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Education: Return in January

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 6 January 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 5 January.

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement regarding the return to all educational settings for children, students and staff. There have been a number of adjustments to the start of this term, and I am grateful for the chance to update the House in more detail on what that means.

Although we are beginning the transition from pandemic to endemic, Covid has undoubtedly been the greatest threat to our way of life since the Second World War but, just as we did then, we are going to get on with the job. I know that our teaching communities have been adversely affected by the omicron variant, which is why I issued our recent call to arms, urging any teachers who have stepped away from the profession or who have retired to return, even if it is for just a few hours a week, so that we can keep children learning. I am glad to say that we have already seen the first volunteers heading back to our classrooms, including at least two of our own, my honourable friends the Members for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), as well as staff from my department who have answered that call. They do this House great credit, and I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that we thank them and wish them well. I will have a better idea at the end of this week of the exact number of former teachers who have come forward to lend their support.

Even so, schools will be suffering some degree of staff absences. At the end of last year the figure was about 8% of staff off and that is likely to rise, with increasing cases in school and among young people as we return to school. However, let me say this: I have absolute faith in our teaching communities. Teachers, classroom assistants, nursery providers, heads and lecturers in all our education settings have worked miracles throughout this pandemic and continue to do so. To ease some of the burden, there will be a short temporary break from Ofsted inspections during the first week of term as schools undertake on-site pupil testing. Ofsted will also encourage settings that have been hit badly by Covid-related staff absences to ask for a deferral of planned inspections. We will work with supply agencies to make sure that schools can continue to function, and that we prioritise children’s learning face to face and, of course, in the face of staff absences.

In November, we reopened the Covid workforce fund, and we are extending it to the February half-term to support schools that are facing the greatest staffing and funding pressures. I would like right now to be crystal clear about one thing: we must do everything in our power to keep all education and childcare settings open and teaching in person. Face-to-face education is the best way for children and young people to learn and develop. You do not have to be the Education Secretary to know this. Teachers know it, parents know it and kids know it better than any of us.

I would now like to outline the additional measures we have put in place to make that possible and at the same time limit the spread of infection. On 26 November, every single nursery, school, college and university was invited to order supplies of lateral flow tests, and they will have received their allocation of the 31 million tests, in advance of their pupils, students and staff returning, through a dedicated supply channel. As a result, all our education and childcare settings were already well prepared for the start of this term.

It is because we know that one of the most effective weapons in our Covid arsenal is a robust testing programme that all secondary schools were asked to provide one on-site test for pupils at the start of term. They are getting on with that job right now, and I thank them for it. All college and university students and all staff have been asked to self-test at home before they return to the classroom. Secondary, college and university students, and education staff and childcare staff, should then continue to test themselves at least twice a week. If any school or college runs out of testing kits, they can order more through the usual online ordering channel, or call 119 to receive further advice and support about their supply. We continue to work closely with the UK Health Security Agency to maintain supplies for all our education settings.

We continue to welcome international students to the United Kingdom, and universities stand ready to support any students who are required to quarantine on arrival. Overseas students should not worry, because visa concessions remain in place for international students to allow them to study remotely until 6 April this year.

The best way people can safeguard themselves and their families is by getting jabbed. The British public have responded magnificently, with around 60% having received all three jabs. We want to make sure that everyone gets vaccinated as soon as possible, which is why I have been urging parents to get the second doses for 12 to 15 year-olds that are now on offer. They can make appointments for both doses on the NHS booking service, and any children who are at risk in the five-to- 11 age group can also get a jab by the middle of this month. There will also be a vaccination service in schools for those children who are eligible for jabs, beginning on Monday.

We have already delivered more than 350,000 carbon dioxide monitors, which settings have found extremely helpful in managing ventilation. Teachers have told us that they are finding the monitors helpful to manage ventilation, and in the majority of settings existing ventilation measures are perfectly adequate for the job. For the few—the very few—cases where maintaining good ventilation is more challenging, we are sending out up to 8,000 air cleaning units from next week. Alongside other protective measures such as testing, vaccinations and better hygiene, these will help to manage transmission and keep settings open.

To keep as many people as possible learning in school and college and higher education, we have said that face coverings should be worn in classrooms and teaching spaces for pupils and students in year 7 or above. We would not normally expect teachers to wear face coverings in classrooms if they are mainly at the front of the class delivering a lesson. I know people feel very strongly about this, and some have said we are wrong to do it. I follow the data, however, as I have always done. The UK Health Security Agency has said that the measure will help reduce transmission at a time when rates of infection are so high with the omicron variant. My department has also looked at observational data from a sample of 123 schools where face coverings were in use in the autumn term and found that there was a greater reduction in Covid absence compared with those where students did not wear face coverings.

