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Schools in Kent: Covid-19

Volume 682: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2020

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on schools in disadvantaged areas of Kent.

I might add that the schools we are discussing include a number in my constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

The list of challenges that we have faced this year, following the outbreak of coronavirus in the spring, is growing longer all the time. Almost every aspect of our lives has been affected by covid-19 and the various restrictions imposed to combat it. One of the areas that has seen the biggest change is our education system, from the move to online learning during the lockdown earlier this year, to the implementation of classroom and year group bubbles when pupils were eventually let back into schools. I want to start my comments by praising school staff and pupils for their tenacity, patience and resilience throughout these challenging times, particularly those in my constituency, of whom I am incredibly proud.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention a number of concerns that have been raised with me. Before doing so, however, I want to stress that I broadly support the Government’s strategy for tackling the covid-19 crisis. The financial support that has been given to so many businesses and schools has been quite extraordinary, and I hope that Ministers will continue to provide whatever help is needed as we fight the second wave of this wretched disease.

Despite the Government’s excellent record, however, we would be kidding ourselves if we believed that everything had gone completely smoothly or that things could not have sometimes been done better. Mistakes have been made—not always by politicians—and we should learn from them as we go forward. Take schools in Kent as an example. They are already facing huge challenges—particularly those in areas of high social deprivation, including in my constituency—and those challenges are being exacerbated by the difficulty that schools face when either a pupil or a member of staff is forced to self-isolate because of possible covid symptoms. My information is that there have been far too many occasions when it has taken too long for pupils and staff to get the all clear when their tests prove negative. Those delays have caused enormous disruption to the running of the schools concerned.

Quite rightly, the Government are determined to keep schools open, even when areas move into higher covid alert levels. However, it is important that they can operate with as little disruption as possible. I believe that, like the NHS and care homes, schools should be given priority when it comes to testing.

One of the main reasons I applied for this debate is that the current covid-19 crisis has exposed the divide between pupils from areas of social deprivation and those in more affluent communities. As I pointed out earlier, there are a number of disadvantaged areas in my constituency, so I know better than most the consequences of social deprivation and how they can have a lasting impact on the lives and ambitions of some people.

Take the Isle of Sheppey, where the majority of 11 to 16-year-olds are educated at the island’s only secondary school. As the Minister will know, it is split between two sites that are 2 miles apart. Many of the more aspirational children choose to travel to the mainland, where there are two grammar schools and three high schools. For some of the youngsters on Sheppey, being disadvantaged begins before the school run. If their parents cannot afford transport to the mainland or are disinclined to take up that choice, the only option is the Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey.

There is nothing wrong with the Isle of Sheppey academy—in fact, it has come on leaps and bounds since it was first taken over by Oasis—and I certainly do not want my words to detract in any way from the very good work being done to help the young people in its care. For instance, pre-covid, a team of dedicated staff established a taskforce that works with local groups of people and organisations to improve the area around the students and highlight the positives that the island has to offer.

There are many success stories coming out of the Oasis Academy, which, as a result of forward-thinking leadership, is allowing many of its pupils to be proud of who they are and where they come from. However, there are still concerns over those who struggle to break out of the historic cycle of unemployment, which has led to social deprivation and is one of the causes of the lack of aspiration among some young people and their parents. Every child should have the same access to a good education and providing that is difficult enough, even when we have a society that is functioning properly. My inbox proves to me that if we are to achieve our ambition to build back better, we will have to work harder at getting learning for all our young people.

Of course, covid-19 has not helped. Speaking with headteachers in my area, one thing is clear: during the lockdown, there was a lack of IT equipment and internet access, which prevented the most disadvantaged pupils from taking part in online lessons. Just imagine that, Mr Pritchard—locked out of education because you are not one of those lucky enough to have access to superfast broadband.

I appreciate the unprecedented challenges faced by the Government to ensure children continued to be educated during the lockdown. I am sure that Ministers did what they could in very difficult circumstances. However, we must learn from those circumstances and ensure our schools are not left in the same situation again. Such disadvantages in education damage the perceptions that affected pupils have about their peers. It sows division and widens the difference in achievement levels, and ultimately leads to struggles later in life.

That is why I was horrified to hear the account from Alan Brookes, a widely respected headteacher in my constituency and chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers. Alan told me that the attainment gap between children from different socio-economic groups has grown since the lockdown, not least because children from the more deprived groups were least likely to attend lessons during lockdown, even when they were encouraged to do so. As he pointed out, the challenges he and his staff faced daily were compounded by lengthy delays in the provision of laptops funded by the Department for Education.

