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Education Settings: Wider Opening

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding the wider opening of nurseries, schools and colleges as part of our response to the covid-19 pandemic.

It is now over two and a half months since we asked schools, further education colleges and nurseries to remain open only for vulnerable children and those of critical workers. I continue to be immensely grateful for the way that our teachers and parents have responded to these challenging circumstances. I would like to say a big thank you to all those working in education, childcare and children’s social care for the huge efforts they are making on a daily basis to support families and make sure our children do not miss out on their education.

We all know how important it is for children and young people to be in education and childcare, and it is vital that we get them back there as soon as the scientific advice indicates that we can. I am very pleased that last week we were able to take the first cautious step towards that. As the Prime Minister confirmed on 28 May, the Government’s five tests are being met and we are beginning to ease the lockdown restrictions across England. Based on all the evidence, this means that nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, have been able to welcome back children of all ages. Pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 have been returning in smaller class sizes, alongside the children of critical workers and vulnerable children of all ages, who continue to be able to attend.

Ninety-seven per cent. of schools that submitted data to the Department for Education were open at the end of last week. Last week, we saw the number of primaries taking nursery, reception, year 1 or year 6 pupils steadily rise as part of the phased, cautious wider reopening of schools. By the end of the week, more than half of primary schools were taking pupils from these year groups, and as of yesterday that had risen to over 70% of primaries that had responded.

I know that schools need time to put in place the strict protective measures that we have asked for and we continue to work with the sector to make sure that any schools experiencing difficulties are supported to open more widely as soon as possible. Some schools, in areas such as the north-west, are concerned about local rates of transmission. I can assure them that SAGE’s R estimate for the whole of the UK is below 1. If robust data shows that local action needs to be taken, we will not hesitate to do so, but we are not in that position. I know that the House will be as impressed as I have been by the work and efforts of headteachers, teachers and childcare staff, who are finding ways to make the necessary changes while still ensuring that schools and nurseries are a welcoming place for children, as well as reassuring families who may be worried about sending their children back.

The next step of our phased approach will enable secondary schools and colleges to provide some face-to-face support from 15 June for years 10 and 12 and 16-to-19 students in the first year of a two-year study programme, who are due to take key exams next year. This is such a critical time for those students and this extra support will be in addition to their remote education, which will continue to be the main method of education for them this term, as only a quarter of this cohort will be able to attend at any one time to limit the risk of transmission. Children of critical workers and vulnerable children in all secondary year groups will continue to be able to attend full-time.

We have published guidance for secondary schools and ensured that schools have the flexibility to decide how they want to use face-to-face support in the best interests of their pupils. Since the announcement of our proposals on 10 May, my Department has published detailed guidance for settings on how to prepare. This includes planning guides for early years providers and primary schools, and further guidance for secondary schools and colleges. Crucially, we have provided detailed guidance on the protective measures that schools and other settings need to take to reduce the risk of transmission. This includes restricting class sizes, limiting mixing between groups and encouraging regular handwashing and frequent cleaning. This advice was developed in close consultation with Public Health England.

The safety of our children, young people and staff remains my top priority. That is why all staff and children, including the under-fives, will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus. This will enable the right response where a case is confirmed, including using a test-and-trace approach to rapidly identify people most at risk of having been exposed to the virus, so that they can take action, too.

We continue to follow the best scientific advice and believe that this cautious, phased return is the most sensible course of action to take. While we are not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps, where we would like schools that have the capacity to bring back more children—in those smaller class sizes—to do so if they are able to before the summer holidays.

We will be working to bring all children back to school in September. I know that students who are due to take exams in 2021 will have experienced considerable disruption to their education this year, and we are committed to doing all we can to minimise the effects of this. Exams will take place next year, and we are working with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach to these. While these are the first steps, they are the best way to ensure that all children can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.

I want to end by thanking the childcare, school and FE staff who have gone above and beyond over the past eight weeks, and who are now working so incredibly hard to welcome our children and young people back, while also continuing to support those who remain at home. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, and I join him in thanking parents and all those working in education and childcare at this difficult time.

For weeks, headteachers, education unions, school staff and many parents have warned that the plan to open whole primary schools before the summer was simply impractical while implementing social distancing safely, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to roll back from that today. However, I must state my dismay at the way this has been handled. If the Government had brought together everyone involved in implementing these plans from the outset and really taken on board what they had to say, they would not be in the situation of having to row back at all. But what is done is done, and now it is imperative that the Government look ahead to what the education system needs over the coming months and years.

Children, and young people’s education and wellbeing will have been impacted cruelly by such a prolonged period away from school and their friends, and the situation at home may have been extremely stressful. Indeed, the Children’s Commissioner has said to me today,

“The risk I am most concerned about is that of a generation of children losing over six months of formal education, socialising with friends and structured routine. I’m also concerned about a deepening education disadvantage gap that could leave millions of children without education they need to progress in life.

The Government need to face-up to the scale of damage this is doing to children and scale-up their response. The starting point for this needs to be rapid action to support summer schemes for this summer’’.

