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Educational Settings: Reopening

Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 26 January.

“Throughout the pandemic, the Government have been clear that education is a national priority. We had worked hard to keep all schools, colleges and universities fully open, but the scientific advice we received in January meant that we had no choice but to close schools and colleges to all but vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, and to restrict in-person teaching in university to those studying to be future critical workers.

It is the Government’s strong desire to reopen all schools, colleges and universities as soon as possible. We will prioritise the reopening of schools as we begin the process of lifting lockdown restrictions. We are acutely aware of the damage done to children’s education and development, particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils, by being away from school, and of the increased burdens that are placed on parents. That is why we allowed early years providers to remain open throughout this lockdown.

The decision about when and how we can reopen has to be based on clear public health data and guided by scientific evidence and the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, Public Health England and the Chief Medical Officer, including on issues such as hospitalisation rates and mortality, the rate of vaccination, and the challenge of new variants. Ultimately, it was the pressure on the NHS that caused us to move into a national lockdown, and the Government are monitoring NHS capacity carefully as they review whether easing lockdown might be possible.

The Government recognise that head teachers, teachers, support staff, parents and carers need time to prepare for reopening. That is why the Secretary of State made it clear last week that we will give two weeks’ notice to schools, colleges and universities so that they can prepare for a return to face-to-face education. We want to give two weeks’ notice so that parents can make arrangements for the care of their children, and we will be making announcements in the next few days.

Until schools can reopen fully, it is crucial that they continue to provide high-quality remote education alongside the on-site provision for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. I would like to take this opportunity to thank teachers and school leadership teams across the country for working around the clock to keep schools open for some while also rising to the challenge of providing remote education for the millions of children who are continuing their education from home.

However, remote education can never be a substitute for days spent in a classroom led by a brilliant teacher, or for children being with their friends. We want those days to return as quickly as possible, and with them this Government’s continuing determination, made still more urgent by the pandemic, to raise standards in all our schools to improve the life chances of every child and to transform the start in life for those children facing the toughest challenges.”

My Lords, we all want to see schools reopen as soon as possible but that must happen only when there is scientific evidence that it is safe to do so, and that evidence must be made public. Yesterday, in response to the Urgent Question in the name of the shadow Secretary of State, the Schools Minister stated that the Government intend to give two weeks’ notice of schools reopening so that parents can make arrangements for the care of their children, and that that announcement will be made in the next few days. That is welcome. We can only hope that the announcement will constitute the coherent plan that so far has been singularly lacking. So, although we understand that the Minister is unable to say today what the plan for reopening schools will be, can she confirm that the imminent announcement will actually contain a plan?

There has to be a route map to full reopening. It does not need to have dates at this stage, but the various steps need to be set out to give some hope to the teachers and school leadership teams across the country who are working under tremendous strain to provide education, both in school and remotely, to their pupils.

We know that many teachers have themselves succumbed to the virus, so will there be a credible testing plan in place when pupils return? Will the Government ask the JCVI to consider the prioritisation of teachers for vaccination?

Yesterday in another place, the Schools Minister confirmed that schools will be the first—

My Lords, I remind the noble Lord that this is an Urgent Question and we only have 10 minutes for all participants.

Thank you. Parents are already struggling to juggle jobs and home schooling their children. They need support and an indication of a pathway out of school closures, and they deserve clarity from the Government as a matter of urgency.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of staff and parents who are home schooling, particularly those who still have to go to work but are not critical workers and therefore do not have a school place for their children. The JCVI is currently considering the vaccination of essential workers. This is unusual timing, in that the Prime Minister is due to make a Statement in about 15 minutes in the other place on Covid. I draw the noble Lord’s attention to that.

We all want to ensure that our Covid generation of school pupils returns to school permanently and safely. There are currently 945,805 teachers employed in English schools. Does the Minister agree that, perhaps during the February half term, we should prioritise the vaccination of all these teachers and other school staff, both to reduce the levels of Covid and, more importantly, to provide reassurance to parents?

My Lords, as I have outlined, the JCVI is considering the case for essential workers to be within the next priority group. The Department for Education is taking part in the cross-government work on that. It will be a decision for Ministers, on the advice of the JCVI.

