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School Closures: Support for Pupils

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing is respected. Members must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the winding-up speeches, provided that there is space in the room, which it looks like there is today. Members are asked to respect the one-way system around the room; please exit by the door on the left. Members should sanitise their microphones, using the cleaning materials provided, before they use them, and dispose of those materials as they leave the room. That rule has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance, and I intend to see it observed, if possible, in the current circumstances. Members in the later stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move into the horseshoe when seats there become available. Members can speak only from the horseshoe. I remind Members that they are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering when they are not speaking.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for pupils’ education during school closures.

May I congratulate you, Dame Angela, on your new status, which is well deserved? Thank you for chairing the debate this morning. Yesterday, it looked as though it might not proceed because of the uncertainty over Westminster Hall debates, so I thank the House authorities and all the staff for being present here today to enable this sitting to happen. I hope that good sense will prevail later today over future arrangements.

I start by paying tribute to the extraordinary professionalism and commitment of the teaching staff and senior leadership teams in all our local schools and colleges. Like our health professionals, they are very much frontline workers and have worked relentlessly during the past 10 months. In today’s debate, it is essential that we recognise the importance of schools in addressing the inequality gap.

It is estimated that in the first lockdown some 575 million learning days were lost; the average loss was 65 days per pupil. All of us, having been through the education system, can think back to those days and recall a particular piece of information being imparted by a teacher and how that registered with us. We can also think of the days that we missed when others attended school and what we subsequently learned from them. We felt a sense of loss that we were not there to participate, so the fact that children and young people could have lost 65 days is of course quite significant for their future development.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, concluded in her report in December that just five days had been lost on average across schools in the autumn term, but in some places it may have been up to 10 days. Certainly in Warwickshire, primary schools on average saw 92% attendance, state secondary schools averaged 82% and special schools averaged 80%. But just looking at the autumn term, we see indications quite early on that the trends were concerning. By the week ending 16 October, some 400,000 children were off school, with 50,000 estimated to have covid and the remainder self-isolating, and by the last week of November, 1 million children were out of school. At one secondary school in my constituency, just 63% were physically present.

Of course that has a disproportionate impact, as the Children’s Commissioner said. It has considerable consequences for children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that is particularly concerning when the UK has one of the worst levels of inequality in the developed world, as highlighted by the United Nations interlocutor in his report back in 2019. We have 4.2 million children living in poverty, 600,000 more than in 2010, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, so even before the pandemic, UK schools faced considerable challenges.

With the introduction of the third lockdown, we are seeing more children being sent to school than attended during the first lockdown. The figures that we have show attendance of between a quarter and a third of pupils in school; that compares with 10% to 15% in the first lockdown. A main driver has been the change to the definition of what constitutes a critical worker, or what is necessary attendance, putting schools in the difficult position of having to assess this on a case-by-case basis. Parents are also having to make decisions based on financial demands rather than the guidance. A headteacher in my constituency believes it is an absolute scandal. They quoted the Department for Education, which states that

“we are reducing overall social contact across…the country rather than individually by each institution”,

which is leading to the overloading of our schools and their acting almost as care workers for younger people to support that.

The much higher attendance rates have resulted in staff being in school when they should be teaching from home. If teachers are delivering face-to-face learning to a blended age group of pupils and are expected to provide digital content, they are effectively doubling their workload. In turn, schools are having staffing issues due to illness and the need to self-isolate, and often the staff themselves face childcare issues. The other principal driver of the increased numbers in school is that those without laptops or space to study are now eligible to attend school. That has led to unions such as the National Association of Head Teachers highlighting how the high numbers will simply undermine the purpose and effectiveness of the shutdown itself. That is why online learning and the tools to enable it are so crucial.

May I also add my congratulations to you, Dame Angela, on becoming a dame? I did not know until just now. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to intervene. Does he not agree that in rural constituencies such as mine in Strangford, where broadband connection is a massive issue, steps need to be taken to ensure that every child has access to stable connections to be able to learn remotely, and, if not, there must be a place for them in schools with functioning broadband? If we have to have an alternative, we need a system in place that enables that to happen.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who always makes such valid points. I will cover that issue in a moment, but he is absolutely right. Access to broadband internet is an essential provision and should be a part of our critical infrastructure so that every household has it. Whether someone is working or studying from home, it is as important as getting gas, electricity or water to the household.

It has been clear from the outset that with the majority of children removed from school and college settings, there is a huge challenge in delivering educational learning in terms of both channel and approach, both from the delivery and the receiving end. According to Ofcom, up to 1.78 million children in the UK—about 9%—do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. Almost 900,000 of those live in a household with just a mobile internet connection.

According to the education charity Teach First, four in five schools with the poorest pupils are hit the hardest and do not have enough devices and internet access to ensure that those self-isolating can continue to learn. However, recent Government announcements have been more positive, including that on 560,000 laptops and tablets, and a further 300,000 were announced yesterday. That is welcome. Perhaps the Minister will confirm the Department’s total cumulative number since March and April against the objective of 1.78 million.

The move by Three UK, followed by British Telecom, Vodafone and many others, to provide free data and unlimited broadband in support of the hardware is also very welcome and should be applauded. But why did it take the Government so long? Why did they dither and delay when the need was there from March last year? The initial announcement in April, when the Government stated that they would seek to ensure that disadvantaged pupils would benefit from free laptops or tablets, was immediately challenged by the Good Law Project, a legal campaign group, which said that the numbers announced were a “drop in the ocean”. The group went on to say that it found the lack of details about the scheme troubling as only a small subset of pupils would benefit.

Back in June I raised the issue with the Minister’s Department in a written question and I followed it up in the Chamber. In reply to my written question I was told that 200,000 laptops and tablets had been ordered on 19 April. However, a Government document entitled “Devices and 4G wireless routers data: Ad-hoc Notice: Laptops, tablets and 4G wireless routers for disadvantaged and vulnerable children: progress data”—Members may not have seen that report—stated:

“The first devices were ordered on 15th May, and the first devices were dispatched on 18th May.”

It is still not clear to me what happened, and which was true. Was it 19 April or 15 May? It certainly seems that the Government were slow to react to the challenge and to recognise the ongoing need.

At the same time, in Warwickshire, I was told that 1,463 laptops had been requested, but that by early July only 45 had been received. By 1 June the Government had certainly missed their target of delivering 230,000 laptops and tablets. On 21 October the Secretary of State said that he would deliver 500,000 laptops, noting that 200,000 had already been delivered, but by early November the Government had announced that they had slashed the allocation of Government-promised laptops for the poorest and most vulnerable children across the country by a staggering 80%. My question to the Minister is why the number was reduced. Why was that announcement made?

