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Covid-19: Educational Settings

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 7 January 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 6 January.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement regarding schools in national lockdown.

The last thing any Education Secretary wants to do is announce that schools will close, and this is not a decision that the Government ever wanted to take. I would like to reassure everyone that our schools have not suddenly become unsafe, but limiting the number of people who attend them is essential when the Covid rates are climbing as they are now. We must curb the escalating cases of Covid throughout the country and prevent the National Health Service from being overwhelmed. That is why, today, I am setting out the contingency plans I had prepared but had hoped would never have to implement. I would like to thank all of our teachers, our education staff and our social workers for all that they have been doing to keep children and young people safe and learning.

During the lockdown, early years settings remain open nationally to all, providing vital early education and childcare. Schools will be open too for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Those at university will predominantly study online, although there are a small number of exceptions, including those studying medicine, healthcare and education.

Unwelcome though this latest lockdown is—and I am very conscious of the real challenges that parents are facing with their children at home—we are far better placed to cope with it than we were last March. We are now better prepared to deliver online learning. This is an important step forward in supporting children to make the progress with their education that they so desperately need. We will also do what we can to help their parents, and I thank all those parents and carers who are having to step up once more to take on the challenge of home learning.

We have set out clear, legally binding requirements for schools to provide high-quality remote education. This is mandatory for all state-funded schools and will be enforced by Ofsted. We expect schools to provide between three and five hours of teaching a day, depending on the child’s age. If parents feel their child’s school is not providing suitable remote education, they should first raise their concerns with the teacher or head teacher, and, failing that, report the matter to Ofsted. Ofsted will inspect schools of any grade where it has serious concerns about the quality of remote education being provided.

We have significantly stepped up the digital support we are providing to schools and parents. The fantastic Oak National Academy continues to provide video lessons for all ages across all subjects, and yesterday the BBC announced it will be delivering the biggest push on education in its history, bringing 14 weeks of educational programmes and lessons to every household in the country.

Our delivery of laptops and tablets continues apace: we have purchased more than 1 million laptops and tablets and have already delivered more than 560,000 of them to schools and local authorities. With an extra 100,000 being distributed this week alone, by the end of next week, we will have delivered three-quarters of a million devices. We are also working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data for key educational sites. We are grateful to EE, 3, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile, O2 and Vodafone for supporting this offer. We have also been delivering 4G routers to families who need to access the internet.

Another area where we have learned lessons is exams. Last year, all four nations of the United Kingdom found that their arrangements for awarding grades did not deliver what they needed, with the painful impact felt by students and their parents. Although exams are the fairest way we have of assessing what a student knows, the impact of the pandemic means that it is not possible to have these exams this year. I can confirm that GCSE, A-level and AS-level exams will not go ahead this summer.

This year, we will put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms. My department and Ofqual had already worked up a range of contingency options. While the details will need to be fine-tuned in consultation with Ofqual, the exam boards and teaching representative organisations, I can confirm now that I wish to use a form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided to ensure that these are awarded fairly and consistently across the country.

I know that students and staff have worked hard to prepare for the January exams and assessments of vocational and technical qualifications, and we want to allow schools and colleges to continue these assessments where they judge it is right to do so. No college should feel pressured to offer these, and we will ensure that all students are able to progress fairly, just as we will with VTQs in the summer.

I know that, understandably, there is concern about free school meals. We will provide extra funding to support schools to provide food parcels or meals to eligible children. Where schools cannot offer food parcels or use local solutions, we will ensure that a national voucher scheme is in place, so that every eligible child can access free school meals while their school remains closed.

Finally, I would like to turn to our programme of testing for the virus. There has been a brilliant, concerted effort in secondary schools and colleges to deliver testing for the start of this term, and none of the work done to roll that out is going to be wasted. Regular testing will take place of staff and students in school and in due course help us to reopen schools as soon as possible. Testing is going to be the centre of our plans to send children back to school, back to the classroom and back to college as soon as possible.

I never wanted to be in a position where we had to close schools again. Schools should always have their gates open, welcoming children and being at the heart of their community. The moment that the virus permits, all our children will be back in school with their teachers and friends. But until then we have put in place the measures we need to make sure that they continue to progress. For that reason, I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, we are here today because of the latest in a long line of government U-turns on education, often just days after a denial that any such change of policy would happen. As an avid reader of Schools Week, I imagine the Minister will have been somewhat embarrassed by Monday’s edition which, under the headline “The back-to-school debacle: a week of blundering U-turns”, outlined a total of five in the previous six days alone. That will take some beating, although I do not doubt that the Government are up to that challenge.

