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Coronavirus: Education Setting Attendance and Support for Pupils

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 23 September 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the impact of coronavirus on attendance in education settings and support for pupils to catch-up on lost learning.

Mr Speaker, I am terribly grateful to you for granting this urgent question during my first week in the job. We would all like to thank school staff for their ongoing dedication to pupils at what has obviously been an extremely difficult time.

Regular school attendance is vital for children’s education, wellbeing and long-term development. I am pleased to report that attendance last week was higher than at the same time last year, with 91.9% of students attending and 99.9% of all state-funded schools open. We know that the impact of coronavirus has been felt strongly in schools. The evidence is clear that being out of education causes significant harm to attainment, life chances, mental health and physical health. Data from the autumn 2020 school census showed that 60% of pupils had some period when they did not attend school in circumstances relating to covid-19 during the autumn term. That represents 33 million days missed, and analysis shows that every day of education missed matters.

That is why this Government are rightly focused on reducing the disruption to education: we have put an end to the self-isolation of whole bubbles; under-18s no longer need to self-isolate after contact with a positive case; secondary pupils were tested on their return, to help limit transmission, and will continue to test this term; and just last week this Government announced the roll-out of vaccinations for all 12 to 15-year-olds. Our communications programme has promoted the importance of attendance and we continue to monitor the data closely.

We are also fully committed to helping pupils to catch up. Our £3 billion investment in recovery includes more than £950 million for schools to best support the most affected children. That will have a material impact in closing gaps that have emerged. We continue to work closely with local authorities and schools to help them re-engage pupils. The Government’s Supporting Families programme continues to work with families where attendance is a significant concern, and we are providing support to tackle mental health issues, which will improve attendance further. That includes £7 million for local authorities to deliver the wellbeing for education recovery programme, and £9.5 million to train senior mental health leads in up to 7,800 schools and colleges. We are also recruiting a team of expert attendance advisers to work with local authorities to help them improve their services and the consistency and quality of their attendance interventions.

The next stage includes a review of time spent in school and 16 to 19 education, and the impact that this could have on helping children and young people to catch up. To support and re-engage the most at-risk pupils, we are investing £45 million in the new safe and alternative provision taskforces, bringing together specialist support in schools and AP settings in serious violence hotspots. We are also joining up support by expanding the role of virtual school heads, which is a wonderful initiative, to cover all children, with a social worker to provide additional support on attendance and attainment for many of the most vulnerable pupils.

The impact of the pandemic has been significant, and this Government continue to act tirelessly to help our children recover their education and wellbeing, with the help of our excellent teaching profession.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. Although I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not in his place, I warmly congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I know he will agree with me that nothing is more important than our children’s futures. But during the pandemic the Government have treated children and young people as an afterthought, failing to take the action that teachers, parents, pupils and the Labour party have been calling for to keep children in school. Some 122,000 children were out of school last week. Yesterday, the chief medical officer warned that covid is spreading fastest among secondary-age pupils. When will the Government act to improve ventilation in schools, colleges and universities? Will the Minister explain the Government’s rationale on masks, which saw them required in schools in March but not now, when covid rates are more than 400 times higher?

We welcome the advice of the chief medical officers to roll out the vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds, but already there are reports of pressure on school nursing services. Will the Minister guarantee that all first doses will have been administered by October half-term?

Shockingly, there are reports that some schools are experiencing anti-vaccination protests. What action is being taken to ensure that no school faces threats and intimidation?

In Education questions on 6 September, the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), hinted that the Government may cease recommending twice-weekly home testing at the end of this month, even though covid continues to spread. Will the Minister reconfirm the plans on testing? How will he ensure that testing at home is carried out, after the drop-off we saw last year?

Even before the latest surge in absences, children had missed an average of 115 days of school. The Conservatives’ paltry recovery plan comes nowhere close to tackling what is needed. Labour’s plan commits to extending the school day to give time for breakfast clubs and new activities, small-group tutoring, expert mental health support, and training for our world-class school staff. Will the Minister commit today to matching Labour’s ambition?

I thank the hon. Lady for tabling the urgent question and for her opening remarks. I am sure we will not always see eye-to-eye, but we both have a great concern for children in this country and I look forward to working with her on that score. Nevertheless, I do not want to take too many lectures from the Labour party on this subject. We all clearly remember how last year Labour consistently refused to say that schools were safe for children to go back.