As I say, more recent announcements have been more positive, but for schools in my constituency there is clearly a long way to go. In Warwick and Leamington, on average, 17% of pupils do not have access to digital equipment or broadband for home working. In the absence of Government support, 83% of schools, according to my own survey, have provided laptops out of their own funds. Those are hard-pressed funds in schools. One primary school that will remain nameless confided that it has almost 50 children without devices, and has received just four in total.

Of course it is all too easy to think of the issue as about purely the supply of laptops, but even when a household has a device and internet access that does not mean that the pupil can make use of them, because of such factors as low parental computer literacy, parents who work from home needing to use the device, school- age siblings also needing to use it, or simply access to broadband capacity. Perhaps there may also be a lack of access to printers or other hardware in the household. That is all understandable. For many there is simply the problem of broadband or mobile internet access, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. In particular, there are certain buildings in remote rural areas where mobile signals are limited.

Finally there is the question of content support. It is worth highlighting this week’s positive move by the BBC to deliver an education offer to children, teachers and parents through CBBC and “BBC Bitesize Daily”, while BBC2 will provide programming aimed at supporting the GCSE curriculum. That is all immensely welcome and will complement greatly the online teaching that is being facilitated through Oak National Academy and other providers such as the website Hungry Little Minds. Naturally, there is also a need to deliver online teaching, which in turn leads to demand in relation to training needs for the delivery of the new channel for learning.

Many schools are also reporting significant financial pressures. In the survey that I conducted across Warwick and Leamington during the autumn term it was apparent that there were immediate and significant costs—operational costs, but also a need for capital support. As for operating costs, a couple of primary schools faced additional costs of £20,000, but the average figure across the board was something like £13,000, or £1,400 per month—the additional cost of sanitising, cleaning, and ensuring that the physical environment is safe and usable for pupils and teaching staff alike. However, all schools reported a significant unmet staffing need because of budget limitations, and 83% stated that they had faced staffing shortages.

Schools also said that there was a greater need for them with respect to their responsibility for protecting children and ensuring their general wellbeing, and while mental health is of course a particular and obvious concern, there is also the issue of the increased risk of harm to children. According to a report for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in the first lockdowns there was a 22% increase in the number of counselling sessions relating to physical abuse, and a threefold increase in the number of Childline counselling sessions per week about child sexual abuse within the family. Those are all areas where we need to provide greater support for pupils, young people and teaching staff.

There have been pressures on school leadership teams, who faced the responsibility of undertaking flow testing of pupils and additional tasks alongside the ongoing pressures they already have. I highlight the need for more support for special schools, which face huge pressures having to teach face-to-face in intense environments, and where there is a real need for more financial support, for additional staffing and, I would advocate, for the vaccination of teaching staff and pupils.

On the point about nurseries, the transmission data, from October 2020, is outdated. According to the Office for National Statistics, transmission among zero to five-year-olds is now the same as among five to nine-year-olds. Funding is needed to support our nurseries.

I will move on to the situation with free school meal vouchers. One of the implications of pupils not being in school is for their health and welfare while they are at home, possibly alone, where many will go without a decent hot meal that would have ordinarily been provided by the school. That is why the provision of free school meals has been so important, in particular via the vouchers during the first wave. It is surprising that the Government and, dare I say, their Back Benchers voted not to continue with that provision in subsequent holidays and into the future, until there was the Marcus Rashford-inspired U-turn.

With so many pupils out of school again, the need to provide the equivalent of free school meals is significant and many schools are urging that cash payments be made. The Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East echo that call for cash payments as a replacement for free school meals, as they know what children need and that allows choice, accessibility, discretion and safety, all of which are valued by families.

The news stories this morning were full of the value of the voucher scheme and of the food that has been delivered to children, saying that it does not have the necessary vitamins and nutrients. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that that should be looked at to ensure that the vouchers and the food stuffs that are going out satisfy the child and give them the nourishment that they need?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am about to come on to that point. The figures quoted in the media in the last 24 hours, about the profiteering that is taking place by some of the companies that have moved into the sector, are obscene. The claim is that the food has a value of £30, when in fact people could pick it up for £5 to £10.

The Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East echoed the call for cash payments. In research conducted by the charities, 81% said that direct payments worked better than grab bags or vouchers. When it comes to grab bags, or “hampers”, as they are now euphemistically known, there has been yet another shocking revelation about the company Chartwells, which has been providing food bags for £30, when the content would barely register a fiver or a tenner at the till, and the association of some people with that business and BlackRock.

Speaking to local schools, families are desperate and the schools are angry that the Government have not acted faster. As one headteacher put it to me:

“The Government communications have been poor. They knew schools were shutting, so why have plans not been made for free school meals?”

He was on a call with 20 other headteachers across the region and they were all of the same view. Certainly, some believe that the Edenred scheme worked fairly satisfactorily by comparison.

I would love to spend more time on the exam situation, but the position in which colleges and schools found themselves at the beginning of this term, particularly in regard to vocational subjects and BTEC exams, challenged them. They felt let down by the Department for Education. There are real concerns among students, as well as schools and teaching staff across the board, about the plans for the summer exams and how they will be measured against their learning performance.

Finally, I want to look at protection for teaching staff. We talk about support for pupils, but we need support and protection for teaching staff. There is a need for vaccination and all staff in schools, including support staff, must be a much higher priority. I raised that on 3 December, and again on 30 December, with the Secretary of State.

In September, an GMB union internal survey of over 600 teaching assistants showed that 55% of them said they did not feel safe at work. Elsewhere, Unison has highlighted that the hardest hit are likely to be school support staff, as they are often agency workers, older, disproportionately black, Asian or of mixed ethnicity and come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. If there is the political will for schools to remain open—of course, we all want them to reopen as early as possible—school staff must be placed at a higher priority than they are presently.

The past year has been far from academic, Dame Angela. The support needed for pupils’ education is considerable and complex, but it is not mission impossible. I am afraid that the Government’s work through the course of the pandemic has, on occasion, been of little merit. Perhaps it could be described, in its own right, like coursework: late submission, no shows, confusion and, in the eyes of school staff and governors, a tragic failure of leadership from the Secretary of State. This generation of children must not lose out any longer. These are some of the most important days of their lives, which are precious to their development and the realisation of their potential. The Government must dig deep, and not short-change their long-term future.

I, too, congratulate you, Dame Angela, on becoming a dame. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing this important debate.

If 1870 is remembered as the start of universal elementary education and 1944 for secondary education for all, then 2021 must be remembered as the year that online standards for education were set. If schools are to be closed and pupils are to be at home, they need devices, reliable network coverage and a secure platform for schooling to be delivered. We need a set curriculum, oversight and support for pupils, and a structured feedback loop from pupils to teachers. If standards are not set, this generation of political leaders and educationalists will be failing to live up to not only the laws of the land, but the educational path that this country has set for its children for over a 150 years. There cannot be lockdowns and school closures, with no full-time alternatives at the ready.