Obviously, wearing face coverings is not ideal. It is distracting for children at a time when they should be concentrating or listening to their teachers. I also know that it is not great for any child’s well-being, and I have commissioned staff from my department to conduct further research to better understand the negative impacts of face coverings on education along with publishing the initial findings today, but I have to strike a balance between the vital need to keep schools open and reducing the spread of infection. As my honourable friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North rightly pointed out in his article in the Times,

‘Facemasks are a price worth paying to keep kids where they belong, in the classroom.’

So, for the shortest possible time, and not a day more, that is what we will recommend. It is the sensible and pragmatic thing to do, and it is a proportionate thing to do.

I will review the recommendation on 26 January when I hope the data will allow us to ditch masks in class. Our young people have put up with an awful lot over the past two years. By doing everything that has been asked of them, they will have sacrificed many of the things all of us here took for granted when we were growing up. I am determined that we take whatever precautions we have to take now for the shortest possible time so that children can get back to the life that they should be leading and that they deserve.

We all owe it to this generation to give them the world- class education they deserve. For this reason, I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I am pleased to take this opportunity to wish both noble Baronesses on the Front Bench opposite and all noble Lords a happy and healthy new year, and certainly a better one than 2021—which, I have to say, is not a high bar to set.

We welcome the Statement on the return of education settings, although it is noticeable that the Secretary of State had very little to say about post-school education and nothing at all, not a single word, about preschool education. Can the Minister say what advice and support have been offered to early years and nursery settings to ensure that they remain as safe as possible and that as many as possible can remain fully or near fully functional? It is essential that four year-olds are school ready come September, and parents would value an indication as to what the Government are planning to ensure that. I am sure they would agree that additional funding would be a significant start.

We welcome the Secretary of State’s stated determination to do everything possible

“to keep all education and childcare settings open”

and to ensure teaching in person. In pursuit of that aim, the Government will have the full support of the Official Opposition.

Yesterday’s Times newspaper quoted the chair of Ofqual as saying that schools may need to suspend specialist subjects and focus on core lessons as a means of coping with staff absences. The Secretary of State’s call for former or retired teachers to return to the profession to cover for staff shortages caused by Covid is sensible, and we hope it will prove successful. Interestingly, the Statement informs us that two of those who have answered the call are Tory MPs. Given the Government’s recent record in by-elections, I suspect that it is unlikely the pair will be permitted to return to their profession full-time.

The Statement also says that, at the end of 2021, the level of staff absences in schools was around 8%, a figure likely to rise given the increase in Covid cases. Since the Department for Education monitors daily whether a school has closed, can the Minister say how many schools have not opened so far this term?

Then there is the vexed question of air purification. In May 2020, SAGE first recommended to the Government that all educational spaces should be effectively ventilated in a manner that does not rely just on opening windows—not a pleasant prospect in winter. In answer to my colleague Bridget Phillipson MP in the other place, the Secretary of State said yesterday that

“8,000 air purifying devices are going out as of next week”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/1/22; col. 54.]

That will be at least 600 days after SAGE first flagged the importance of school ventilation. Meanwhile, a pilot study of air purifiers has been undertaken in schools in Bradford. Can the Minister say when we can expect to see the report of that pilot?

The Statement says that there will be a short break from Ofsted inspections in secondary schools due to lateral flow testing. We believe that it is much too short a break and that asking only current heads of schools not to participate in Ofsted inspection teams is also not helpful. It is probable that many current senior staff also undertake Ofsted inspection work, and taking them out of their own school for that to continue when their primary duty is to help minimise staff shortages due to Covid is irresponsible. Can the Minister tell noble Lords how many current school staff a week on average are taken out of their schools because of Ofsted inspection duties? How many schools have asked recently for an inspection to be deferred because of high staff absenteeism?

