources and specialist input to help support the most vulnerable pupils?

My Lords, from speaking to many teachers and multi-academy trust leaders, I know that they are concerned about the emotional stability and well-being of children when they re-enter school, particularly of those who are vulnerable. On mental health support, certain teams are on the ground, particularly in secondary settings, and we are doing the remote training-up of the allocation that we had hoped would be in schools by now. We have also funded a coalition of charities for vulnerable children to the tune of £7 million, being led, I believe, by Barnardo’s; it is a “see, hear, respond” service, because we are acutely aware of what will walk through the door of a school when vulnerable children are back in that setting.

There are a lot of warm words from the Government about this, but it really has been a totally inappropriate response to what is fast becoming a crisis in a critical area of our society. In particular, how can the Government think it is acceptable to present a Statement at a time like this that is nothing more than a list of things which cannot be done? It does not contain one new idea and makes no response to the many ideas that have come from people across society. I want to push the Minister to say why she is not encouraging primary schools to use the space that is available—she just made that clear in response to a previous question—to enable secondary schools to provide access to outdoor space and classroom space, to ensure that they could offer the sort of education to children that we all want to see.

My Lords, the Government have been acting on this matter. We are working with the Education Endowment Foundation to make sure that the interventions we put in place to help these children to catch up are based on evidence. I can assure the noble Baroness that we are seriously considering a package of measures in relation to the catch-up provision. However, I will take back her comments about using space in other premises.

My Lords, do the Government have a clear picture of what has and has not worked when it comes to the underlying issues around learning and teaching? Many reports are coming out on how some children are missing out, while others are getting quite a good deal. Unless we have a good idea about what is actually happening, we cannot plan for how we will support and correct any problems later on.

My Lords, the changes which this virus crisis has brought about to how children learn are unprecedented. The move to remote learning and to the use of technology will change some teaching practices for ever. We are of course gathering evidence about what is and is not effective in remote learning. As I have said, the Oak National Academy and BBC Bitesize will be part of the effort to analyse what effect this has had on children’s learning going forward.

It is 80 days from today until September, when secondary schools are expected to open. Those are 80 days during which schools will be closed, padlocked and empty. I think that that is unacceptable. They should become learning centres during June, July, August and September. Will my noble friend encourage the Secretary of State to urge for the reopening of secondary schools as soon as possible? Will he also make representations to the Prime Minister and to the Cabinet that social distancing for children in schools should be reduced from 2 metres to 1 metre, because they are the least vulnerable members of our society? To protect them further, teachers, and any other staff who go into a school, should be tested for the virus daily, which it is now quite possible to do.

My Lords, since schools reopened for the priority year groups, testing has been available for staff, pupils and anyone in a household who displays symptoms. On summer schools, I have outlined that holiday activity clubs are being funded. We are working closely with Magic Breakfast and Family Action in relation to breakfast provision over the summer holidays. Moreover, imaginative consideration is being given to the kind of targeted support which can be offered over the summer. But it is not anticipated that schools will be open throughout the summer holidays.

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as set out in the register. Last week, the Minister said in Oral Questions that the Secretary of State has made it clear that schools will not be expected to open throughout the summer holidays, and she has just said something similar. Given that, what exactly are the Government planning? Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that there will be a

“huge amount of catch-up over the summer months.”

Is that the £9 million for holiday clubs which the Minister has just mentioned, which is the equivalent of just £360 per school in England? Where will this huge amount of catch-up take place? Who will attend and who will lead it?

My Lords, noble Lords are tempting me, but I am not permitted to—nor will I—steal the Secretary of State’s thunder. But I am aware, and can tell noble Lords, that, working on an evidence base, there will be a programme of targeted support over the summer holidays and beyond. We are acutely aware of the loss of learning, as Ministers and as people who have been through the education system. The effort and energy are there, and will continue to be, to have the appropriate support and programmes for these young people to catch up. As I said, we have purchased, and are about to deliver by the end of the month, more than 200,000 devices to enable some of the most disadvantaged children to catch up on their learning.

My Lords, notwithstanding the differences in timetables and school schedules between the devolved regions and England, what discussions have been held with devolved institutions about eliminating and eradicating inequalities for vulnerable children, because there should be many similarities right across the regions? What will the Government do about that?