The Government have taken steps. Laptops are going to pupils, guidance is in place and there are independent educational providers coming forward—Oak National Academy, BrainPOP, Creativebug and the BBC—but there is not a comprehensive system in place.

A survey conducted in the last week by the Sutton Trust has reported today that only one in 10 teachers feels that their pupils have adequate access to laptops. A similar percentage feel that their pupils have adequate access to the internet. We have falling standards and a division in provision. The National Foundation for Educational Research found the average learning lost for all pupils was three months, but that more than 50%- of pupils in the most deprived areas had lost four months or more. They also said that while 1% of pupils in the wealthiest areas had lost an estimated six months in effective learning due to the lockdown, in the poorest areas more than 10 times as many were affected as badly.

If we believe in social mobility—and I certainly do—then this is not good enough. We need to act to support our pupils, and at pace. Education is the great equaliser. We have to adapt and adapt quickly. I say that because I look at how businesses have adapted to cater for their customers and upgrade their capability. Online demand has increased by over 100% in retail and for online video subscriptions. Microsoft Teams has grown from 20 million users in November 2019 to 115 million daily active users in October 2020.

If businesses can develop, adapt and meet the need, then schools must do exactly the same thing: they must react with speed to give pupils the education that they need. Like it or not, online education is here to stay, and once developed it could become an exceptional resource with wider uses, such as allowing children to catch up at home if they have been ill or helping to cater to the 60,000 pupils who are taught at home—that number leapt up by 13% in 2018-19. It could even support pupils who have an exceptional capability in a subject to surge ahead.

Where do we begin? We have to get teachers, unions, Ofsted and the Government to come together to set out that standard, because if unions, teachers and local councils are arguing for pupils not to return to school, and with the Government’s announcement of a third national lockdown, they must come together to provide for a full, accessible online curriculum. There is joint responsibility; therefore, joint action is needed. The Government need to reinstate their manifesto pledge of 1 gigabit capability for everyone by 2025, so that pupils, irrespective of where they live, can get a proper online connection.

In 1969, the Open University was created to give open access to higher education, increase social mobility and support the economy. We need a similar game-changing moment now in online education, where we could become a global leader. The Open University now qualifies as one of the world’s largest universities and has a £3 billion benefit to the UK economy. It is time we took a leap forward in online education, and 2021 needs to be the year that happens. Will the Minister meet me and my Blue Collar Conservatism colleagues to set out the new online curriculum that needs to happen, and the online connection and devices that need to be given, to ensure that social mobility happens and that we have an education fit for all?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I, too, congratulate you on becoming a dame in the new year’s honours, which was very well deserved. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing the debate and on his opening remarks, which covered all the issues that I believe need to be addressed. I also thank and congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on their work on this issue.

This is an urgent issue, and one that many colleagues have been talking about since the start of lockdown. Just yesterday I heard from one of my headteachers, who said that she was still waiting for the 114 laptops that the school had ordered and that were due to arrive last Wednesday. That is despite assurances given to Members of Parliament that laptops should arrive within 48 hours of being ordered. It is clear that the Government have inexplicably failed to plan ahead, once again putting kids last, not first, in this pandemic.

I am also disappointed that the Government seemingly took their foot off the accelerator in supporting kids to learn at home, following the easing of lockdown. They had a woefully slow start in March, which is on public record, with only 51,000 of the 200,000 laptops promised in March delivered by the end of May. I had to put in a freedom of information request to find that out. That was compounded by chaos in the supply of free school meals during lockdown, and a lack of guidance for teachers and support for parents.

Roll the clock forward nine months and it appears, on one level, that not much has changed. Incremental progress has been made, but it is utterly piecemeal and still far too confused. That has continued to be a hallmark of this Government. While the Department for Education should be making administrative decisions with clarity and forward planning, it instead lurches from crisis to crisis. It is not an excuse to say that the new variant took us by surprise, because a variant was expected. The NHS had sought to plan ahead; the rest of the Government clearly had not.

I do not want to hear today from the Government—I am sorry to be stern about this—about what has gone on that is to be applauded: the Oak National Academy, BBC provision, and Google, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and others putting on learning options. Much of that learning also has to be focused and directed by teachers, and it has to be accessible. To do that, we need laptops and broadband sufficient for every child, not every household, because every child has to be online and has to be able to learn for as many hours as they need.

We need an honest and clear conversation about what is not going well, and how the Government need to tackle the remaining gaps at the speed and scale needed. First, the Government must have a proper plan to support hybrid and remote learning, because this issue is not going away. There has to be a long-term and sustainable solution for the provision of laptops and devices to all children who need them. That includes the broadband connectivity that will be required not just during the lockdown, but on an ongoing basis. The virus is going to be with us for at least this year and maybe well into the next academic year.

When I say every child, I mean every primary and secondary school pupil. It may be that they cannot get access because a sibling is using the home computer or laptop to study, or a parent might be using it to work at home. Those are the same families that might have used free wi-fi in libraries but, under the current circumstances and conditions, cannot do so. Children are also on cycles of lockdown and self-isolation. We have seen that all the way through since September. As many as 20% could have been off in one day due to the need to self-isolate.

Catching up is also vital, and I congratulate the Sutton Trust and others on the work they have done. Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research showed that at the start of last term, poorer pupils were three months behind on their learning, showing that the digital divide plays a huge part in poorer children falling behind. As well as keeping up, they also have to catch up. They need the time to be able to study in order to do that.

Secondly, laptop support must be at scale and of quality. I am surprised at the number of complaints from teachers about the spec and quality of laptops they have received, and the difficulties they had in reimaging them and getting their children online. Will the Minister outline the quality of provision the Government are providing, the tests and criteria they have set out, and how they are monitoring complaints received from schools, in order that those issues can be ironed out for further cycles?

The benefits are clear and it is heartening to read what children have to say. Last April, in the gap between the start of lockdown and laptops starting to arrive, local charity Hounslow’s Promise started a scheme to secure business and individual donations of laptops. That project is ongoing, working with the Hounslow Education Partnership of headteachers.

I want to quote Victoria Eadie, chief executive officer of the Tudor Park Trust, who has worked on the project from the start:

“During the first lockdown when we rolled out the first computers in April we saw significantly increased engagement in learning by pupils who previously had no access… They went from no engagement to medium or full engagement. It made a huge difference.”

The feedback from young people has also had an impact and has led to the project continuing. One pupil said:

“Before I received a laptop from school, I was struggling to complete work that was being sent by post. This meant it was difficult for me to complete my work and receive feedback. Once I received my laptop it was easier to do my work and access help online. I am very grateful for the laptop; my mum is also very grateful as my little brother also uses it for his learning.”

Another pupil said:

“It has been absolutely brilliant. I was stressed because I couldn’t do the work as I only had my phone. Now I can do the home learning.”