The challenges that we currently face are obviously substantial, but great improvements have been made. At the end of the previous term, attendance in school was at 75%; as of Thursday last week, attendance was at 91.9%, with 99.9% of all schools open. That is a tribute to the very hard work done by our health service and the very hard work that is currently being done in schools. I am sure the whole House pays tribute to that work.

Our Department has an absolute determination to be led by the best evidence, and that determination is shared across Government. Probably no one in the Government understands data and evidence bases better than my new boss, the Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). When the evidence changes and the situation changes, so we change our policy.

The hon. Lady asked about face masks; at some stages in the pandemic we have had face masks in corridors, strict social distancing and bubbles, but the evidence now says that we can move away from that. That is much to the good, because anyone who has ever worked in schools, as I have, will know that it is difficult to conduct proper education when children have their faces covered. I strongly welcome the fact that we have been able to make a change on that score.

Over the course of the pandemic, we have put £3 billion into helping schools and the education recovery. That includes £1.5 billion for evidence-based tutoring programmes that are going to help children, including the most vulnerable, to catch up. I am delighted to have discovered that £220 million is being spent so that vulnerable children can attend holiday activities and food programmes in all local authorities. We have £79 million to support those children who have been suffering with the worst mental health problems—mental health is a dreadful problem that I know many Members will have heard about in their constituency surgeries—and £17 million for mental health and wellbeing training in schools.

The hon. Lady rightly asked about the dreadful anti-vaccination protests we have seen. They are totally unacceptable. The level of intimidation of schools and teachers is abhorrent. I make it absolutely clear to any headteacher or teacher who is watching this that, contrary to some of the things they have been told, legal liability rests not with schools, but with the health service and those providing vaccinations. I thank schools very much for the spaces they have created and the consent forms they have provided, but they should rest assured that it is the health service that is providing these jabs and offering the support. Any school facing intimidation should let the Department know about it so that we can follow it up.

This is a difficult time for education, but things are getting better. They are getting better because of the actions that this Government have taken to roll out one of the best vaccine programmes in the world and to support children and their teachers in school.

I am pleased to see the Minister, my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, in his place.

As I understand it from our discussions with the chief medical officer at the Education Committee yesterday and from the Government, the key purpose of the vaccination programme is to keep our children in school. However, I have been sent a letter by parents about the Teddington School in Middlesex, run by Bourne Education Trust, that shows that all students will be sent home on Friday 24 September, after a day of vaccinations today. Therefore, despite Government guidance, there are examples of schools doing this, or of whole year groups being grounded at home or even closed down completely. Will my hon. Friend make sure that schools follow Government guidance to the letter and do not send children home? He should ring the headteachers himself to make sure that we keep our children learning. Will he also ensure that the catch-up fund reaches the poorest and most disadvantaged students, because we know that 44% of students receiving the pupil premium are being missed, and that there are huge regional disparities as well?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I look forward to working with him in his role as Chair of the Education Committee and as a venerable defender of the needs of children and of the voters who follow.

It is extremely important that schools follow departmental guidance. I am sure that my officials will have heard the example that my right hon. Friend has just given. The message is clear: the best place for children is in schools and there are very clear criteria that tell us when children should be there.

The Minister rightly recognises the toll on the mental health of children in this country over the past year. In Waltham Forest, many schools dug deep and paid for external counselling services for the children and are now facing big gaps in their budgets. Having said how important it is that no school in this country should be out of pocket, will the Minister commit today to fully reimburse those schools for the cost of counselling over the past 18 months to help our children get through the pandemic?

I thank both the hon. Lady for her question and the school in her constituency for the work that it has done to look after its pupils; it sounds as though it has gone above and beyond. As I said in answer to the shadow Secretary of State a few moments ago, the Department has invested considerable amounts of money in supporting children’s mental health. There has been £79 million across the piece, and £17 million for training for mental health and wellbeing in schools. We are fully aware that this is one of the lasting consequences of the pandemic, and we will step in to support schools every inch of the way.

