[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300399, relating to school attendance during the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank Matthew Wardle, who began the petition and has gathered over 100,000 signatures—136 from my constituency alone in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. I am thankful to have spoken to him today over the phone, and I hope to represent his views, and those of the people who have signed the petition, in a fair manner.
I thought I would start by briefly stating the law, as it stands, in relation to fines being used by schools and local authorities. Under section 7 of the Education Act 1996, parents have a duty to ensure that their children
“of compulsory school age…receive efficient full-time education…by regular attendance at school”.
Schools and local authorities can use a range of parental responsibility measures to provide support when a child’s attendance at school becomes a problem.
Section 23 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 made provision for parents to be fined for their child’s unauthorised absence from school. In September 2013, the amount of time a parent has to pay a fine was reduced. Parents must pay £60 within 21 days, rising to £120 if paid within 22 to 29 days of the notice being issued. If the fine is not paid, the parent can be prosecuted. However, it is important to make it clear that schools and local authorities can implement various legal powers, as well as penalty notices or prosecutions, if a child is missing school without a good reason. They include parenting orders, education supervision orders and school attendance orders.
As parents, we all want our children in school. It is the best place for them to learn and to socialise with their peers. Schools are vital to a child’s wellbeing, safeguarding and education, yet these are not normal times, so we cannot have schools operating in normal ways. However, we are in unprecedented times and must therefore act in an unprecedented way. Matthew argues that the long-term effects of covid-19 on children are still relatively unknown. The fact that there was huge pressure from parents back in April to keep their children at home, and that the Government sent the overwhelming majority of students home, illustrates the risk associated with sending them to school. Despite schools working tirelessly to be as covid-secure as possible, that element of risk has not yet gone; in fact, it is heightened by the need for a second national lockdown over November.
Matthew states that parents are responding to their protective instincts, which are driven by fear, and that it is not fair to punish people who are acting in the best interest to safeguard their children and families. When the situation in August showed a reasonably stable R rate, it was understandable that the Government thought school attendance rules should be restored in September. To Matthew and those who signed the petition, however, that was thrown into doubt after the Prime Minister talked of the rising risk of the NHS being overrun and cases spreading rapidly across the country. Matthew asks:
“How is the situation today any different, if not worse, to that back in April this year?”
Matthew also asks:
“Can we not go back to virtual learning, where teachers can upload pre-recorded lessons? Schools can send learning packs out to homes, as they did with their own children. Or even fine parents who do not ensure that children complete a certain percentage of work provided.”
If none of those options is viable, Matthew simply asks that parents can make a choice. Allow those parents who wish to conduct home learning the opportunity to do so, without the need to de-register their child. In the first eight weeks of returning to school this September, Matthew’s children had to spend four of those weeks in isolation at the school’s request. That caused anxiety and stress in households, as well as difficulties with parents—before Saturday’s announcement—going back to offices and suddenly trying to arrange childcare where the tier system allowed.
Amy McClellan, from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), wrote to me in support of Matthew. Amy argues that:
“With airborne transmission as the main way that covid-19 has been spreading, what is being done to improve poor ventilation in many schools, as is being tackled in Germany?”
Lastly, I spoke to James Bowen from the National Association of Head Teachers ahead of the debate. The NAHT sees school fines as being a blunt tool in abnormal times, which creates unnecessary conflict between the school and parents at a time when it is important that we work together in order to beat coronavirus. As noted, a school takes such action as a last resort, but parents who have children with underlying health conditions will rightly be anxious. Instead, he believes we should be helping schools to reassure parents of the safety measures taken, and to enable headteachers to act on a case-by-case when it comes to students not attending school.
Will the Minister give clear answers to Matthew and to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who signed the petition, so they know that their voices have been heard and their concerns clearly considered?
Before I sit down to let others speak, I will put on the record my personal position on the issue. I have informed Matthew that I disagree with the call to suspend fines for low attendance once again. I have contacted several primary and secondary schools across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, to hear the perspectives of headteachers, senior leaders and school attendance officers. I also bring to the debate my eight years of experience as a teacher in state secondary schools, a large proportion of which I worked as a head of year with the responsibility of overseeing attendance.
The key point about why schools and local authorities must retain the ability to fine non-attendance is summed up well by colleagues at the Excel Academy. Covid-related absence is discounted from a child’s attendance record, so it would never be the reason for a fine or court action. Parents of students about whom schools have concerns based on attendance data from previous years need to be aware of the consequences of not working with the school to keep their child’s attendance above a 90% minimum.
As I stated at the start of my speech, there are many steps of support before parents are fined. Without the ability to fine parents, schools would have no strategies left, having put all the support in place, and so they might not see improvement in a pupil’s attendance. The suspension of the fine would make it even harder for schools to engage with hard-to-reach families. One of my local schools reported that, in some extreme cases, parents were booking holidays to other countries—knowing that they would have to quarantine as a result—because holidays were cheap and the law places an expectation on schools to provide home education while students quarantine and self-isolate.