A third pupil said:

“This is a life saver because I travel between mum and dad and this makes it possible for me to keep up with my schoolwork in either home.”

Thirdly, we need a proper plan for connectivity. We need to tackle data poverty. That is not an unknown inequality, yet it is another social injustice that the pandemic has shone a light on, dividing rich and poor, and haves and have nots, whether young or old. Children who are unable to learn from and with their parents are learning far more slowly than their peers.

I believe there is a lot more to do to ensure that there is a sustainable solution. I appreciate and am grateful for the support from Three and others, which are now coming together with the Government to provide some free access to broadband during this period, but there has to be a solution that is ongoing and sustainable. We need a proper national schools connectivity scheme at low or no cost, so that schools can be confident that they will be able to support all their pupils to get online.

This is indeed an unsettling time for children, and it would be hugely beneficial and easily achievable for tech firms and broadband suppliers to help children stay connected to their school and their friends. Not only will it support their learning; it will positively impact on their confidence and wellbeing.

I warn everybody that there are drop-outs from the call list, so the next person I will call to speak is Kate Osborne. First, I call Tracy Brabin.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela, especially as it is your first time in the Chair—your opening night. It is a real pleasure to be here. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing this timely and important debate. I must say that it was unclear whether we were going to have the debate, but for the sake of my young constituents who are struggling with home learning, I am grateful that we went ahead.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the teachers, the teaching assistants, the heads, the parents, the BBC and others for their fantastic online lessons—all supporting our children to get an education during this new lockdown. Teachers have had to redesign lesson plans at the last minute and get to grips with a new way of teaching, while maintaining standards. Although many children are still going to school—the children of key workers and others—there are thousands back at home with their parents, potentially without resources to learn.

We know that the digital divide is real, and the lockdown has identified that inequality. Many of the most disadvantaged children rely on schools and libraries to access the internet. With those closed, children and young people are now struggling to get online. The need is urgent, and I reiterate the point made by the Sutton Trust: just one in 10 schools across the country says that its pupils have access to technology. It is urgent, and it is a crisis.

As a young girl growing up on a council estate in Batley, on free school meals, I definitely would have been one of those youngsters who did not have the tech. I know the impact it would have had on my prospects. This is about lost potential. I definitely would not be standing in this place if I had had to scramble around for tech or share a mobile phone with my sister, my mum and my dad. This is a crisis for this generation.

Only last night, I received an email from Andrew Barker, a parent at my old school, Windmill Primary School, which is an outstanding, excellent school with great leadership. He asked whether I could help him and other parents source 20 recycled, used or spare devices for children who might not have access at home to learning and the devices to support it. Andrew, a software company owner, has also offered his tech support to help the school and teachers. I thank him and so many other parents around the country who are using their skills to support teachers—something that is desperately needed. As we have just heard, Ofcom and SHINE, the Leeds-based charity, have said that 1.78 million children lack access to a laptop, desktop computer or tablet. That is a seriously depressing number, given that children were already lagging behind their peers before covid. Now, after five months of missed education, they will be even further behind.

It is not just about the tech, is it? It is also about supporting the educators, the teachers, the teaching assistants and the mums, dads and carers, many of whom may not be natural teachers or may have a job to do at home while also trying to home school their children. They will need support. Leaving pupils without tech and their parents without support means the deprivation gap will only widen. Kids will suffer not just in terms of their education, prospects and future; potentially, their mental health will suffer too. A telling admission of failure was when the Education Secretary told children that if they did not have laptops at home, they could go to school, whereas the Government’s plan was to close schools to all children except vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Of course, the pledge to deliver 750,000 laptops to families without a suitable device is extremely welcome, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating—those children should have had them already. We cannot forget either that Government deliveries to special schools have not been fit for purpose. The Government have offered desktop computers to children who are not mobile and able to use desktops. Those children need tablets or smaller devices.

Councils around the country have had to step in where the Government have failed to deliver. My local authority, Kirklees, has distributed 3,857 devices since lockdown, but it decided that that was just not enough and allocated its own substantial funds to deliver tech for schools.

It is not only councils that have stepped up to the plate, but community organisations in every region and constituency—none more so than the Dons Local Action Group, the AFC Wimbledon supporters who have supplied more than 1,000 laptops during the lockdown.

There is no greater champion of access to tech than my hon. Friend. We are all enormously grateful for the work she has done, the letters she has written and the pressure she has put on the Government, so I thank her for that.

This is absolutely about social mobility. There is a correlation between children being on free school meals and their access to tech. There are more than 62,113 children on free school meals across West Yorkshire, so it is evident that the need is great, but it did not have to be that way. The Education Secretary and his Department knew that this crisis was coming. The Minister will probably point to the mutation, which caught us all by surprise, but another lockdown was predictable and scientists raised the alarm long before the new variant was identified.

Our children need care, but they also need resources. Our families need practical support. Schools need timely, realistic guidelines. We need an Education Secretary who is on top of his brief, but so far we have seen the Government continue to fail the children of Batley and Spen and West Yorkshire, whose futures and destinies depend on their leadership.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela, and I congratulate you on your damehood. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing this important debate.

I pay tribute to all the schools in my constituency and to the two local authorities, South Tyneside and Gateshead Councils, which reacted quickly to ensure that children and families are as supported as possible during the latest schools closure. I of course pay tribute to all the parents and carers, including my wife, who are home schooling their children at this very difficult time.

However, schools and families still face huge challenges in ensuring that every student has individual access to reliable and high-quality digital devices and the internet. This is, of course, not a new issue. The digital divide existed prior to the pandemic and left many children struggling to complete homework. The pandemic has highlighted the digital divide and other inequalities on a national scale, and effective action must now be taken to address that wide-reaching educational inequality.

Although this debate about digital exclusion among young people, alongside other things, is vital, let us not be in any doubt that it alone will deal with the deep-seated inequalities that having no face-to-face teaching creates. Online is no substitute for many, which is why it is vital that the Government ensure that pupils have guaranteed face-to-face contact time with their teachers online. Research conducted by the Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East in May 2020 showed that school closures further exposed and exacerbated the gaps in education caused by low income, and left children unable to access or engage in learning because they did not have adequate resources or an appropriate set-up at home.

It seems a long time ago now that a demand for everyone in the UK to have a right to access the internet, irrespective of income, was considered by some to be “broadband communism”. Fast forward a year and many children across the country are not able to gain access to laptops and the internet when it is so desperately needed. That is no surprise when Ofcom estimates that between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK—around 9%—do not have home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point. Does she agree that, with the closure of so many libraries in our communities, we easily forget just how important access to information and knowledge is, and how so many in our communities are being isolated from that access? That is why the provision my hon. Friend is describing is so crucial.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Libraries are so important to our communities.

