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Schools: Online Teaching

Volume 810: debated on Thursday 11 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the number of children who are not eligible for face-to-face teaching who have not been able to access online teaching for more than 80 per cent of the normal timetable in (1) primary, and (2) secondary, schools in England since 5 January 2021.

My Lords, the Government are investing more than £400 million to support access to remote education and online social care services, including securing 1.3 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children and young people. We have estimated the need based on the number of year 3 to year 13 pupils in England eligible for free school meals, which equates to 1.3 million. We have delivered more than 980,000 laptops and tablets to schools, trusts, local authorities and FE institutions to date.

While leaving aside the fact that the noble Baroness has not answered my Question, I do welcome the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins to co-ordinate recovery. Does the Minister not agree that it would be sensible to lift the 25% requirement on schools in order to access the national tutoring programme, to decentralise funding for recovery and to give specific priority to those children with special educational needs who have lost out so grievously over the last 10 months?

My Lords, schools will be provided with £650 million as part of the Covid catch-up. Within that, schools can allocate funding to pay 25% of the subsidised cost of the National Tutoring Programme Tuition Partners, but the noble Lord will also be aware that Teach First has nearly 700 academic mentors currently in schools or working remotely. That is, of course, localised provision and they are the employees of those schools.

Although the Government have spent more, the Sutton Trust says that just 5% of state school students have adequate access to devices for remote learning. Some 86% of private schools use online live lessons, compared with 50% in state schools, which is worse than last year. Only 26% of children in poorer homes do five hours’ learning a day and more than eight out of 10 teachers think the attainment gap will increase—so this is a national crisis and the Government will have to spend much more to help children catch up.

My Lords, the Government have made clear that catch-up in education will be for the lifetime of this Parliament. For this financial year, £300 million more has been announced for tutoring, from early years through to 16 to 19 provision. Teachers should be in daily contact, monitoring whether children are accessing remote education. If they are particularly concerned about children accessing that, they can offer them a school place as a vulnerable child.

My Lords, since it looks as if we will have to cater for children working from home for several years as new variants of the virus emerge, will the DfE make a virtue of this necessity and help all schools and their pupils to become fully online-enabled by the end of this academic year?

My Lords, since the pandemic began, 6,900 schools have access through the department’s EdTech programme to get either Microsoft Education or Google Classroom—but my noble friend is correct that we hope this type of online access to the best education on offer in this country will become part of the system going forward. Obviously, the more than £400 million that has been invested is a great platform to build on.

My Lords, how many children of asylum seekers are unable to access online teaching? Will the Government encourage and fund schools and local authorities to deploy public service interpreters to help asylum seeker parents manage their children’s home schooling?

My Lords, within the figure of 1.3 million that I outlined, there will, of course, be some children of asylum-seeking parents who are eligible for free school meals. It is an allocation per pupil, so if there are siblings who claim free school meals, that can be two laptops or tablets per household. Teachers should recognise that, if there are the type of barriers the noble Baroness refers to, they have discretion in those circumstances to classify the child as vulnerable and bring them into school.

My Lords, on the issue of mobile data charges for children studying from home, the Minister very helpfully wrote to me after a previous Question, explaining that the Government’s cap, agreed with mobile phone companies, applies only in England and not in the devolved nations. Did that happen because the UK Government did not negotiate for the whole of the UK, or did the Scottish Government and others turn down the opportunity to set a cap on mobile data charges for the children they are responsible for?

My Lords, all I can do is outline the very obvious point to the former First Minister of Scotland that education is, of course, a devolved matter—but, of course, we will assist the devolved Administrations to get the kind of deals we have got from many of the mobile phone providers. Noble Lords have been concerned about these issues and I am holding a specific briefing at 3 pm today that any noble Lords are welcome to join for more details on these provisions.

My Lords, the Minister has told us of the vast number of computers the Government have made available to disadvantaged students, but can she say what success the national tutoring programme has had in training and tutoring both parents and children who may have no idea how to use the technology and, indeed, may not have access to suitable broadband?

My Lords, in relation to the National Tutoring Programme, there will be 13,000 tutors available to more than 100,000 students. On the issues the noble Baroness refers to, teachers are obviously the front-line staff and I give credit to the many teachers who are doing their best to assist parents who are not confident in using this technology, literally by a phone call to walk them through, step by step, to ensure that the child can get that type of access. The majority of the national tutoring partners can work remotely as well.

My Lords, I declare that I am a non-executive member of the board of Ofsted. In addition to concerns about formal education, all children and young people are currently missing out on fresh air, exercise and social interaction with their friends. We all know that the Government are making incredibly difficult decisions about easing restrictions, but will the Minister make the case for outside, organised sport to be able to resume? When schools do return, would it be at all possible for play dates to resume, albeit within classroom bubbles if necessary?

My Lords, we all await with bated breath 22 February, the date on which the Prime Minister will announce the review of the lockdown, but I am sure my noble friend will be pleased to hear that Sir Kevan Collins, the catch-up ambassador, has outlined that he views catch-up as encompassing physical education and mental well-being, as well as educational catch-up. But I will take back my noble friend’s views on the importance of outdoor education.

My Lords, the Government’s new Education Recovery Commissioner, just referred to by the Minister, has said that schools could be working to help children make up for lost education for at least five years. That underscores the importance of a long-term strategy for all pupils, but particularly for those from disadvantaged families, who have received far less support during lockdown. There has been little discussion of a post-Covid digital strategy, and a longer-term approach will require universal access to digital learning well beyond the pandemic. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that every young person has a device and access to data and online education resources going forward, to counter the effects of the digital divide that the pandemic has exposed?

My Lords, we are looking at the catch-up in the short, medium and long term. As I have said, it is for the lifetime of this Parliament. In the short term, looking to this summer, that means summer schools and some form of Covid premium. On digital, DDCMS is allocating funding so that areas of the country where there is no access to broadband can get on to broadband. Yes, we recognise that a digital strategy for education will be needed going forward—it will be one of the inadvertent positive outcomes of the pandemic.

My Lords, could the Minister comment on the challenges facing parents with four children studying from home and maybe only one tablet in the household when schools are unable to match the timetable so that those four children can access their online lessons? Will she consider enabling some students to repeat a year as a result of those challenges?

My Lords, all the large structural issues, such as extending the school day, extending the school year and repeating a year, are matters that need to be considered. As I have outlined, if those four children are all eligible for free school meals—as 1.3 million are—a school is able to allocate four devices. It is a matter for schools and FE colleges, and we trust them to be able to identify the right students who need access to devices.

My Lords, the impact of school closures has hit a generation of children and has hit those who cannot access online resources hardest of all. We should have identified this problem right back in the first lockdown. But, looking ahead, are Ministers doing all they can to make sure that the surge of support from charities and businesses to offer laptops is going forward to children and not being hindered by red tape? Secondly, in recognising that digital poverty is unfortunately likely to stay with us for some time, can I ask that they consider that those children without access to online teaching should be eligible for face-to-face learning in case of a future lockdown?

My Lords, the students the noble Baroness outlines would be eligible to be classified as vulnerable children. We applaud the local and national campaigns, particularly those around refurbishing laptops. Obviously, the Government wanted to purchase new devices and did so in a very disrupted supply chain last year, and we are a huge customer for that sector. We applaud the Daily Mail campaign whereby businesses are giving refurbished laptops. Indeed, they are using the same distribution portal as our scheme so that schools can get access to those as well, which I hope deals with the red tape outlined by the noble Baroness.