For reasons that I hope the Minister will be able to explain, the Statement had nothing at all to say about examinations. Indeed, it required a direct question from Bridget Phillipson to elicit from the Secretary of State yesterday that BTECs and other vocational exams will proceed as planned this month. Noble Lords also heard an education Statement this week last year, and one of the contentious issues then was that BTECs were to proceed with their January exams while those for students sitting A-levels were not. The Minister and noble Lords will be familiar with the Government’s controversial plans in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill to defund most BTECs, and it seems that the failure to give them so much as a mention in this Statement underlines the low level of importance attached to these qualifications by many in the DfE. Their future remains uncertain, but it is not acceptable for the futures of these young people studying them and currently preparing to sit their exams to remain uncertain.

There remains much uncertainty surrounding the immediate future of young people at all stages of their education. Parents deserve to have clear evidence of planning by the Government and, while some signposts are included in this Statement, there is no mention of a plan B should the worst happen and exams be disrupted for a third successive year. I do not expect the Minister to respond on that point, because even to admit that a plan B exists would be perceived as a sign of government weakness, not least by the more extreme elements of her own parliamentary party. This Statement represents a start point, no more.

My Lords, I wish a happy new year from these Benches to everyone who is here. I shall try not to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Watson, has said, but on many of these issues we are singing from the same hymn sheet. There is much to welcome in this Statement, and I must start by paying tribute to our wonderful teachers who have pulled out all the stops and worked horrendous hours to try to supply interesting learning online to their students. I have a teacher daughter, and she was working absolutely horrendous hours during that time.

Teachers have been at the sharp end, a much sharper end than where Ministers have been. I, too, am delighted that two MPs have answered the call to arms by returning to the classroom, but I am disappointed that teachers who have stepped away from the classroom were, I understand, advised to contact supply agencies, not their local schools. Can the Minister explain this? It is likely to deter many willing ex-teachers. We recognise that having teachers is essential and that their subject expertise is less important, although many subjects will suffer without professional expertise. I think I have probably been away from the classroom for too long to offer my old skills, but I will never forget my supply teaching days, which included a woodwork lesson in a room surrounded by lethal tools and large angry boys who realised that I was not going to be qualified to let them loose with practical work. I was lucky to get out alive on that occasion, but here I am today with the help of general knowledge quizzes, mental maths tests and an instinct for survival. I hope that ex-teachers who return to the classroom are not faced with such situations today.

We warmly welcome the policy to keep education settings open. There is much evidence of the great harm done to children and young people deprived of classroom teaching. Children need communal learning experiences and social interaction to develop the best from education. Sitting alone talking to a screen is no substitute.

On the provision of lateral flow tests, what assurances can the Minister give that schools will not be hit, as much of the country has been hit, by shortages? We are lucky here that the Bishops’ Bar seems to have supplies, as I drew a blank trying to find a chemist or an online supplier which would let me have tests yesterday. Will schools and colleges have priority bookings? Where should they send pupils if they run out and pupils cannot be tested at home? What is being done about those who peddle misinformation on vaccines? Will the Government bring in exclusion zones around schools so that those messages are not heard by our young people? Can the Minister say something about the catch-up programme and, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked, the position about mock exams and real exams in the summer? Can entrants be assured of exams in person?

We, too, are concerned at the Secretary of State’s defence of the very belated announcement of only 8,000 air purifiers for more than 300,000 classrooms in England in which he said that they do not need them. Will the Government publish the data from the CO2 monitors that shows that only 8,000 classrooms need them? When will they arrive at schools? How many classrooms will one unit service? Opening windows in this weather is likely to lead to very chilled students, but proper ventilation is a key to battling Covid. Can the Minister also say why the department is recommending Dyson air purifiers when there are far cheaper ones available on the market and Dyson has demonstrated his loyalty to the country by taking his workforce overseas? Are there not British-based companies which would welcome this business?

On face masks, which will obviously impact teachers’ and students’ ability to communicate but which I recognise are probably a necessary evil, can the Minister say what provision is being made for deaf or hard-of-hearing students who normally lip-read? I have a deaf friend who has found life very difficult trying to understand anything that has been said by mask-wearing people. Does the Minister have proposals for such people?

We all recognise the pressures on education in this unprecedented situation and we will do all we can to support government measures where we can, but many teachers, parents and children will be thinking and saying that this is too little and too late. Time will tell how effective the Government’s measures have been. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their good wishes for 2022 and offer my good wishes to the whole House. I echo the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, about the extraordinary job that our teachers have done, and I know the noble Lord, Lord Watson, shares that sentiment.