In June 2020, the National Education Union, the Labour party and others called on the Government to urgently address the digital divide and provide laptops for all pupils who needed one. Seven months on, that has not been properly addressed. How long does it take to order and distribute laptops?

Delivering devices alone does not fully address the issue of connectivity, with 880,000 children and young people living in a home with only a mobile internet connection. Schools have reported that take-up of additional SIM cards has been low among families in certain areas. Even with mobile companies expanding data plans, this still means that children’s learning is dependent on phone reception, which can often be unreliable or slow. That is preventing children and pupils from fully participating in lessons.

The Government’s decision to cut school laptop allocations in October last year—a decision that was fortunately eventually reversed—combined with schools previously being able to request laptops only for isolating pupils, left many schools and pupils unprepared and without the right resources to move quickly into an extended period of remote learning. Echoing much of the Government’s handling of the pandemic, this has been a story of dither, delay and indecision, and it is our children who are now paying the price. I agree with the Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East that the Government must commit to rapidly increasing the distribution timetable for the 440,000 purchased devices that are currently available to schools and ensure that every child across the country has access to a device for learning and other essential items.

The CPAG and CNE have outlined some very basic ways in which the Government could achieve that goal. First, the number of devices schools can apply for should be increased, enabling them to meet the needs of their school communities. Cash grants could be provided to parents to allow them to purchase the ICT equipment that is needed—not just laptops, but wi-fi, printers, printer ink, paper and so on—so that pupils can learn from home. Child benefit could be increased by at least £10 a week to ensure that families have enough money to meet the additional financial pressures placed on them as a result of children learning at home. Will the Minister commit to those reasonable requests, to ensure that no child is further disadvantaged by forces that are completely out of their control? Nearly one year on since the start of the crisis, the Government’s failure to deliver the digital resources for school children’s learning must not continue at this critical point in their lives.

Finally, I will turn to free school meals. I echo the concerns so eloquently outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, and add that, surely, the easiest way to ensure that children, through their parents, receive the full level of their allowance for free school meals is to use vouchers. That will allow parents to make sure that the food given to their children is nutritious and balanced and that it is food their children will eat. It will also mean that unscrupulous companies no longer benefit at the expense of our children—literally taking food from their mouths.

I would need longer than the next few minutes to express my anger at the Government’s shambolic provision of remote education for schools, but I hope that I have long enough to propose three immediate, practical, tangible actions.

The first is zero-rating, which is a mechanism to make a website freely accessible, even if the user is without data. I congratulate BT, Three, Vodafone and O2 on their work on zero-rating the Oak National Academy, and particularly BT on its work to zero-rate BBC Bitesize. The Minister must urgently encourage all other providers to follow suit.

The second is data. Families streaming online lessons on pay-as-you-go can expect charges as astronomical as £37 a day, so I welcome the free data offered by the biggest providers, but the devil is in the detail. While they are offering unlimited data to all customers in need, Sky Mobile’s offer is limited to 1,800 customers and they have to be on a monthly contract. I say to the Minister that someone’s contract cannot be boosted if they do not have a contract in the first place. The families without connectivity are not on monthly contracts. They pay as they go. Where is the offer from the likes of Giffgaff, Lebara, Lyca and Asda Mobile? We are beginning to understand that poorer people pay their bills differently. Just as they pay their gas and electricity on a key charging meter, they pay for their connectivity on a pay-as-you-go basis.

I offer all hon. Members in this debate a table that Harry and Dan in my office have put together of all the offers by all the companies. It shows that companies that overwhelmingly provide services to poorer people on pay-as-you-go make no offer at all. Even though some of the leading companies make great offers to people on contracts, they make no offers to people on pay-as-you-go.

The third action is on devices and dongles, because no matter how many websites are zero-rated or how much data is offered, remote education remains completely inaccessible to the 1.78 million children without a device. And no matter how expensive, how smart or how modern the device distributed, it is educationally useless if it comes without the data or dongle needed to connect from home. Why on earth have just 40,000 routers been delivered? In a country with free state education, how is it acceptable for remote education to be dependent on a lottery of support and for the Good Law Project to have to resort to legal action due to the poorest parents having to choose between their child’s education and their family’s health? If they do not have data or computers, they go to school.

So many Members have referred to the research from the Sutton Trust and Teach First. Just 10% of teachers report that all their students have adequate access to a device—just 5% of teachers in state schools, compared with 54% in private schools. Meanwhile, a principal in my constituency wrote to me only yesterday to tell me that an astonishing 350 children at her secondary school had to share a device in the household. I rang her to confirm, because I thought I had misunderstood. Unfortunately, I had not.

I welcome zero-rating and I thank those networks stepping up to boost contracts, but ultimately nothing replaces a teacher teaching their own pupils. It is utterly unjust that that is available to all but the poorest pupils on the wrong side of the digital divide. Every pupil receiving a laptop in the weeks ahead is a child that has been failed in the six months that they were off school without one. The Minister knows that the number provided still does not meet the need, and tens of thousands of other children will be without the connectivity they require to use the device in the first place. Stop passing the buck on to schools and teachers, and provide the data and dongles urgently needed, so that no child’s education is dependent on their internet connection.

May I congratulate you, Dame Angela, on your recognition in the new year’s honours? It was richly deserved. It is a genuine pleasure to serve with you in the Chair. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing this really important debate. It says a huge amount about the concern that people have about the state of education in our country at the moment that Members have travelled from right across the country to participate in this debate because it is so important. I, too, thank the House authorities for facilitating this sitting. I hope that sense will prevail and that we can find a way to have virtual participation in Westminster Hall as well as the main Chamber.

Members will know how strongly I feel about where we have got to in the education response to this pandemic and the serious challenges facing children and young people across the country, as well as parents, educators, staff and schools, who have bust a gut throughout the year to keep children learning. I am angry because it did not need to be this way. We have always said that closing schools ought to be a last resort. They should be the last to close and the first to reopen. We reached that last resort because of the Government’s failure to manage the public health crisis.

What are the lessons here? Being too slow to act leads to greater cost overall. We have seen that in terms of lives and livelihoods, and we are now seeing it clearly in terms of learning. Unless we act quickly and decisively, we all pay a greater price. It is outrageous that children and young people across the country, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, will suffer the most.

We all agree that school is the best place for children to be. That is the view of not only hon. Members who are passionate about education, but every single teacher and member of support staff across the country. Indeed, even when they were warning the Government that schools were no longer a safe place for pupils to be if we wanted to manage and contain the spread of the virus, every single union representing teaching staff, school leaders and support staff made it clear that school is the best place for children and young people to be, and we need to get on top of this virus to get them back there as quickly and safely as possible.

As we know from the Children’s Commissioner and from Ofsted, and from all the evidence from the first lockdown, that when children and young people are not in school, it is particularly the most vulnerable children we are concerned about. Even with reports of high numbers of children and young people still turning up to school this week and last week, we know that children from the most vulnerable and at-risk backgrounds are still failing to show, with serious concerns flagged for social services.