We need to remember that the decision to fine parents is a decision for schools and local authorities. The Department for Education’s reopening guidance advised schools to take a supportive approach rather than being too hasty in issuing fines. The Department has also asked schools and local authorities to communicate clear and consistent expectations on school attendance. Pupils and families who may be reluctant to attend should be identified and plans developed to re-engage with them. Schools can also use the additional catch-up funding and the pupil premium funding to put measures in place for families who require additional support to secure a pupil’s regular attendance.
In the August statement from the chief medical officers on the re-opening of schools and childcare, the signatories restated the importance of attendance for children and young people. The percentage of symptomatic cases requiring hospitalisation is estimated to be 0.1% for children aged nought to nine, and 0.3% among those aged 10 to 19. The statement also suggested, based on data from the Office for National Statistics, that teaching is a lower-risk profession, and that international data supports that claim. The House of Commons Library briefing also supports it, stating that although almost half a million pupils did not attend school for covid-19-related reasons as of 22 October 2020, only 0.1% had confirmed cases of coronavirus, while 0.4% had suspected cases. Some 459,000 self-isolated after potential contact with a covid case.
We cannot pretend that any school will ever be risk-free, but we must look at the data and accept that the damage to a child’s life chances and physical and mental health, as well as safeguarding concerns, mean that the risk of schools being open to all pupils outweighs the risk of a covid outbreak. These are not easy or comfortable choices, but to lift young people in Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke out of the bottom 20% of national statistics on social mobility and on level 3 and 4 qualification take-up, and to reduce the number of people who are in work without any formal qualifications—the figure there is 8% higher than the national average—students need to be in the classroom with the expert in the room, their teacher, to ensure that they can access one of the greatest equalisers we have in this country: school.
May I make it clear from the start that I believe in the importance of children attending school? No other form of education improves on that, and as long as we can safely keep schools open, doing so should be a priority. At the heart of the debate, however, must be the consideration of precisely what education a child can receive when at home. Let us consider the reality: when schools closed during the first lockdown, about 30% of private school pupils attended four or more online lessons per day, while just 6.3% of state school pupils did the same.
The backdrop here is crucial. Before lockdown, children on free school meals were leaving school on average 18 months behind their classmates, and the gap was getting worse. During lockdown, a quarter of children on free school meals did less than one hour’s schoolwork a day. Staggering data from the Children’s Commissioner indicates that over 58% of primary and just under half of secondary school pupils were provided with no online lessons at all. Those children will have returned to school even further behind.
Right hon. and hon. Members may have read The Times today and found out that work by the Institute for Government suggested that year seven pupils were 22 months behind where they should be, which is truly frightening. That is not the fault of their schools and teachers, who are working unbelievably hard under the most extraordinary circumstances. The barriers to remote education were exposed by the digital divide across our country.
The reality is that 11% of the population are without home internet access and an estimated 9% of children do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. Ofcom estimates that number to be up to 1.78 million children in the UK. The Government promoted their investment in the online Oak Academy, but no number of online lessons could benefit children who were unable to log on from home. For those with family members on pay-as-you-go contracts, it cost a staggering £37 a day to access that academy.
Of course, none of this information is new to the Minister. Just before recess, he responded to my Adjournment debate on the same issue. The debate was timely, as it was just 36 hours before schools became legally responsible for providing online education for pupils self-isolating due to coronavirus. In the debate, the Minister celebrated the number of laptops and devices being distributed by the Government, which were warm words for the watching schools. Imagine my disbelief when, just three days after our debate, the Government announced huge cuts to the remote education support that schools had been promised. Some will now receive just 20% of the laptops they were expecting. The Minister must have known that the change was about to occur, so why did he not tell the House? Why did the Department wait until Parliament had risen before slipping it through?
A furious teacher contacted me after the announcement, and said:
“How ironic that days after highlighting how schools have become so reluctantly used to last-minute guidance, that schools received this announcement at past 6pm on the Friday we broke up for half-term. It would have been almost laughable if it hadn’t become the grim reality. We feel totally let down and left behind. It seems to me that the Department for Education have given up. They were not ready and made the ‘Plan Z’ decision to release what they had at the time—a weak and poor offer to support the future generations of our country.”
Unfortunately, the Minister has not yet responded to my letter sent after our debate, so I ask him, which is it: did he not know that the changes would be occurring. or did he deliberately not inform the House?
That is not just a point of principle. More school bubbles are self-isolating, more teachers are absent and more pressure is being put on the Government to close schools once again. Although I do not support that position, the Government must step in now to ensure that every child has the data and devices that they need if they are forced to learn from home.
Importantly, a device is only as effective as the internet connection with which it is used. No matter how expensive, smart or modern the device distributed, it is educationally useless if it comes without the data or dongle needed to log in from home. Being connected is one thing, but more than 880,000 children live in households with only a mobile internet connection. Mum’s mobile does not strike me as an acceptable solution to logging in and learning from home. I ask the Minister, whom I consider to be a principled person who genuinely wants the best for our young people, please not to ignore the reality. We know that the children who are furthest behind are least likely to have the tools at home they need to remain connected. The impact for children on the wrong side of the digital divide could be lifelong.