My Lords, the recovery response to the virus in education is, of course, a national response, but we are obviously in touch with the devolved Administrations, at ministerial and official level. Education is a devolved matter, but any of the plans to return will be done on a phased basis, but in different circumstances —for instance, Scotland has a different start date for its terms and different examinations. We are seeking to learn best practice from across all the nations of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I apologise that noble Lords cannot see me, but it was a choice between seeing me and hearing me. I think that hearing me is probably better—and I hope that noble Lords can hear me.

Does the Minister agree that creative activities have been central in helping children and their parents get through the challenges of lockdown? I hope that this has been heard loud and clear by the Department for Education. Cultural education is also of central importance for facilitating learning across subjects, and for children’s general well-being. Will the Government ensure that creative subjects will not be overlooked in the school timetable from September, and that the emphasis will be moved from STEM to STEAM?

My Lords, the Government agree that the creative subjects and children’s cultural development are important. That is why music, art, design and drama are part of the national curriculum. Post 14, all pupils in maintained schools must be offered the opportunity to study at least one subject in the arts. That is why, since 2016, almost £500 million has been invested in those subjects, and an arts premium will be given to secondary schools. With the new Ofsted framework as of September last year, arts is an essential part of schools’ broad and balanced curriculum, which it inspects against.

My Lords, much is spoken about the attainment gap between richer and poorer students widening during time off school. This Government were elected on a promise to level up society. What measures will the Government take to close that gap and reassure parents that we are committed to see every child, from every background, reach their full potential, despite the challenges that Covid has presented?

My Lords, as I outlined, we are keen to ensure that the narrowing of the attainment gap is not lost during this period. The £2.4 billion a year pupil premium, which is paid for disadvantaged students, will continue to be paid to schools for their funding, even though most pupils are obviously not in school at the moment. We are looking at interventions for vulnerable children in particular, to ensure that they have not fallen behind.

My Lords, I declare my interest as I chair the Commission on Alcohol Harm. At the outset of lockdown, we know that alcohol sales increased by 67%. It is now said that 29% of people report drinking more during lockdown, and one in seven families report an increase in tension in households where there is a child under the age of 18. The highest number of children on record are calling the NSPCC helpline—with a 32% increase from previously—and reporting domestic abuse. How can these children, who previously accessed a place of safety at school, be case-found now? What safety is being provided for them since they are a hidden, silent and vulnerable population?

My Lords, it is incredibly sad to think about the lack of the protective good for children in schools during this time. I am pleased that the £1.6 million for the NSPCC helpline has been useful to it. We are also pleased that among vulnerable children in contact with a social worker, we have now seen a considerable increase in the numbers in school. There are 47,000 of them in school, up from 37,000 on 21 May, which is to be welcomed. As I say, the teams reacting on the ground are working closely with local authorities’ children’s services, so that information about children who are not in school is passed on. We have redeployed Ofsted staff to bolster local authorities where they have needed it. While it is not possible to replace the protective good that school is for those children, we are seeing a steady increase in the numbers going to school.

My Lords, I had the opportunity to hear from the Chief Inspector of Schools and the Children’s Commissioner yesterday at a Select Committee in this House. They found the Statement disappointing and said that it lacked urgency and creativity. Is it not clear that, despite the attention with which the Minister feels that she and others in the department have been addressing these issues, the measures to prevent some children falling behind are failing at the moment? We need a detailed action plan, with stakeholders involved to get those falling-behind children into school before September, and for the Government to act with that creativity and urgency which was sadly lacking from this Statement.

My Lords, it is a great regret that the scientific evidence on social distances does not allow us to achieve our ambition of getting all primary schoolchildren back before the summer. However, as I say, more vulnerable children are in school. We have also acted with specific initiatives on behalf of, for instance, those transitioning from alternative provision at 16. We recognise the risk that they could drop through the net, so we have announced £750 per year 11 pupil in alternative provision. We are obviously aware that it is unprecedented to be in the Department for Education at a time when we had to close schools. There is urgency and a plan to catch up for those children.

My Lords, I endorse the wise words of my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking. As the product of a state comprehensive school in a predominantly working-class part of Leeds, I need no lessons on the importance of tackling educational inequalities. Does my noble friend agree that the longer schools remain closed, the more difficult this will be to achieve and that those who suffer most will be from less well-off backgrounds? Is it not about time that the leadership of some of the teaching unions adopted a more constructive, responsible and sensible approach to these matters?