Like the commissioner, I believe a crisis in education and children’s attainment and wellbeing could come at us incredibly quickly if we do not step in and mitigate it now.

There needs to be a national plan for education, so will the Secretary of State commit today to bringing together children’s organisations, trade unions, parents associations, health and psychological experts, Ofqual, school leaders and headteachers to develop that plan? Of course, he will say that he has met these groups. However, politely listening to concerns and not acting on most of them is very different from the creation of a formal taskforce where these groups play a key role in setting the principles of a national plan.

In the immediate term, will the Secretary of State consider issuing guidance that all children of compulsory school age should have a one-on-one meeting with a teacher from their school and parents, if appropriate, before the summer holidays start? Alongside that support, will he commit to increasing the resources available for summer schemes to help re-engage children socially and emotionally? On academic support, the Government must support blended learning with more resources and targeted tuition; significantly increase support for disadvantaged children, including considering a greatly enhanced pupil premium; and roll out devices and free access to the internet for all pupils who need them. For those in years 10 and 12 who are worried sick about their exams next year, the Government must work with Ofqual to redesign GCSE and A-level qualifications to reflect the impact that time away from school has had.

In the longer term, the plan must cover all possible scenarios, including the possibility of a second wave, not least as Public Health England confirmed on Friday that the R rate was over 1 in some regions. Indeed, the Government have set out that keeping that rate below 1 is critical in stopping the spread of the virus. But the Government do not appear to have issued any direction to schools in those regions. So what is the Secretary of State’s safety advice? Should schools pause plans for wider reopening? Do they need to take additional measures, or is it acceptable to simply carry on bringing in additional pupils with an R rate above 1? Today, the Secretary of State infers the latter—that local action does not need to be taken. So I ask him to publish the scientific modelling to support such an assertion and reassure schools in these regions.

Finally, the Government have confirmed that the free school meal voucher scheme will not continue over the summer holidays. With 200,000 more children expected to be living below the poverty line by the end of the year as job losses hit family incomes, this is a deeply callous move by the Government. Will the Secretary of State change his mind today and commit to funding free school meals over the summer holidays?

I would hope that the hon. Lady and I are completely united in our concern to make sure that a generation of children do not miss out. We recognise and understand the truly extraordinary times in which we are living, and in which we are asking children to learn, teachers to teach and all those who support them to work. We also recognise that we need to be bringing schools back and pupils back into the classroom. Had it been left to the hon. Lady, she would not have been bringing children back into the classroom until the National Education Union said that she was allowed to do so. We will continue to work with all. We recognise how incredibly important it is to do the best for every single child. That is why it is so welcome to see so many schools opening their doors, welcoming children in and giving them the very best of what they can offer.

The hon. Lady raises an important point about summer schemes, but we need to lift our eyes higher and to be more ambitious. She is right to highlight the fact that there are real challenges that children have suffered as a consequence of this lockdown. But to put that right, we need to take a longer-term approach on how we can support children over a longer period of time. That is what we will be working towards and what we will be delivering. And, yes, we will continue to work with groups and organisations right across the spectrum to ensure that the policies are evidence-based and that they will deliver for children. We will not be doing virtue signalling; we will be taking the actions that will make a real improvement and a real difference to children’s lives.

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the importance of working with Ofqual. That is what we are doing, including with representative organisations of schools and teachers, to make sure that next year’s exams—whether they be GCSEs, A-levels, T-levels or BTECs and other qualifications—are fair and reflect the hard work of the children.

The hon. Lady mentioned the issue of SAGE and its data and Public Health England. That is not within my control, as it is an independent body. SAGE regularly publishes all its data and will be doing so with reference to this. When it comes to local authorities across the country, whether they are in the north-west, the north-east, the south-east, or the south-west, we will work with all of them where they have concerns, and with Public Health England, so that they get the best advice, because the interests of children and of those who work in schools are my primary interest and my focus in making sure that we can bring schools back. We will work with those local authorities. We need to bring all schools back in every part of this country. If the evidence starts to point to the fact that we need to close down schools in small clusters as a result of this, obviously that is the action that we will take, but only on the best advice from PHE. At the moment, the advice from PHE and SAGE is that all schools can open and that they should open.

Why can we turn a blind eye to thousands of demonstrators  and campaign for pubs and garden centres to open, yet it is so hard to reopen our schools? We know that about 700,000 disadvantaged children are not doing school homework and 700,000 do not have proper access to computers for the internet, so what are the Government doing to help those disadvantaged children to learn again and avoid an epidemic of educational poverty? Can we have a long-term plan for a catch-up premium for education to look after those left-behind children? Will the Secretary of State reconsider ensuring that those children get free school meals over the summer, given the financial anxieties their families are facing during the pandemic?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that we are already in the process of rolling out IT equipment across the school estate, as well as to the most vulnerable children. Some 100,000 of those laptops have already been distributed to the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged children. We took the decision to ensure that children who have social workers are prioritised over and above schools. A further 75,000 computers will be distributed to schools in the coming weeks. We are on schedule to distribute the full 230,000 computers over the coming month.