Even for children not from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, this has not been an easy time; in fact, it has been a very challenging time, as any parent would agree who is trying to juggle their work and their responsibilities around the home with educating their children at the same time. If ever there was a time to be grateful for teachers, it is right now, and parents across the country are appreciating first hand that teaching is not an easy job

Children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the most excluded. That is what makes the Government’s failure to prepare for remote learning inexplicable and inexcusable. It is not only their competence that is in question, but their values and their ambition for pupils across the country. We know from Ofcom that around 1.8 million children are without a device to study from at home, and around 880,000 children live in households with only a mobile internet connection, with all the challenges that that presents. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who has been an outstanding champion in highlighting the digital divide, made that clear in her powerful speech.

Why was it not a national priority to get every child online? Why did the Department for Education have a target of providing only 230,000 laptops by the end of June last year, and, worse still, why was that target missed? We now know that 700,000 laptops have been delivered in total—100,000 of them this week, so the pace is picking up. The Government have committed to 1.3 million in total, but when will those be delivered? Why does the summit of the Government’s ambition still fall short of delivering for the 1.8 million children whom we know are without a device in the home? Only 54,500 4G routers and 9,930 wi-fi vouchers had been delivered by Christmas. Why? How is that acceptable?

We know that children cannot get online. Why are we relying on the goodwill of mobile phone providers to help their customers, because that is clearly not working? As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, many of them are not even bothering to try to help their customers, so where does that leave those children from the poorest and most disadvantaged backgrounds?

Why is it that, even at the start of this term, we had reports that families and schools had not been able to order laptops for primary school pupils? Why is it that sixth-formers were not also given priority for laptops but put at the bottom of the pile? As the research published by the Sutton Trust and Teacher Tapp shows, just 10% of teachers report that all their pupils have access to a device, and that proportion has barely shifted across the entirety of the pandemic. We know that what the Government have been doing has fallen well short of the need of our children and young people.

The digital divide, of course, is not new. If one thing must come out of the pandemic, it should be an understanding that access to online services, education, resources and entertainment cannot be restricted only to those from comfortable or well-off backgrounds; everyone needs to benefit. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) raised the digital divide. There are plenty of examples of local authorities, such as Hounslow and others, that have grasped the nettle and worked hard to get their local families and citizens online. What will the Government do in the wake of the pandemic genuinely to tackle the digital divide and to ensure that we get not only every child online, but every family?

I am also really concerned about the support available for special schools. For obvious reasons, being open to their pupils presents all sorts of challenges for the safety of both the staff and the young people they serve. I know, from speaking to the heads of special schools in my constituency and across the country, that they have not felt supported by the Government, they have not felt funded by the Government, and they certainly have not felt trusted by the Government. The Government need to focus on and prioritise the provision in special schools, and to trust headteachers to make sensible decisions about managing the flows of children and young people in their school, making assessments about risk and vulnerability and ensuring that children receive the support they need—a point made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin).

Getting every child online is about access not just to kit but to high-quality teaching. I recognise that the Government have put in place a remote learning framework, but there is a lack of understanding of how digital education can best be delivered. It is not always about live lessons, although I know that many schools have done a great job in providing continuous online provision; it is about giving people access to high-quality lessons, which can be delivered by brilliant providers such as the Oak National Academy and the BBC, and, crucially, following up with good-quality contact time with a teacher, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow said in her fantastic speech. That has been somewhat overlooked by the metrics in the framework.

Was my hon. Friend as shocked as I was that the Secretary of State, when making his statement last week, suggested that parents who were unhappy with the remote learning their schools were providing should complain to Ofsted?

Well, that really does bring me on to the final section of my speech, which is about the performance of the Education Secretary and his leadership. I thought it was appalling, actually, to announce on the Floor of the House to parents across the land that if they were dissatisfied they should pick up the phone and ring Ofsted, without even speaking to Ofsted first. Its inboxes have been absolutely flooded, and no doubt its phones are ringing off the hook—interestingly, not so much with people ringing to complain, but with parents horrified at the heavy-handed treatment of the Government ringing to say, “I want to say thank you for the work that my school and the teachers are doing.”

There has to be a focus on standards. I strongly agree with what the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) said about the importance of education, and of consistently high-quality education. I have heard from young people themselves examples of where the standard has fallen well short of what is provided by other schools. We should make no bones about challenging that, but the Government have to support schools to provide that high-quality education.

The truth is that, while schools have bust a gut for their pupils throughout this crisis, the Secretary of State for Education has either been missing in action or actively harmful to the work that schools have been doing. He was too slow to act on funding and support, so headteachers in particular had difficult decisions to make about the funding of safety measures versus the funding of ongoing learning and teaching, particularly in the context of rising staff costs because of regular staff having to self-isolate and the need to recruit more expensive supply cover.

It is also about the lack of planning and preparation. The Opposition recognise, and have always recognised, that lots of challenges are thrown up by this pandemic that make Ministers’ lives really difficult, but when someone is a Secretary of State, particularly in a crisis like this, when they have all sorts of things coming at them and their Department, it is their job to sit around the Cabinet table, listen to what is going on, understand the spread of the virus and the challenges it poses for their Department, and look ahead, forward plan, scan the horizon, and think: “What do I need to do now to make sure that the interests governed by my Department aren’t harmed further than they need to be? What action can I take to mitigate?”

The truth is that too often the Secretary of State has not had a plan A, let alone a plan B. That was clear in the case of exams. Right now, children and young people need to know what they are working towards and they still do not. Even with the letter published this morning to Ofqual and the evidence that the Secretary of State has given to the Select Committee on Education, they still do not know quite what they are working towards.

This is a Secretary of State who announced—in fact, I think the Prime Minister gazumped him; I am not even sure that the Secretary of State knew what was going on—that exams were to be cancelled in the week when pupils were sitting BTEC exams. It is almost as if the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister had never heard of BTECs, but pupils and students were going off to sit their BTECs, wondering on one evening whether they would be invited to turn up at school or college the next day.

It seemed to me that it was only when the Government were reminded that BTECs existed that they thought to say something about it. Even then it was not a clear direction; it was up to schools and colleges. What chaos! We said to the Government long before Christmas, “You need a plan A for exams to go ahead, and they need to go ahead fairly. We know it’s difficult, but you need to try to mitigate the amount of lost learning.”

My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the chaos and confusion caused at the time of the BTEC exams in January. I had three schools that each told me something different. The first told me that it had stopped the exams, the second that they were going ahead, and the third that it was asking children to choose whether they wanted to sit them. That is utter chaos for secondary schools, all within one constituency.

