With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding changes to the operations of educational settings as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
We are facing increasingly difficult challenges, and I would like to once again express my extraordinary gratitude to staff in all our schools, colleges, nurseries and universities who have been doing so much. I know that the situation has become increasingly challenging. I said before that if the science and the advice changed, such that keeping schools open would no longer be in the best interests of children and teachers, we would act. We are now at that stage.
The spike of the virus is increasing at a faster pace than anticipated, and it is crucial that we continue to consider the right measures to arrest this increase and relieve the pressure on the health system. The public health benefits of schools remaining open as normal are shifting. It is also clear that schools are finding it increasingly difficult to continue as normal, as illness and self-isolation impact on staffing levels and pupil attendance. I want to provide parents, students and staff with the certainty they need.
After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon, they will remain closed until further notice. That will be for all children except those of key workers and the children who are most vulnerable. The scientific advice shows that these settings are safe for this small number of children to continue attending, but asking others to stay away will help us to slow the spread of this virus. Examples of key workers include NHS staff, police and delivery drivers who need to be able to go to work. Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker and those with education, health and care plans. Looking after these children will enable schools to support the country through this extremely challenging time. We are expecting early years providers, sixth forms and further education colleges to do the same. We are working with Her Majesty’s Treasury on the financial support that will be required. I am also asking that independent schools and boarding schools follow the same approach.
We will give schools the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children eligible for free school meals. Some schools are already doing this, and we will reimburse the costs. As soon as possible, we will put in place a national voucher system for every child who is eligible for free school meals. I know that all of this will not be easy. I am asking nurseries, schools and colleges to be at the forefront of our national response to this crisis.
Given the unprecedented asks that we are making of all those who are working in educational settings at this time, I recognise that we are asking so much of them. We will be asking them to provide for these settings to be open to children of key workers and to vulnerable children during the Easter holidays as well.
I recognise that what schools will be doing in these circumstances will look very different from the normal state of affairs, and will ensure that leaders have the flexibility that they need to face this challenge. In order to allow schools and other settings to focus on this new operational model and the support they can give to these young people, we are removing various duties. Ofsted has ceased all routine inspection of early years, schools, colleges and children’s social care services. I can confirm that we will not go ahead with assessments or exams, and that we will not be publishing performance tables for this academic year. We will work with the sector and Ofqual to ensure that children get the qualifications that they need.
My Department is working closely with local authorities, representatives of early years, schools and headteachers, regional school commissioners and bodies such as Ofsted and Ofqual about how to deliver this change as effectively as possible. We will do whatever is necessary to support local authorities, schools and teachers through the weeks and months ahead.
I know that many universities and other higher education institutions are already taking necessary steps to keep their staff and students safe and, where possible, keep providing education. I am confident that vice-chancellors are making the right decisions and my Department continues to support them in doing so.
This is a testing time for the whole nation, but by asking schools and other settings to look after the children of key workers and the most vulnerable, we will be directly saving people’s lives. Whether a parent or a teacher, I want people to know that their wellbeing and that of their children is the absolute priority for me and my Department. We are completely committed to ensuring that every child receives the best education possible, and we will be working with the BBC and others to provide resources for children to access at home.
I am deeply grateful for the civic spirit and selfless dedication that has been, and continues to be, shown by teachers and other school workers every single day. I am committed to giving my full support throughout every stage of this crisis to those who are doing so much for all of us. I know that our teachers and those working in education have the full support of the House and that hon. Members will do what they can to support schools and other providers in their own constituencies through this period of change. I wish to thank them in advance for the work that they will do. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the Opposition, particularly the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), for their co-operation, advice and thoughts at this time.
Our headteachers and teachers are central to the country’s response to the current crisis. I am reassured by their readiness to step up and to take the lead in supporting families through this most incredibly difficult time. All of those who work in our schools, colleges and universities rightly take their place next to our NHS staff and other key workers as central to our efforts as a country in battling the virus, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for all of their support and all they do. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for the discussions that we have had over recent days. As he knows, I have written to him with a number of questions about his Department’s dealing with the fallout of covid-19. I hope he will be able to provide some of the answers now, but I also look forward to his detailed response as soon as possible.
I know that these are extraordinary times, and that parents and carers are worried. Let me put on record our thanks to and support for all those working in our education and children’s services through this crisis. They, along with parents and learners of all ages, now seek both reassurance and guidance from Government. The steps that have finally been taken today are welcome, but can the Secretary of State tell us how the reduced service provided in schools will work? In particular, may I press him on free school meals? He says that he will give schools flexibility, but with millions of children in poverty, and many families now facing even worse, can he guarantee that free school meals will be made available to all those eligible, and will he take steps to extend that to breakfasts and over the school holidays?
Children with disabilities and underlying health conditions are at particular risk. Can the Secretary of State tell us what steps he is taking to support them and their parents and ensure that the guidance is easily found? Where is the guidance available for parents who have underlying health conditions? Can they take their children out of school if they are themselves in isolation or at risk, and will the new guidance be issued on fines for parents who withdraw their children from school? What advice and support is he offering to special schools serving those with particularly serious physical conditions, which are often residential?
The same is true for the education workforce. Will the Secretary of State make it clear to all employers that workers in the vulnerable categories identified by the Government must not now be placed under pressure to be in work and should be sent home? Staff are also worried about being paid. What reassurances can he give, especially to those sadly now on casual contracts or insecure terms, and what is his plan for supply teachers?
There is widespread concern about the exams. Clarity is required about pupils who were due to sit their SATS, GCSEs or A-levels and will now not do so. Can the Secretary of State tell us when decisions will be made and how they will be communicated?
The Secretary of State mentioned that he expects childcare providers to close. Many are already close to collapse. Can he confirm what support is available and whether emergency business rate relief will apply?
The Secretary of State also said that he will support vice-chancellors in their decision making in higher education, but is it not now time for him to avoid all doubt by issuing clear guidance, protecting staff and students alike? Can he share the evidence and modelling behind his decision not to do so?
