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Covid-19 Pandemic: Educational Attainment

Volume 838: debated on Wednesday 22 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the attainment of children in schools, and what measures they are taking to address any adverse impacts.

My Lords, the challenges of the pandemic were unprecedented and almost £5 billion was made available specifically for education recovery. The latest results from 2023 show positive signs. For example, reading attainment at key stage 2 is back to pre-pandemic levels but there is more to do. We know that regular school attendance is vital for children’s attainment and mental well-being, which is why attendance is my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education’s No. 1 priority.

My Lords, studies have consistently shown that Covid-related disruption in schools negatively impacted the attainment of all pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In August last year, Teach First’s polling showed that young people from the poorest backgrounds are twice as likely to feel pessimistic about their future career opportunities compared to the most affluent 16 to 18 year-olds. What more will the Government do to ensure that they get the support and the confidence they need for future success?

The noble Baroness is right that our focus needs to be on those disadvantaged children. That has been reflected in our strategy focusing on 55 education investment areas, where we are working with local schools and other stakeholders in particular to make sure that we address exactly the sorts of gaps the noble Baroness identifies.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right that there is much more to do—you have only to look at the problems facing schools, particularly in socially deprived communities. It is not just about academic achievement but pupils being able to socially interact and regulate their emotions. Research consistently shows that parental engagement is crucial to the academic and emotional development of young people. Do the Government have any plans to start programmes that would involve parents in this way?

I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the importance of social interaction and parental engagement. When I talk to schools about this, they frequently cite examples showing how important it is that they know their local community and have that relationship with parents. Of course we support schools to do that, and some of our communication campaigns on attendance have been directed very much at parents, but we support schools to make those judgments in their communities. However, I absolutely agree about the importance of that.

My Lords, thousands of young people will be taking their GCSE examinations this year who were also in year 7 when the pandemic began. Unfortunately, they have been doubly affected by being educated in schools which have been disrupted by the RAAC situation. Can my noble friend the Minister please outline what advice, assistance and best practice is being shared with those schools, so that they can make effective representations to the exam boards—which do listen to those representations—about the disruption that may have affected their education for a second time?

We in the department have worked very closely with each of those individual schools. Of course, the disruption may have affected coursework rather more significantly than specific exams. We have therefore worked with every school that has wished to have our support, providing them with the funding to support their children in order to be able to catch up on any learning that was lost for those pupils in exam years, but also liaising with and supporting them in their engagement with the exam boards.

My Lords, will the Minister take the time to congratulate a class of children from Sulivan Primary School, in Fulham, who were the first to design a garden for the Chelsea flower show? It has been extraordinarily well received. It is called “No Adults Allowed”—although they did allow the King to go in. Does the Minister agree that gardening is brilliant for young people and there should be more of it in the curriculum—which could help with the post-Covid situation—and that it provides opportunities for careers beyond school?

I am delighted to join the noble Baroness in congratulating Sulivan Primary School on its garden at Chelsea. I take this opportunity to shamelessly plug the National Education Nature Park, which is available to every early-years setting and every school and college in the country. It looks at opportunities for children to get outside, including gardening, and develop skills; and at opportunities to collaborate with other schools.

My Lords, head teachers in my diocese in Nottinghamshire are reporting that the adverse impacts of the pandemic include a dramatic increase in attendance concerns, parental anxiety and pupils’ mental health difficulties. At the same time, they are reporting severe pressures on schools funding, leading to staff reductions, which cannot be in the best interests of children, especially where SEN provision is reduced. What assessment have His Majesty’s Government made of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the educational needs of SEN children, and what more can be done to mitigate this?

Children with special educational needs and disabilities were of course greatly impacted during the pandemic. The Government have been working with a wide range of organisations in that area, including the National Network of Parent Carer Forums. Crucially, those organisations have been extremely supportive and helpful with our attendance work. The Government have committed considerable funding to increasing specialist capacity of places for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

My Lords, the House will recall that during the pandemic, the opposition parties wanted longer and fiercer restrictions than we got. Indeed, I have to tell the right reverend Prelate that the Church of England did not exactly cover itself in glory.

It is true. Does my noble friend agree that the questionable benefits of those lockdowns were extremely dubious, given the appalling damage that was done to people’s education, and to the economy and other things?

I am not entirely sure that revisiting whether we should have locked down gets us much further forward. The Government are genuinely, tirelessly focusing on everything we can do to support schools in order to ensure that children are back in school, attending every day and thriving.

My Lords, the Minister may recall that three years ago, a very distinguished educationalist who was appointed by the Government to make some recommendations on how to deal with education post-pandemic, Sir Kevan Collins, advised that £15 billion was required to set right the damage that had been done—whatever view we take about whether that damage was inevitable. Does the Minister think that the amount of resource that has been put in since that time, bearing in mind that he resigned when the Government reduced that figure to £1.4 billion, has been adequate?

The money the Government have put in has been focused particularly on the most disadvantaged children and on leaving a legacy in our schools. The proof of the pudding is that attainment at key stages 1, 2 and 4 are all on the increase.