I find the irony of this urgent question being called by those on the Labour Front Bench somewhat mystifying, because they went missing throughout the pandemic, and there was silence on the issue of schools. It is not just me who thinks this. Let me quote:

“Labour’s silence on closing schools is completely ridiculous.”

That was Corbynista Owen Jones saying that, so it is not just we on the Conservative Benches who think it. The NEU—or the “not education union” as we should refer to it—continually wanting to shut schools, and Labour keeping silent despite the donations running into its party coffers tell us everything that we need to know. Can my hon. Friend confirm to me that, no matter what happens this winter, schools will be kept open, pupils will be learning face to face and, in that way, they will catch up exactly as they need to.

I thank my hon. Friend for his passionate question. He has first-hand experience of working in schools, and I look forward to leaning on his expertise while I am in this job. It is absolutely the Government’s intention to keep schools open. We are clear that schools are the right place for children. The cost of children not being in school is extremely serious, so it is very much our hope that schools will be open from this point on.

Erdington is one of England’s poorest constituencies, but it is rich in talent. I pay tribute to the headteachers, who do an outstanding job in the most difficult circumstances. In a survey I conducted of schools in my area, I found that 60% expect to set a deficit budget next financial year, and 100% said that they do not have sufficient support for their pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Of the schools that applied for exceptional costs funding, 75% received funding amounting to less than half the costs. Is it not the simple reality that school spending by the Government is still lower than in 2009-10, and that after tearing up the catch-up recommendations made by their own adviser, they have allocated to schools a fifth of what was asked for? Is it not the simple truth that a whole generation of children and young people are growing up without the support that they deserve from their Government?

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty defender of pupils on his patch. The Government have already spent £3 billion on helping schools to get through the pandemic. As I have said, we have invested £1.5 billion in evidence-led programmes, and we have a high degree of confidence that they will help children to catch up some of the time that they have lost in school. Since the Prime Minister took over two and a half years ago, he has been clear about his ambition to return per pupil spending to what it was in 2010. Obviously there is also an imminent spending review, in which other things are being considered.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that keeping children in school and educational settings is an absolute priority? Does he agree that children with special educational needs and those on education, health and care plans should be given the bespoke support that they need to maximise attendance and thrive in the school environment—a shining example being Hoyle Nursery School in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is right that we have to help the most vulnerable children to overcome the problems of the pandemic. Children with special educational needs are very much on our radar. We have consistently prioritised children who attend specialist settings by providing additional uplifts in the 2020 catch-up premium and the 2021 recovery premium. Specialist settings will receive an uplift to deliver summer schools and will have the flexibility to deliver provision based on pupils’ needs. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns; for about eight years, I was the vice-chair of governors at a special school in west London, so I have seen the remarkable work that such schools can do to change children’s lives. We absolutely have our mind on this agenda.

We know how important good ventilation is to protect staff and students from the spread of covid, and to keep schools safe and open. The Welsh Government are funding better ventilation in schools. Why are this Government not doing the same?

I am delighted to hear that the Welsh Government are improving ventilation in schools. The Government in Westminster are doing precisely the same. We have spent £25 million on installing CO2 monitors, with 300,000 monitors going out right now. We are starting with special schools and then rolling them out across the estate.

I recently met the impressive young people from Milton Keynes Youth Cabinet, who highlighted to me the difficulties with mental health that children suffered during the pandemic, and of course we discussed catch-up. It is great that the Department have announced the consultation on discipline and behaviour in schools. Does the Minister agree that discipline, behaviour and structure are key to good mental health, and to catching up on what we have lost over the last few months and years?

I could not agree more strongly. We need schools to be calm, well-ordered places of learning. These are the environments in which children flourish most. That is why, since 2010, this Government have prioritised behaviour.

I welcome the Minister to his place and look forward to him appearing in front of the Education Committee later in the autumn. I declare an interest in that I am the chair of governors of a primary school and a member of an academy trust board.

Disruption is still occurring because even vaccinated people and children can contract and transmit the infection. Headteachers and their staff, as the Minister has outlined, are continuing to work above and beyond but are struggling in many places to keep their schools going as they would want to. What more can he do to give schools the support they so desperately need so that they can effectively educate the children while also safeguarding those children and the staff? I am afraid that in many places the measures that he has outlined are proving to be far from adequate.