I strongly agree, and it was desperately unfair on students. I think we all remember the stress of exams, however long ago they were. I cannot imagine what those students—who, on the eve of an exam for which they were preparing, were not even sure whether it would take place—have been through. It seemed that BTEC students were a total afterthought, but frankly so were all other students across the country. We said to the Government, clearly, “You need a plan A for exams to go ahead, and to go ahead fairly, but it may be, through circumstances beyond your control and the spread of the virus, that they can’t happen, so you need a plan B.”

What we see now, after the Prime Minister cancelled exams, is that not only was plan A deficient, but there was no plan B in existence. Only now are the Government scrambling to make it right. We had a hasty announcement from the Secretary of State before Christmas that there would be a working group to look at the inequalities and the challenges presented for sitting exams. That work has probably been overtaken somewhat by subsequent announcements. The fact is that we never saw the working group, never saw the membership and never saw the terms of reference. I am not sure it met. I am not sure whether it still exists or whether it is due to report. The point is that the Secretary of State should have been announcing the results, the recommendations and the actions from such a working group before Christmas, not simply announcing that he was setting one up.

Free school meals have also been an afterthought for the Government throughout the pandemic. They had to be shamed into action not just by Opposition politicians and, indeed, politicians on the Government side, but by Marcus Rashford and food poverty campaigners, yet we see just this week a repeat of the exact same debacle that we saw last March, so it is not just the case that the Government are making mistakes and oversights and are not on top of support for some of the most vulnerable children. They do not even learn from their mistakes; they just go on repeating them.

As for school closures—goodness me, Dame Angela. We have all accepted how important it is to keep schools open and to have a plan in place to achieve that. Let us just rattle through the timeline. In the final week of term, the Government were threatening to sue local authorities that were warning us that the virus was out of control and they needed support. The Secretary of State could have just picked up the phone. The Prime Minister said on 21 December that he wanted to keep schools open and they would reopen at the start of January. A plan—if we can call it a plan—was released on the last day of term for the roll-out of mass testing. Then, on 30 December, there was an announcement that primary schools in some areas would not reopen as planned. On 31 December, the Education Secretary was saying that he was “absolutely confident” that there would be no further delays in reopening, which should have been a clue that there absolutely would be. The very next day, the Secretary of State announced that all London primary schools, not just those in certain parts of the city, would remain shut to most pupils at the start of term.

On 3 January, parents were told to send primary school age children back to schools, which remained open despite growing calls to close them. Then the very next day, it was announced that they were closed, which I can tell the Minister was an absolute pain in the backside for parents who often get grandparents involved in supporting their caring responsibilities, as many grandparents said, “I’m really sorry. I would love to help, but I can’t—they’ve been back at school for a day.”

It is a total and utter shambles—the lack of forward planning, the lack of thinking ahead and the lack of any consideration about the impact that Ministers’ decisions have on the schools, the parents and the pupils, the children and young people, who have been victims of those decisions. There has been no consideration whatever.

I want to conclude by saying that, very self-evidently, this is not good enough. We have to ask serious questions about how it is, after this litany of failure, the Secretary of State is still in his office. It does not reflect well on the Prime Minister, who seems to cling to incompetence rather than challenging and tackling it. We have to be more ambitious. It should not just be the Government being ambitious for themselves and their own prospects; they should be more ambitious for our country. If we are not ambitious about the futures of children and young people, if we are not ambitious about getting every child online, and if we are not ambitious about having a national education recovery that seeks to repair the damage of more than a year of disruption to education, we really have to ask ourselves what on earth we are here for.

As the right hon. Member for Tatton said so powerfully in her speech, in so many ways throughout our history this country has led the world in the provision of education. We still have a great international reputation for the quality of our education, but there is a real risk that under the present leadership, without a serious change of course and a change in personnel, we will not see this country build on that proud history a brighter future for children and young people across the country. After the year of misery that they have had, I think we would all agree that they deserve so much better.

May I add to your embarrassment, Dame Angela, by adding my congratulations to you on your very well deserved damehood, and say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning? I congratulate also the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing this debate.

Education is a national priority for this Government. That is why we have endeavoured to keep schools open throughout the pandemic. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the inequality in education that existed even before the pandemic. That is why closing the attainment gap has been the driving force behind all our reforms in education since 2010, which had led to the attainment gap closing by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools since 2011.

During this period of restricted attendance in schools, early years settings will remain open, as will schools for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. All schools and colleges in England have switched immediately to remote education for students who do not attend face-to-face provision. Preparations and expectations for that were set out in revised guidance last year.

Despite restricted attendance, lateral flow testing should continue for students and teachers who are attending schools, and from 4 January, rapid asymptomatic testing has been successfully rolled out for secondary schools and colleges, alongside weekly testing of staff and daily testing of close contacts for staff and pupils who test positive. That rapid testing programme will help to identify asymptomatic positive cases, and will further help to break the chain of transmission of the virus and minimise further disruption.

We recognise that teachers are under enormous pressure in dealing with the impact of covid-19 on their schools. I join the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington in paying tribute to staff in our schools for their enormous efforts since the beginning of the pandemic. We know that significant time in the classroom has been lost already, and that will continue as the pandemic continues. It is critical that we mitigate the impact on students of being out of school, through high-quality remote education. Most pupils are now receiving education remotely, and schools have made huge progress in developing their remote education provision, so it is right that we increase the expectations of what pupils receive.

In October, the Secretary of State issued a direction under the Coronavirus Act 2020, placing a legal duty on state-funded schools to provide remote education. In our July guidance, which was again updated last week, we set out clear expectations, including a requirement that schools provide between three and five hours of teaching a day, depending on the child’s age. Schools are now expected to provide remote education that includes either recorded or live direct teaching.

Teachers and heads have gone to enormous lengths since March to improve the quality of remote education. Ofsted’s report on visits to schools during the autumn term commended the increasing sophistication in schools’ approaches to remote education. I would, of course, be delighted to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) and the Blue Collar Conservativism group the future opportunities that online education can bring to our schools.

To support remote delivery, we are investing more than £400 million to support access to remote education and online social care. We have bought more than 1.3 million laptops and tablets, and by the end of this week we will have delivered three quarters of a million devices, more than half a million of which had been delivered by December last year. That has been a huge procurement exercise: more than 1.3 million computers bought to order on the global market.

We have targeted support at those who need it most. On top of the 1.3 million computers, schools already have 1.9 million laptops of their own and an estimated 1 million tablets, all of which can be lent to their pupils. As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) pointed out, we have partnered with mobile phone operators to deliver zero rating for the Oak National Academy and BBC Bitesize, and the free data uplifts for disadvantaged families. We are grateful to EE, O2, Sky Mobile, Smarty, Tesco Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone. We continue to invite a range of mobile network operators to support the offer.