My Lords, more than half of teachers say their mental health has declined during the pandemic, and England’s mental health of children and young people survey found an increase of five percentage points since 2017 in mental ill health among five to 16 year-olds. Children with a parent in psychological distress are at even greater risk. What are the Government doing to improve mental health among children and staff and to support very stressed home-schooling parents?

My Lords, the Government introduced a well-being on return to education initiative, which provided expert support to schools through local authorities and others to help with return. One of the most important things that the Government are doing is that if teachers are concerned about the mental health of a child at home, they are able to classify them as a vulnerable child and bring them into school if that is what they believe is best for them.

My Lords, will the Minister, in informing the Government about the reopening of schools, bear in mind the equalities considerations for women, who, along with the children who are disadvantaged, have been most significantly impacted by home-schooling requirements?

My Lords, it has been a tribute to schools and parents that during this third lockdown—the second lockdown where children have been educated at home—the remote provision of education has been of a greater standard. Yes, we pay tribute to all those parents who are delivering the curriculum at home, particularly, as I have outlined, those who still have to go to work and do not have access to a school place.

My Lords, we all agree that these are difficult issues, but I am not sure that Ministers realise that the Government are a weak link in solving the problems and that many teachers now see them as an added problem, not a guiding light. I realise that it is difficult to set a date for when schools will reopen, but it is entirely possible to set out the conditions for assessment and the order in which pupil groups will return to school. Why can Ministers not show the same speed in decision-making that they demand of teachers and school leaders?

My Lords, living through a pandemic obviously means that road maps and timetables are very difficult and complex to draw up, but we have made it clear that schools and parents will have two weeks’ notice of when a return date is going to be given. I draw the noble Baroness’s attention to the Prime Minister’s Statement later today.

Will the Government consider permitting individual educational establishments to hold ballots on whether to reopen, subject to the use of appropriate equipment and clothing?

My Lords, the reopening of schools—obviously, the Government want to see all children back as soon as possible—is a matter for government decision. It is a complex decision, bearing in mind the public health implications and the hospital admissions that, sadly, have led to having to take most children out of school for a second time. So, unfortunately, no, it is not possible to allow local democracy to decide these issues.

My Lords, my information from an academy director in London is that they are prepared to open primary schools using lateral flow tests twice a week for all staff, with staggered starts and finishes for pupils. Does the Minister see that as a viable approach? Secondly, I should say that there is still a severe shortage of laptops in London, which is handicapping pupils who are dependent on online learning.

My Lords, the Government have now delivered 875,000 laptops of a £1.3 million order. We are one of the world’s largest purchasers of laptops, in a competitive market—obviously, many Governments are trying to purchase them. Secondary schools did a great job over the Christmas holidays of standing up mass testing, and we intend to extend that to primary schools and early years settings as and when we can.

My Lords, there are currently no grade inspections either by ISI, of the independent sector, or Ofsted. However, monitoring inspections are happening, particularly of our “requiring improvement” and “inadequate” state-funded schools. Both those inspectorates, particularly Ofsted, retain the power to go into a school if there are safeguarding concerns.

My Lords, I refer to my registered interests. Universities are places of education as well. What plans have been made to support universities and students in the event that universities need to extend their normal teaching year to ensure that their students can complete or progress on their course this year?

My Lords, obviously university students were at home at the time of the second national lockdown. Only those who are involved in critical worker courses have been permitted to go back. The continuation of courses is a matter for the universities but the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, is regularly in touch with them, and with the professional bodies which rely on the completion of those courses so that people are competent to enter workplaces.

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge the huge pressure on families, particularly working mums, of prolonged home schooling, made worse by the uncertainty of when schools will reopen? There is a real danger to mental health and cohesion in families. The Minister has offered some hope on a plan for return, but can she tell us, more specifically than she has so far, of the help that the Government will provide for those families worst affected, particularly in relation to mental health?

My Lords, a catch-up figure of £650 million has been talked about in relation to school funding. Schools are obviously free to spend that on additional mental health support, and we have drawn attention to that in the guidance we have outlined. Unfortunately, I cannot give any further details, as to do so would be to steal the thunder of the Prime Minister in a few minutes’ time.

Sitting suspended.