Finally, let me turn to an area that the Secretary of State did not mention, but that is vital to the most vulnerable—children’s social work and youth services. Children’s services are already suffering from years of cuts. They will now face staff shortages at the time when there will be a greater need for them than ever before. The poorest and most vulnerable paid the highest price for austerity. We cannot allow them to pay the highest price for the latest crisis too. Will he commit to return to the House next week with a statement on that area of his responsibilities and, I hope, with new resources to support those on the frontline?
The crisis will test us all. Our communities and public services have all stepped up, and I am so proud of them. Schools are already working to assist parents and pupils in putting systems in place. The Opposition place the greatest priority on protecting the most vulnerable. I urge the Government to do the same.
The hon. Lady makes the same point that every single Member on this side of the House would make. We are all acting to try to protect those who are most vulnerable. She raised a number of issues, including free school meals. To ensure that no child is in a situation where they will not receive free school meals, we will give schools the authority and the ability to issue vouchers to every child immediately for next week. I would like to progress to a stage where, in a large number of schools around the country, there is also the ability to provide meals there, but that will depend on staffing in each school.
On the serious disability guidance, that will be coming forward. We recognise the importance of it and we are working with Public Health England to get that published. On guidance for children who are absent, that will be included in the Bill that we will bring forward to the House, which will give clarity and assurance to parents and schools as to what the situation is.
The hon. Lady raised an important point about exams, the importance of exams and, most importantly, ensuring that every child gets the recognition that they need for the work that they have put in towards their GCSEs, A-levels or other applied general qualifications. We will make sure that every child gets the proper recognition that they deserve. We will obviously update the House on that. We are working closely with Ofqual on a detailed set of measures that make sure that no child is unfairly penalised.
The hon. Lady also touched on the point of how we ensure that early years providers are properly supported. We have already announced that there will be support through business rates. We have also written to all those providers that the funding that we have been giving to them will be maintained through this period, despite the fact that their operations will obviously be running quite differently from how they have in the past.
I should highlight the point about children who are most vulnerable. The reason we know that it is incredibly important to keep educational settings open, not just for key workers but for those most vulnerable children, is that those are the children every hon. Member has the greatest concerns about. Often, their school is the safest place for them. That is why we have taken the action that we have to make sure that they are included in the support alongside key workers. We recognise that there will be a lot of work to do with local authorities and social services to make sure that there is continued support for every one of those children in this difficult and challenging time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the breadth of the statement today. Necessarily, there is still a lot of detail to be worked out, not least on qualifications. For me, in talking to headteachers today, it has been humbling—not surprising, but humbling—to see the depth of their commitment to supporting their family and the whole of our society through this crisis. May I ask my right hon. Friend for flexibility, where necessary, to add to the designations of vulnerable children, as schools know their families best, and to add to the designations of key workers, where appropriate? May I also ask for schools to work together, where appropriate, in pairs or in clusters, particularly in areas where there are small schools?
We will very much be looking at working with schools to ensure that they are best able to operate together and deliver those services. The issue of flexibility is absolutely at the core of this. While we are looking at what we are having to deal with today, we equally have to recognise that some of the challenges and demands on the system are going to be substantially greater in the weeks ahead than they currently are, and we will need constantly to change our response. We will certainly work with headteachers and all of our organisations to make sure that we get this right. On key workers, the Cabinet Office will be giving a more detailed response about who those key workers are.
I thank the Education Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I declare an interest in that my wife is a primary school teacher in Scotland, albeit on maternity leave. I wish to put on record our thanks to all staff in the education sector for all they have done and will continue to do during this crisis to continue to provide the best service they can in the most challenging of circumstances. Pupils, parents and staff are worried, and that is understandable.
Education is devolved, but many of the decisions made here at Westminster in these critical areas have a knock-on impact on the devolved nations. Tomorrow, the Scottish Education Secretary, John Swinney, will be making a detailed statement to Holyrood, following on from the announcement made by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, regarding school closures.
There are three key areas on which I wish to question the Secretary of State. First, to build on what he said about ensuring that children of frontline public service workers and those from key industries have access to childcare during these school closures, we need these workers at their work where possible—relying on family is not an option in these times—and now education staff themselves are actually in areas of critical importance. Has there been discussion with the private nursery sector about what educational closures mean for them? We know Government-supported hours will continue to be paid, but for many that will simply not cover the shortfall and will not be sustainable. Have the Government considered how the private nursery sector might be called on to provide the emergency childcare support that will be needed? Nicola Sturgeon alluded to this in her statement. Will the UK Government follow suit?
Secondly, there are millions of families across the UK who rely on free school meals for their children. For some, it will be the only guaranteed meal they have in the day. The policy is devolved—it is more advanced in Scotland—but what discussions has the Secretary of State had with some of his Cabinet colleagues, such as the Work and Pensions Secretary, to ensure that families who rely on school meals do not incur any further hardship because schools are closed? The Secretary of State’s suggestion of a voucher scheme was a bit vague, and perhaps cash payments via the social security or tax system might be considered as well. Has he discussed these potential flexibilities with the Scottish Government to ensure that we can all approach this situation as fairly as possible?
Finally, what discussions have been had with the qualifications authorities across the UK, and with university, college and employers organisations about how pupils due to sit exams are not disadvantaged by these closures? The closures are going to cover the exam period. Have the UK Government had any discussions with the likes of Universities UK about alternative ways of scoring to exams? It goes without saying that these decisions cannot be siloed; there must be cross-Government and cross-sector co-operation. I hope the Secretary of State will agree to that approach, and that dialogue and discussions with the devolved authorities will continue.
I am very grateful to the Deputy First Minister in Scotland for the discussions we have had and the work we have already started undertaking together, recognising that the issues and co-ordinating a response across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are incredibly important.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the private nursery sector. We have established a working group with that sector and we have already been addressing key issues in making sure that it has confidence in the finance it is expecting to receive from Government—this will continue.