With increasing numbers of pupils self-isolating, there is no longer a theoretical debate but a practical problem for schools right now. None of us would have any pleasure in pointing to the debate as a warning that the Minister did not heed. I close by reiterating, compared with the billions of pounds pledged by the Government, what is a cheap, tangible and quick solution to the solution I outlined: give every child who is entitled to a free school meal access to the internet and an adequate device at home. Levelling up can no longer be warm words alone, because, no matter our political view, we can surely all agree that no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, for the third time in recent weeks—I served under your chairmanship twice the week before last. I want to make a few comments from my position as a member of both the Petitions Committee and the Education Committee, which has looked at this issue closely since the start of the pandemic.
I was quite depressed every week, seeing the immense damage done by school closures on all pupils but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs. I remember when the Petitions Committee first discussed the petition, and in many senses it is a shame that it was not debated far sooner. What it called for related to March, when we did not know much about the virus and its impact on young people, whereas now we know far more. I do not know whether everyone who signed the petition would have done so knowing what we know now, but, while I sympathise with the concerns of many of the people who did sign it, I do disagree with its principal call to take the power out of the hands of schools to issue fines, if necessary, should parents withhold their children from school. It is ultimately the role of schools, experts and the Department for Education to determine whether it is safe for children to go to school and not that simply of parents. There would be unintended consequences.
Virtually every parent whose kids are in school cares passionately about their kids and their education. The Government made the important decision at the start of the pandemic to keep schools open for children from vulnerable backgrounds, but the small proportion of them who actually went in was worrying. I remember a session with the Children’s Commissioner, who had a real concern. The brutal truth and sad reality are that some children are deemed as vulnerable because of the households they live in. The benefit of them going to school every day is that other adults can check the welfare of that child and, if there are any issues or concerns, have a conversation with them and intervene. It was a great worry for many of us that, for a prolonged period, many of those vulnerable children were not going into school. On that occasion, putting the decision on whether they should go to school entirely in the hands of a parent left me with concerns. That would be in some respects an unintended consequence of taking the power away from the school and the Government during that period of lockdown. We could have gone further and required that all vulnerable children went into school.
I also had concerns about the online learning offer. Before the debate, I talked to a headteacher of a school in my constituency in a deprived part of town with probably the highest proportion of students for whom English is an additional language. Their online data indicates that only 22% of children from disadvantaged backgrounds with a principal language other than English received good-quality online learning during the period when schools were closed. A lot of children at the school come from the Roma community, and for them it was only 10%. Again, we must look at why that was.
Going forward, we must keep schools open. Like many of my colleagues, I have received a lot of emails recently from the National Education Union about its desire for schools to be closed now, but I disagree. While I sympathise with parents and teachers who have concerns about safety, and the Government need to heed and address those, I think it is absolutely critical that, come what may, our schools are kept open.
We know far more now about the virus and its impact on young people, but we also know far more about the impact of closing schools on children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I am pleased that, from what I have read over the past couple of days, the principal Opposition are also of the view that schools must stay open. It is incumbent on the Government and Opposition to work together in whatever way they can to ensure that that is the case.
In conclusion, although I am sympathetic to some of the concerns raised in the petition and I completely understand why, at the time it was launched, so many people signed it, in the cold light of day today I think that we must resist it and ensure that our schools have the power to issue fines. No head would issue one lightly, and they must do so sensitively where parents have serious concerns about covid-19 and its potential impact, but ultimately the school needs to have that power, because we have seen the devastating impact of school closures. We must keep schools open. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), as I have discussed with him before on the Education Committee on which we both serve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I begin by thanking the Petitions Committee for facilitating this debate, the organisers of the petition for presenting it to Parliament and, of course, the more than 100,000 people who have taken the time to engage with the petition, sign it and stimulate the discussion we are having today—including 500 or so people in my own constituency. These debates are a good way of providing a direct connection between salient issues that people are discussing in our constituencies and live debate here in Parliament.
I also take this opportunity, having only recently been appointed as the shadow Schools Minister, to say an enormous thank you to the entire schools community—the headteachers, governors, teachers and support staff who have been doing an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances. I do not think any of us as constituency MPs could fail to be moved by some of the testimony we are hearing from schools about the extent to which they have moved heaven and earth to try to keep pupils learning—including during the first lockdown, where we could have been forgiven, from some of the coverage, for thinking that schools were closed and that learning had stopped.
In fact, it was quite the opposite. Many staff had to work doubly hard to ensure that their pupils could continue to gain access to learning in unusual circumstances, through remote learning and with all the challenges that we know exist. I will refer to those challenges, but they have already been outstandingly put, not just this afternoon, but in an Adjournment debate before the recess by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).