I am grateful to the noble Lord and, as someone who is also the product of state education, I know that there will be children falling behind because their education is not offered in schools at the moment. Away from what I might call the bluster of the headlines, I am aware of many teachers who are getting on with their job and have been planning to reopen. Along with the Department for Education, they long for the situation—and for the scientific evidence—to be such that we can welcome all our students back into school. In addition to the remote learning I outlined, there are tales of teachers dropping worksheets at the door for students. They are acutely aware of the disadvantage to those students, and we will work together with teachers on the front line and all support staff to help them catch up.

My Lords, with social distancing set to continue for quite some time, capacity on public transport and dedicated home-to-school transport will be significantly reduced. Is a strategy being developed to ensure that transport is available for all students, particularly secondary students, when they return in September?

My Lords, as I have outlined, secondary school children travel greater distances. Local authorities and schools are still under a duty to provide home-to-school transport within the social distancing rules. If there is capacity on those services, we have said that it should be made available to other students and that it can be charged for. We are aware that an essential part of getting students back to school will be ensuring that they can get there safely.

The risk from this virus to children of primary school age is, frankly, negligible. For secondary school pupils, it is still pretty tiny. There is a higher risk to teachers, who will be older and may have underlying health conditions, but it is still pretty low for anybody under 50. Why then do pupils need social distancing at all? Teaching is a profession to be admired, so does my noble friend share my huge disappointment—that is an understatement —that some teachers, and only some, supported by their unions, are putting minor risk to themselves above the very real threat to their pupils’ futures?

My Lords, there is indeed a high degree of confidence that the severity of the disease is lower in children than in adults. In the primary setting, we have been clear that we do not expect the younger cohorts to socially distance; the measures to enable children to come back state that they should be in groups of a maximum of 15, that they should not mix across groups and that there should be good hygiene in schools. As soon as the scientific evidence allows, we will be relieved to be able to welcome children back to their education.

Has the Minister seen today’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that the closure of schools is accentuating the socioeconomic divide? Does she recall that, four weeks ago, I asked her at Question Time to prepare for summer schools, in particular so that youngsters transferring from primary to secondary school in September are not absolutely disadvantaged? Some may have been out of school for six months and have had no education at all. Can some concentration be given to the easy entrance of those children to secondary education so that they do not lose out completely? We need summer schools and not just holiday activity clubs.

My Lords, the clubs that I have outlined offer educational provision as well, but the noble Baroness is right about the transition year. That is why we have recommended that schools bring back year 6 so that the transition into secondary school is managed for those children. However, we are aware that a number of reports indicate that more provision is available to children from more affluent backgrounds. I have outlined the remote devices and other support that we have given to schools to try to level up some of that gap.

My Lords, the Children’s Commissioner and others have argued that the Government should fund summer sport and fitness courses, with voluntary organisations and governing bodies of sport using school sport facilities. Given that ukactive has data suggesting that children’s health and fitness levels may drop by 80% this summer, with the hardest hit the poorest children, will the Government prioritise and support this proposal?

My Lords, even before the summer, the Government have been clear in their guidance to schools that they should use outside space wherever possible when they reopen. We have provided guidance even on how to introduce team sports for the small groups that are back. However, we are aware that many children will have been sedentary over this period and that is a concern. We have linked to resources to encourage people to get the 60 minutes of exercise a day that Sport England recognises. I will take back my noble friend’s specific question about summer provision of physical activity.

My Lords, I want to re-put the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, as the Minister did not answer it. Why has the two-metre social distancing rule not been relaxed in line with WHO guidance, since this rule is the main block to all children returning to school at the earliest possible time? Will she accept that a failure to bring children—especially disadvantaged children—back to school poses much greater risks to their academic development, mental health and safety from abuse, whether on the streets or in their homes, than the negligible risks to their health of returning?

My Lords, throughout the crisis, the Government have been guided by the science. The view at the moment—based on SAGE and the best science we have—is that social distancing should be at two metres. Should that view change, the Department for Education will of course be the first to welcome that, as it would ease many of the issues that schools have in relation to their buildings. As I said, it is important that the offer has been there for vulnerable children to come to school during this time. The provision for vulnerable children is made in addition to provision for the year groups as they come back.