On free school meals, the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of direct payments from the Department for Work and Pensions. That is one of the things we are actively considering. We can do this either through that method or other methods that can be used to do it, but we would do it in consultation with the Scottish Government. On the issue of universities, we have a completely integrated system, where so many students from all four nations of the UK do not pause for a moment when they are thinking about where they may wish to go to university. We have had discussions with Universities UK about how best to deal with this. Part of the answers he and many others will be seeking we will not be able to give until we have a greater and clearer idea as to how this virus is going to pan out and how the actions we are taking are going to curtail it. But we are already in extensive discussions and looking at various ways of making sure that every child has the best opportunity of going on to the university of their choice.
Several heads have contacted me to say that they wanted their schools to remain open at all costs, so this will be a great upheaval for them, but I respect that schools are being kept open for certain people. What is crucial is where the definition of “key workers” comes in, so may I stress that giving some discretion to heads is essential, as is whether school premises can remain open for outside groups that use their facilities? Inevitably, informal childcare groups and arrangements will spring up and there are safeguarding considerations in that regard. So will the Department make sure guidance is given so that workers who continue to go to work and are able to have childcare arrangements are doing it in the safest way for them and for their children?
Parents may not be key workers but they will be key workers in their homes, because they are the ones who are paying the mortgage, the rent and the bills. So if parents cannot go out to work because their children cannot go to school, who will pay their salaries?
In this statement, we are dealing with making sure that we have the provision we need for those key workers in order to sustain our NHS, but I very much accept that many wider issues are raised as a result of this. That is why we have had some reluctance to be in a position of closing schools rapidly, but when the evidence and the science point out the fact that we need to make changes, it is right that we do so.
The measures that my right hon. Friend has announced are profound, but it would appear that, in the circumstances, they are now a necessary step to take. Does the definition of “vulnerable children” include children in need, of whom there are about 400,000, and children on a child protection plan, of whom there are about 50,000? If it does, that will significantly increase the number of children whom we hope will still be able to go to school.
Will the Secretary of State give further clarification on those taking A-levels and going on to university? Will the discussions with UCAS bear in mind the most disadvantaged children, to ensure that no one will lose out and that not just mock A-level results but wider considerations are taken into account? Will these results and answers come soon, because these children will be very worried about their future?
The private nursery sector plays a crucial role in enabling parents, but in particular mothers, to go back to work. They are absolutely crying out for clarity and support from the Government, and they feel very strongly, in the words of my constituent Lou Simmons, that they have seen pubs and retail get a great deal more assistance than they have. Will my right hon. Friend provide clarity about whether they are entitled to the business rates holiday and whether he will consider extending more support to that sector so that it can continue to provide crucial support at a really desperate time?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Nurseries are eligible for business rates relief and, even more importantly, for continued support of the revenue that they would receive from the Government for the cohorts of children they would have. That will continue, which is a key element that they need to have in order to continue to pay staff.
May I press the Secretary of State for clear guidance on the private nursery sector and whether the statement includes them? Can he also give clearer guidance to non-local authority youth groups and clubs, which presumably know that they cannot meet, but will require clear instructions from the Government so that they are covered in all circumstances, including those relevant for insurance purposes?
It will not be suitable for them to meet, but there is an important aspect for the whole voluntary sector as to how it can look at playing an important role, contributing in many different ways to this national endeavour to deal with the crisis facing our whole nation. There will probably be a substantive role for many such organisations to look at playing within some school settings as, of course, those organisations will have individuals who are DBS-checked.
One of the categories who will have most difficulty with this decision are the parents of children at special needs schools. As the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) pointed out, some of them are residential. Is any particular provision being made to support those parents?
We recognise that a small number of children will be in a special school that has a residential setting. In a number of those cases, it will be important and essential for that setting to remain open, and we will be looking at those individually to see how best we support them and, critically, how we ensure that they have the right type of staffing, as they will suffer the effects of the spread of this virus, as will other educational establishments.
With regards to the voucher system that the Secretary of State pointed out, we are about to see an explosion in the number of people who are eligible for free school meals because of the downturn in the economy. So can he guarantee today that the voucher system will not just be for those who are eligible as of last week, but for those who would be eligible in the future? It has always been problematic to get people on the right benefits to claim free school meals.
This Easter holiday was, for good students, their opportunity to revise, so we do not have a great deal of time to give proper guidance for A-level and GCSE students. How long should they expect it to be before they know exactly what is going to happen?
We will be giving very clear guidance for all schools and all students. There will not be exams taking place this year, and we will be making sure, for every child due to be sitting GCSEs, A-levels or any other form of qualifications and expecting results in August, that the work they have done is properly reflected in those GCSEs and A-levels.
Will the Secretary of State say a bit more about the advice being given to universities? He will also know that international students are hugely important in many places. Will he press UK Visas and Immigration to be flexible in the way they apply the tier 4 visa rules? We do not want students being told that they are being penalised because they switch to online learning.
That issue was raised with me yesterday by Universities UK. We are in contact with the Home Office to take up the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. We must also recognise that we have a duty and an obligation towards the many international students who are here in the United Kingdom and not able to return home. We must ensure that accommodation in halls of residence continues to remain available for them until they are in a position to return to their loved ones.
All our constituents will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for his measured and practical statement, and in particular his words of support and gratitude for all those who work in our schools and colleges. He said that more information will be available from the Cabinet Office in respect of key workers and vulnerable children. Can he say a bit more about those two specific groups and how we, as a society, will exercise our duty of care to them?
I feel as if I could be in danger of starting to draw up a list at some stage of who those key workers are. That will be done by the Cabinet Office and made available from tomorrow, to give those people clarity and ensure that school leaders have a clear understanding of who those key worker groups are.
Many of my constituents live in incredibly overcrowded households. Grandparents will find themselves looking after children from Friday onwards, while parents who are not key workers will be going to work. Social distancing and self-isolation is practically impossible in those situations. What guidance and advice can the Secretary of State give in that regard?