Obviously, a big part of this debate centres on fines, and I will come on to address that, but first and foremost I want to be absolutely clear about where we as the Labour party sit on the question of whether schools should remain open during the pandemic. I think that is really the thrust of the petitioners’ case. We know from some of the opinion polling out today that there is divided opinion in our country, but Labour is clear that it is in the best interests of children and young people up and down the country for schools to remain open and for young people to continue to gain access to learning in school, with a teacher, as much as they possibly can.
There is a strong reason for that. The reason why we invest in teachers and why successive Governments—forgive me for referring to the actions of the previous Labour Government—invested so much in education is that we know that of all the policy levers we can pull in Parliament and in government, education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet in terms of shaping young people’s life chances and giving them every opportunity in life that they deserve. We know that every single day of school missed for pupils from every background has a significant impact on their achievement, their understanding, and, crucially, on their life chances. For young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, that is especially true. We have to do everything we can to make sure that throughout the pandemic, as the Children’s Commissioner has strongly argued, schools are among the last to close and the first to reopen. I appeal to parents who are minded to withdraw their children from school because of worries, concerns and anxieties about whether school is safe and the best place to be to think really carefully about their children’s long-term future and life chances. With the best will in the world, and paying enormous tribute to the work that parents and carers have been doing at home to try to support their children’s learning, that is no substitute for a qualified teacher, a trained professional, teaching children in the classroom environment. We should be really clear about that.
We should also be concerned about the impact that the first lockdown and ongoing absences are having on children’s life chances, especially on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. In the analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation, published in June, its median estimate was that the attainment gap could widen by 36%, but plausible estimates indicated it could widen by between 11% and 75% as a result of school closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In May, Vicki Stewart, deputy director of the pupil premium and school food division in the Department for Education, pointed to similar figures. Research published by the Royal Society in June suggested that school time lost because of the pandemic could harm the economy for the next 65 years, and unless catch-up lessons are effective, researchers predict a 3% loss in future annual earnings for pupils caught up in the pandemic.
I refer to those figures not because I have a utilitarian view that education matters only because of the long-term interests of the economy or people’s earnings potential, but to underline the point that a significant period of time missed—pupils have already missed significant time in school this year—has an impact not only on this academic year or the next round of examinations or the examinations beyond that; it has a long-term, lasting and detrimental impact on people’s life chances and opportunities, so we cannot be complacent about that.
Analysis of Government data by FFT Education Datalab found that pupils missing the most schooling are in the poorest areas of the country. That is compounded by the fact that online remote schooling has worked less well for poorer families. That should not be a surprise to anyone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden outlined powerfully before the recess, there is deeply unequal access to online learning at home. It should come as no surprise to people that those from the poorest backgrounds do not necessarily have access to the suitable devices that they need, but they lack even the broadband internet access that many people take for granted. The pay-as-you-go charging rates and the stark figures of how much it costs to access Oak National Academy or BBC Bitesize is staggering. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden that the Government should ensure that no pupil forced to isolate at home does so without access to the IT and internet access that they need. I call on internet service providers to play their part too, because there is more that they could do. It is within their gift, for example, to make sure that certain websites, such as Oak National Academy or BBC Bitesize, which are there for legitimate online learning purposes, are made free to access and should not count towards people’s data limits. That would be a really good way for the big internet service providers and telecoms companies to step up to the plate.
If there are future closures or if children have to self-isolate, should Ofsted have a role when it inspects schools to look at the job that the school has done to make sure that it facilitates first-class online learning if a significant number of kids in that school have to self-isolate?
I am grateful for that intervention. There is a role for Ofsted to play in looking at remote learning in the home, not least to disseminate best practice among schools. Let us just be clear for a moment—we are asking schools across the country to do something that they have not previously been asked to do. Even the very best teachers will have to adapt quite significantly to teaching remotely. It requires a completely different skillset, and we do an enormous disservice to people whose professional careers are spent in distance learning by pretending that teaching in a classroom full of pupils, where it is possible to look right into the whites of their eyes and ensure they have access to the right books and the kit that they need for their learning, is not a very different challenge from teaching someone via an internet connection with video streaming.
We know that only 6.3% of pupils have access to four or more online lessons a day during lockdown and that there is a huge range of provision within that. I particularly commend to the Minister the work of the Ursuline High School in Merton—the Catholic girls school that was the Ursuline Convent School—where pupils were given six lessons a day online. Every girl was given her own tablet and there were safety systems in place, because safety is important in this situation, so that the school knew whether each girl had signed on at 9 am; a girl’s parents were phoned if they had not signed on. If a girl accessed a website that the school would rather they had not accessed, their parents were also contacted. There is a vast range of approaches out there, but most schools are really trying to play catch-up.
I strongly endorse the point made by my hon. Friend; she is absolutely right.