The Statement is welcome, although it poses a number of questions, the first of which is why there is no plan B for exams ready and waiting. It is hardly a surprise that we find ourselves in this position, and there is an urgent need to avoid a repeat of the intolerable situation in which so many young people and their parents found themselves last year—a fiasco that dragged on into August. On the replacement for school and college exams, when does the Minister expect that the alternative arrangements will be announced? There is a need for speed to confirm what the alternative arrangements are for allocating final grades; anything other than a short delay cannot be acceptable.

I pay tribute to everyone who has made it possible to keep pupils learning online: school leaders, teachers and support staff, plus of course parents, who are having to cope as best they can with home schooling, often while juggling childcare or employment. It is essential that every pupil who is not in school be able to continue their education, and the Statement says that the Government are “better placed” to deliver online learning than they were last year. That remains to be seen. The Government need to adopt a plan to get every child online and every school enabled to deliver the necessary digital support. Despite the number of laptops already rolled out, Ofqual has said that as many as 1.75 million children still do not have access to a device. Will the DfE be redeploying officials to help identify those children and ensure that their technical support needs are met?

To the surprise of many MPs, the Secretary of State told them yesterday that children who did not have access to digital devices would be able to return to school, irrespective of their vulnerability or their parents having key worker status. Will this not place an intolerable burden on schools and their staff in delivering online lessons, as well as undermining the effect of the lockdown?

When the Prime Minister announced the cancellation of summer GCSE and A-level exams on Monday he did not even mention BTEC students taking exams this week. Once again, these students, who have missed out on lots of core practical teaching this year, are an afterthought for the Government. They have experienced the same kind of disruption as their peers but, because most have more coursework, it would be easier to grade them reliably without exams.

Today I received an email from a BTEC student who made the point that BTECs are studied in schools as well as colleges and that they involve courses that are an alternative to A-levels—something the young student pointedly said the Secretary of State seems to have overlooked. She is right. Her fellow students due to sit A-levels have had their exams cancelled; yet, worryingly, she was given the choice by her school whether to sit her BTEC exam this week. I do not believe the Secretary of State intended that when he said that each school and college could decide. It seems unfair for such an important decision to be offloaded by the school on to their students.

I turn to early years settings, which are being kept open to all children, not just those deemed vulnerable or with parents with key worker status. How can it be deemed unsafe for schools, colleges and universities to remain fully open and yet it is safe, apparently, for early years settings? When asked if he could explain this, Professor Calum Semple, a member of SAGE, said, “No, I can’t … it may be that a political decision has been made here that nurseries are essential. But it’s not a scientific one”. I hope the Minister can throw some light on that. It is another blow to the early years sector after funding support was removed, while the job retention scheme was extended. That vital support should be reinstated as soon as possible.

Finally, the Statement says that regular Covid testing will take place as a means of reopening schools as soon as possible. Will staff be prioritised for vaccination, and is the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation working on a strategy to vaccinate all education staff to keep them safe?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. The best place for children to learn is in school. It is a tragedy that the virulence of Covid-19 has forced us to close all our schools.

The past six months have seen constant periods of year groups quarantining in school and outbreaks of Covid forcing schools to close. There have been very few weeks when a whole school has been present. The effect on children’s learning, particularly those from disadvantaged circumstances, has been devastating.

School leaders, teachers and sports staff have been under enormous pressure. They have had to respond to every new demand and every new change. At times, they have struggled to keep going. It is not an exaggeration to say that, every single day, they have been putting their own lives and welfare at risk. It therefore shocks me, nay saddens me, that given everything that school staff have faced—the U-turns, the opening and closing of schools, exams on, exams off, starting virtual lessons from scratch and testing regimes—we are now threatening them with Ofsted if there are complaints about their virtual learning provision. At times, staff were literally on their knees. At the very least, they deserve our thanks and support.

For the vast majority of children and young people, online learning will support their educational development. It is vulnerable pupils and those on pupil premium who are most at risk. It is laudable that laptops are increasingly being made available for virtual learning at home, but this cannot take place if a family cannot afford the cost of internet provision and the monthly payments.