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight that we need a long-term plan. That is what we are doing. We recognise that the learning loss will not be corrected over just a few weeks and that action needs to be taken over a long period of time. That is the approach we are taking.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Lourdes Secondary School in Glasgow tragically lost two pupils this week, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering our condolences to their families and friends and the entire school community at Lourdes.

During the urgent question on school reopening last month, I asked the Secretary of State where, with a maximum of 15 pupils per class, the additional rooms and teachers would come from. He stuck his head in the sand and ignored my question and the concerns raised by the teaching profession and parents, so it is no surprise that we are back here, less than four weeks later, having found that the Government’s own social distancing rules make it impossible for primary schools in England to admit all pupils before the summer holidays. Why has it taken the Government so long to recognise what was blindingly obvious?

We now need a proper plan for education along the lines being developed by the Scottish Government. It should cover all possible scenarios and focus on blended learning, with greatly increased support for disadvantaged children. Is the Secretary of State planning, as Scotland has done, to use public buildings, such as libraries and council offices, to relieve pressure on classroom space? What consultation will take place with the teaching profession to ensure that the Government’s plans for reopening are realistic? Will he commit to publishing the modelling of the increased number of covid cases that could be seen in school-based staff as a result of reopening schools? Finally, will he ensure that any decisions taken are based on published scientific advice, with the agreement of local councils and school leaders, rather than simply forcing through what has been described as delivering the impossible?

I join the hon. Lady in passing on my deep condolences to the families, schools and communities who have lost loved ones, as she highlighted at the start of her question. We will continue to work with teachers’ unions, as well as school representative organisations, as we look to expand the number of children who are able to attend primary schools and have more pupils attending schools, including those in years 10 and 12 and further education colleges, who start next week, the week commencing 15 June.

As we welcome more children into the classroom, with more children having the opportunity to learn in different year groups, we will see the real benefit of children being with their teachers and friends once more. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that we have limitations. The limit of 15 children per class obviously limits the ability to have as many year groups in school as we would like, but as that is changed, we will have the ability to slowly and cautiously move forward and welcome more children back to school when it is the right time.

Every two months represent more than 1% of a child’s childhood. Come September, many children will have been out of school for almost six months, and we fear that it may be even longer. The impact on those from the most deprived backgrounds will be considerable. Will the Secretary of State look at catch-up schemes over the summer, perhaps using National Citizen Service youth workers who have been stood down from the summer programme? Over the next year, will he look at mobilising the many students who are now delaying going to university and will find it hard to travel or get a job, by getting them to work alongside some of these children in a national mentoring scheme modelled on the charity City Year, for example?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are certainly looking at this, but we are looking at something much wider and more long-term, because we do not believe that purely looking at the summer period is enough to assist children to get the catch-up that they truly need.

The Secretary of State talked about the availability of laptops and computer equipment to disadvantaged pupils. Two months ago, he promised that that equipment would be available. I spoke to my schools this morning, and they have not received any. The Government talk easily about a levelling-up agenda, but while private schools have access to that sort of equipment, as do their staff, it is not available in our state sector. Is it the case that the public rightly believe that the Government are failing them?

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; he obviously did not hear my response earlier, in which I explained that we had taken a policy decision to ensure that the first wave of laptops we received were going to be targeted at the children who are most vulnerable and have a social worker. The second wave of laptops, which we have just received, are then going to schools and academies through local authorities or multi-academy trusts. We are on schedule to receive all those laptops and get them distributed by the end of the month, and I would like to take the opportunity to thank Computacenter, which has done so much work to ensure that those laptops are distributed.

I thank the Secretary of State for enabling some primary school children to go back to school last week, not least because I am the father of a four-year-old who was desperate to get back to school and has enjoyed the education and the wellbeing that she needed; I am sure I speak for many parents across the country when I say that. Teachers in North Norfolk have been phenomenal in their efforts to get students and little children back to school. What reassurances can he give to vulnerable children who cannot go back at the moment and are remote learning that they are getting an equitable education, so that they do not fall further behind?

I share my hon. Friend’s desire to see all children return to school in a phased way as swiftly as possible. He highlights some really important challenges, especially for vulnerable children who are not necessarily able to access education by going into school. I was particularly delighted to see the progress we have made with the Oak National Academy. By just a few days ago, it had delivered over 10 million lessons to children, and part of that package is lessons and support for children with special educational needs.

A decade ago, I sat in a Cabinet Office briefing room discussing the then threatened pandemic. We were discussing the closure of schools then. So it beggars belief that the Secretary of State can come to the House today with no clear plan for getting the delayed laptops out. That was not planned in advance.

It is late, Secretary of State—for the record, he is shaking his head. This is already late for vulnerable pupils. I find myself in complete accord with the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) in their desire for a catch-up plan for the many vulnerable students. Can the Secretary of State seriously not give us more information today? There must have been planning. If there has not, he has been asleep on the job.