We very much recognise the challenges that many families will face. We have had to prioritise in taking every action possible to stem this virus. That is why we have taken this action, with a deeply heavy heart. Key workers’ children and vulnerable children account for approximately 10% of the school-age population, and we will be looking at provision for them. We have to look at what action can be taken to stem this virus, and the scientific advice is that this is the best step to be taking.
I appreciate that this is an incredibly difficult announcement for the Secretary of State, and it almost certainly raises more questions than it answers. On the detail, I want to flag up two things. First, in terms of special educational needs schools, there is an outstanding SEN school called Milestone School just outside my constituency, and it will be very difficult for those children’s parents to look after them. Any clarification he could give on schools that wish to remain open would be helpful.
Secondly, in terms of apprenticeships, many people leaving school with GCSEs in maths and English, which are essential for apprenticeships, will want to know whether they will still be eligible. What will happen to apprentices who are studying at further education colleges but will no longer be able to do so? Will they lose their apprenticeships?
No one will be in a position where we take away the work that they have been doing in their apprenticeships. We have already made it clear to the college sector and the independent training providers who deliver so many apprenticeships that funding for apprenticeships is continuing. In terms of special schools, all children who have an EHC plan will be designated as vulnerable children.
Can the Secretary of State advise us on the discussions he has had with the Education Minister in Northern Ireland? I understand that the Department of Education will shortly make an announcement about schools in Northern Ireland. Will he assure us that those discussions will continue if there is any review of this decision?
Over the last week and more, I have been privileged to have a number of discussions with the Education Minister and the First Minister of Northern Ireland. We have done everything we can to co-ordinate our approach to the common challenge of defeating this virus. There will continue to be close dialogue between the Assembly and the Administration in Northern Ireland and my Department.
I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s commitment to children in care and on the fringes of care. Teachers will be concerned about some children who do not have a social worker or an EHC plan. Can those teachers be involved in the decision-making process? Could he press for teachers and social workers to be included as key workers?
I assure my hon. Friend that teachers and social workers will be included in the designation of key workers. I note that a number of Members have raised the issue of there being an element of flexibility, so that teachers and school leaders are able to show an element of discretion. We must not forget that the reason why we are taking this action is to limit the spread of the virus. The scientific and medical advice is that taking this action and reducing the number of children in education settings will have an impact in terms of reducing the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, I have heard what the House has said about looking into providing an element of flexibility, and I will certainly take that away.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) pointed out, millions of children in our country live in poverty, which is why I particularly welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about the voucher system. However, in his responses hitherto there has been a palpable lack of detail about the voucher system. How will they be redeemed? Where will they be redeemed? I fear that without attention to detail, the voucher system will become merely worthless pieces of paper.
That certainly will not be the case. Members on the Government Benches recognise and completely understand the importance of ensuring that every child who is eligible for free school meals is able to receive them and able to get food. We recognise that we may be dealing with this situation not just for a few weeks but for quite a long and sustained period of time, and we would want to move to a more conventional system in order to be able to get money to families in the best possible way. Another aspect is that the reason why we came up with the process of free school meals is that we recognise that for a child to be able to go to a school and receive a meal is an incredibly powerful thing to be able to offer. We are going to look into whether there is a way to deliver that much more broadly in so many more schools, but that will be dependent on the number of schools we are able to have open and available.
The Secretary of State has answered two questions from colleagues on very special schools. I have two such schools in Bridgwater: Penrose and Elmwood. These children have some of the most difficult challenges in society, and I do not yet understand what the Secretary of State is going to do, if the schools are shut down, to make sure that those children are cared for through the county council system and the social work system. By and large, their parents are working. We need clarification —these children cannot be left without major help.
Many parents will think that this is the right thing to do for their kids and for us to stop the virus spreading, but they will also be really worried that they just cannot afford to stop work to look after them and cannot get the grandparents to step in. Given that the Secretary of State said this situation could last for some time, will he look at urgent financial support for parents—not just of those on free school meals, but all parents in these circumstances—or at working with local councils on free childcare options in much smaller or one-to-one settings, which could help?
On the issue of key workers, I think it is going to be a little more complex than the Secretary of State says. For example, what about those who work in our food distribution sector? However, I wish to ask about what he said about schools being closed until further notice— I am thinking back to the question that the Prime Minister was asked at Prime Minister’s questions by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). Does he have any expectation that schools will open, for the population as a whole, at any time before the end of this year?
Obviously, my greatest hope is that we could get schools opened very rapidly, but I am going to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice in terms of when we do that. My right hon. Friend also referred to the fact that the term key workers should not just be seen to refer only to NHS professionals—that it is much broader. That is very clearly understood by the Cabinet Office, and what we do will reflect that fact.
The Secretary of State has called on nurseries and early years providers to be part of a national effort to combat this. When will the Government set out what steps they will take to provide additional financial support to nurseries, going beyond the funding he set out for the continuation of funded places? My worry is that if we do not provide additional support very quickly, staff will be laid off and some of these nurseries might never reopen.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all the staff and everyone involved, including parents, for the effort they have made so far and for the common-sense and sensible approach that they have taken to keeping schools open? We need to understand that we are doing this as a national effort and everyone has to play their part to keep the NHS at a capacity at which it can cope with this virus, and this change is part of that effort. My one concern in my area, which is rural, is whether the school transport provision will still be in place for those children who still need to attend their schools because they are eligible.
We are certainly very much hoping that the school transport system will be there, although that is dependent on other strains within the transport network. My hon. Friend highlights the importance of saying an enormous thank you to those many public servants who have been doing so much to support parents and families and, most importantly, to support children. We are incredibly indebted to them, but we recognise that we will still be asking an awful lot more of them in the future.
My mind is boggling at the logistical challenge that is about to face schools and I add my voice to those thanking them in advance for what they are about to do. This will raise more questions than anything else. Last week, the helpline set up by the Department for Education was overwhelmed with questions to such an extent that it stopped working. If schools have questions, where should they go?