It is absolutely right that GCSEs and A-levels should be examined by teacher assessment, with presumably some form of moderation. Can the Minister assure us that the guidance to schools will take into account the amount of teaching that has taken place and the difficulties that some pupils will face, particularly, again, vulnerable pupils?

I have a few key questions for the Minister. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked, will the Government ensure that school staff are a priority for vaccination? Secondly, will the Government publish quality standards for each online lesson and what the sanctions will be if online lessons require improvement? Thirdly, can the Government guarantee that free school meals will be immediately available to children of parents who lose their jobs? Finally, how will pupils who are excluded from school, either for a fixed term or permanently, cope? Presumably, we should consider reinstating them on the rolls of their existing school. While I am talking about children not in school, can the Minister enlighten us as to why the DfE educational settings status portal has been taken down?

This is a difficult time for schools, for parents and for children and young people, particularly those in difficult circumstances. Might the Government consider a Covid pupil premium for vulnerable children which would last for the lifetime of this Parliament?

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to all the staff who are making provision available to pupils in our schools and to those who are remote learning. In response to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, first, in relation to for the timing of the decision to close schools, obviously we made it very clear that that would be a last resort. The pace of the spread of the disease was such that, unfortunately, decisions could not necessarily be made as timeously as we would have liked.

For exams, there cannot be a plan B, because the department is working on a number of contingency plans. The disease means that the circumstances presented can be varied. Those contingency plans form the basis of the consultation that Ofqual will set out. We are aware that parents, children and schools need certainty as soon as we can provide it, but Ofqual must first conduct a valid consultation, which will take weeks rather than months.

In relation to online provision, strengthened guidance and direction has been given to schools on the number of hours per day they need to deliver, their accountability, and their monitoring daily to see whether students are engaging with it. We have spent more than £300 million on digital support for online learning, and we have provided considerable support to schools themselves, linking some schools to other schools that were very good at such online provision, and were using technology before the Covid crisis. We have funded schools’ access to either Microsoft Education or Google Classroom, and more than 2 million accounts have been opened. Schools have been enabled to deliver this, which is why the direction is now in place.

By the end of next week, more than 750 million laptops will have been delivered to schools and children. It is not possible for officials in the department to identify the children who need the laptops: that is a job for schools, which know their pupils better than anybody. And yes, a contextual decision can be made by head teachers: if to access to a device or connectivity are a significant problem for a child, the head teacher and school leadership have the discretion to make a place available to that child. But, with the provision that I have just outlined, we do not expect that to involve thousands of children.

BTECs were not an afterthought. The examination and assessment system for BTECs is a rolling system, and when the decision was made to close schools we were aware that, unlike for GCSEs and A-levels, the content for certain of those assessments had already been taught, and children were about to sit the exams this week. Some of those exams are a pathway into work, so we tolds colleges that we would allow them to decide—in consultation with students, obviously, particularly those who needed that assessment to enter the next occupational stage. So it was right to give colleges that discretion.

The early years sector remains fully open, including maintained nurseries and nursery provision within school premises. The data that I have says that children from 0 to five years old are the lowest of all the cohorts in our population for the presence of Covid, and there is no evidence that these settings are a vector of transmission. Early years settings are educational settings, and we have learned more and more over the years about how essential that stage is for very young children. Also, that is one type of education that cannot be delivered remotely, so it is important that those settings remain open.

As for the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the expert group on differential learning will still be in place, and that information will be available to the department and to Ofqual. As I have said, there is no evidence of any more of a risk of the disease within school settings. This is really about limiting the number of contacts; they reflect community transmission, and we had to close schools to limit those contacts.

The noble Lord mentioned vulnerable children and the pupils who need teaching the most—disadvantaged children—and their access to the online curriculum. For them it is essential that there be a means of redress if parents raise questions, although of course we expect them to talk to the class teacher and the head teacher about the provision first. Overwhelmingly, schools are doing a wonderful job, but there are certain situations in which, if provision is not good enough, pupils and their parents should have a means of redress. So Ofsted will conduct monitoring visits, and can make a monitoring visit to any grade of school if there is a basis on which to go in because of the quality of remote education.

We are aware that a number of homes rely on the mobile phone network to access broadband for children to access the education curriculum remotely. I pay tribute to a number of major mobile phone networks, which we have worked with. For parents who rely on this, we have arranged for the data cap to be lifted to a level that enables children to access the amount of remote education specified in the direction—either three, four or five hours. It will be lifted every month, on the basis that that additional limit gives those children access. We cannot guarantee what families then do with it, but that is the formula that we have arranged with many mobile phone companies.