The hon. Lady is inaccurate. The laptops that we promised to get out to vulnerable children and those who face exams in year 10 are on schedule. We said that they would all be distributed by the end of June and we are on target to do that. We decided to prioritise the most vulnerable children and I still think that that was the right decision. On a catch-up plan, this is not something that is just over a few weeks; the approach has to be over a full year and more. That is what we are putting in place and how we will support children in the long term.

All schools and teachers have worked incredibly hard over this period, but some schools have managed to deliver whole-class direct teaching live through video. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, sadly, some children in this country have received no online direct teaching at all and many have received very little because the teaching unions have opposed the practice, often with the support of Opposition Members? If the return to school is to be delayed further, what can we do to ensure that more children receive direct teaching?

Where children are not in a position to return to school, we will set out clearly to all schools the basic minimum curriculum requirements we expect them to deliver for all children. That is to be expected and we hope that all schools follow that. It is not just through online learning, but through sharing resources with children. We have seen some excellent practice, but we want to keep driving up all schools to the very highest standards for all children.

Education authorities in England, which have to implement the decisions, knew nothing about the now delayed planned return to full schooling until the Government bounced them into it last month. What steps has the Secretary of State taken to make sure that in future, local authorities, headteachers and unions are kept fully informed about developments, and that schools are given adequate time to prepare for each stage of their pupils’ return?

We always have and will continue to have regular meetings with them to share our most up-to-date plans.

I appreciate that health and safety issues are paramount in a decision to reopen primary schools to all children and I welcome the flexibility in my right hon. Friend’s statement today. However, I share concerns about the serious impact that the lack of schooling will have on many disadvantaged children from poor households. I welcome his commitment that they will be a top priority. Will he reaffirm that for me?

I absolutely reaffirm that to my right hon. Friend, and the importance of ensuring that pupils are back in full-time schooling at the earliest possible moment. We will continue to work with schools to bring more children back into that formal education environment as swiftly as we possibly can.

I echo the thanks to those in the profession for what they have done so far. I would like to clarify some of the numbers that the Secretary of State used. The Chair of the Select Committee on Education said that there were 700,000 children without devices. The Secretary of State said that 100,000 had been distributed with 230,000 still to come. Seven hundred thousand minus 100,000 minus 230,000 makes 370,000 children without an internet device. Have I got that wrong? If so, will the Secretary of State please clarify? If I am right, will he explain how that squares with prioritising the most disadvantaged children and learning?

In terms of the distribution of laptops, we prioritised key groups that we felt were most vulnerable and most in need of them. A total of 230,000 laptops will be going out as part of that programme as well as tens of thousands of routers to help children from some of the most vulnerable families, who perhaps have some limited resources at home, but do not have the internet access that they need to access the online learning that we want them to enjoy.

Many children commute into the Hendon constituency to access the high-quality education provided by the London Borough of Barnet. As those children travel by public transport, they will be required to wear masks and take other precautions. Will the Secretary of State outline what precautions he believes there should be for children who use school transport provided by the local authority? Will they be required to take the same precautions as others by wearing masks on their journeys? When they get to school, will they simply discard those masks?

People will be required to follow the same regulations on both home-to-school transport and general public transport. The approach we have taken to bringing schools back has had safety at its very heart, making sure that classes are in small bubbles to ensure that we reduce the chances of transmission. We believe that such a cautious, phased approach is the right one.[Official Report, 15 June 2020, Vol. 677, c. 2MC.]

The Secretary of State has spent time in my constituency and will know that at least one in three children in my constituency live in poverty and are at risk of falling the furthest behind because of not being in school. It is clear that we need a strategic plan, just as the Government have had for the economy and with the same focus, but in the meantime it is really important that the Secretary of State commits today to a major campaign over the summer for catch-up education for children and to an urgent roll-out of the laptops he has promised. Finally, I wish he would address the issue of free school meal vouchers carrying on over the summer. Please, Secretary of State, think again about the callous decision that was made last week.

As I have stated previously, we are going to ensure that we look not just at children’s needs over the summer in terms of how they can take steps and work with schools so that they can catch up on the work that they have missed if they have not been able to sustain that learning at home. We are looking not only at the summer but much more over the longer term. We have never traditionally provided free school meals all the way through the summer, but the DWP has put in an extra £6.5 billion to support those families who are most vulnerable. We will continue to work with the DWP, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to continue to support those families who are most vulnerable.

Across the country, the children of key workers have been enabled to continue to attend school. In my constituency, we have a large concentration of key workers, and schools have often interpreted the rules as being that both parents have to be key workers before the children will be allowed to attend school. That has necessitated lengthy discussions with headteachers and others in the schools. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the position will be that children of key workers will continue to be able to attend full-time education, to enable those key workers to provide the key services that we all need in this desperate time?

I can absolutely confirm that. Just for clarity, as was outlined in our guidance back in March, if the family has one key worker, they have access to those critical-worker places.

In the light of exam cancellations, GCSE and A-level grades will now be predicted by teachers. An upcoming report by the Equality Act Review has highlighted the concerns of students and parents, particularly those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, about this situation. Has the Secretary of State assessed how predicted grades will further worsen the attainment gap?