I will respond to the points the noble Lords raised. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, started by asking about early years and post-school education. Guidance has been provided to all educational settings, including early years, further education and higher education. The testing capacity that we have set aside for all in education applies to those settings also.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to the absence rate among the teaching workforce, which was around 8% at the end of last term. It is slightly higher at the moment, at around 8.5%. I think the noble Lord is right that we should expect to see it rise, which is why we have encouraged schools to think about flexible ways of delivering the curriculum, with an absolute emphasis on trying to keep children in classrooms. We know that about 99% of primary schools opened at the beginning of this term. We are just cleansing the data on secondary schools, because they had a number of inset and testing days, which makes it slightly more complicated to analyse. I will be happy to update the House when we have that data.

The noble Lord asked about the Bradford study in relation to ventilation. That trial is being funded by UKHSA through the Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s research centre. The results of the study are expected in October 2022. More broadly, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, asked about the justification for 8,000 ventilators and why we are using Dyson. If I may, I think the noble Baroness was quite ungenerous about the role that Dyson has played during the pandemic. She will remember, and I am sure will acknowledge, the extraordinary work it did to supply ventilators in ICUs. Dyson is one of the suppliers the department is using but, in addition to the 8,000 units, there is a marketplace for schools that feel they need additional units, through which a range of suppliers are providing equipment. The 8,000 figure comes from the data from the 350,000 CO2 monitors that we supplied, as promised, last term, which shows that additional ventilation needs in some spaces can be addressed through opening a window, but other spaces need extra support, hence the air purification equipment.

I will try to clarify the situation in relation to Ofsted. As the noble Lord said, we have suspended Ofsted inspections for the first week of term. We have also very much encouraged schools which are suffering particularly high levels of staff absence and which have an Ofsted inspection due to ask for a deferral of that inspection. We would expect that to be looked on very generously. In relation to staff, my understanding is that there will be no extraction of staff from schools and that this does not relate just to head teachers, to whom the noble Lord referred. However, all Ofsted inspections relating to safeguarding are continuing, for obvious reasons.

Both noble Lords asked about the situation with exams. There was nothing in the Statement about exams because there is nothing new on exams; our intentions in relation to exams remain unchanged. The lack of reference to BTECs has absolutely nothing to do with a lack or low level of respect—I think those were the noble Lord’s words—on the part of the department or its Ministers.

In relation to the use of supply agencies for those returning to the classroom, that of course does not prevent retired teachers contacting a local school. I am sure the noble Baroness heard the same interview with Sir Michael Wilshaw that I heard, when he talked about going back to his local school, but it is fair to say that supply agencies will know where needs are greatest. We have extended the time for the Covid work- force fund so that the costs of using supply teachers are covered.

The noble Baroness asked whether I could give an assurance about the availability of tests. Having listened to the debate, not in your Lordships’ House but in the other place and in the media, this seems to be an area where there is real misunderstanding. For year 7 and above pupils and staff, we have a separate supply of test kits. Schools were informed in November, then reminded in December, to order tests for testing at the beginning of this term; we delivered around 31 million tests to schools, early years settings, colleges and universities in the weeks commencing 6 and 13 December in readiness for that testing. We received a further 17.6 million orders for test kits from schools between 8 and 28 December, and those will be delivered by 14 January. If schools find that they have run out of test kits, for whatever reason, there is an emergency line and those deliveries are normally turned around in 48 hours. Any education setting can place a new order for lateral flow devices 10 calendar days after its previous order has been confirmed.

Misinformation, which the noble Baroness raised, is extremely troubling and something that we are concerned about. She will remember that it was debated extensively during the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The police have powers to deal with those sorts of protests and a lot of work has gone on to improve the liaison between schools and the police, but we share her concern.

Finally, in relation to face masks, we very much encourage the use of discretion with them, where appropriate. Teachers facing a classroom and teaching are not expected to wear a face mask. We absolutely recognise the difficulties that deaf children face but we encourage schools to use their discretion in ensuring they can accommodate those children, just as they accommodate every other child.

My Lords, I would like to raise the importance of keeping all staff in schools. That requires vaccinations to be readily available for not just teachers but cleaning and catering staff. From my contact with somebody who runs a significant number of primary academies, that is still a significant problem. If you want to keep the maximum number of children in school, you need to ensure that there is no problem with teachers getting vaccinated. Also, there is bound to be some learning online but there is still a problem with some children, especially in low-income houses, having a lack of available laptops or iPads—or, perhaps even more challenging, a decent broadband connection. Those are some of the issues that I hope the Minister will address.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. He will have seen the same figures that I saw about the extraordinary efforts over Christmas on the vaccination booster campaign, with remarkable numbers—900,000 people a day—being vaccinated. I know that he was talking about staff but it is also really important for pupils. Almost half of 12 to 15 year-olds have now had their first vaccination, so extraordinary progress is being made but he makes a valid point: we need everybody to be vaccinated who is able to be. In relation to the availability of devices and data, he will be aware that we distributed more than 1.3 million devices and, where needed, data dongles so that children working from home were able to do so if they did not have access to them. We keep that closely under review.