My Lords, few children with special needs have currently returned to school due to parents’ concerns. Children attending special schools come from a wide area, especially in rural locations, and often have personalised school transport. More than others, those children need tailored plans to ensure that they are safe and happy. What arrangements have been made to ensure that these vulnerable special needs children are able to access their schools?

My Lords, throughout the crisis, those children with an EHC plan—the overwhelming majority, if not all, of the children in special schools—have had a school place available to them. Risk assessments of those children have been encouraged, specifically to work out whether they are better in school or at home during this period. Where there is equipment in the school that could be of use to parents with children at home, we have encouraged schools to make that available. In line with the increase in attendance of vulnerable children as of last Thursday, the number of those attending schools who have an EHC plan is now 42,000 children, up from 23,000 as of 21 May. We want to see all children back, but this is a significant increase in those attending school, which is obviously to be welcomed.

My Lords, the chair of the Education Select Committee said this week that 70,000 disadvantaged children are not working at home and have no access to the internet. Will the Government ensure that all children entitled to free school meals be guaranteed internet access, immediately?

My Lords, there are indeed 1.3 million children currently entitled to free school meals. We have offered that provision over both the half-term and Easter holidays since schools closed. As I have outlined, over 200,000 devices have been purchased and delivery will be made by the end of June.

My Lords, first, the Statement said that Her Majesty’s Government would be working to bring all children back to school in September. Do the Government actually have a plan to achieve this? Secondly, what is the message from the Minister to international pupils and students? Should they make plans to come back to study in the UK in September, or should they look to study or complete their studies in another country which is perhaps better organised?

My Lords, obviously the plan is to bring all students back to school in September if the scientific evidence allows for that. In relation to international students, there has been an amendment to the guidance on the visa regulations. We are working closely with the boarding school sector and the independent sector to enable them to plan for a full reopening, along with all other schools, in September.

My Lords, this morning the chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee made three brief suggestions. The first was for a catch-up programme with an army of volunteers consisting of retired teachers, Ofsted inspectors, education charities and graduates, paid for by a catch-up premium; the second was the establishment of Alan Turing summer schools; and the third was a national education service on TV for those without internet services. Does my noble friend feel that Robert Halfon has a point?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that the Secretary of State is listening carefully to the suggestions from Mr Halfon, as chair of the Education Select Committee. As I said, a targeted programme of catch-up provision for the summer and beyond will be announced, and of course there is already access to BBC Bitesize provision, as I have outlined.

My Lords, I can understand that the noble Baroness does not want to pre-empt what the Prime Minister has called his very big plan, but can she give us some indication of who might be targeted for special provision? To follow up on the question from my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton, I ask whether the noble Baroness can give us an assurance that creative and accelerated learning will be on offer and not simply holiday clubs.

My Lords, the department’s ambition is obviously to offer universal catch-up provision for all students in our schools but with a particular focus on those who are disadvantaged. I gave an outline of the summer catch-up provision and what will happen beyond that. We are talking about catch-up of educational attainment so that these students are able to fulfil their potential and are not blighted by the lack of provision that they have had to endure due to the health crisis that we have all been living through.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, referred to school as a place where social skills are learned and emotional intelligence is developed. The Minister is not allowed to tell us about the summer schools, but perhaps she can tell us whether they will be targeted not just at disadvantaged pupils, who obviously have huge needs, but at pupils who are not at obvious disadvantage. I should perhaps declare an interest, having been an only child. A single child will have been in the company of one or two adults for months, and for younger children that will have accounted for a large part of their lives. Will there be provision over the summer for all children at least to develop those social skills, even if there is no educational component?

My Lords, over this period the department has published guidance on a number of matters. We have aimed to get the balance right between guidance and respecting the professionals on the ground. School leaders have been able to apply that guidance at the school gate in relation to vulnerable children, even though those children might not fall into the categories that we have outlined. As I said, we are concerned that all children should catch up, but disadvantaged children in particular. We respect the leadership in schools and will continue to do so in relation to catch-up provision, so that children whom school leaders deem to be disadvantaged and in need of support can get access to that support.

Sitting suspended.