The hon. Gentleman raises a vital point. We took this issue into account in our work with Ofqual and the exam boards to make sure that people from black and ethnic minority communities are not disadvantaged in that way.

Children in the communities I used to teach in will have been most disadvantaged over the past few weeks, and to catch up they need access to qualified practitioners. Well-meaning as a summer school programme might sound, it needs to be longer term. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, whatever programme is delivered in the longer term, it will be delivered by qualified practitioners?

My hon. Friend makes a vital point. This should not be a short-term measure; it must be about people who are qualified and understand the issues, and who ensure that what they teach children fits in with everything that those children need to learn, as they move through the school and towards their exams. This must be an evidence-based approach, and we are working with organisations, including the Education Endowment Foundation, to ensure that anything we do is focused on the best interests of the child, and ensuring that they close that gap.

In Scotland, shielding has been extended to the end of July, but in England there is not the same clarity. There is a risk that vulnerable teaching staff might feel pressure to return to work before it is safe to do so. What are the Government’s plans to enable staff who are shielding to continue to work remotely and deliver lessons in a safe environment?

We are asking those who are extremely vulnerable and not in a position to return to work to provide their important work through remote learning and supporting the schools in what they do. That approach seems not dissimilar to what is happening in Scotland.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I have spoken with many headteachers in my constituency over the past few weeks, and all our schools across Stoke-on-Trent have been able to remain open throughout the pandemic. A number of schools have seen unexpected costs during this time, particularly with gaps in their budgets from lost income, and many will still have to pay exam fees despite there being no exams. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all our teachers for the incredible work they have done, and consider what can be done to try to plug some of those gaps?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking all the teachers in Stoke-on-Trent. It has been great that schools there not only stayed open all the way through the pandemic for those children who are most vulnerable, and the children of critical workers, but that so many of them opened up last week and so many children came back. My hon. Friend mentioned unexpected costs as a result of coronavirus. Secondary and primary schools are able to bid into a fund to recover some of the costs that they might have experienced as a result of the pandemic.

I was shocked and alarmed to learn that children at a school that I support in my constituency have endured physical and violent instances of racism on their walk home. This week we have seen renewed calls for our schools to teach the true, brutal history of the British empire, and the legacy of imperialism and colonialism, rooted in racism, which continues to have a generational impact today. Given the ongoing systematic, systemic, and structural inequalities and state-sanctioned racism, will the Government reassure my constituents, including those children who are victims of racist abuse, by introducing a curriculum that educates all children and young people about the enduring history of racism?

We would all expect respect and tolerance to be very much at the heart of what happens in every one of our schools in every part of the country. That tolerance and respect for all, whatever someone’s background, is incredibly important in education. The national curriculum already ensures that people are able to teach what happened under the British empire, not just in history lessons but in English and in personal, social, health and economic education. There is an amazing range of resources, and we encourage all schools to look at those, and to ensure that children have an education that is able to reflect the rich and diverse nature of this truly wonderful country.

Recognising that it will not be possible to bring back whole-school cohorts in primary schools until September, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will support and be flexible with those schools that would wish to bring back more than just the minimum number of children, where they are able to do so and they have the space and the staff to do that? Will he help them? Secondly, will he lay out for the parents of those children who now will not be going back until September exactly what their childcare options are to enable them to get back to work?

We are working to devise a priority list so that schools are able, where they do have extra capacity, to welcome back more children. That enables them to support children’s learning, but also their communities, including parents, who of course need to be going out to work as well.

A full physical return seems some way off and may well be subject to further interruption. Given that we know there are still hundreds of thousands of children who are not able to access education remotely, will the Secretary of State redouble his efforts to spread out as far as possible electronic means of education? Will he give a date by which he can guarantee that every child will be able to access their education electronically?

We aim to get all the computers that we have purchased out by the end of June, and we are on course to be able to do that. We also recognise the importance of supporting children through not just online learning, but additional learning that we can provide for them through schools. We are making sure that we have also supported schools to be able to have Microsoft Teams and Google platforms in order to help them deliver more learning online and, for physical learning, we are ensuring that they can deliver by sending resources to pupils directly as well.

Attending school supports not only children’s education, but their wellbeing. Returning to a normal routine will be immensely beneficial. Will my right hon. Friend therefore also look at reintroducing the vital school fruit and vegetable scheme as soon as possible for schools such as Lee Chapel Primary School, to ensure that the most vulnerable children get access to fresh, nutritious food?

My hon. Friend makes the important point that getting children back into, a routine is vital, and getting as many children as we can back into the classroom is a top priority for all of us. The fruit and vegetable scheme is led by the Department of Health and Social Care, but I will be in contact with it to have discussions, and I will get back to my hon. Friend on the matter.

Nurseries and early years centres in my constituency tell me they are facing losses of up to £50,000 this term alone. If the Government do not act soon, there will not be many nurseries left to send children to. When does the Secretary of State hope to come forward with a realistic plan to protect essential nurseries and early years provision?