My heart stopped for a moment because I thought the hon. Gentleman said that he looked forward to my appearing in front of the Education Committee this afternoon, but the autumn is fine—probably. He raises a very important point, because obviously we do want to see children back in school. As he will have heard me say, we have substantial improvement on where we were at the end of last term. Ordinarily of a September, pre-pandemic, we would expect about 95% of children to be in school. Last Thursday, the figure was 91.9%. We are very keen to make up that gap and we are working tirelessly to do so. One of the things I have not mentioned is that the DFE has REACT—regional education and children’s teams—working across the country with local authorities, regional schools commissioners and schools themselves to clamp down on outbreaks where they take place and to help children to get back into school as quickly as possible.

It is great to see my hon. Friend in his place at the Dispatch Box. I welcome the work this Government have done to make it a priority to keep schools open for face-to-face learning. In contrast, Labour equivocated over whether they were even safe to reopen. Does he agree that if Labour were in power, our schools would probably be closed for face-to-face learning and our children left behind?

I thank my hon. Friend for his thoughtful question. We have been very clear throughout that we wanted to get schools open as soon as it was safe to do so. We have done that. We have managed to increase attendance from 75% at the end of last term to 91.1% at the start of this term. There is a lot further to go. However, it is the roll-out of our vaccination programme across the country, with the high uptake and the hard work of our health service, that has enabled us to get to this point. Children are better off in education and they are able to be in education because of the steps this Government have taken.

The roll-out of the national tutoring programme has been shambolic, as has been evidenced right across the country, including in my constituency. Will the Minister consider allocating the money to local authorities, which already have the relationships with local providers, in order to ensure that additional support for young people can be provided expediently?

I am afraid that I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s description of the national tutoring programme as such. It is based on the very best evidence, it has a very large sum of public money behind it, and we are highly confident that it is going to help children to recover and get back.

It is indeed a great pleasure to see my hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving him the chance to strut his stuff in his first week in the job. He will make a fine addition to the Department for Education.

May I press my hon. Friend on keeping children in school? I completely agree with him that that is the priority, so will he look again with a fresh set of eyes at routinely testing children who have no symptoms and are not ill? The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health thinks that routine testing of asymptomatic children should stop, because that is what is keeping them out of school, and I agree. Will he look at that, get rid of routine testing, test only children who have symptoms and send home only children who are unwell?

My right hon. Friend is extremely learned in these matters. We have a testing programme in place to ensure that we limit the number of pupils in schools who have coronavirus. That was obviously the case as schools went back. I am sure that the relevant Minister will have heard his remarks.

Hull is one of the most disadvantaged parts of the country, and there will be no levelling up without catching up. Will the Minister commit to the necessary catching-up budget proposed by his adviser, Sir Kevan Collins?

As I have said a number of times, we have put in £3 billion, with £1.5 billion on tutoring for 6 million tutoring programmes—100 million hours of tutoring—and an additional 2 million tutoring programmes in 16 to 19 education. That is evidence-based, and we have a high degree of confidence that it will help children recover and get over the worst of the pandemic. The right hon. Lady will have also heard me say that a spending review is coming up.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his position; I am sure he will do an excellent job. He rightly points out that the vaccination programme for young people is a public health matter. However, what support is being given to schools, teachers, parents and young people to combat the anti-vaxxers who are obviously misleading people on the benefits of ensuring that young people are vaccinated and therefore safe to be in school?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. It is totally unacceptable that any teacher or headteacher is being placed under that pressure. The lies spread by certain groups are outrageous and have unquestionably made life uncomfortable for some people working in schools. I reiterate that schools following the guidelines are doing exactly the right thing. They are not legally liable for what happens. I understand that, so far, all participating schools are doing so in a highly professional manner.

As the Minister rightly acknowledged, the need for mental health support for young people has risen significantly during the pandemic, yet providers of that support such as the fantastic charity TADS in Barnsley are struggling to access funding. I acknowledge his commitment to funding, but how will he ensure that it gets to the frontline? What can he do to help charities such as the one that I represent?

I have heard of TADS on my travels—it is an excellent charity. If she would like to send the details to the Department, I am happy to look into that for her.

