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School Openings: January 2022

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 15 December.

“The Government are committed to ensuring that schools open in January as normal. The classroom is the very best place for children’s and young people’s development, and we are incredibly grateful to teachers and all education staff for all they have done to maintain face-to-face learning. Protecting education continues to be our absolute priority.

The Government have taken action to help manage the omicron variant, and the Prime Minister has already announced that we are turbocharging our Covid-19 booster programme to offer every adult in England a vaccine by the end of the year to protect people from it. We have set out clear plans for school openings in January, including on-site lateral flow testing for secondary school students on return; continued regular testing at home for the education and childcare sectors; and a comprehensive contingency framework to manage outbreaks.

As of 1 December, more than 95.2 million tests have been completed across all education settings, and the Government have made more than £100 million of funding available to education settings to support costs. Schools and education settings have a range of measures in place to manage Covid and to reduce transmission, including regular testing, additional hygiene practices, increasing ventilation, and procedures for managing confirmed cases.

From Tuesday 14 December, a new national daily testing of Covid contacts policy was introduced. That means that young people and fully vaccinated adults who are identified as a close contact of someone with Covid may take an NHS rapid lateral flow test every day for seven days and continue to attend their setting as normal unless they have a positive result.

We also recommend that older students and staff wear face coverings in communal areas and we have supported education settings to improve ventilation. The Government committed to delivering 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors by the end of this term; we have already delivered more than 329,000, with more than 99% of eligible settings having received monitors.

Every child aged 12 and over is eligible to receive the vaccine. We encourage all children and parents to take up that offer as soon as possible, if they have not already. It is vital, though, that all of us, including parents, carers, teachers and everyone working in education, goes out as soon as they possibly can to get their booster jab to protect the NHS, our way of life and education.”

My Lords, before I respond to the government response to the Question, I am sure I am not alone in my thoughts being dominated today by the absolutely horrific news from Tasmania. Five children in a primary school have died and many others were seriously injured on what should have been a day of joy, the last day of their school term. I speak for all noble Lords in saying that my thoughts are with the families involved in their unimaginable pain and anguish.

In responding to the Urgent Question in another place yesterday, the Minister for Skills said:

“The Government are committed to ensuring that schools open in January as normal.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/12/21; col. 1061.]

We hope that is the case, but vaccination and ventilation are key to reducing the spread of Covid in schools and keeping children in the classroom in the new year. However, nationally less than half of 12 to 15 year-olds have had a vaccine and the weekly number of vaccines has fallen by 80% since October. Staff, children and parents are on the brink of a third year of school disruption.

To minimise that, I ask the Minister if the Government will adopt Labour’s calls for a clear, targeted communications campaign to parents on the benefits of vaccination for children, together with access to pop-up and walk-in clinics, and the mobilisation of volunteers and retired clinicians to deliver it successfully.

With the leave of the House, I share the initial sentiments of the noble Lord opposite and send my condolences to all touched by the tragedy in Tasmania.

As my honourable friend in another place said, we will do everything in our power to keep schools open throughout January and beyond. All in this House acknowledge the great price that children have paid over the last two years. I hope the noble Lord acknowledges that there has been a very active communications plan about the importance of getting vaccinated and having a booster jab. We press on with that, but we are exploring every avenue. I am pleased to tell the House that over 350,000 CO2 monitors have been delivered to schools—above our target of 300,000 before the end of term—and 99% of eligible settings now have that equipment.

My Lords, it is not very often that I am able to get up and congratulate the Government on an Answer to an Urgent Question, but I do so today because it is absolutely right. As the Answer says:

“Protecting education continues to be our absolute priority.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/12/21; col. 1061.]

What kind of communication strategy is being developed to provide parents with the reassurance they need and to tell them just how important it is that their children continue to go to school, given what we know about absence from school at an earlier stage in the pandemic? Could the Minister also tell the House what kind of encouragement is being given to schools and local authorities to keep extracurricular programmes going? These are so important for disadvantaged children.

The noble Baroness is right. I thank her, and I will frame her acknowledgement of our progress in this area. The Secretary of State is absolutely clear about the importance of education, that we should do all in our power, and that the best place for children to be is in school.

On our communication campaign, we are targeting the whole nation for reasons the noble Baroness understands very well relating to vaccination and the importance, particularly given the transmissibility of the omicron variant, that all of us get boosted and jabbed. We are moving as quickly as possible with that.

On the wider issue of support, we are working very closely with schools and local authorities. We have offered them financial and practical support, particularly during the Christmas holidays, for some of the additional food and holiday clubs we offer through our schools.

My Lords, I associate myself with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about the tragedy in Tasmania. Could the Minister give us some idea of the lessons the Government have learned from the last series of lockdowns, when schools were not there? What strategy will we implement? We know that if you happen to have a house with lots of digital conductivity and devices, you are fine. What capacity is there if children do have to spend time away from the classroom? We want to get kids into schools but we cannot always guarantee it. What are plans B, C or even alpha?

I am not sure that the House would want me to go through all the plans, but the top line we have learned—I think we knew this before, but we know it more vividly now—is that the safest place for children is to be in school. On digital connection, we have distributed more than 1.35 million devices to ensure that children can be connected to education remotely, but we also funded the Oak National Academy, which is providing excellent online resources that can be used both in a classroom and at home.

My Lords, given what we know about the crucial role that ventilation plays in the fight against the spread of Covid in classrooms, might the Government reconsider their commitment to fund the provision of air filtration devices only for SEND and AP schools, rather than all schools? Does she not agree that it should surely be a priority to ensure that all schools can access this crucial mechanism for protection, not just those that happen to have some budget spare?

The noble Baroness’s tone is a little harsh in saying “budget spare”. We are talking about making sure our classrooms are safe for children, which is why we prioritise the distribution of devices to children with special educational needs and children in alternative provision. Indeed, beyond CO2 monitors, we have disrupted 1,000 ventilation devices to those schools and launched a marketplace where schools can buy purification devices at the best prices.

My Lords, the Minister talked about students and we have also talked about parents. We have not yet talked about teachers. What are the Government doing to support school leaders at a time when the management of the fluctuating crisis we are all in is extremely difficult? Can she assure us that the messaging that goes to school leaders at this time is, as far as possible, encouraging and supportive but not accusatory?

We have been extremely clear in our gratitude to school leaders for the extraordinary job they have done over the last couple of years. We have the workforce fund, which provides funding for supply teachers and has been extended until the spring half-term. We are endeavouring to communicate in the most constructive and positive way possible.

Can the Government confirm that the additional funding being allocated to support education is also being distributed to the devolved Administrations to support children in school in the devolved nations of the UK?

My Lords, this morning we discussed children in care. For them, the in loco parentis role of schools is especially important. We also mentioned the awful murder of young Arthur, and we know that teachers might well have picked up on the horrors he endured that social services missed. Will the Minister ensure that some communication is not just about vaccines but about the role schools play as community hubs of social solidarity for children, as well as in educating them? Will the Government also note the serious collateral damage when education policy organises everything around Covid, neglecting all those other negative impacts so vividly demonstrated in the Ofsted reports and the devastating stories of year 7 pupils?

The noble Baroness is right. In our communication with schools and multi-academy trusts last week, we again pointed to the important role they play in identifying vulnerable children.