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Schools: Online Support for Pupils

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 18 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the paper by Professor Francis Green Schoolwork in lockdown: new evidence on the epidemic of educational poverty, published on 15 June, and the finding that 20 per cent of pupils have done either no schoolwork at home, or less than one hour a day, during the COVID-19 pandemic, what steps they are taking to publish guidance on what is an acceptable level of online support for pupils.

My Lords, we are committed to supporting schools to ensure that all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils, are supported for lost education since lockdown. The Government have provided a £100 million package of support to enable remote teaching, including delivering devices to vulnerable children and working with the Oak National Academy, the BBC and others to ensure strong national availability of remote education. Expectations for the next academic year will be published before the end of term.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, will the Government take on board that the report states that different types of teaching are required—that there should be direct contact with the pupil by the teacher and a conversation about different ways of learning? Virtual environment learning, is, I think, what it was called in the report. This is seen to have very much better results for vulnerable pupils. When were the Government aware that this was getting good results? When will they have a universal application system, or advice on this, for teachers?

My Lords, we expect teachers and schools to use their professional judgment and to make available the best possible education, bearing in mind the home-learning circumstances of pupils. We have made guidance—case studies—available to assist schools with this, as well as, of course, making more devices available to vulnerable children.

I remind your Lordships of my entry in the register. Grandparents are losing their lives, parents their livelihoods, and now children are losing their life chances. The absence of a credible plan for schools opening in September is a disgrace. By then, we need to end the digital divide in education, deliver training and teaching using technology through an additional inset day, map a coherent set of teaching content, and know how we will flexibly use people and vacant premises to offer a full-time universal schooling service. We urgently need a plan. Ministers must publish a plan for September that we can all stick to—more urgently than before the end of term. When will we get it?

My Lords, as I have outlined, there will be a plan before the end of term in relation to curriculum expectations going forward. The Government have made available free expert help and have had over 2,000 applications offering free expert help to make Google Classroom or Microsoft Education available to schools. The department has brokered deals with internet providers and has a specific arrangement with BT such that 10,000 children can have access to BT wi-fi hotspots. The department is incredibly concerned and we are working as best as we can within the scientific advice. We want to see all children back in school in September, subject to that scientific advice.

It has been exposed that at least 700,000 disadvantaged children do not have proper access to computers or the internet access needed to study online at home. While it is good news that BT is offering free internet access for six months, the scheme will reach only about 10,000 families and, crucially, will not help those without devices. Does the Minister agree that we have a moral obligation to ensure that all these disadvantaged children have access to the internet at home, including devices? What further steps will the Government take to tackle this growing social inequity?

My Lords, the Government have also made available school-to-school support through the EdTech innovation programme to help schools that are not necessarily on those platforms. As of 14 June, more than 114,000 devices have been delivered to local authorities and trusts to be distributed to vulnerable children, including care leavers. The Government are concerned, particularly about disadvantaged children, and we are looking at, potentially, a targeted online national tutoring service.

I declare my interest as chairman of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which promotes university technical colleges. Is the Minister aware that, this morning, 47 of the 48 university technical colleges have teachers and students in them engaged in the learning process? If we can do it, any secondary school in the country can do it. They should not wait until September, which is 75 days away, with all the schools empty, locked up and padlocked. That is a disgrace. Will the Government encourage secondary schools to open on 1 July with as many students as they can accommodate? If they do not do that, they should be named and shamed.

My Lords, students, teachers and parents are working hard during this period, and 92% of settings are now open. There has been clear guidance about bringing in different year groups, particularly year 10 and year 12, who are approaching exams. We have also issued guidance on flexibility where schools have not had the take-up and could accommodate more pupils within the guidelines of social distancing and class size. We have also specifically encouraged those secondary schools which have capacity to make this available to primary schools that could use that capacity. I pay tribute to the statistics that the noble Lord outlined in relation to UTCs.

My Lords, I declare my educational interests as set out in the register. In severely disadvantaged areas, online teaching can be extremely limited by the lack not just of promised laptops but of study space, particularly if several children are at the same home. Please can the Minister explain how the guidance, and then Ofsted, take this into account when looking at the performance of schools facing these challenges?

My Lords, Ofsted has currently suspended its routine inspections but is able to go into schools for safeguarding reasons. When Ofsted’s inspections begin again, it will inspect on the offer of recovery that schools are giving to children, including of course blended learning, but there will not be retrospective inspections of schools’ provision during this time.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the parent of a year 4 child at a state school in London. It has provided excellent online resources for home-schooling but has been unable to offer face-to-face online teaching, as not all pupils have access to the necessary technology. Fortunately—in my case—it is not necessary to master year 4 maths to understand that the figures in the UCL report foretell long-term damage to life chances. Careers can be furloughed, but childhood and education cannot. In April, the Government promised to provide 200,000 devices to disadvantaged families. Very few have been delivered yet and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, said, four times that number are now required. When will the Government show the urgency needed to end the postcode lottery of the digital divide?

My Lords, the Government realise that, while we urgently wish all children to be back in school, it is subject to the scientific evidence at the moment. But it is good news that during the lockdown we have offered school places to all vulnerable children and those of critical workers. Those numbers are increasing dramatically: 47,000 children who are in contact with a social worker are now back in school, which is up from 37,000. However, we are looking at all the evidence base to help those children catch up and drawing on a specific pilot project that the Education Endowment Foundation ran with Sutton, NESTA and Impetus in relation to access to high-quality external tutoring. We will pilot that over the summer with 1,500 disadvantaged students. We take very seriously the need to assist schools to help these students catch up.

My Lords, the Government have committed to seeing more children from disadvantaged families go to university. The experience of lockdown has made these aspirations disappear over the horizon. Since lockdown, around one in five pupils have done no schoolwork at home, or less than an hour a day of it. The UCL survey found that 97% of private school children had access to a computer at home, while one in five of those on free school meals had none. Can the Minister tell the House exactly what the pupil premium is currently being spent on?

My Lords, the pupil premium is around £2.4 billion a year and the Education Endowment Foundation gives schools information and evidence on the best use of that pupil premium. However, the Government have entrusted school leaders and school professionals to determine the best use of that pupil premium, because they best know the students in their classrooms.

We now know that there is a huge and growing inequality in access to learning, with dire effects on children’s mental health. Given the ineffectiveness of remote learning, why have we seen such a pathetic failure in providing a can-do approach to getting all children back to some schooling, not just in September but before the end of this term? Why, for example, have separate morning and afternoon sessions not been introduced, which could double the numbers returning, and why has the Department for Education had so little success in getting a dispensation on social distancing rules in schools, given that the Minister told the House last week that it would be very pleased to move away from the two-metre rule? Is the Secretary of State for Education as invisible in government discussions as he is in the media?

My Lords, throughout this pandemic the Government have made it clear that we would be guided by the scientific evidence. The evidence we have at the moment means that there is the two-metre social distancing rule, but I must pay tribute to the teachers who are working hard out there. They have carried on running their schools throughout this pandemic and are now opening them up to reception and years 1 and 6, along with face-to-face time with years 10 and 12. Education is happening but, of course, along with all noble Lords, we want to see all children back at school in September.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed and that concludes the Hybrid Proceedings on Oral Questions. I thank all colleagues for their contributions.

Sitting suspended.