Returning to the research available to us, I am a concerned about the large gap that is emerging in the number of learning hours between those from the most affluent backgrounds and those from the poorest backgrounds, because the contrast is stark; the gap between them is more than an hour a day for both primary and secondary pupils. When we look at the breakdown of data on those from the poorest backgrounds and those from the wealthiest backgrounds, we see that pupils are learning significantly less if they are from a poorer background rather than a more affluent background. That raises really serious long-term challenges when it comes to closing the attainment gap.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; we now have a full house of people making interventions. I wrote a piece for the Red Box newsletter in The Times to raise some of the concerns that exist. For example, 27% of those in low-income households do not use the internet, which is a really startling figure. I am very proud to be a member of the Blue Collar Conservativism group that has joined Labour colleagues to ask for a digital catch-up scheme. I would like to hear the shadow Minister’s thoughts on that, and I urge the Minister himself to take that idea and consider it, to see how we can introduce such a scheme, because when I listen to St Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust, which has 19 schools across north Staffordshire and south-east Cheshire, I am told that it was promised 465 laptops but only given 55. This issue is a great concern for many disadvantaged pupils in trust schools.
That is absolutely right. We heard from the Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), that back in June around 700,000 disadvantaged children were not doing homework and did not have proper access to computers or the internet. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said, the number could be higher.
That brings me to my fundamental concerns about where the Government have been on education throughout this pandemic. On too many occasions, education has been an afterthought for the Government in their response to the pandemic. There was more thought and guidance provided about opening pubs than about opening schools. Some of the support that has been provided to schools in terms of the funding they need to keep a safe environment—such as personal protective equipment, sanitisers, hand-washing facilities, deep cleans and frequent cleans, and cover for absent staff who have been forced to self-isolate—falls short of what schools need.
This is my point of reassurance to the public, including people who are thinking about whether to send their children to schools—headteachers are doing everything they can to keep their schools safe. I do not know a single headteacher who would open their school if they did not believe it was safe. However, they are looking at the end of the financial year with real worry and anxiety, because they will spend what it takes to keep their schools safe for their pupils and staff, but at the moment they do not have the certainty that, as the financial year-end approaches, the Government will step up and do whatever it takes to ensure that those costs are covered. The Government need to act in that respect.
I am deeply concerned about what we saw before half term, when allocations of laptops were cut at the 11th hour. The Government need to step up and recognise—this is a general point about the pandemic response—that there are some things that central Government can do well, but providing responsive emergency resources to local communities, whether food parcels, laptops or internet connections, is much better done locally. They should give local authorities, academy trusts and schools the freedom and resources to buy the kit they need for their pupils. They know their pupils best, but they need money to ensure that those kids have the kit and the internet access that they need. I urge the Minister to reflect on the shortcomings of the provision so far.
As a general point, as was set out earlier in the debate, fines are a blunt instrument for compelling people to turn up to schools. The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, said:
“We don’t think that it is the right approach to fine parents for the non-attendance of children as soon as schools fully reopen in September, and the Government should not expect schools to take this action.”
We have had similar representations from the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers. As much as the Government say, “Let’s have a conversation first. This is about discretion,” we have seen too many cases in which that does not apply, and schools do not necessarily believe that they have the flexibility that the Government say they do.
One of my constituents, a teenage girl who was shot in the lungs when she was a young child, was compelled by her school to go back, despite the risk of coronavirus and a letter from her GP, because the school threatened her with a fine. A mother of a terminally ill three-year-old was forced to deregister her older daughter from her school to avoid being charged weekly non-attendance fines. A woman with type 1 diabetes, asthma and an underactive thyroid, which means she is classed her as clinically vulnerable under NHS guidelines, has been threatened with a three-month prison sentence and a £2,500 fine because she refused to send her children back to school amid coronavirus.
Some of this stuff is bizarre. It is really inappropriate to put families in that position. As a general point of principle, I do not think school fines work, and in the current circumstances the Government have to be clearer in their guidance about what happens if there are vulnerable family members at home with underlying health conditions who are concerned that a child coming back from school might present a risk, or if vulnerable people live with a member of school staff who presents a risk. That is something about which lots of staff in school and school leaders are anxious.
Those are powerful stories, and I have huge sympathy for those involved, but going back to school is the best thing for some vulnerable kids because it enables more oversight. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there could be other stories in which not giving the school that discretion and the ability to fine could be to the detriment of those vulnerable kids?
Ultimately, in the worst case, parents have the right to withdraw their children from education altogether. I think, by the way, that that is not the right course of action. All the evidence says that children will be safer, happier and better educated if they are in school. That is why we are clear that the Government must do whatever it takes to keep schools open—we do not hear the phrase “whatever it takes” often these days—but people have legitimate concerns. Parents sending their children to school and staff going to work in school need to know that the headteacher and the governing body are being given the resources they need to ensure the school is clean, safe and welcoming, to put in place the right measures, from protective equipment to hand-washing facilities and sanitisers, and to ensure that they do not have to cut corners on cleaning—in catering facilities, for example, multiple cleaning rounds are needed throughout the day. Parents need to know that if, for whatever reason, staff are forced to isolate and cannot be at school, schools can bring in the cover support that they need to make sure that their children are still well supported and well educated. Parents need to know that if their children
I am concerned that the schemes and funding initiatives that the Government have already announced—they are obviously not up and running yet; they are out to tender—are not targeted as well as they should be on pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. I urge the Government to get back to that focus. I am really looking forward to the many exchanges that I will no doubt have with the Minister in the coming weeks, months and years.