On the point about EHCPs, the Secretary of State will know that it can take up to two years to get them. Nine out of 10 that go to the ombudsman are found in favour of the parents. Is it not time just to grant all EHCPs in the system so that all children, even if they are on the margins of being vulnerable, get the help that they need?
The hon. Lady mentions the helpline, and we have put extra resource on to that and we have made sure that it is open at weekends. We will also be writing directly to schools with a clear set of guidance on how to proceed. Our regional school commissioners are working closely with local education authorities to provide all the information needed going forward.
I appreciate that the Secretary of State is trying to bring clarity. My question is on GCSEs. He has clearly said that they are not going to happen, and that there will be some kind of system for awarding them. When he comes back and tells us how that system will work, the year 11 students will presumably then know exactly what their grades are. In fact, they might know their grades in the next few weeks. This comes at an emotional cost to year 11 students who have been revising hard, studying hard and preparing themselves for the biggest educational challenge of their lives so far. What support will be put in place to help with the emotional challenge that those year 11 students are going through?
Like everyone else, I recognise that this is not what one would call an ideal situation. I certainly did not want to be the Education Secretary who cancelled all exams. We realise we have to have a fair system in order properly to reflect the work that all pupils have put into their GCSEs, A-levels and the other qualifications they have been entered into. We recognise that this comes at considerable emotional cost, as they have been working together. We are in exceptional circumstances. We are not in a position in which we are able to provide the usual settings and support that one might expect in a school, but we are looking at different ways in which we can support young people through what will be a difficult and challenging time as they face up to the reality of the fact that the school or college that they are incredibly fond of and which has been part of their life for such a long time will not be part of their everyday life.
The Secretary of State said councils will play a key part in what he has announced. Yesterday, the Chancellor announced a whole range of new measures for the economy. Durham County Council spent all day trying to get guidance on that, only to be told that it will not be available until Friday. When will guidance on what the Secretary of State has announced be given to councils? Will he also answer the question from the shadow Secretary of State about supply teachers? Those people do not have permanent contracts. They are going to find they have no income. The Secretary of State spoke warm words about teachers; these are teachers too, and they need support.
We will certainly write to all local authorities and all schools with guidance, and that will happen today. Before I came to the House, I spoke to the director of children’s services who represents the Association of Directors of Children’s Services about what we are doing. They were very clear about the need for local and national Government to work together. On supply teachers, there will be exceptional demand for the services of all teachers in the system—those on regular contracts and supply teachers.
We will pay teachers when their schools are closed, because the closure is not their fault and we will need them again, but that applies to many other employees across the economy. That could be addressed very straightforwardly if the Government brought forward urgently a package to support employees’ wages right across the economy. Will the Secretary of State, when he finishes this statement, talk to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to ask them to turn their attention, within the next few hours, to making a statement on support for employees generally across the economy?
No one doubts the scale of the challenge facing the Secretary of State. Frankly, his job would have been made much easier had the Chancellor come forward last night with provisions for income protection for people right across the economy. I hope the Secretary of State takes that message back. However, his statement contains considerable holes too. What arrangements will be put in place for people sitting vocational assessments and those teaching them? Will he say more about what is going on in further education?
On vulnerable children, there are children in my constituency living in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation, for whom school is an escape from the awful conditions at home, who are not subject to EHCPs and do not have social workers. As well as coming forward with more detailed answers about key workers, will the Secretary of State set out in detail what we mean by vulnerable children? If we are asking people to prepare and not to panic, the Government need to be prepared; otherwise, statements like this one will lead to panic.
I appreciate that children will not be sitting any exams this year, but is the expectation that they will continue to receive an education? Is there anything we can do to support schools to deliver remote teaching, and to support parents who want to help with home learning?
As my hon. Friend will be aware, schools have been doing a lot to provide children with work and enable them to continue to study if the school closes. We are working closely with the BBC, and we are looking at putting more resources online in order to support children to continue to learn even if they are not in an education setting.
The Secretary of State spoke about teachers getting paid, but many others work in schools, including lunchtime supervisors, caretakers and cleaners, many of whom are contract staff. Will all school staff carry on getting paid, or will only teachers and those on full-time guaranteed contracts be paid?
My right hon. Friend poses a challenge, and as the father of two teenage daughters I am acutely aware of youngsters’ desire to socialise, but what we are facing in this country is not normal. It is not something any of us have seen in our childhood, and it is not a situation any of us would like to see or be in, and we need to accept that everyone has to exhibit a different set of behaviours to be able to stem this virus. That comes with challenges, but we are only taking the steps we are taking because we believe they will go towards ensuring that this virus does not spread as widely as it could.
We have 48 hours before schools close, and we have no clear list of who is going to be able to send their children to school next week or after the Easter holidays. We have known for several weeks that we were going to reach this stage, so can the Secretary of State say what preparations he has made with local education authorities and schools to help draw up these lists and set out a plan to keep schools open? I think this is the right move, but I do not think the preparations have been done.
The hon. Gentleman will probably have heard my response earlier: the list of key workers will be published tomorrow. That will be available for schools, and we are very conscious that we need to get that information to all schools as quickly as possible.
As chairman of the all-party group, I bring the positive message from the independent education sector that it is part of communities—it wants to help, and it wants the Department to know that. There is also a concern: will boarding schools be allowed or be expected to continue caring for any remaining boarders, especially international ones, who have not gone home or cannot do so?
My hon. Friend highlights an issue that is quite common in the university sector for international students. As I have said with international students in university settings, we must recognise our obligations to those young people, and we recognise that in boarding schools as well.
Like many households around the country, ours was facing exams this year—both GCSEs and A-levels—and there is certainly some disappointment that my children will not be facing those challenges this year. They may be slightly happier at the moment, but I think once reality sets in they will feel disappointed as well. However, I understand why this process is necessary. Will the appeal process that is being envisaged be completed by the time options are chosen for next year?