We have had an unprecedented package to support nursery and early years provision. There is the continued commitment to paying money through local authorities to support them, there is the furlough scheme and there is rates relief. We constantly talk with those in the sector about how we can do more to support them and how we can support them in the long term to achieve our aim of delivering a rich environment in which children can learn in those early years. Whether they are in the charity sector or the commercial sector, those providers should continue to be able to succeed and create a stable environment for all children.

A number of schools have quite a few pupils who are children of critical workers or the children themselves are vulnerable. As a result, it is difficult for those schools to accept other pupils. Is there anything the Government can do to help those schools and any advice they can give them? They are anxious to move on, but are having problems doing so.

My hon. Friend highlights an issue that a number of schools are facing, and we are looking at working with them to add extra flexibility. They can perhaps look at using different facilities and different resources that may be available to them in order to be able to expand provision within a school.

I noted the Secretary of State’s throwaway criticism of my hon. Friend the shadow Education Secretary about the National Education Union. I found it a tad ironic when he did not even consult the National Association of Head Teachers, the headteachers’ professional association, regarding the original 1 June restart date. We all want to get our children back into school, but far too many parents currently still do not regard it as safe, and that is understandable and hardly surprising when, in parts of my region, the north-east, the incidence of covid-19 is five times greater than in parts of the south-west. A one-size-fits-all policy should never have been considered. Will the Secretary of State properly consider that when moving forward?

That is why, as I stated earlier, we want to work with local authorities that have concerns to make sure they are in a position to open all their schools and, where they face practical problems or issues, to discuss that with them to ensure that all their schools are open. If we have to close schools, we will do that in conjunction with Public Health England, but it is vital that we get all schools open for these year groups, while always recognising that there might be clusters of schools that have to close for short periods.

When the Children’s Commissioner appeared before the Education Committee last week, she said that if no further children went back to school before September, 8 million children would have missed six months of learning. Given what we know already happens over the summer holidays, does my right hon. Friend agree that that is too long and that any school that conceivably can open should do so?

I want to see all schools open, and that is why we will continue to work with all schools to look at how they can accept more and more pupils, making sure that all children have the amazing opportunity of learning from their teachers. I am very optimistic that we will see more children returning to school and the number of children attending school increasing week upon week.

The Secretary of State mentioned colleges in his statement, but does he recognise the important role that universities are playing as well in providing additional support for young people, particularly disadvantaged young people? I think, for example, of the summer school being run by the University of Glasgow, which incidentally has just been rated No. 1 by the Complete University Guide. What support is he making available to that sector, given the funding gap it is facing, so that it can respond to the whole range of challenges that covid is presenting to education?

I congratulate the University of Glasgow on that great success. I know the leadership there is truly outstanding. We will continue to work with the universities sector, including on how it can support us in our response to covid. We have seen brilliant work on testing and the development of vaccines as well as support for NHS workers with the provision of accommodation. That is why we brought out the stabilisation package for universities just a few weeks ago. We continue to work with the sector on how we can do more and continue to support them.

My right hon. Friend is acutely conscious of the detriment caused by this extended period away from school, educationally, socially and to mental and physical health, so can we have maximum flexibility for those schools that could welcome back more children—for example, with rotas for the use of suitable additional premises or even by having year 6 pupils doing extended transition time in their soon-to-be secondary school if and where schools locally believe they can do that?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We want to give schools the maximum flexibility to get as many children as possible through the doors before the summer holidays so that we can maximise their learning opportunities as a result.

At the end of May, the respected director of public health in Sheffield, Greg Fell, wrote to all Sheffield schools strongly advising against opening because, among other issues, he had concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment and was not convinced about the effectiveness of the test, track and trace system then in place. Does the Secretary of State agree that schools, as on this occasion, should follow the advice of their locally-based directors of public health and not seek to second guess that advice and think they know better about public health issues?

We encourage all schools to return and open their doors to pupils. As I think we all recognise, children gain vast benefits—both physically and mentally, as well as in their learning—from being able to return. We very much encourage Sheffield City Council to engage with us to ensure that it is supporting schools to open their doors and get children learning once again.

Children at Wombourne High School in the Secretary of State’s own constituency are very fortunate because they continue to enjoy virtual lessons. What will the Secretary of State do to make sure that all children can have that?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the brilliant work of Wombourne High School in supporting pupils in my constituency of South Staffordshire. We want to see that replicated across all schools. That is why we will set minimum expectations for curriculum delivery for the remaining weeks of this term. We are also working with schools to make sure that the bar is set as high as possible for those children who are not able to go back to school, perhaps because they are shielding, in our minimum expectations for what they should be learning at all times.

Many people in the BAME community living in multigenerational households are not planning to send their children to school because they are afraid that they will bring the virus home to their grandparents. How is the Secretary of State going to persuade parents from disadvantaged backgrounds and from the black and minority ethnic community to send their children to school?

