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Covid-19: Education Settings

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 8 July 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 6 July.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on restrictions that will be lifted for schools, early years, childcare, colleges and universities when we move to step 4, which is currently anticipated to be on 19 July. The Prime Minister has announced that at step 4 we will be able to remove swathes of restrictions on daily life and that, after 16 months of sacrifice by people across society, we will return ever closer to normality.

We have faced down, together, an historic public health emergency, and we all owe a great debt of gratitude to pupils, parents and teachers, who gave up so much as we took action to save lives. However, I highlight to everyone that step 4 does not mean the end of the pandemic. Some restrictions will be kept in place as we move towards more of the population being fully vaccinated. Although the pandemic is not over, we are moving into a new phase of managing Covid, from strict rules towards ever greater personal responsibility.

When I came to this place last week, I again set out my priority to put the interests of children first. We know from our own experience and evidence that children are better off in classrooms with their friends and teachers. Since 8 March, millions of children and young people have been back in the classroom learning with their friends and teachers. That is hugely valuable for their wellbeing as well as for their education.

I also made it clear that I do not think it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions, over and above those of wider society, especially since they have given up so much to keep older generations safe during the pandemic. Therefore, having balanced the risks, I am pleased to tell Members across the House that key restrictions on education and childcare will come to an end as we move to step 4.

Although keeping children in consistent groups was essential to control the spread of the virus when our population was less vaccinated, we recognise that the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education. That is why we will be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS Test and Trace system for early years settings, schools and colleges. Where there are outbreaks, schools and colleges may be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and they will also work with local health teams as they do now. We are also setting out new rules that mean that, from 16 August, children will need to isolate only if they have tested positive for Covid-19. I am also pleased to be able to say that there will be no restrictions on in-person teaching and learning in universities, unless students are advised to isolate or impacted by local outbreaks.

From step 4, a more proportionate set of controls will apply in early years, schools, colleges and higher education institutions. These will maintain a baseline of protective measures in education settings while maximising attendance and minimising disruption to children and young people’s education. In addition to ending bubbles, it will not be necessary to stagger start and finish times. Schools and colleges may, of course, continue with those measures until the end of the summer term if they so wish.

My right honourable friend the Health Secretary outlined earlier today that we can ease restrictions on the self-isolation rules for close contacts of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. In education settings, all other existing measures, including guidance on isolation of contacts, will stay in place until the end of this term, in line with isolation rules for the rest of the population as more adults are vaccinated. Settings will continue to have a role in working with health protection teams in the case of a local outbreak. Where necessary, some measures may need to be reintroduced.

From 16 August, those under the age of 18 will no longer be required to self-isolate if they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace as a close contact of a positive Covid-19 case. That will balance the need to keep children safe with allowing them to get the education that they deserve and need. Instead, children will be contacted by test and trace, informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test. Eighteen year-olds will be treated in the same way as children until four months after their 18th birthday to allow them to have the opportunity to get fully vaccinated.

Having listened to teachers, and balancing the risks to health and education to maximise attendance and minimise disruption to children and young people’s education, some protective measures, including enhanced hygiene and ventilation, will remain in place for the autumn term. From step 4, face coverings will no longer be advised for pupils, students, staff and visitors either in classrooms or in communal areas and social distancing will no longer be necessary.

As I mentioned earlier, testing programmes remain important as we move cautiously out of restrictions. With that in mind, secondary schools and colleges will be asked to provide two on-site tests to their students at the start of term, with regular home testing continuing until the end of September, when that will be reviewed. It is vital that secondary school and college students continue to test for the last few weeks of this term and throughout September. Education settings still operating over the summer will continue to test twice a week, with asymptomatic test kits still available to families over the summer break as well.

I want to encourage all teachers, educational staff and eligible students to get their vaccines. It is incredibly important for all staff to get the second dose of a vaccine as soon as they are eligible, so that they secure the strongest possible protection against Covid-19. In line with wider changes to isolation from 16 August, if in close contact with someone who has tested positive, fully vaccinated teachers will be able to remain in the classroom from the autumn term.

My department has just set out more detail and published new guidance for arrangements in education settings from step 4, covering both the summer period and the following term, when children will return to school. I want to take this opportunity to assure Members that headteachers in their constituencies can contact the Department for Education if they have any questions about the new guidance that we have published.