One fundamental problem with the Government’s approach to education policy in the past 10 years, and with where we are today, is that progress on closing the attainment gap at crucial points in pupils’ education journey—whether it be at their entry to primary school at five, when they leave primary school at 11, or when they are sitting their GCSEs at 16—has not only stalled but is beginning to slip into reverse gear. If we are not careful, we will allow the pandemic to rewrite the story of educational disadvantage in this country in a way that none of us wants, with the gap between those from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds widening, and with children who have special educational needs and require additional support being left further behind. We cannot let that happen, because even with the best lifelong learning system in the world, children only get one chance at a primary and secondary education. Those formative years are absolutely crucial, which is why we believe that schools must be supported to be safe and open, and that we need a national strategy to make sure that no pupil is left behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir David; I have not kept count like my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), but I am sure there have been many occasions. I welcome the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) to his position. I look forward to debating with him. If today is an example of the exchanges that we will have in the future, I look forward to them very much indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on the excellent and fair way that he introduced the debate.
To pick up on one or two points made by the hon. Member for Ilford North on the attainment gap, the raison d’être of education policy since 2010 has been to close that gap. That has been the reason for all our reforms in reading, in maths, in the curriculum of GCSEs and A-levels, in the academies programme, and in the school improvement programme—everything we have been doing since 2010 has been about closing that gap, and making sure that those from the least advantaged backgrounds in our country have the same quality of education as their more advantaged peers. Since 2011, we have managed to close the attainment gap in primary schools by 13% and by 9% in secondary schools. We worry about the effect of the pandemic on that success, which is why we have managed to secure £1 billion of catch-up funding, £350 million of which is specifically targeted at the most disadvantaged pupils through the national tutoring programme.
This debate is particularly timely in the light of the Prime Minister’s announcement this weekend of new national restrictions. We are clear that the Government will continue to prioritise the long-term future of young people. We will not ask schools to close. It is vital that as many children as possible attend school, for their education, for their wellbeing and for their wider development—a view shared by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North, and for Ipswich, and by the hon. Members for Ilford North, and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).
High levels of pupil attendance in school over this period are critical to ensuring that this generation of children reaches its potential, and to preventing a widening of the attainment gap. I pay tribute to the outstanding efforts of teachers, staff and parents across the country, which have meant that pupils continue to receive the education and opportunities that they deserve in the face of this pandemic. I also extend my thanks specifically to the attendance workers in schools and local authorities for their continued hard work in supporting so many pupils to attend.
At the beginning of the outbreak, we made the difficult decision to limit the number of pupils attending school, and we empowered schools and local professionals to prioritise the attendance of vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Although rates of coronavirus are rising, it is vital that children attend school to minimise as far as possible the long-term impact of the pandemic on their education. We are clear that school attendance is mandatory, and all the usual rules apply, including regarding parents’ duty to secure their child’s regular attendance at school, and the ability of schools and local authorities to issue sanctions and secure attendance.
The Department will shortly issue summary guidance to schools setting out the implications of the new national restrictions. There is a clear correlation, as the hon. Member for Ilford North said, between time absent from school and attainment. Pupils with higher overall absence tend to do less well in their GCSEs. Figures show that as of 22 October, 99.3% of schools were open, excluding schools on half term or inset days, and up to 7 million children and young people were in school; that represents 86% of pupils across the country. We continue to regularly collect and monitor school attendance data, which is published weekly as part of the Department’s commitment to transparency and to supporting local action.
To support high levels of attendance, we have specifically asked schools to continue to communicate clear and consistent expectations about school attendance to pupils and their families. We have asked schools to identify pupils who are reluctant to attend or who are at risk of disengagement, and to develop plans to re-engage them, using the catch-up funding that they will receive.
We have asked schools to work closely with other professionals, including social workers and specialist services, to support pupils’ attendance. There are examples of excellent work to support high levels of attendance across the country, including in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. The Stoke-on-Trent opportunity area is funding a project to tackle the underlying causes of unauthorised absence by creating a behaviour and attendance leaders network to establish consistent approaches and shared best practice across all the schools in the city. cannot attend school because they are required to self-isolate, they will be able to learn at home, and that catch-up support will be provided.
Underpinning all this important work by schools are the usual school attendance rules and legal duties. These rules and duties will continue to apply during the forthcoming new national restrictions. Parents have a duty under section 7 of the Education Act 1996 to ensure that if their child is of compulsory school age, they receive an efficient full-time education, either by attendance at school or otherwise.