My Lords, I was glad to hear in the Statement that face-to-face education is the best way for children and young people to learn and develop—I agree—but face mask to face mask is not face to face. There is a lot of concern that face masks are really not necessary but are a bit of theatre and performance when the young are not under threat from this variant and when the Education Secretary’s newly published evidence is being widely described as not fit for purpose, as very thin and even as misinformation, which is leading to a lot of cynicism. Will the Minister comment on the fact that, according to the BBC and the NASUWT, a huge number of north-west secondary pupils are not following guidance because they just do not believe in it? They are refusing to do LFTs or wear masks. In one school, 67 out of 1,300 pupils are not following guidance—I do not want them to be punished, by the way; I rather admire it. Can the Minister indicate how the young can be convinced when the evidence just is not there that face masks will protect them in schools? Other things might, but not face masks.

To pick up on the noble Baroness’s final point, face masks—as she puts her face mask on enthusiastically—

Face masks are part of the answer. As the noble Baroness well knows, it is a mixture of a number of elements, including—importantly —vaccination, ventilation, hygiene, testing and face masks. She may have heard my right honourable friend the Secretary of State say yesterday that face masks will not stay on a day longer than they need to, and we will review them on 26 January.

I want to make two points. First, beyond the evidence that we have gathered from 123 schools—I am surprised at the noble Baroness’s remarks, which I think are harsh; having read it myself, I would not agree with her—there is also advice from Sage, there are randomised control trials from UKHSA and there is international evidence, all of which build a picture of this being part of an effort to control infection at a time when the virus is rampant.

Secondly, I guess it depends on which kids you listen to but based on the interviews with young people that I have seen, they are really pragmatic. They say they would much rather not wear face masks, but they understand, and they feel a bit safer. They will put up with it, as they have to. It is not what anybody wants, but it is part of making sure that schools stay open and parents feel confident that their children can go.

My Lords, I am aware that the Minister was venturing somewhat outside of her portfolio, but I point out with regard to her response to the Front-Bench questions that Dyson did not supply any ventilators to the NHS and the Dyson ventilator never received MHRA approval. It is a point of fact.

My question builds on the Front-Bench questions about the up to 8,000 air-cleaning units that the Statement says will be sent out next week. I am delighted finally to see ventilation for the first time playing a significant role in a government Statement on Covid; this is progress. However, as the Front-Bench questioners pointed out, there are 300,000 classrooms and 8,000 air cleaners. From my knowledge of this area—I have met some people from the industry—I think that, to be effective, at least two cleaners would be needed for an average-size classroom, so we are talking about a tiny fraction. This will be an issue, particularly in many new classrooms. Speaking from experience, having been a school governor—possibly for my sins—on the building committee for the rebuild of a school, I remember that the one thing the teachers asked for was opening windows. What did we get? Windows that did not open. I believe that many new schools have windows that do not open, and that will present a huge ventilation problem.

My question to the Minister is—maybe she does not know the answer at this moment; perhaps she could write to me—how many of those 300,000 classrooms have windows that cannot be opened?

I am not sure, with respect, that the question asked by the noble Baroness is the right question. We had 350,000 CO2 monitors in schools last term. They are portable and are moved around multiple classrooms, staff rooms, lavatories—all over the school. From those we have readings showing where there is an elevated level of CO2. Those spaces, which amount to about 8,000, are where we are putting in the ventilators. If the noble Baroness does not believe the Government, she might look at Teacher Tapp, which came up with the same figure.

My noble friend did not reply to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about the comments from the head of Ofqual, who seems to think that teachers of music should be redeployed to teach other subjects. Surely, we need more music in our schools, not less.

One can never have enough music in one’s life, but the point we are trying to make is that we are in a relatively brief—hopefully—but intense and challenging period for schools. We trust teachers and head teachers to make the right judgments about how to use their resources. If that involves some flexibility in the curriculum or combining two class groups if a teacher is off sick, then we trust them to do that intelligently, well and in our children’s interests.