There is a standard appeal process on exam grades, and that has always been structured to ensure that it is completed before university begins. We are looking at putting in place additional measures, such as enabling a child rapidly to take a fresh set of tests or exams, but we have to be conscious of the fact that we do not know how the virus will manifest itself and in what sort of timescales we will see peak and reduction. I am not in a position to be able to say on what dates that will happen and the consequences that the virus may have in additional knock-on effects for other institutions and academic years.
As a parent of two primary-age children, I know that the conversation about how best to provide routine and educational support at home has been going on in school communities for quite some time. As my right hon. Friend says, schools are working very hard to rush out resources that can be used at home. In my previous role on the Education Committee I met many education technology companies that have excellent apps and resources online. What can the Department do to help, promote and highlight some of those existing resources to parents?
We already have an edtech strategy for promoting this, but we will see a much more rapid and speedy evolution of some of these learning aids and resources, and we must look at how best we can harness new technology to ensure that all children are in a position to be able to get the very best out of education, even in the coming weeks.
We have to recognise that schools such as Gibside will be facing considerable pressures in terms of staffing and the spread of the virus, but also in terms of pupils who may be unwell. Many children who attend special schools such as Gibside will be on an EHCP, which obviously puts them in the category of vulnerable children for whom we are looking to make sure there is continued provision.
This has been a sobering statement, and I want to put on record how much I appreciate the tone used by the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Ashton-under- Lyne (Angela Rayner).
My question is on behalf of university students. What will they pay for their tuition fees?
There are currently no plans to change the tuition fees. Obviously, as has been highlighted, universities will continue teaching online. We will be working very closely with Universities UK to ensure students have their grades in a timely manner to ensure they are able to move on to the next stage of their lives.
Our schools are not only amazing centres of learning but are centres of support for children living in poverty, including 48% of children in Newcastle upon Tyne Central. On free school meals, is the Secretary of State, like Newcastle City Council, looking at ensuring the continued delivery of hot meals to children’s homes? He talks of encouraging online learning, but there is a digital divide in this country and the libraries that help to close that divide are themselves closing. Will he guarantee access to broadband for all children whose schools are shut?
We will certainly be looking at working with local authorities such as Newcastle City Council on making sure we have the broadest provision of meals for children and on how best that is delivered. As I touched on in the statement, we will look at how we can grow and expand that not just in Newcastle but in many other areas.
The hon. Lady highlights an important point about the digital divide in this country, and we will be looking at working with schools to ensure that pupils who do not have access to digital resources can have other resources that enable them to learn when schools are closed.
Until now, the expert advice has been that a consequence of closing schools is that children may have to stay with their grandparents, who are the most vulnerable people. What is now the advice for parents? Should they take advantage of grandparents? If not, may I urge that the support package being considered by the Chancellor addresses this issue?
We ask all parents to look at the advice given by Public Health England. Obviously, there are many grandparents who are very young and healthy, but we need parents to consider the individual circumstances of their family to make the best assessment. We need to protect those who are most vulnerable and, of course, the most vulnerable are those over the age of 70 and those with underlying health conditions.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for the tone in which he has conducted himself.
I have two questions. First, on A-levels, is the Secretary of State able to offer more detail on when the alternative form of assessment will be published? Secondly, on university admissions, can he update the House on what discussions he has had with the university sector to ensure university admissions are fair?
We will be making sure that we publish further advice on A-levels next week. We have had discussions with Universities UK, and we need to look at how we can ensure universities are open and ready to take in a new cohort of students in the next academic year, but the fairness of the system and making sure young people do not miss out on opportunities for which they have worked so hard is at the core of what we will be doing.
I thank the Secretary of State for addressing the concerns that I raised about vulnerable children in Wolverhampton. All of these extraordinary measures have the aim of preserving life, and to do that we need to maximise capacity in our NHS. What will be the implications of these measure for our staff in the NHS?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue with me a few days ago. Obviously, as constituency neighbours, we were both acutely aware that this is something that we needed to tackle. We have taken these measures to reduce the chance and the spread of infection. The reason why we have taken the difficult decision to make educational settings available for key workers is to ensure that brilliant hospitals such as New Cross in Wolverhampton can continue to function and to offer the support and the vital healthcare that is needed not just for her constituents, but for my mine in South Staffordshire.
It would be very helpful if the Secretary of State could give a clear timetable as to when he will make an announcement about A-levels in particular, but also GCSEs, because pupils will be worrying. I wanted to follow up on the questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) and for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and ask about children who are living in severely overcrowded conditions in my constituency. There are those, for example, in homeless hostels, where at least we can identify the situation they are in by their address, but more particularly there are those in overcrowded flats where there is one family in the living room and one in the bedroom and very often parents who have no recourse to public funds. There will be a very big problem for those vulnerable children, many of whom are not looked after and have no social worker. I am sure—I hope—that his Department has considered this, and will he please give us some information now about what he will do about it with colleagues across Government? If he cannot do so now, can he tell us when he will brief those of us who have this endemic problem in our constituencies?
Certainly. The reason why we have announced the response that we have is to ensure that it covers a broad range of children, including not just those of key workers, but those who are vulnerable. The hon. Lady may like to write to me with specific suggestions and actions that she feels the Department should consider taking. My concern and interest is making sure that we do everything in the interests of both stemming this virus and protecting the interests of those children no matter where they live in this country.
Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether the children he outlined earlier will continue to attend the same school, and what considerations have been given to children-teacher ratios and class sizes? Small schools such as Zetland Primary School in Redcar may struggle in the current climate.
As part of the Bill that we are bringing forward, we will be removing the ratios that present some of the challenges to schools. I would be wrong, though, to give my hon. Friend the promise that children will necessarily be able to continue to attend their current school. We do not know at the moment the consequences of the spread of this virus, and we may need to show a high degree of flexibility in how we provide that support and care. Sometimes that may require children attending different schools, hopefully in close proximity to their home. None the less, we do recognise the challenges that are going to be raised as a result of this announcement.
Universities are expecting a huge hit financially, because international students will not be able to come here, despite the provision of some online learning. What support will be provided to universities such as the University of Bedfordshire in my constituency to ensure that they do not go bankrupt? The Government and the Office for Students have previously said that they would not usually step in under such circumstances.