No Government would want to restrict people’s freedom in the way we have had to do since the spread of Covid-19. We have prioritised education since the start of this pandemic. We made sure that schools and colleges were the last to close but the first to open. We kept school and college places open to vulnerable children and those of key workers throughout the pandemic, and procured millions of laptops and tablets for children to learn at home. None of this could have been achieved without the incredible work of our inspirational teachers and wider educational staff, and I thank parents and students, who have shown patience and flexibility over the last 18 months.

I know that many colleagues will agree that today, as a nation, we prize the role of schools, colleges and universities more than ever before. With the ending of these restrictions, children and young people will be able to get on with their education and lives while we continue to manage this pandemic. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, once again I want to pay tribute to all education staff, pupils and parents, who have done so much over the past 16 months to ensure that children and young people were able to have as much learning as was possible in the most trying of circumstances.

Last week, in a repeat of an Urgent Question in your Lordships’ House, I asked the Minister to confirm that parents, pupils and teachers would know what was to happen in September to school bubbles, before this term ends, allowing school leaders time to put plans in place and give their staff a desperately needed break over the summer. Naturally, it is satisfying that the Government responded to my personal plea with a Statement made by the Secretary of State two days ago, but only up to a point.

The main restrictions on education and childcare are ending with effect from 19 July. With more than 640,000 children in England absent from school last week due to Covid, whether that is the right thing to do, just days before the school year ends, is questionable. The summer holidays act as a natural circuit breaker, and surely it would have been preferable to use that as the end point for restrictions that were unhelpful for learning but were necessary to minimise the spread of Covid.

The Government have been desperate to do something—anything—to meet the clamour from many of their MPs and their supporters in the media, but the new Health Secretary was candid in his admission, a few days ago, that England was entering what he termed as “uncharted territory” in its wholesale scrapping of lockdown rules from 19 July. New infections could easily rise above 100,000 a day over the summer, he said—more than at any point in the pandemic. The concern felt by many parents and children, at the sweeping away of the current system for containing Covid outbreaks in schools, colleges and nurseries, is understandable.

The Statement says that by 19 July, grouping pupils into protective bubbles within schools, colleges and nurseries in England will no longer be required, along with several other preventive measures. The use of self-isolation for children with close contacts will end in mid-August. Last week, when I invited the Minister to explain why secondary pupils had no longer been required to wear masks in classrooms from mid-May, at a time when cases were rising and masks still had to be worn in shops and indoor spaces, she replied it was done on the advice of Public Health England. Is that also the basis of the Government’s latest guidance removing requirements such as staggered school start and finish times, social distancing and the recommendations for the wearing of masks in communal areas, and—where bubbles have never been able to be enforced—on school transport? If so, will the Government publish the data that informed those decisions?

Doing away with bubbles from 19 July means more schools will have just a few days before the end of term. Many, I suspect, will feel it is not worth changing until the new term. Of course, by then some will already have begun their summer holidays. When the Secretary of State delivered the Statement in another place on Tuesday, he was asked several questions by my colleague Kate Green MP. Not many received a response, so I will repeat some and offer the Minister the opportunity of addressing these issues.

The DfE has run pilots using testing instead of the bubble system in schools, but that was not mentioned in the Statement. What were the results of the pilot, using daily testing in some schools? Did this mean more hours in the classroom? Did it result in more cases being detected? If the JCVI does propose vaccinating older children, is the Minister confident that the necessary infrastructure to begin that process will be in place before schools return in September?

Also, with regard to exams in 2022, the Secretary of State said on Tuesday that mitigations would be put in place to take account of the fact that many children, facing exams in the forthcoming academic year, particularly year 10, had missed a great deal of school over the past year. What sort of mitigation has been considered by the DfE to support children caught in that situation? Given the chaos and confusion that reigned both last year and this year, those young people deserve to know, when they arrive for the new term, what format of exam system they will face.

Our aim with these questions is not to catch the Government out. We genuinely want pupils to return to school after their summer break knowing what to expect, and for their parents to have confidence that sensible and effective measures to keep everyone as safe as possible from a further spread of Covid are in place. I look to the Minister for reassurance that that is not too much to ask.

My Lords, I add my thanks to all those teachers and support staff, children and young people. I am surprised that this is being done now and we have not waited until the beginning of the autumn term, which is literally only a few days away.

The Minister’s Statement is made against a backdrop of rising cases. School outbreaks are up to the highest level all year and rising sharply. Children, of course, remain unvaccinated, at risk of transmitting the virus and suffering from long Covid themselves. The Government have consistently claimed to be following the scientific advice before making decisions. Will the Minister publish the results of their trials on daily contact testing as an alternative to self-isolation?