We all know that the best place for young people is in school, learning in a classroom. Will my hon. Friend therefore confirm that when the Opposition next make a call for schools to close, he and the Secretary of State will do all they can to resist those siren calls and keep our kids in school?

Be in no doubt that we want children to be in school and learning in school. It is the best place for them to be for their education, their mental health and their futures. We will do all that we can to keep them where they are.

The Minister has spoken about catch-up funding, and I got to see at first hand some of the great work being done at Denton Community College with its summer school over the summer holidays. However, no amount of summer schools will enable children to fully catch up on the work they have missed out on, so what more is he going to do to help the covid cohort properly catch up and be able to excel, as we would all hope they will be able to do?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and it is very good to hear about what he saw going on in Denton in his constituency during the summer. The tutoring programme is at the very heart of our response in helping children catch up, in so far as it is possible to do so. We know from the very best international and national data that when children have one-to-one or one-to-two tuition, it can be revolutionary for their learning, and that is why this Department is channelling money and effort into it.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his thoroughly well deserved appointment.

Schools in Kettering are doing their very best, but are facing a very challenging time at the moment with some rapidly rising covid rates, especially in secondary settings. Could we have some specialised support and enhanced efforts from Public Health England and the Department to help them to get on top of this?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his remarks. As I mentioned a moment ago, there are DFE REACT teams working around the country, and their role is to work with schools, local authorities and regional schools commissioners to tackle precisely this problem. I am sure that, if he were to get in touch with the Department, it would be able to fill him in more on what is happening in his area.

I welcome the Minister to his place, and I wish him well in his new role.

In Northern Ireland, the Education Minister has given schools funding grants for catch-up learning, which many high schools have taken advantage of. This has become even more necessary due to the coronavirus, which is the thrust of this urgent question. Does the Minister not agree that we cannot lose focus on the early years intervention for P3 classes with a reading age a full year behind, and how does he intend to stop that lag-behind following those children through their whole academic life?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Since I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Northern Ireland Office, I have long believed there is a great deal we can learn from Northern Ireland in this place, and we often learn it from the hon. Gentleman. It is absolutely essential that we support early years, but also children at every stage in their education, to overcome the worst of this pandemic, and I have no doubt that that is what this Department will be doing in the months ahead.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. I commend his Department for its successful efforts to eliminate the barrier of digital exclusion by providing 1.3 million laptops and tablets to disadvantaged students during the pandemic. Can he confirm that that investment will continue for those pupils?

Yes, all of the 1.35 million laptops that my hon. Friend refers to are still in use and are still out in the community. It was a major offer that the Government made to children who were digitally disadvantaged and it came, as he will recall, with a wi-fi offer, which made sure they had the connectivity they needed. This was a very important initiative by the DFE, and we are sticking by it.

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Greenfield school in Newton Aycliffe in the Sedgefield constituency, and it was great to see so many children and teachers back where they belong. With the advent of being able to get vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds, can I ask the Minister to make sure that both the parents and their children are getting the proper information about the validity of vaccines for both groups, not listening to the nonsense on some aspects of social media?

Absolutely. The best source of information on vaccines is, remains, and will always be the NHS. Hon. Members can rest assured that the Government are following the Gillick competencies, which have been in place since the mid-80s.

This year Wales High School in Rother Valley is celebrating its 50th year, and it was a pleasure to join it in its celebrations a few weeks ago. Will my hon. Friend celebrate not only that great achievement, but people’s hard work in keeping the school open during the covid crisis, including putting in measures and guidelines that go above Government recommendations?

Absolutely, and I thank not only my hon. Friend’s school but all schools across the country that have gone above and beyond at this very difficult time. We have asked a great deal of our teachers and school leaders, and they have risen to the challenge.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend in his place. Will he join me in congratulating schools across Wiltshire, and particularly in my constituency, on getting back to work so effectively and educating all their children once again? Now that 12 to 15-year-olds are eligible for the vaccine, does he agree it is important that all children, and their parents, get the proper information, so that they can make the right decision for themselves and their community?

It sounds like Devizes is doing a cracking job in meeting the challenges of covid, and I say again to all parents, teachers and pupils who are looking for advice that the NHS is the place to go, and we are in safe hands when we take its advice.