As the Secretary of State made clear, there should be some training and support for teachers for the exams. Whether there is a form of moderation is a matter for the consultation. As I have said, there will be issues to do with differential learning loss.

Free school meals are available. The eligibility criteria have not changed. As many noble Lords know, sometimes there is a lag with the census figures used for funding, but this is flexible. We have recommended that schools make food parcels and local vouchers available, not only because the catering suppliers need their business but because they have purchased food. We do not want food waste as a result of schools being closed. However, if those two means do not work, we will have some form of national voucher scheme, but it is important that caterers that were anticipating delivering school meals should use that food, if at all possible.

Settings for alternative provision are open on the same basis. It depends, as some children are dual-registered with their mainstream school still and are under the responsibility of the local authority. Local authorities also have a responsibility for children’s social care.

I had not noticed anything to do with the portal, but schools guidance, including the remote information I have outlined, is up. There is an edtech part of that site, which I encourage noble Lords to look at, because it is easily accessible and all secondary schools and about half of primaries can order more laptops through that site. In relation to catch-up funding, £650 million is going directly to schools. A portion has already been allocated, but we have delayed the other portions based on needing new census figures to accurately give schools the correct sums.

Finally, 60% of tuition partners in the National Tutoring Programme had the ability to move online. The academic mentors, who were the other limb and are important for disadvantaged students, should also have moved remotely. We are doing what we can, but we recognise that reopening is important for children and we will do that as soon as public health allows. We are aware that catch-up has taken on a different dynamic with, sadly, this second decision to close schools.

We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers are brief, so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

I declare my interest as a former general secretary of the Independent Schools Council and the current president of the Independent Schools Association. Is it not essential that the Government give the highest priority to the vaccination of all those who work with such dedication in our country’s schools? Will they consult closely with the Independent Schools Council in settling the detailed arrangements for this summer’s exams and assessments, recognising the close partnership that the council has with maintained sector colleagues?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for mentioning vaccination, because I forgot to outline the position. We are following independent experts from the JCVI in distributing the vaccine first to those who are most clinically at risk of hospitalisation and death. The single biggest factor, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, is age. I understand that the Prime Minister might be talking about the progress of the vaccination at this very moment. In relation to reopening schools, the testing being rolled out and consideration of the vaccine are very much on the department’s mind. I am due to meet the Independent Schools Council later this month. From previous discussions, I know that it is closely linked to Ofqual and I am sure it will be involved in responding to the consultation on exams. We recognise the concerns and views being expressed by Members on the priority that should be given to vaccinating school staff.

My Lords, the Statement clearly states a binding requirement for schools to provide high-quality remote education, yet just over a month ago the Chancellor said in the spending review that, instead of having 100% gigabyte digital coverage, it will now be only 85%. Does the Minister agree that it is now essential, with remote learning and digital access, to have 100%? Secondly, the Statement says:

“Regular testing will take place of staff and students in school”,

yet it implies that many schools are already testing, and we hear that in one large local authority, they have been told not to proceed with the lateral flow tests because of their inappropriateness and reliability. Could there be clear communication from the Government on the effectiveness, worth and necessity of these rapid mass tests?

My Lords, school staff did a sterling job of setting up testing facilities in secondary schools over the Christmas holidays. The testing will be used for staff, vulnerable children and children of critical care workers attending school. This is also part of looking forward to the reopening, for which this testing may be needed. We are looking at extending it to primary schools, and there are specific arrangements for specialist settings. I have outlined the arrangements we have made on mobile phone coverage for internet access. Also, if there is a particular problem for children with connectivity, at the moment schools can bring them in as a classified vulnerable child.

I declare my interests as chair of the National Society. I thank the Minister for the Statement and the commitment on the delivery of laptops and 4G to children. Some schools are reporting over two-thirds attendance today, due to children of key workers and vulnerable children. This runs counter to the policy of children staying at home as much as possible and, as such, is seen by school staff as highly risky to them. I have been in touch with a number of them just this afternoon with regard to this. What proportion of school attendance do Her Majesty’s Government think is needed to reduce schools’ role as a virus vector, and what more can be done to enable more vulnerable children to learn from home where hardware and 4G are the issue?