We now know so much more about Covid-19 than we did a year ago, yet the Government are not learning lessons from either the knowledge that we have gained about the virus or the effective measures taken in different countries. We know that airborne transmission is the main way that Covid-19 is spreading. Countries such as Germany have invested in upgrading air-conditioning units and providing mobile purifiers. What are the Government here doing to improve ventilation in our schools?

In the Statement, the Minister says that education settings

“will continue to have a role in working with health protection teams in the case of a local outbreak. Where necessary, some measures may need to be reintroduced.”

What are the measures that will be reintroduced? The Minister says that, in classrooms or communal areas, face masks and social distancing will no longer be required. Does that include whole-school assemblies, or the daily act of worship in Church schools?

The requirement for a staggered start and finish time for schools and colleges can continue until the end of the summer term if schools wish. Is it sensible to have hundreds of children and students leaving schools and colleges at the same time, with, for younger children, hundreds of parents at the school gates to meet them? What is the scientific advice to stop staggering school start and finish times? If a school wishes to continue staggering the start and finish of its school day, can it do so?

Like the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I want to see as many children in school as possible and I want to see children and staff safe. The Statement is not a plan to deal with Covid-19 in our schools; it is lettered with instances of “maybe”, “we should” or “we advise schools to”. It ends with these words:

“children and young people will be able to get on with their education and lives”.

But if Covid is ripping through our schools, colleges and universities, there will be no “getting on with their lives”; in fact, we are putting their lives at risk. I fear that this is playing Covid roulette with our children and young people.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Storey, for their thanks to the hundreds of thousands of teachers and support staff, and for the work of parents who have been home-educating during this time, to see our children come to the end of term.

To deal first with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about why we have not left all this until the end of term, the Government made it clear that schools should be in line with other public health restrictions, so that they were neither more nor less restricted, based on the scientific evidence. The release of restrictions in line with step 4 is the point at which to change the situation for schools. Also, as the noble Lord later outlined correctly, there is no one date on which schools break up, so that would have meant different dates in different parts of the country. I believe that schools start breaking up tomorrow and that the finish date is 28 July. The fact that this is in line with step 4 will mean that it is a consistent date with the other restrictions being released in our country.

Regarding the situation of school attendance as of 1 July, 83.4% of children were actually in school at that time. On the levels of disease that we are seeing in the population, that is why the department Ministers, Nick Gibb and Gillian Keegan, wrote to schools and colleges last Monday to outline the situation on school activities over the summer—summer schools and other out-of-school settings that use their buildings. Testing for those purposes will continue over the summer, but most pupils, who will have been out of school, will not be subject to testing over the summer. That is one of the main reasons why we have made it clear to schools that they should set up the ATS at the beginning of the autumn term and that, up to three days before term begins, they can begin the two lateral flow tests for secondary age pupils, primary staff and secondary staff. They will not have been tested over the summer period, of course. This is the action that we are taking to take account of the level of disease in the population at the moment. There are obviously some controls, and we have given guidance to schools and colleges that they should leave in place the regular cleaning, handwashing and ensuring that inside spaces are well ventilated, leaving doors and windows open as appropriate.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, raised school transport. Again, we are bringing that advice in line with the situation as it will be for the population in England on 19 July, which is that it will be a matter of choice whether to use face coverings on public transport. That will be the same for dedicated school transport.

On the specific questions that the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Storey, raised about the daily contact testing pilot, over 200 secondary schools and colleges participated in the independently monitored, voluntary trial, which was given approval by Public Health England’s independent research ethics and governance group. The trial concluded only on 25 June, so its findings are expected shortly. Those findings will need to be evaluated before any decisions can be made by government on how DCT can be used, if at all.

On the question from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about vaccination infrastructure, no decisions have been made yet on whether young people from the ages of 12 to 17 should be routinely offered a Covid-19 vaccination or how this should be implemented. The MHRA has licensed two vaccines for that age group, but then it is a separate decision for the JCVI about whether there should be routine vaccination. We have asked the JCVI to advise whether it should be offered to young people aged 12 to 17; we will be guided by those experts’ advice and provide an update in due course.

We have already confirmed that exams and vocational and technical qualification assessments will go ahead next year. We recognise that students taking those examinations have had significant disruption to their education and we are considering with Ofqual what we need to do to ensure that the grades students receive for exams next year are fair. We understand the need for the education sector to have certainty and we will announce further details shortly.