Schools did the best they could in the circumstances. The Isle of Sheppey academy loaned out laptops to those of its pupils who did not have access to one at home while in lockdown, or where families had only one device that would have had to be shared. We must also remember that, for a lot of children, the situation at home is not conducive to learning. We must do all we can to prevent a second national lockdown, which to be effective would no doubt have to include schools.

I must tell the Minister that there are also concerns in my area that the catch-up funding is inadequate, because it is spread far too thinly. I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong, but Kent schools will receive £4,237,650 this autumn. That represents £80 for each pupil up to and including year 11. Although I recognise that the money is designed to help pupils who have missed long periods of in-school education, it is going to all pupils, whatever their personal circumstances. I would like to see more of the money targeted at schools in deprived areas that have the pupils who need financial help most.

The Government are under pressure to extend their free school meals scheme. Personally, I believe there is an argument to agree to that in the short term, although I will not be supporting the Labour motion today because it is too open-ended. Who knows what will happen after Christmas? But that is by the by.

If we are to have a free meals scheme with the vouchers, we should once again ensure that it is for the hardest-hit families. However, we must improve the delivery of the vouchers used in the scheme. There were continual problems with the scheme in my local schools, with some people finding it difficult to get hold of vouchers. That led to schools providing meals for desperate families out of their own budgets.

Turning to exams, we saw how the pandemic impacted the GCSE and A-level results season this year. As policy makers, we must take what happened this summer as a black mark against our name. We must learn from it and use it as an opportunity to improve the system. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is working hard with Ofqual to ensure that future examinations are fair, but what assurances will he give students that their grades next year will be as valuable as their predecessors’ this year? What is being done to ensure parity in the education system, especially now, when we have a situation in which lockdowns are becoming ever more likely? How will we ensure that our young people are all assessed on the same criteria when their experiences are likely to be worlds apart?

To go slightly further, there are already concerns in Kent about the plans announced last week for the next block of GCSEs and A-levels. The Government have said that they will give pupils more time to prepare for exams next year, but heads in my area believe that the announced changes will simply widen the attainment gap, because a three-week delay in taking the exams does little, if anything, to compensate for the learning that has already been lost.

That leads me to another concern. No doubt, as we emerge from the pandemic, Ofsted will resume school inspections. I urge my right hon. Friend to insist that inspectors take into account a school’s individual circumstances before assessing it, especially those schools in deprived areas where the delivery of education has been more problematic and where standards and exam results will inevitably be affected. I would like an assurance that otherwise good schools will not be classed as failing as a result of circumstances related purely to the pandemic, which were outside their control.

I now turn to what is becoming one of the biggest issues of our time: mental health. Our young people are resilient and good at bouncing back, and at digging deep and getting on with the task in hand, but we must ensure that we have in place measures to offer support for those who struggle. Alan Brookes tells me that Kent schools are already seeing signs that children from the poorest backgrounds are turning up at school with increased mental health issues. His school, Fulston Manor in Sittingbourne, has been able to refer people to external services, but that is only because staff in the school are being proactive. I am worried that not enough is being done to ensure that pupils elsewhere do not fall through the cracks.

Other things are already creeping up on us, and it is our duty to look at those in our rear-view mirror to ensure that we keep ahead of them. One such thing is higher unemployment. The first roles to go are likely to be those in the more deprived areas of Kent. If left unchecked, that will impact most on those young people leaving school from the poorest backgrounds. Those people who will risk failing are the hard-working youngsters who want to leave school to start making a contribution to our society in the most valuable way. If we are not careful, they will simply join the long-term unemployed. We must avoid that at all costs.

In winding up, I take the opportunity to praise the work of Swale Borough Council and Kent County Council, which have gone above and beyond the call of duty in a bid to ensure that things run as smoothly as possible for pupils and students. Finally, again, I thank my local school staff, pupils and parents for the way in which they have conducted themselves in the face of a difficult and fast-changing situation.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I felt a little like a contestant in “Just a Minute”, with two seconds left before the bell went. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate and on an excellent opening speech.

Covid-19 has affected everyone but, as my hon. Friend says, children and young people in our most disadvantaged communities risk being acutely affected. It has been this Government’s aim throughout the crisis to do whatever it takes to mitigate the impact on communities such as those in his constituency, including by focusing support on schools in those areas. I begin by outlining that support, specifically addressing the points my hon. Friend made just now.