As every child and young person in the country has experienced unprecedented disruption to their education as a result of covid-19, they will need support to catch up, alongside remote education and the delivery of devices. The Government have introduced a catch-up package of £1 billion, including a catch-up premium of £650 million for all state-funded schools. Schools will be able to tailor the funding for specific circumstances and target the pupils who need it most. To support schools in making the best use of that money, the Education Endowment Foundation has published a covid-19 support guide for schools, with evidence-based approaches to catch-up for all students.

All schools should use their catch-up premium as a single total from which to prioritise support for all pupils, guided by individual need. That will often focus on pupils from deprived backgrounds, but will include other pupils, especially those facing challenges, such as those with a social worker, young carers, and those with mental health needs.

Alongside that, we have the £350 million national tutoring programme for disadvantaged pupils, which will increase access to high-quality tuition for the most disadvantaged young people, helping to accelerate their academic progress and tackling the attainment gap between them and their peers. The national tutoring programme for schools was launched in November 2020, and nearly 90,000 pupils are now confirmed to have enrolled in it. It is estimated that, this academic year, approximately 15,000 tutors will support the scheme, offering tuition to more than a quarter of a million pupils. During this academic year, the national tutoring programme is also providing funding to support small-group tuition for 16 to 19-year-olds and the improvement of early language skills for reception-age children.

We know that time out of the classroom affects disadvantaged children and young people most significantly, and the Government remain committed to ensuring that they continue to be supported. In March, we took the decision to continue to provide free school meals to eligible children while at home, and to extend that during the Easter holidays and the Whitsun half term. The national voucher scheme that we introduced has distributed some £380 million of vouchers for families, and with the prompting of Marcus Rashford we extended the voucher payments during the summer holiday, too.

During the current national lockdown, schools should continue to provide meal options for all pupils who are in school. Meals should be available free of charge to all infant pupils and pupils who are eligible for free school meals who are in school. Furthermore, we are providing extra funding to schools to ensure that they continue to support eligible children who are at home. Schools can work with their school caterer to provide food parcels, or they can consider local arrangements, such as vouchers. Schools will be able to claim for reimbursement of those additional costs. The centrally funded national voucher scheme will reopen from next week to ensure that every eligible child can access free school meal support while schools are restricted from opening to all pupils.

The quality of the food in the photographs shared on social media is totally unacceptable and does not reflect the high standard of free school meals that we expect to be sent to children. Chartwells has rightly apologised and admitted that the parcels in question were not good enough. My colleague the children’s Minister met its chief executive officer yesterday, and they assured her that they have taken immediate action to stop further deliveries of poor-quality parcels. Chartwells will ensure that the schools affected are compensated and provide additional food to the eligible children, in line with our increased funding.

Vulnerable children and young people are strongly encouraged to attend their school or college, but where a child does not attend, school absence will not be penalised. We expect schools to follow up attendance where absences are not related to covid-19, as they would normally do when schools are open. We have asked all social workers to strongly encourage those in care to attend school. Children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker can go to school if required, and schools should speak to parents and carers to identify who needs to go to school. If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time, they should do so.

We know that every school will have a different number of children of critical workers who need to attend, so it is important that on-site provision is provided for those pupils. There is no limit to the number of those pupils who can attend, and schools should not limit the attendance of those groups. That is because, as the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) said, we are reducing overall social contact across areas and the country, rather than individually by each institution.

The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) raised exams. We recognise that the decision to restrict access to schools means that primary assessment cannot go ahead as intended. We will therefore cancel the statutory key stages 1 and 2 tests and the teacher assessments planned for summer 2021, including the key stage 2 tests in reading and maths. We remain determined to ensure that every young person, no matter their age or background, is provided with the education and opportunities they deserve, despite the challenges faced by schools. We know that schools will continue to use assessment during the summer term to inform teaching to enable them to give the necessary information to parents.

As the Minister thinks about what the plan for assessments looks like, can he make sure that there is provision for private candidates to be assessed and awarded a grade? Many of them have been waiting for some time for some clarity on that.

Yes. That will be made clear in the exchange of letters between Ofqual and the Secretary of State this morning. The hon. Gentleman will see more detail of the proposals for private candidates in the consultation document that will be jointly published by Ofqual and the Department for Education this week.

Although exams are the fairest method we have of assessing what a student knows, we cannot guarantee that all students will be in a position to sit exams fairly this summer. That is why GCSEs, and A-level and AS-level exams, will not go ahead as planned this summer. We have confirmed that we will use a form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided by exam boards, to ensure that they are awarded fairly and consistently. This week Ofqual and the Department for Education will, as I have said, publish a consultation document setting out the details of the proposed arrangements for awarding grades. We have been working on those proposals for many months in anticipation that we would be in the position we are now in. There are similar proposals in relation to vocational and technical qualifications, but they are varied and different forms of assessment, and we have a separate consultation on that, to be published this week as well.

To give the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington time to respond, I will conclude by saying that we have taken the steps I have described to help to mitigate the impact of covid-19 on pupils. The measures will ensure that they can continue to have access to a high-quality education and that we shall continue to close the attainment gap across the country. I again thank and pay tribute to all our dedicated teachers, school and college leaders, and support staff for the extraordinary work that they are doing to help to minimise the impact of this terrible pandemic on the education and life chances of their pupils.

I thank everyone who has participated in today’s debate, in incredibly difficult circumstances. It is clearly an important debate, and the fact that we have been able to hold it is testament to the need for it. I guess we all share some frustration when the Chambers are not available to us, and about not holding the Government to account. The Minister is a decent person, and will understand that the concerns of the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), for example, are constructive. They may be critical, but we want the best for our children and communities. That is why it so important to have such debates.

I want to give particular recognition to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who has done such sterling leadership work on child poverty and in the education sector. I thank her, having listened to her speak in the Chamber many times. She leads the way on many fronts and is worthy of special recognition.

I shall not go through the individual contributions, but I reiterate my thanks for Members’ participation and for so many important points. I will perhaps summarise just two areas. On free school meals, I understand the Minister’s point about Chartwells and the meeting that took place yesterday, but when businesses apologise, those apologies can be cheap. There are serious amounts of money involved, and profiteering is going on to the detriment of the children and families involved. I urge that the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee should look at the issue. It is a scandal, and a blemish on the work that the Minister is doing—as the Department. I hold the Minister in good regard, but it is right that the matter should be looked at most carefully.

I want to focus on the issue of laptops and digital access. There is poverty in many parts of our modern lives, but in this day and age the idea that the sixth wealthiest nation should have digital poverty and exclusion seems quite wrong. I think back, and perhaps I can put the matter simply by framing it in this way: for a child not to have an exercise book provided by the school, or access to a textbook in class, would be wrong. The school would not allow it. We have to think differently and recognise that digital access through the internet and broadband is crucial—laptops and digital access. Therefore, it should be mandatory for the Government to provide them to every child in our schools.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered support for pupils’ education during school closures.

Sitting suspended.