Regarding the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on the prevalence of the disease, the strategy is clear that those who have been most at risk from the disease will have been offered the vaccination and a large proportion of the population will be double-vaccinated. On his specific questions about ventilation, we are doing a pilot study with Public Health England and SAGE to look at CO2 levels in our classrooms. Obviously, when we have the results of that we will update your Lordships’ House. It is still within the guidance to schools about how they should manage those spaces, but we envisage that music lessons in all forms, assemblies and collective religious worship will be back in schools without restrictions.

We also want to give schools and children back their freedoms, in line with those that will be given to the population in step 4. In terms of the risk to the population as a whole, those who are most at risk from the disease will have been offered the double vaccination. We have of course asked schools to have contingency plans and have updated the guidance on them, should there be an outbreak either in that school or in an area of the country where there is a particularly high prevalence of disease, outlining whether further restrictions should be in place. There will be individual circumstances around whether bubbles or masks are reintroduced, but all that is to be balanced with the particular circumstances of any outbreak, and bearing in mind that we now know the effects that having to be in bubbles or wear masks has on children’s education.

One of the few silver linings of the cloud that has been over us in Covid—I must take issue with the concluding statement of the noble Lord, Lord Storey—and something for which we can be grateful is that the evidence has been consistently clear that overwhelmingly children do not get this disease seriously, unlike the older members of the population. That is why the vaccination programme has gone down the age ranges, including in the beginning NHS and social care staff. We must be really grateful for that, and we look forward to seeing our children back in school without these restrictions as of 19 July.

My Lords, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, suggested earlier today, face masks work, and they work well. Studies show that they stop up to 80% of droplets escaping and 50% of those inhaled and, according to a new Addenbrooke’s study, FFP3 masks can afford up to 100% protection. So are the Government really convinced they are doing the right thing this week in not advising their use in schools at all from September if cases are rising fast and the greatest transmission is among the unvaccinated young?

My Lords, we have outlined some of the details that the noble Earl outlined on personal protective equipment. In relation to the advice that it will not be necessary to use masks in schools as of 19 July, that is in accordance with step 4, which is based on the best scientific advice we have. There is no absolute certainty in any of these decisions, particularly in schools. Wearing masks has never been a requirement for primary-age children, because they affect children’s experience of education and cause difficulties. We are as clear as we can be, being human beings making decisions, that, for balance, as the right honourable Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said, in terms of mental health and well-being, this is the stage at which to take this step. Schools will be in line with what we are expecting of other people. We will not restrict school pupils more or less than the general population.

My Lords, will the Government use the summer holidays to see whether they can revive the relationship with the head teachers’ unions, review the guidance with them and evolve a plan B for use in the event that it becomes necessary to bear down on transmission in schools, so that schools know what will be expected of them if that happens? Will the DfE also produce a template advice leaflet for schools, so that schools can give advice to parents when children return to school?

The noble Lord is correct. Engaging with unions and head teachers has been an important part of what the department has done over these times. The guidance we have issued has been in consultation, through regular meetings at official and ministerial level, to produce the best guidance we can. As I have outlined, we have issued guidance for an updated contingency plan for what might be expected of schools if they were in an area where a new variant of concern was prevalent or there was a local outbreak.

My Lords, it is alas clear that the impact of Covid-19 will continue to be felt in schools and colleges well into the next academic year. All possible steps must be taken to mitigate these effects, in an attempt to avoid children and young people missing education. There is also the worry that rising cases in schools increase the risk of mutations. As inhalation of coronavirus is a major transmission route, with aerosol containing infectious virus able to travel more than two metres and accumulate in poorly ventilated spaces, practical action is needed.

In another place, the Secretary of State referred to enhanced ventilation. Last autumn term that meant many children and teachers working in coats, hats and gloves as their classroom windows were kept wide open, while many others worked in classrooms with windows that did not open at all. However, the provision of CO2 monitors, as the Minister referenced, and air filtration devices where necessary following a risk assessment could maintain adequate ventilation.

Yes—will the Government provide sufficient funds to ensure that all schools can avail themselves of CO2 monitors and air purifiers?

To reassure the noble Baroness, I say that this is precisely why we have the pilot with Public Health England and SAGE; it is to look at CO2 levels in classrooms. When we have the results of that, we will update any guidance accordingly.