In March this year, the Government took the difficult decision to ask schools to close to most children, remaining open for vulnerable children, those with education, health and care plans, and the children of critical workers. Throughout that difficult time, I was inspired by the many examples of headteachers and teachers going above and beyond to support their pupils, including in disadvantaged areas of Kent. Throughout, schools have supported one another and shared information with the Department for Education. The regional schools commissioner for south-east England and south London hosted roundtable meetings with academy trusts from across Kent in the summer term, and I am also aware that Alan Brookes, who as my hon. Friend mentions chairs the Kent Association of Headteachers, has been active in supporting his association’s headteachers throughout this time and been supportive of the regional schools commissioner and their team. I am grateful for all those efforts.

Ensuring that schools provide high-quality remote education was and continues to be a key part of our work to support schools. We have invested more than £100 million in remote education. We have already delivered more than 220,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children who would not otherwise have access to the internet, supporting disadvantaged children to stay online and connected with their teachers during the summer term. Of those, 3,563 laptops and tablets were delivered to Kent County Council for children with a social worker and care leavers, and 437 for disadvantaged year 10s in local authority-maintained schools, alongside additional devices delivered to academy trusts in the area. I am pleased to see that some schools have supplemented Government support to make devices more widely available. As my hon. Friend said, thanks to the team at the Oasis Academy on the Isle of Sheppey, all pupils in years 10 and 13 have access to a computer.

We are now supplementing that support by making available an additional 250,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children in years 3 to 11 in the event that face-to-face schooling is disrupted as a result of covid-19 outbreaks or local restrictions. As my hon. Friend says, it is not acceptable for a child’s internet connection to determine their educational outcomes. That is why we have also provided more than 50,000 4G routers to help disadvantaged children get online. Of those, 500 4G wireless routers were delivered to Kent County Council for children with a social worker and care leavers, and 255 for disadvantaged year 10s in local authority-maintained schools, alongside additional 4G wireless routers delivered to academy trusts in the area. We are also working with the major telecommunications companies to improve internet connectivity for disadvantaged and vulnerable families. The Department is piloting an approach where mobile networks will provide families who rely on a mobile internet connection with temporary access to free additional data, offering them more flexibility to access the resources they need the most.

The steps taken to provide remote education and initiatives such as the Oak National Academy have helped ensure the continuity of education for pupils during a uniquely difficult time. We know that time out of school will have created gaps in educational attainment. To address that, it was imperative for schools to fully open. The Government have successfully supported pupils in all year groups and from all types of schools to return to school full time from the beginning of the autumn term. Figures show that, as at 15 October, 99.7% of state-funded schools were open, with approximately 89% of all children enrolled in all state-funded schools in attendance.

We are continuing to do everything in our power to ensure that every child can be back in their classroom safely. This is the best place for them to be for their education and their wellbeing and development. This has not been an easy undertaking. School leaders, teachers and support staff have worked tirelessly to ensure that their schools are open and safe for children and young people, and I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the very significant efforts during this very challenging time. I know that all schools are working to ensure that remote education can continue for children in the event that they cannot attend school because of covid-19. For example, the Department has recently discussed remote education arrangements with the Stour Academy Trust which operates on the Isle of Sheppey. It is confident that its teachers are prepared to deliver remote education. In the event that bubbles of children need to isolate, live online lessons will be delivered, covering the same content as they would have covered in school. Systems are in place to check the engagement of pupils and to monitor their progress.

The Department continues to work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that staff and pupils have priority access to testing, an issue that worries my hon. Friend. We are supplying coronavirus test kits directly to schools for those who develop symptoms and face significant barriers to accessing a test through existing routes. These test kits will help symptomatic staff who test negative and who are not close contacts of confirmed cases to get back to work as soon as they feel well enough. We are also keen to explore new testing technologies as they become available and to understand how those kits could be utilised for the benefits of the education sector. Small-scale pilots are beginning this week to help us better understand how they can be operationalised in schools. Those technologies will form the foundations for delivering mass testing: testing large numbers of people in a short period of time with test results made available quickly so that those tested can be reassured more quickly that they are not infected or will isolate themselves more quickly if they are. This will help to protect those at high risk, to find the virus and to help schools to get back to normal.