Schools and local authorities can use a range of measures if a child’s attendance becomes a problem. The law gives schools and local authorities power to offer parenting contracts and obtain parenting orders to improve school attendance. Where a parent has failed to secure their child’s regular attendance, prosecution of a parent is available to local authorities as a last resort, under section 444 of the Education Act 1996.
Of course, now more than ever, we trust schools and local authorities to consider the circumstances of each pupil and family when considering what the appropriate action is to tackle absence and support the child’s attendance, and whether to use those powers. We trust them to do this sensitively, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich. We also encourage parents to work with their child’s school and the local authority, to discuss the reasons behind their child’s absence, and to agree together an action plan, so that the right support can be put in place to help the child return to regular and consistent education.
Where children are not able to attend school because they are following public or clinical health advice related to coronavirus, parents will not be penalised. We will shortly publish updated guidance setting out current attendance expectations for children who are clinically extremely vulnerable. We also recognise that some pupils or families may still be anxious about sending their child to school, especially in the light of the rise in infections. Schools have been discussing those concerns with these families in order to provide reassurance.
To increase support further in the long term, we remain committed to tackling mental health problems and implementing our joint Green Paper, which helps to introduce new mental health support teams, linked to schools and colleges. Those teams will help schools deal with mental health issues, which are as prevalent as, if not more prevalent than, they have been in recent years.
The safety of all children in schools is especially important at present. We have set out a clear framework so that school leaders can put in place protective measures for pupils and their staff. Protective controls include ensuring that people who have symptoms do not attend school, that robust hand and respiratory hygiene measures are followed, that cleaning arrangements are enhanced, that contact is minimised between individuals, and that schools actively engage with NHS Test and Trace.
All four UK chief medical officers have been clear that the risk to children of becoming severely ill from coronavirus is low. Therefore, for the vast majority of children, the benefits of being back in the classroom far outweigh the risks. Nevertheless, access to testing is available for any child, young person or member of staff displaying symptoms, as well as any symptomatic members of their household. Supplies of test kits have also been provided to all schools for those who develop symptoms on site and face significant personal barriers to accessing a test.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden raised the important issue of remote education, as she did in the Adjournment debate just before the recess. I share her genuine passion for ensuring that all children have access to remote education. We are clear that for some pupils who are unable to attend school in person, remote education may need to be an essential component of their education, alongside classroom teaching. In those circumstances, the Government want to ensure that there is no doubt about the roles and responsibilities within the system for providing remote education.
The Secretary of State therefore made a temporary continuity direction on 1 October to clarify that schools have a duty to provide remote education for state-funded school-aged children who are unable to attend school due to coronavirus, in line with our guidance and the law. To support schools and colleges in meeting those expectations, the Department announced a further remote education support package, which includes access to the right technology to deliver remote education, peer-to-peer training on how to use it effectively, and practical tools, guidance and webinars. Alongside that, the Department has made £4.84 million available for Oak National Academy, both for the summer term of the last academic year and for the 2020-21 academic year, so that it can provide video lessons on a broad range of subjects for reception up to year 11.
The hon. Lady also talked about devices. The Government are doing everything that they can to support schools in delivering remote education. Having invested more than £195 million in supporting remote education, the Department delivered more than 220,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children who would not otherwise have access to a digital device, and we are adding to the support by making 340,000 additional laptops and tablets available to support children who might face disruption to their education this term. Since September—the beginning of term—more than 100,000 of those laptops have already been delivered to schools.
In the context of increasing global demand, we are bringing schools’ device allocations more closely in line with the average size of a pupil group that is self-isolating. We recognise that levels of self-isolation may be higher in different areas of the country, and that face-to-face education is being prioritised in all eventualities.
I heard what the Minister said about allocation being based on need for isolation. I represent Stoke-on-Trent and surrounding parts of north Staffordshire. I am sure I know what the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) was getting at. If we look at deprivation levels, the need will be higher in Stoke-on-Trent than in Kidsgrove, which I also represent and which may be—these are semantics, as I do not have the figures to hand—a statistically more affluent place. I would like us to look more at deprivation, not simply cohort sizes.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We recognise that there will be different levels of self-isolation as well as different areas of need in different parts of the country. The more targeted design will mean that as many schools and disadvantaged children as possible benefit from receiving a device in the event of face-to-face education being disrupted.
The hon. Member makes a good point, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. That is why a targeted approach is important. The hon. Lady asked why that was not mentioned during the previous debate, but at that time no decision had been made about changes to the allocation of laptops and tablets.
In conclusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for starting today’s debate. Securing a high level of attendance for all children remains a priority for the Government. We have put in place a range of measures to support good school attendance, even in these challenging circumstances. It is right that schools and local authorities should have all the necessary tools to secure excellent attendance, which includes measures to support families, and sanctions where necessary.
Where children are not able to attend school because they are following clinical or public health advice related to coronavirus, we have been clear that absence will not be penalised. Given the profoundly positive impact that being in school can have on a child’s attainment and life chances, high levels of attendance in school have never been more important.