My Lords, how will the Government support further education colleges to continue to provide blended and online learning to students needing to stay at home due to illness, infection or self-isolation when a family member has tested positive? There will clearly still be individual student absences, even when entire bubbles no longer have to isolate. With the additional support needed for students resitting English and maths GCSEs due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, what plans do the Government have to introduce a 16 to 19 pupil premium for disadvantaged students in further education and other settings?

On disadvantaged students, this is precisely why we have made free school meals available in those settings. There is also a bursary fund that FE college staff distribute. Even in the first lockdown, FE colleges showed themselves to be some of the most adept at adjusting to remote learning. We have made it clear to colleges and schools that they need remote provision for the next academic year.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. Do the Government recognise the challenge they are setting universities in particular when they recommend in their guidance that face coverings will no longer be required for students, staff and visitors in either teaching and learning environments or communal areas? Many young people starting university will have only just had their first jab and be quite a number of weeks away from the second, not to mention the three-week incubation period before full immunity sets in.

My Lords, we are confident in the timing. On 18 June, we opened up vaccinations to anybody over the age of 18, with many walk-in clinics. We saw a helpful surge on the website, when those who wanted to book their jabs did so. We have offered vaccinations to adults so, as we brought forward the period before the second dose of the vaccine to eight weeks, if they took it in the middle of June then by the time universities go back in mid to late September, in the period the noble Baroness outlines, a very high proportion of those young adults will have the full protection of the vaccine if they have acted expeditiously. We are encouraging higher education institutions to look at having some pop-up vaccination centres. Any responsible young adult who goes to university and is any way concerned about not having had their second jab can take the appropriate personal responsibility for their own health.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Storey, reflected on the extensive efforts made in Germany to improve ventilation in schools, on the day that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said in your Lordships’ House that “aerosols remain in the air for a long time”. The noble Baroness, Lady Blower, also highlighted this issue. The Government have been very slow and, I suggest, still inadequate in informing the public of this risk and of the importance of ventilation. I note that, in her answers to the Front-Bench questions, particularly those of the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, the Minister talked about providing information based on the pilots that are just getting going, late in the day. But will there be funding for action on ventilation, particularly where work might be done over the summer holidays, often in new buildings that are without windows that open?

My Lords, we have been clear about the risk of aerosol transmission. That is why there was specific guidance right from, I believe, the first lockdown in relation to children attending special schools and the rules on social distancing. As I have outlined to noble Lords, we are awaiting the results of the pilot and we made funding available, in two application tranches, to deal with certain increased costs for cleaning and other additional costs that schools and colleges had as a result of the pandemic.

My Lords, I am pleased to follow noble Lords who have spoken with so much wisdom, and I thank the Minister for the Statement. At the outset, I want to acknowledge formally and thank Ms Davies from Mulberry school, which is my local school. She has been helping thousands of children—400 children and their families—every single week for the past six months.

A number of parents have written to me saying that they have received letters threatening punitive fines and other actions for children missing school, either due to Covid or long Covid symptoms. Can the Minister assure me that parents will not be punitively fined and punished for any such reasons? My second point is that, as we approach the summer, can the Minister give details of the government plan to support children with the provision of breakfast and lunch, in addition to providing essential IT equipment and broadband access? Have the Government undertaken an assessment of the gaps, particularly among children who are already disfranchised—

My Lords, the noble Baroness is taking longer than other noble Lords, who have been very restrained in their questions.

I have nearly finished, thank you. These children are marginalised as a result of inequalities, poor health, poverty and poor-quality housing. Will the Government ensure adequate planning for their education needs, as well as their well-being?

I join the noble Baroness in thanking the staff at the school she mentioned. We know that many have gone above and beyond, particularly in supporting disadvantaged children in their community. Dropping food parcels and workbooks at the door has been pretty commonplace for many of our school staff, which is amazing.

Upon the return of schools, attendance has been compulsory but we have given specific guidance to schools if they have pupils absent due to parents or carers being concerned about Covid, or about their own health if they are clinically extremely vulnerable. In fact, there is a particular X to mark in the reasons for non-attendance. We hope that schools have encouraged parents to keep their children on the school roll in that situation, because we are concerned to see the rise in the numbers of children being electively home-educated in these circumstances—obviously, many parents do that job really well. On breakfast clubs, I think we have provided funding of £24 million through Magic Breakfast and other charities to deliver breakfasts. Over this summer holiday, in addition to the summer schools there will be, as there have been since Easter, holiday and activity clubs operating in every local authority area for disadvantaged families.

House adjourned at 7.19 pm.