Skip to main content

Schools: Return of Students

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consultations they have had with (1) education, and (2) health, professionals about plans to facilitate the safe return of students to schools as soon as possible.

My Lords, the Government’s ambition is for all education settings to open fully in September. Our approach and decisions continue to be based on the best scientific and medical advice. We have been working with Public Health England and the education sector, including the unions, and have provided guidance to support the sector in opening more widely. We will keep engaging closely and regularly with the sector as it plans to welcome back all learners.

I thank my noble friend for her Answer. What provision will be made for the year 11 and year 13 classes leaving next year, and will there be thorough consultations with head teachers about that provision?

My Lords, the Government have recently updated the guidance and, where schools have capacity, we have encouraged them to have face-to-face contact with all students, particularly those in years 11 and 13. In relation to the particularly vulnerable in year 11 who are in alternative provision, there has been a £7 million fund because we recognise the risks of those young people not being in education or training.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how frequently she is meeting the organisations to which she referred in her—[Inaudible.]

We are having difficulty hearing the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, so we will move on to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and come back to him if there is time to sort out the technical problems.

My Lords, it is good news that all schools are reopening in September and that all children and young people will be back in school, but God forbid that there was a localised outbreak. Who would make the decision to close schools, and what level would have to occur before that action took place?

My Lords, if a school has an outbreak where a number have tested positive for the virus, that is a matter for Public Health England, at regional and local level, to evaluate the situation on the ground. We have made “test and trace” available for all students and staff, and members of their household, so as to be able to deal with a situation like that.

I call the noble Lord, Lord Caine.

I am afraid that we cannot hear the noble Lord, so we will go to the noble Lord, Lord Laming.

My Lords, I am sure that it will be very good news if all our schools are fully open in September. I have a growing concern for those young people who just will not appear in September. What steps will be taken to make contact with these young people? Some of them may be extremely vulnerable, and we must not let them be lost in the system.

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that it is not just about vulnerable children. There are those who head teachers will be aware have become vulnerable during this period; we have therefore always made school places open to those whom we call the otherwise vulnerable, which gives head teachers the discretion to offer school places. We have also funded Barnardo’s with £7 million to run a service called “See, Hear, Respond”, which is specifically aimed at reaching out to those children who are not in contact with statutory agencies but who we believe may need support at this time.

My Lords, last week schools and colleges in England were able to readmit students safely in their first year of studying for GCSEs and A-levels. Labour welcomes that, but we believe that the Government should have been much more ambitious. In Wales, every child will have some time in school before the summer holidays, allowing teachers to assess how their pupils have fared during school closures. Without that key information, valuable time would be lost when the new school year starts, as we all hope that it will in September. The Minister has just said that she is encouraging schools to have face-to-face time with their pupils. Why should parents in England have to accept lower expectations than those in Wales?

My Lords, it was of course the Government’s ambition for all primary-age children to be back in school before the summer, but that was not possible on the current medical and scientific evidence. The updated guidance allows schools to bring back students in all years and have some face-to-face contact, as long as they do that within the guidelines. For instance, at secondary school there should be no more than 25% of students on the premises at any one time. We agree with the noble Lord: we recognise that it is essential for pupils to have some contact with their teachers before the school holidays.

My Lords, will the Minister give some thought to implementing a better policy for online teaching just in case there is another call for a lockdown, either localised or national? We have learned that, where it is successfully done, people learn better. This must be part of the policy.

My Lords, of the £1 billion catch-up premium, £350 million has been devoted to a national tutoring service for disadvantaged students. That will be face to face, as well as online, and we hope that the evidence base for it supports the idea that it is a key way for disadvantaged children to catch up. We hope that it will be a legacy for the system so that, going forward, it can be one way in which schools will use their pupil premium to support those students beyond the catch-up year.

My Lords, the Minister has in part addressed this, but can she say what discussions have been held with education unions to ensure that planning is in place for the academic year 2020-21 to cope with any second spike in the virus? How frequently are meetings taking place between the Government and education unions to discuss the detail of curriculum coverage and assessment for all young people from September?

My Lords, the Secretary of State meets the education unions weekly, and officials and other Ministers are in touch regularly with the unions. We have worked closely with them, particularly on developing the guidance. In the next two weeks, guidance will be issued to make it clear what is expected of schools regarding curriculum and attendance in September, so that they will have time to plan before the end of the summer term.

My Lords, six children have, sadly, died with Covid, yet nearly 2,000 children are killed or seriously injured every year in traffic accidents, which suggests that children suffer more harm from being driven to school than being in school. Does my noble friend agree that the scare stories circulated by some, including teaching unions, about the dangers of returning to school are as dangerous as the anti-vaccine lobby? Does she also agree that much more long-term harm will be inflicted on children from not going back to school than there could possibly ever be from them receiving their education?

Indeed, my Lords. Away from the flurry of the headlines and speaking to academy trust leaders, I know that they do not just want their children back in school but are desperate for them to be back in school, because they know that it is the best place for them to be educated. They also know that it is best for their mental well-being to be in a school environment. They have been working tirelessly, many through the school holidays, to ensure that young children are in school. They are particularly concerned about vulnerable children who have not been in education. I agree with my noble friend: we want and look forward to welcoming all our children back to their education settings in September.

My Lords, a good education is fundamental to equal opportunities in later life. It is good to hear that all schools will open in September after the summer break. However, it is not sufficient just to open all schools. Will there be sufficient space for all pupils to attend?

I think that the noble Lord is referring to the current situation regarding social distancing. As noble Lords will be aware, the Prime Minister has asked for a review of that and we will have the results within the next few days, but, of course, that influences greatly the capacity of schools to welcome students back.

Will all secondary schools be required in September to provide details of which pupils have disappeared from their rolls? Will those figures be provided to government?

My Lords, schools would normally liaise with their local authority in relation to their rolls. As noble Lords will be aware, Ofsted is not currently carrying out routine inspections, but I am sure that pupil attendance and any off-rolling will be matters for it to address when it resumes inspections.

I am sorry that due to technical difficulties we are not able to go back to the noble Lords, Lord Triesman and Lord Caine. That completes the time allowed for this Question and it concludes hybrid proceedings on Oral Questions.

Sitting suspended.