The financial health of the university sector is obviously of key critical interest to us. We will be working closely with Universities UK to ensure the stability and strength of that important sector for not just learning but the economy. We urge universities who are going to face financial difficulties and pressures to start engaging in an early dialogue and be honest about some of the challenges that they are going to face financially. Otherwise, it is difficult to respond if something comes out of the blue.
The issue of international students is important. We have to be realistic and expect the number of international students who attend UK universities to be lower next year. How we work with the sector to replace that capacity in different ways is something that the Department is already working on. Certainly, we are already having those discussions with UUK.
There are six big secondary schools in the borough of Kettering. Does the Secretary of State envisage that, to continue the education of children of key workers, those cohorts will be educated in the six separate schools, or that some arrangement will be made between the schools for them all to come together and teach the children in one place?
In the initial instance, we hope that provision can be provided in the school that the child attends, but we recognise that, with the spread of the virus, that will not be realistic all the way through, so we will have to look at how we show flexibility. I have no doubt that, as in many towns and boroughs up and down the country, there is already a deep level of co-operation between schools in the local community in terms of sharing resources and learning. There are often good partnerships, but we will work with local education authorities, as well as regional schools commissioners, to help to facilitate that.
At the moment, every infant school child is entitled to a free school meal. In my constituency, that applies to all junior school pupils as well. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he envisages all those currently entitled to free school meals being able to receive them in the future, irrespective of the income criteria that apply in secondary schools? If a school opts for a voucher solution, what does he expect each voucher to buy?
The entitlement will be for all children who would normally be in receipt of free school meals, as against a much broader entitlement. We hope that families with vouchers will make best use of that money to make sure that it goes as far as possible. We certainly hope that it is a nutritious and good lunch.
Going back to what the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) raised about how we can work with local authorities and schools to offer more hot meals on premises, that is something that we are looking at. We have to recognise that there will be constraints in the system, however, especially with the spread of the virus, which will mean that that will not necessarily always be possible.
I apologise to the Secretary of State if I have missed something or not caught everything he has said about early years settings. Is he saying that childminders, nurseries, both private and statutory, and all other early years provision, are advised or instructed to close, or is he saying that some should remain open? If they close, can he guarantee that all staff will continue to receive full pay, irrespective of the nature of the setting?
It does apply across the board. We have already written to early years settings to inform them that the funding that we have been providing for them will continue, regardless of changes in the number of children attending those settings, which gives them some stability in terms of future funding.
Many voluntary groups will be keen to work with schools and parents to provide additional support for vulnerable children—for example, in breakfast clubs. Will the Secretary of State thank voluntary groups for their work and encourage schools to continue to work with them to support vulnerable children in these difficult times?
I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion of such issues in his constituency, and it was a great privilege to be able to join him on a recent visit to one of the high schools there. Let me take this opportunity to thank the many volunteers who contribute so much to our school system. We recognise, in these unique times, that we will be turning to whole communities in supporting one another and supporting those who are most vulnerable, whether they are young or old, to help them to get through the coming weeks.
According to Public Health Warwickshire, 43% of nurses have children in schools. That obviously accounts for a great number, which increases when those in other blue-light services and other key workers are added. As the Secretary of State has said, it will be interesting to see what emerges tomorrow, but it must be of concern that many workers who are parents will withdraw from employment because their priority will be their children, and that will have an impact on many sectors. Perhaps the Secretary of State could say a bit more about what he envisages.
In respect of vouchers, may I urge the Secretary of State to prioritise the use of community cafés, and to address the issue of child protection? Finally, may I point out that France is ahead of us in the provision of online education? Lessons are already provided online for all schools. Perhaps the Secretary of State could look into that as well.
I welcome the announcement of measures that will help to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, while allowing NHS workers who are parents to stay on the frontline where they are most needed. Glossopdale School has already offered to deliver packed lunches to the homes of pupils on free school meals, which is a model that other schools might want to consider. I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that the full details of which children are vulnerable and which people are key workers are communicated to both schools and parents as soon as possible, so that everyone knows where we stand.
The Secretary of State mentioned that he would work with Universities UK in examining the financial challenges that it may face. I am concerned about the lack of clear information about what direct support the Government will be giving to those in higher education. Has the Secretary of State thought about the changes that will happen to student finance payments? Has he looked into how degrees will be decided? Finally, what support will be given to international students should they wish to go back home?
Yes, we have looked into what we need to do. The key point, which I made in response to the question from the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), is that if universities are in financial distress they will need to highlight that at the earliest possible stage. so that we can establish how we can best deal with it. As for the issue of international students, we recognise our obligation to ensure that they have continued accommodation here if they are unable to return to their home countries. The university sector has been excellent in responding and ensuring that accommodation is available, but there will be some students who cannot return home, and we will continue to support them.
My right hon. Friend said that he expected schools and nurseries to remain open during the Easter holidays for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. What sort of service does he expect them to provide, and what additional help will they be given?
We realise that while we cannot ask schools and education settings to provide a normal school curriculum, it is important to provide activities that engage and encourage young people to attend. We will work across the board, but there are no better people than teachers to really understand what engages children and keeps them motivated.
Last summer, Feeding Bristol distributed 53,000 meals to children, 75% of whom would otherwise have been in receipt of free school meals, but it did so in collective settings such as summer play schemes. Now we are in a very different scenario, as we are talking about getting meals out to children in individual places. What support could the Secretary of State give to organisations such as Feeding Bristol to help them facilitate the work they have been doing?
In answer to a previous question, my right hon. Friend said that schools could potentially form together into clusters; that does make sense in central London, where schools are close together. What will be the process of organising all that? Who is going to take the lead—the local authority? Clearly, there is not much time to make these arrangements.
A key element will be the local education authority, with regional schools commissioners working together to promote those clusters. There is already a high level of cross-working between schools, but we recognise that that level of working together will enable us to provide much more robust provision throughout this crisis.