My Lords, the position was not that there was any increased risk for staff in these settings; the closure reflected the fact that the levels in the community generally were such that we had to close schools to reduce contacts. On attendance, schools are legally obliged to offer those places, but we have seen situations in which they have worked pragmatically, adopting hub models so that they can arrange for all pupils who should have a place in the school to have one. There is no evidence that staff are more at risk. We do not anticipate a public health issue in allowing all this; the guidance—which was cleared by public health—was given to the sector so that we could allow vulnerable children and children of critical care workers into our schools.

My Lords, do the Government have any idea of the vast additional workload on teachers, who are suddenly told that they have to teach online instead of in the classroom? I have a daughter who teaches reception; at the beginning of the week she was told that she would be in the classroom but then there was an about-turn. She now faces hours and hours of creating exciting, virtual lessons for her little four year-olds. I share my noble friend Lord Storey’s outrage that this disastrous Secretary of State has suggested that parents should report concerns about teachers to Ofsted. Our wonderful, hard-pressed teachers are working their socks off to comply with last-minute changes and U-turns and to master a completely new way of teaching. Instead of these threats, should the Government not be giving their undivided support to our great teachers?

My Lords, I have outlined that we recognise the hard work that teachers, teaching staff and all the ancillary staff have been doing, but there will be a few situations in which the best interests of the pupils who need this education mean that there should be some form of accountability. As I said, that is monitoring visits in our schools. Unfortunately, there are some reports of education still not being delivered. However, the guidance is very clear that schools should have an online platform to deliver education. We have moved to that presumption for remote education, but they can use video lessons. Oak academy has made available, with the department’s funding, nearly 10,000 lessons, including special educational needs lessons. I know of schools that have been using that resource. That is entirely appropriate delivery of remote education. One of the things we have seen is the sharing of much more expertise across our best schools through platforms such as this, which we hope will carry on post pandemic.

My Lords, has the Department for Education established a working group to look at the opportunities for radical improvements to education and assessment that have been opened up by the disruption caused by the pandemic, and the response of the education system to it?

My Lords, there have been significant changes. As I just outlined, we hope we will carry forward certain changes if they are in the best interests of children. There will be a moment to reflect at some point on all the changes that have happened, on the use of online and where it is and is not appropriate. Our focus is on supporting staff and schools to deliver education and to focus on reopening our schools as soon as public health data allows us to.

My Lords, by the time this pandemic is over, virtually two full academic years will have been severely disrupted. I served on the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House on food, poverty and the environment last year. It was very clear that a lot of very severely disadvantaged children were falling further and further behind. While I welcome my noble friend’s announcement about the provision of laptops and connectivity, she will know that a number of people will simply not have the expertise to use the equipment and there will be parts of the country where the signal will not be available. What provisions will be made for an emergency recovery plan when this pandemic is over to prevent these children completely falling out of society and having their life chances severely affected?

My Lords, we are keenly aware of the effect that the closure of schools has, particularly on disadvantaged children. We are aware that school is a protective factor for many children and that schools are the second-largest referrers to children’s social care.

On disadvantaged children, the holiday activities fund will be in every local authority area from the Easter holidays. There is still also the winter Covid fund of £170 million until the end of March, which is being given to local authorities. That should cover any needs during February half term. The reasons the noble Lord outlined are why we have directed that schools should be in daily contact with children through the remote education they are delivering, so that any children who are struggling, particularly if they have mental health issues, can be brought into school at the discretion of the school leadership.

The Covid catch-up fund that I have outlined has been moved to remote provision. On getting data, the Renaissance Learning partnership, which is gathering information on lost time in education, is looking at how that can now be used now that we have this interruption to education again. We are keen to get the data as soon as we can.

My Lords, I draw your attention to my registered interests. The Government are indeed under great pressure, but we know that many children’s health is adversely affected during the usual six-week summer holiday by lack of access to PE. Home educating our children is not easy and, taking into account current restrictions, physical activity might be inadvertently dropped. The Prime Minister repeatedly talks about the importance of exercise, which is fantastic, but what advice will Her Majesty’s Government give to those schools, children and families moving to online learning to help them know what they need to do to remain active and to think about their long-term health?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important point; we are aware that many children are living in accommodation with no outside space and limited indoor space. The guidance we published today is obviously for children in school—the full curriculum—so that will cover PE as well as everything else, and there is now a requirement for remote PE lessons with children. There are also links to the advice from Sport England on activity, and it is important to emphasise for everybody that the guidance enables households to get out once a day for exercise. It is very important that families do that.