Of course, the best advert for why children should be going back to school is those incredibly powerful images of children returning to school for the first time. We see absolute joy across their faces, their passion for learning and the fact that they are so pleased to see their teachers and friends once more. And they come back from school having had the opportunity to learn. That, for me, is the very best advert for what we are doing.

The hon. Lady highlights the important issue of black and ethnic minority communities. We continue to work with Public Health England and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to make sure that we do everything we can to assuage the concerns of all communities. The best place for children is back in school.

My right hon. Friend has tried very hard to get as many children as possible back to school, particularly vulnerable children. Does he agree not only that education supports social factors and wellbeing, but that it is immensely important to get those in non-accessible areas, including rural areas such as Derbyshire Dales, back to school as soon as possible, when it is safe?

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. We need to get every child back to school. We should not stint in our ambition to see all children back in school and learning at the very earliest opportunity. I do not want the return to school to be delayed. Picking up on the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), it is important to look at different ways to bring more children back so that they have the opportunity to learn and to be set new tasks and new learning goals by their teachers before the summer.

At sixth-form and further education colleges in areas such as mine, many young people go to college by bus. Indeed, Mark Robertson, the principal of Cambridge Regional College, tells me that more than half of his pupils are in that position. Given that only one in four places on buses is now viable, the huge extra cost is a major obstacle to returning. What is the Department doing to help?

We continue to work on this issue with the Department for Transport, the Local Government Association, local authorities and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We recognise the challenges of home-to-school transport and will look at how we can provide support to bring more children back, especially as we move into the September period.

If we are going to bring back early years settings, does my right hon. Friend recognise the financial pressure on those that operate as charities, and would he like to set out what we are going to do for them?

This is why it was vital that we immediately made it clear to those organisations that we will continue to support them with grant funding for the children who access those settings. Those organisations receive money from Government. On top of that, there is the furlough scheme and we have been able to offer rates relief to many of those organisations. We continue to work with the sector to find long-term solutions to some of the challenges they face.

More than 80,000 children and young people across the north-east receive free school meal vouchers. Bearing in mind that the children who are entitled to those vouchers are most likely to be in poverty and that we are currently living through a pandemic, what are the Secretary of State’s plans to ensure that no child goes hungry during the summer holidays and that no parent or carer will have to rely on food banks?

We continue to work with the Department for Work and Pensions, MHCLG and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on this. I talked about the unprecedented £6.5 billion extra that the DWP was distributing. We also have the holiday activities and food fund, which we are looking to continue to run this summer.

The Secretary of State rightly identified year 6s as one of the groups that should be in the early phase of pupils being brought back to school because they are about to transition to a new school. Of course, in areas with infant schools, there are children in year 2 who are in the same position. Will he confirm—and, indeed, give guidance—that he will allow those schools, if they can, to bring back some year 2s ahead of the transition this summer?

We are looking at giving schools much more flexibility to bring the maximum amount of pupils into schools. Where transition years fall slightly differently in different areas, one of the conversations we will be having with those schools is about how we can prioritise those pupils.

The Scottish Government took the decision in May not to send pupils back to school until after summer, so it is welcome that the UK Government have joined us with similar thinking. However, at the same time, the Scottish Government took practical steps to combat digital exclusion by ensuring that vulnerable families were equipped with laptops and digital services. Will the Secretary of State outline what similar practical steps he has planned for the summer, on top of the laptops he has already mentioned?

I do not wish to disagree with the hon. Lady, but I think that we have a much more ambitious plan than Scotland in terms of actually wanting to see schools open. We have seen literally thousands of schools open right across the country, offering children face-to-face lessons and support from teachers, teaching assistants and everyone else. I think that is far better than anything that can be delivered digitally. There is no substitute for a brilliant teacher in a classroom inspiring a child. However, as I touched on, we will continue to develop our digital platforms. The Oak National Academy has delivered more than 10 million lessons over the last few weeks. That is an amazing success and we want to build on it.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) just said, children who are transitioning into a new school must have extra support over the next few months so that they feel comfortable about entering their new school. Has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State given any consideration to allowing those in year 6 to spend time this term in their new secondary school so that they are fully prepared for September?

My hon. Friend highlights an important benefit that can be given to children—the opportunity to spend vital time in a setting that will become their new school—and asks how we can help facilitate that. There is also the question of how we can relieve some of the pressures that may exist in the primary school system so that primary schools can look at bringing more children in. This is one of the options as part of the increasingly flexible approach that we will be taking to getting more children into school and more children benefiting from education.

I and Members across the House wrote to the Secretary of State asking for an extension of free school meals over the summer holidays. Already, more than 200,000 children have gone without meals during this pandemic. He knows full well that the holiday activities and food programme will target only 4% of the children eligible. Throughout the statement, he has referred to a long-term plan. What is in it, and where do hungry children fit into it?

As at every stage, the interests of children and care for children in education is at the heart of it, but our focus as a Department has been how we can support schools in supporting their children. That is what we have seen over the last few weeks and that is what we will continue to do. The holiday activities resources that we are looking at rolling out will be an important step in helping local authorities to do that.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on the progress that has been made to open universities? Online lectures can be very useful but they are no substitute for face-to-face lectures and lectures that require some practical work.