I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their responses to the petitioners, and all Members, including the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), for taking part in this important debate.
It was nice that the debate looked at the wider role of schools. I add my thanks to those given by the Minister and the shadow Minister to the incredible teachers, support staff and local authority school staff for their above-and-beyond work. With regard to covid, they are the unsung heroes of the education profession. The lazy, stereotypical response from a minority in our community has been that teachers were on some sort of six-month holiday. That could not be further from the truth. My partner, a head of religious education, spent eight and a half hours ranking children for the GCSE and A-level algorithm, although I am sure the Minister will be happy for me to pass on from that topic as quickly as possible.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden is right that the digital divide is a huge issue, and I passionately believe that it has to be tackled. I would love to work with her more closely outside the House to see how we can tackle it. She said that we need to look at deprivation when it comes to the supply of technology. I have written to the Chancellor about classing broadband as an essential household item and so bringing VAT on it down to 5%, which is the figure that applies for gas, water and electricity. I appreciate that that would cost the Exchequer £2 billion, but it would be an important measure.
Getting involved in this issue has made me aware that poorer people access the internet differently, just as they access electricity, gas and other essentials differently. The main internet companies are great, but most people in poor situations use pay-as-you-go, and companies that we do not necessarily use. Unless we address how people access those services, we will not understand or tackle the issue.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. I have worked with a local IT company on this issue, but that is not necessarily the solution to the long-term problem. Stoke-on-Trent is lucky to be a gigabit city; it has 104 km of full-fibre network. As we install that into homes, the challenge is to ensure that it is affordable and accessible in areas I represent that are, to be frank, in the bottom 20% for social mobility. They are some of the most deprived communities in the country, where people earn on average £100 per week less than a full-time worker in other parts of the country.
We absolutely have to understand how technology is being accessed. I completely agree with the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden that mum’s mobile should not be the best tool in the house. Sadly, I have worked with many students for whom that was the only way in which work could be done. I look forward to working with Members from across the House on looking at the digital divide.
A highlight is the Oak Academy; it is an absolute triumph. I thank the Minister for his incredibly hard work to get that set up. He has engaged with a wide range of professionals who have done incredible work. I do not think that any Member of this House thinks that is not a triumph. Kids who cannot be in the classroom can access this really important tool, which I hope we can keep well beyond the current health crisis. It would be a really positive tool to have all year round for all students of all future generations.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich. We on the Education Committee did indeed hear from the Children’s Commissioner, who is an absolute tour de force. I have a huge amount of time for her. Although we might have disagreed on other issues recently, I support fully her view that school should be the last place to close and the first to reopen. I am really grateful to the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for stating the Opposition’s view that schools must stay open.
I ask the leaders of the National Education Union—although I ranted and shouted at them in the Select Committee sitting, I will not do so now—to end their call for schools to close, because that is a divisive campaign. It will not bring schools and families together; nor will it get us politicians, who are making incredibly challenging and difficult decisions, closer to the public. I ask the union leaders to cease that campaign, and to work with the Government and the hon. Member for Ilford North to find ways for schools to get the most support.
I too want to put on record the point made by the hon. Member for Ilford North about the funding for additional cleaning and personal protective equipment. There will be increased anxiety, especially now that we are entering deeper restrictions. Staff will want additional support, and we have to look at that. I am not asking for extortionate amounts of money, and schools are not asking for the sort of PPE that is needed in hospitals or care homes. Any additional support would be very welcome in the dark and bleak winter ahead.
I also place on record my thanks to the Minister for the £1 billion in catch-up funding. Again, that is welcome. As I am a bit of a sceptic, I have some reservations about the £350 million for the national tutoring programme, because I want to ensure that ends up helping the kids who need it most. I have seen lots of money given to lots of big organisations, yet people I speak to in Stoke-on-Trent have never met those organisations on the streets. This is absolutely the right way to share out the money, and absolutely the right thing to do, but please let us ensure that we deliver in the areas where there is the greatest need.
Schools have done a remarkable job. The fact that 99.3% of schools are open is an incredible achievement; I think we all recognise that. I am very grateful to the Minister for promoting the Stoke opportunity area, which is in its second year. It will be going for a third year, and I am sure the Minister will look favourably on that as we continue to see improvements in Stoke-on-Trent.
I go back to the premise of the petition: the fine. I would like to think that Matthew has heard the conciliatory tone of Members of all parties, and that he has heard the reasons why we believe schools should be open. I hope he has also heard that we fully understand the anxieties of parents. We want to work with them to ensure that they feel that schools are the safest place. As we know, school is the best place for a child to learn, and it gives them the best opportunity for life ahead. I hope that Matthew feels that, although we might not be fully signed up to his aim of suspending the fine, we will work very closely with schools to ensure that they are as safe and secure as possible, and to ensure that future generations get the very best opportunity that school offers. As I said earlier, that is the greatest equaliser in our society.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 300399, relating to school attendance during the covid-19 outbreak.