Daily contact with children is not just about whether they are engaging with the content; it is also about how they are. As the noble Baroness will be aware—I have seen this with children I know—you can sometimes see from their pallor that they are not getting enough activity. This is something to do with well-being that we expect staff to monitor in the children they teach.

My Lords, Teach First has demonstrated the extent of digital exclusion among schoolchildren during the pandemic, and it is a huge concern. Last year, the Government promised a million laptops and tablets, but then slashed many allocations by 80% in October and, in the end, delivered only 500,000. What faith can we have that the extra 500,000 devices can be delivered urgently now, and are they enough? What guarantee of delivery do students have, and when?

My Lords, the Government have purchased more than a million laptops. The change in the formula to which I believe the noble Lord refers—the change in the allocations—was to get laptops to children already self-isolating at home, and not to have them delivered to schools by a numbers allocation. That was entirely sensible: those children needed those laptops there and then. As I said, by the end of next week, 750,000 will have been delivered. The portal on the DfE website is open to all secondary schools and more than half of primary schools, and the latest response time I have for schools ordering and it being delivered is four to five days from that order. As I said, by the end of next week, we will have delivered 750,000 laptops. The Department for Education is one of the world’s leading purchasers of laptops. This was an enormous order to manufacturers to give our disadvantaged children access to technology.

My Lords, to quote the Statement:

“I would like to reassure everyone that our schools have not suddenly become unsafe, but limiting the number of people who attend them is essential”

when Covid rates are rising. So schools have not suddenly become unsafe; it is about limiting numbers.

Some rather imaginative, frustrated and demoralised sixth-formers I know have a suggestion for the Minister, which is that they would happily meet in limited numbers if she requisitioned a whole range of buildings lying fallow in this lockdown and mobilised a volunteer army of ex-teachers, heads and any number of members of the community who are willing to help, to allow them to study in hotels, hospitality areas or wherever, so that they could have face-to-face teaching and then be able to do their exams.

No matter how much you get Ofsted involved, you will not improve the quality of online teaching. Ofsted could be all over this House, but it would still notice that it is sterile to have a hybrid form of debate. It is sterile to have online teaching, no matter how much Ofsted inspects it.

I have a quick final question. Early years education remains open, which is fantastic, as far as I am concerned, but why cannot primary school pupils aged four, five, six or seven go to school as well, even in small clusters, in a similar way? Surely the science does not stop at three or four. What basis is there for keeping early years open? I do not want it closed, by the way; that is not the conclusion. In other words, reassure us that it is safe and then find imaginative ways of making it safe for face-to-face teaching to carry on.

My Lords, it is an ingenious suggestion and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving me advance notice of it. However, it is one of those things that is easier said than done. It is very difficult to expect schools to operate, even in small groups, over multiple sites. There are issues with health and safety, et cetera, and the logistics of running provision. You are not just running remote provision but running a school over a number of geographical sites. Although it is not the same as face-to-face teaching, it is easier at that age for them to engage online.

The evidence is that the level of the disease in the early years population group is the lowest of all the age groups. Therefore, the decision for early years provision to stay open was made on that basis. For the reasons that I have outlined, and because we are at the other end of the age spectrum for that age group, one cannot deliver that kind of education remotely at all. In terms of numbers, the decision was made to limit primary schools provision to small clusters of vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Referring back, FE colleges in particular have made a good job of moving their provision online. Therefore, online provision for that age group is the best option at the moment, and follows public health advice.

My Lords, this is just heartbreaking. The situation could have been foreseen and there have been many opportunities since last summer to put in place preparations to help avoid this national catastrophe for so many children and young people. Extra facilities for online learning could even have been used, giving young people a chance to get out of the home and into organised spaces with adult contact outside the family. There certainly could have been greater provision of equipment and recruitment of extra staff and volunteers since this debate started at the beginning of June.

However, I shall focus on two questions. First, in relation to work with telecoms companies to get data access for families who do not currently have it and, therefore, cannot take part in online learning at home, are the Government working with the devolved Governments to make sure that data access is available across the whole United Kingdom? Secondly, when will the Government guarantee to bring back external assessment? It is that, not internal continuous assessment, which is an equaliser across social divides and gives young people a chance to have a certificate matched not to their background or the school that they came from but directly to their abilities and schooling outcomes.

My Lords, there have been significant preparations and schools are in a different place than they were when we had to impose the initial shutdown in March. I have outlined in detail the provision of technology et cetera. During the autumn term, when schools needed extra staff in order to keep provision, we implemented a specific Covid staff support fund to enable schools to stay open.