Children face additional risks when family relationships are under pressure. One way of reducing some of the additional strain felt by families will be the financial response to this situation, so I urge the Secretary of State to take forward the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) about income replacement. Will he also come forward with plans setting out how he is going to support the child protection workforce, and conduct a proper risk assessment of the additional challenges faced by children in this crisis?
May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s earlier comments and pay tribute to the incredible work that teachers have been doing over the last few weeks? I have spoken to many heads in Warrington this afternoon, who have been fantastic. The last few weeks have really shown true spirit in the classroom—from teachers and support staff. Will the Government be reimbursing schools for any additional costs they incur through providing free school meals for children once schools have closed? Also, if schools choose to use voucher schemes, will he ensure that those families have priority access to supermarkets?
I can absolutely guarantee that schools will be fully reimbursed for the costs they incur as a result of providing those meals. Obviously, we would look at ensuring additional help as a long-term measure. I will certainly take up my hon. Friend’s final point with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who will be looking at such matters.
I welcome the announcement that education settings are being encouraged to continue looking after the children of key workers, and vulnerable children, during the Easter holidays. But the Secretary of State knows that many school support staff are only paid for term-time working. Although I know that those dedicated staff will do all they can to help in a national crisis, I am sure he does not expect them to work for free, so will schools be supported to meet those extra staffing costs?
May I pay tribute to schools and to Hull City Council, which has already been working on plans to deal with children who get free school meals in the event of schools closing? It is welcome that the Department for Education is now taking the lead on this, although obviously we need more detail. Would the Secretary of State feel able to make representations to the Treasury to take up the recommendation of the Child Poverty Action Group, which is suggesting that one way of getting extra money into families is to increase child benefit by £10—now?
I have been contacted by a great many nurseries in my constituency who are understandably quite worried for the future. It is worth being clear about the detail. They said:
“Most of us will not survive more than a month without fee income. For some, it will be a matter of weeks.”
Nurseries are already under severe financial strain after a decade of Government underfunding, and childcare insurers are refusing to support them. I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to maintain nursery funding, but will he go further today and reassure my constituents by pledging to protect the income of nursery workers for as long as is necessary?
I believe that for early years settings and nurseries we have probably gone further than any other aspect of business in making it absolutely clear that we will continue to guarantee the funding that they are in receipt of from Government, regardless of where the roll is. We made that statement yesterday. I very much hope that that point has been percolating right through the sector, but I will certainly ask the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), to continue to reiterate it to all nursery providers.
I welcome the details that the Secretary of State has provided and the provisions for key workers, including on childcare and the commitment to ensure that the children of our vital NHS staff can go to nursery or school. However, as my hon. Friends the Members for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) and for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) said earlier, there is a serious question about the funding. In my local education authority in Redbridge, the council is prepared to meet the free funding places, but as the Secretary of State will know, much of the funding and the business plans that many nurseries have are based on the additional top-up of private places at those nurseries. Can the Secretary of State give more detail about the funding to ensure that that gap is bridged and that nurseries do not have to lay off staff in the midst of dealing with this crisis?
This is why we have made clear the continued funding that we would be paying to nurseries, but also why the Chancellor has touched on the issue of a business rate relief, which is obviously an important component in the cost base of many of these nurseries.
As a representative of a borough that has suffered cuts of 64% under this Government, can I ask what additional assistance will be available to Ealing to absorb some of the consequences of this decision? Our libraries, for example, are volunteer-run on reduced hours, when they should be at more than full tilt—or will they be next to close? As the mum of a year 11 pupil, can I also ask whether his exams will now be indefinitely postponed? For all his cohort, can I ask whether their sixth-form admissions, which are not automatic nowadays, will now be based not on actual grades but on predicted grades, in a Mystic Meg kind of way?
As has been outlined, we will ensure that all children, who have done so much work towards their exams both at GCSE and A-level will get a fair system for their grades. We recognise that there will sometimes be disagreement over that, so it is vital to ensure a proper and robust system and a means of redress for those children. That is something that we will have in place with Ofqual, and we have already had those discussions. On funding, we have been consistently clear in this statement that costs incurred by schools will be fully reimbursed.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your advice on an urgent and important matter. On Monday, the Government advised the public to avoid large gatherings and gatherings in smaller public spaces, such as pubs, cinemas, restaurants, theatres, bars and clubs, rather than closing venues directly. The Creative Industries Federation has said that this is a “crippling blow” to the UK’s creative sector, and there was understandable anxiety that it would mean mass bankruptcies and long-term closures of venues. However, the Chancellor reassured us yesterday that insurance companies would help, saying that
“for those businesses that…have a policy that covers pandemics, the Government’s action is sufficient and will allow them to make an insurance claim against their policy”—[Official Report, 17 March 2020; Vol. 637, c. 932.]
He even went so far as to say that the Government had spoken to the insurance sector looking for support, yet many organisations have made representations to me today to say that insurance companies will not permit losses due to the covid-19 pandemic and that no theatre, restaurant, or small or medium-sized enterprise would ever be able to afford that sort of cover—cover usually associated with Apple and big companies like that. Therefore, what advice can you offer me on how Members might seek clarification from Ministers on this crucial issue, which is adding to the anxiety for businesses in the creative industries and more widely?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her question. She is well aware that it is not a point of order for the Chair, but those on the Treasury Bench will have heard her comments and I would expect some response. Perhaps if we can also work through the Table Office, via email at the moment, or by picking up the phone to speak to someone, that may also help to resolve the situation.
House of Commons Commission
That Sir Charles Walker be appointed to the House of Commons Commission in place of Sir Paul Beresford in pursuance of the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, as amended.—(David Rutley.)
Public Accounts Commission
That Mr Richard Bacon, Jack Brereton, Mr Nicholas Brown, Clive Efford, Peter Grant, Sir Edward Leigh and Alan Mak be appointed, and that Douglas Chapman and Julian Knight be discharged as members of the Public Accounts Commission under section 2(2)(c) of the National Audit Act 1983.—(David Rutley.)