My hon. Friend highlights the importance of ensuring that universities are able to deliver lectures not just virtually but for practical steps, and of opening up research facilities in universities. That is what we are working on with Universities UK, to ensure that they are able to return to normal as rapidly as possible, so that not only do students get the best, but the wider community of the UK gets the best from all universities being open.

Sadly, Tower Hamlets has seen the fourth highest age-adjusted death rate in the country and the Government’s own report shows that black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are at greater risk, with Bangladeshis twice as likely to face death because of the coronavirus pandemic. Parents are caught in a dilemma of survival versus education, because they do not have confidence in what the Government have done so far on school opening. Will the Secretary of State publish a risk assessment, area by area, so that there is transparency, with parents able to feel more confident that the Government actually have a proper plan, and that there is action to provide free school meals in some of the poorest communities in our country?

At every stage, we will take the maximum cautious approach on how we bring schools back. Every step, whether it is making sure children are able to come back to much smaller class sizes, so that we reduce the risk of transmission, or making sure that contact between children is absolutely minimised—although these things are incredibly challenging for schools and reduce the ease of operating schools—has been taken to reduce the chances of transmission. SAGE always publishes all its papers and makes them public, and I imagine it will continue to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the international evidence that looking at the R rate, either locally or regionally, becomes less useful as case numbers fall and that perhaps we should be looking at the prevalence data from the Office for National Statistics? In that light, will he commit to working with the sector to get all children back to school in September and supporting them to make up for the lost time?

My absolute ambition is to see all children back in September, but over the coming weeks it is to maximise the number of children who are able to benefit by going into schools. My hon. Friend raises an important point: this is about not just the R rate, but what we are doing on track and trace, and everything we can do to minimise transmission within schools to make them a safe environment for people to work in and learn in.

The problem, listening to the Education Secretary, is that he just does not convey any sense that the Government have a grip or a proper plan for the future. Let me ask him specifically: what support is he going to guarantee for the 16 to 18-year-olds, who feel particularly let down? They have lost their final term, when they might have been getting additional support to get an apprenticeship, a course or a place for the future. Currently, they are getting nothing. When will the guarantee for them be in place?

It is vital to be able to support that age group, and not just in their choices as to whether they want to go on to university, a further education college or an apprenticeship. We are doing a lot of work on skills to make sure we are able to support them in their next step of that journey. We are also working, through the National Careers Service, to make sure they are getting the best advice and guidance, so that they can make the choices that are right for them.

I am sure we are all concerned to hear about the attainment gap between richer and poorer students widening during time off school. What measures will my right hon. Friend take to close that gap and reassure parents that this Government want every child, from every background, to reach their full potential, regardless of covid?

My hon. Friend and neighbour is correct about how we support these students. As I keep saying, there is no magic, simple solution whereby we can put something in place for a short period. This has to be done over a long period—how we support their learning and how we close the gap to make sure that children, whatever background they come from, have the maximum number of opportunities as they go through the school system, and especially as they face exams in the near future.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Glasgow City Council had an ambitious programme in place to tackle holiday hunger. Why can children in Shettleston in my constituency be fed during the summer holidays whereas those in the South Staffordshire constituency that the Secretary of State represents will not be, under his plan?

As I have said, with not only the Department for Work and Pensions, but with MHCLG and DEFRA, we continue to look at how we can support the families who are most vulnerable and most in need of support.

It is undoubtedly the case that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are losing out the most while schools remain closed. Over the past 10 years, we have made fantastic progress in closing the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and their more affluent peers, which has greatly improved the life chances of children in Blackpool. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we risk undermining this excellent progress if the schools that are able to reopen safely choose not to do so?

The biggest impact that we can have on any child is making sure that schools are open and welcoming back the maximum number of pupils into their classroom to have the opportunity to be in front of their teachers and to learn from them. That is how we can help them more than anything else—more than any other intervention. But we recognise that we have to do more on top of that, and that is what we are going to do, opening the doors to schools and making sure that as many children as possible are able to go in and to learn. That is how we will close the gap, more than anything else.

At last Thursday’s business questions the Leader of the House suggested that I should direct my question to the Secretary of State this week. The cap on the number of English students at universities in the devolved nations, including St Andrews University in my constituency, has been applied without consultation and will further financially impact on institutions that have already made placing offers as they deal with covid-19. Will he commit to meeting me, or at least to engaging with the Governments of the devolved nations and bodies such as Universities Scotland, to mitigate this impact?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that we have continued to engage with the Scottish Government over this and will continue to do so. It was very much part of our stability package that we put in to help universities. We hope that by working with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments we will do everything we can to support this vital sector.

Will my right hon. Friend insist that Public Health England, local authorities and schools work together seamlessly when there is an outbreak of covid among members of staff?

It is absolutely vital that they work seamlessly together if there is such an instance, because we want to protect the children and those who are working in the schools to the maximum of our ability, and ensure that when it is safe to do so, those schools can reopen as swiftly as possible.