The Government have provided considerable support to schools to help them tackle these challenges. We have invested in schools financially in three key ways. First, the Government are providing a package of additional support worth £1 billion to ensure that schools have the support that they need to help children and young people make up for lost teaching time. The figure that my hon. Friend quoted for mainstream school support for schools in Kent is correct, although more than £4.5 million has already been allocated if we include special schools. It is important to remember that this is just an initial allocation with further allocations to come. This is on top, of course, of the £2.6 billion increase this year in school budgets nationally.

Of this package, £650 million is being provided in the form of a universal catch-up premium for all schools. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, all children have had their education disrupted but, as he says, disadvantaged children will have been the hardest hit. That is why, alongside the universal catch-up premium—the £80 that he referred to—we are also launching a national tutoring programme to provide additional targeted support for those children and young people who will need the most support to catch up. All schools should use their catch-up premium funding as a single total from which to prioritise support for all pupils guided by the level of individual need. Even the amount that he referred to as being spread thinly—£80 per pupil and £80,000 for an average comprehensive school—is free to be targeted by schools where they think it is most required.

Secondly, the Government have worked with schools and communities to provide school food vouchers to support families in need. We recognise that there were initial problems with the system but, ultimately, more than 20,350 schools have placed orders for the scheme and more than £380 million has been redeemed into supermarket e-gift cards by schools and families. That included cover over Easter, May half-term and the summer holidays.

Thirdly, the Department has been supporting schools financially with the additional costs they may have occurred between March and July as a result of the pandemic. Schools have already received payments of £58 million in respect of their claims against those expenses, more than £2 million of which has been received by schools in Kent. We have also ensured that the schools in most need have access to expert support. In May 2020, the Department began the school-to-school support recovery offer to any school identified as vulnerable because of the covid pandemic, with up to five days of support from a system leader. In the summer term, the recovery offer supported about 300 schools, helping them to open to prioritised year groups. In the autumn term the offer was extended and a further 100 schools are being supported to reopen effectively. Some 10 schools in Kent are currently receiving support, and we continue to work with trusts and local authorities to identify others that may require support.

My right hon. Friend mentioned schools receiving the same amount of money, which they could spend how they wanted and could channel towards disadvantaged pupils. That does not cover what happens if that same amount of money goes to a school that does not have any disadvantaged pupils. That was the point I was trying to make. We have got to target schools in disadvantaged areas, rather than those in affluent areas.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable and important point. However, the sum of money is very large. We have secured £1 billion for the single task of catching up. In the schools he refers to, even the most assiduous pupil, who is working hard at home, will have lost education compared to being in the classroom. We wanted to ensure that there was money for all schools to address that concern, but I take his point.

While it is right that school leavers are supported, it is also right that parents, such as those in the constituency of my hon. Friend, understand how well their child’s school is serving them. For that reason, it is important that we plan for routine inspections to return from January, although that date is being kept under review. The point my hon. Friend makes is good, and I can assure him that, when they do return, Ofsted inspectors will be sensitive to the impact of the pandemic on schools.

My hon. Friend also raises the important question of exams. Assessment by exam will be part of a normalised year for this year’s cohort. We continue to believe that exams are the best and fairest formal assessment. We continue to work with Ofqual and sector representatives to consider the best approach. Above all, the Government want to ensure that the system is fair and robust.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the important issue of mental health. As well as supporting schools to get back on their feet and supporting pupils to catch up with their education, it is critical that the Government support the wellbeing of pupils and their teachers. The Department has worked with key partners, including the Department of Health and Social Care, Health Education England, Public Health England and voluntary sector organisations to launch the wellbeing for education return project.

The project, which is backed by £8 million, is training local experts to provide additional advice and resources for schools and colleges to help support the wellbeing, resilience and recovery of pupils, staff, parents and carers in the light of the ongoing impact of covid-19. It will give staff the confidence to support pupils, students and their parents, so that they know how and where to access appropriate specialist support, where needed. Kent has been one of the mental health trailblazers. In May 2020, two mental health support teams were established in Thanet and Medway, building on the four existing teams in Kent. That all comes out of the Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health.

Mr Pritchard, I am extremely grateful, as we all are, for the exceptional efforts that schools, academy trusts and Kent County Council have made to support pupils, including those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, during this challenging period. We know we have the professional knowledge and expertise in the education system to ensure that pupils and students recover, and get back on track, and help to ensure that this dreadful pandemic does not have a long-term impact on young people’s opportunities and life chances.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.