As regards external assessment, we agree. Exams were cancelled as a last resort because we recognise that external assessment is the fairest way for students. I have previously outlined to your Lordships’ House that the consultation will, I hope, include groups such as disadvantaged students. It is one of the bases for proposals for changing to actual grades for university because predicted grades are often lower than students’ achievement. Noble Lords will remember that we all become a number when entering for GCSEs and A-levels. They do not know where you come from, who your parents are or what school you went to. That is important, particularly, for instance, for BAME students. Becoming anonymous when taking an examination is important. Assessment should be based solely on one’s work after taking an examination, which is an incredibly important factor that we must not lose sight of.

As regards the devolved Administrations, I assume that the deal is UK-wide. If it is anything other than that, I will clarify. However, we are grateful to the mobile phone providers, which have stepped up in relation to this matter.

My Lords, now that this summer’s exams have been cancelled, is it not a good opportunity to have a serious look at whether GCSEs have come to the end of their usefulness? They should be abolished, certainly in their present form. That is my first question.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said that students will have effectively lost two school years—certainly one and a half. The Minister herself said that catch-up had taken on a new dimension. Is it not time that at least background planning seriously started taking place to see whether the present school year of 2020-21 should be reset and started again next September, so that children have the opportunity to catch up by doing the year again? There are major problems at the top and bottom ends, but is it not time that this was seriously looked at as a possibility?

My Lords, in relation to GCSEs, the majority of children in England transition at 16. That may not be the case in other devolved nations and therefore examinations at 16 are an important part of our system. In relation to catch-up, there are of course plans in the department about how to get the information about how behind children are and how we support schools. The noble Lord’s idea is a novel one but, as he indicates, it has mammoth implications. Thinking about the higher education sector, would that be mandatory or voluntary, and would students really want to do it? Also, it would create a huge bulge into higher education at some point. The idea is novel, but it has mammoth implications for the sector. We need to focus on supporting schools in order to get the best education for those children at the moment, and that is what the department is focused on doing.

My Lords, I want to come back to the questions asked by my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie about early years. I was shocked that there seemed to be simply a passing reference to early years in the Statement, yet the Early Years Alliance does not share the confidence of the Government or the Minister. It says that nursery workers

“are being asked to remain on the frontline during the most worrying period of a global pandemic with no PPE, no testing and no access to vaccinations”

and the minimum of funding. The Minister has spoken about the science, but she has not told us whether the science covers the position and the vulnerability of nursery workers themselves in those settings. Secondly, why have the Government ceased to provide funding at this point? The Minister must know that the Coram foundation, in its report in December on the state of early years, predicted massive losses of nursery preschool provision in the coming year. It is a deeply worrying situation. Can she answer those two questions now?

My Lords, the staff in the early years sector have done a sterling job as well, and over 80% of early years were in their settings before Christmas. These are not unsafe environments. We base our decisions on the public health evidence. These settings were given a very small amount of PPE just in case there was a pupil who was symptomatic on the premises, which was the same for schools. Those staff have access to community testing, of which we have ramped up the capacity. The data on which I rely, in relation to the rates of disease among the workforce, are the ONS data that we have. There was no higher prevalence among education staff than in relation to the general population. The sector is being funded on a per-attendee basis now, but I know that the Secretary of State was meeting the sector today or yesterday and we are in close contact with it regarding its sustainability.

My Lords, my question is about vaccination. I noted the answer from the Minister earlier regarding the Government currently prioritising the most clinically vulnerable in line with the scientific evidence. But do the Government accept that education staff—both teachers and other staff—should be a very high priority, with other crucial essential workers, very soon in the future? If the Government accept that, are plans being made? We heard earlier from the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, about the complex logistics of arranging vaccinations. Are the Government planning to make arrangements to ensure that, should some extra vaccine become available, it would be possible to have plans in place to vaccinate school and other education staff very quickly?

My Lords, I have outlined that the priority in relation to vaccination is based on that evidence because of the clinical risk of hospitalisation and mortality for the age of the population. I have outlined that, once we have done that cohort of the population, there will obviously be consultation and discussion with the JCVI, the Department of Health and other sectors in relation to who is then prioritised for the next round of the vaccine. However, I will take the comments and views of Members of your Lordships’ House back to the department and make sure that they are fed through.

House adjourned at 6.15 pm.