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Education: Return in January

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 5 January 2022

May I begin by wishing you and the whole House a happy new year, Mr Speaker?

With permission, I would like to make a statement regarding the return to all educational settings for children, students and staff. There have been a number of adjustments to the start of this term, and I am grateful for the chance to update the House in more detail on what that means.

Although we are beginning the transition from pandemic to endemic, covid has undoubtedly been the greatest threat to our way of life since the second world war, but just as we did then, we are going to get on with the job. I know that our teaching communities have been adversely affected by the omicron variant, which is why I issued our recent call to arms, urging any teachers who have stepped away from the profession or who have retired to return, even if it is for just a few hours a week, so that we can keep children learning. I am glad to say that we have already seen the first volunteers heading back to our classrooms, including at least two of our own, my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), as well as staff from my Department who have answered that call. They do this House great credit, and I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that we thank them and wish them well. I will have a better idea at the end of this week of the exact number of former teachers who have come forward to lend their support.

Even so, schools will be suffering some degree of staff absences. At the end of last year the figure was about 8% of staff off and that is likely to rise, with increasing cases in school and among young people as we return to school. However, let me say this: I have absolute faith in our teaching communities. Teachers, classroom assistants, nursery providers, heads and lecturers in all our education settings have worked miracles throughout this pandemic and continue to do so. To ease some of the burden, there will be a short temporary break from Ofsted inspections during the first week of term as schools undertake on-site pupil testing. Ofsted will also encourage settings that have been hit badly by covid-related staff absences to ask for a deferral of planned inspections. We will work with supply agencies to make sure that schools can continue to function, and that we prioritise children’s learning face to face and, of course, in the face of staff absences.

In November, we reopened the covid workforce fund, and we are extending it to the February half-term to support schools that are facing the greatest staffing and funding pressures. I would like right now to be crystal clear about one thing: we must do everything—everything in our power—to keep all education and childcare settings open and teaching in person. Face-to-face education is the best way for children and young people to learn and develop. You do not have to be the Education Secretary to know this. Teachers know it, parents know it and kids know it better than any of us.

I would now like to outline the additional measures we have put in place to make that possible and at the same time limit the spread of infection. On 26 November, every single nursery, school, college and university was invited to order supplies of lateral flow tests, and they will have received their allocation of the 31 million tests, in advance of their pupils, students and staff returning, through a dedicated supply channel. As a result, all our education and childcare settings were already well prepared for the start of this term.

It is because we know that one of the most effective weapons in our covid arsenal is a robust testing programme that all secondary schools were asked to provide one on-site test for pupils at the start of term. They are getting on with that job right now, and I thank them for it. All college and university students and all staff have been asked to self-test at home before they return to the classroom. Secondary, college and university students, and education staff and childcare staff should then continue to test themselves at least twice a week. If any school or college runs out of testing kits, they can order more through the usual online ordering channel, or call 119 to receive further advice and support about their supply. We continue to work closely with the UK Health Security Agency to maintain supplies for all our education settings.

We continue to welcome international students to the United Kingdom, and universities stand ready to support any students who are required to quarantine on arrival. Overseas students should not worry, because visa concessions remain in place for international students to allow them to study remotely until 6 April this year.

The best way people can safeguard themselves and their families is by getting jabbed. The British public have responded magnificently, with around 60% having received all three jabs. We want to make sure that everyone gets vaccinated as soon as possible, which is why I have been urging parents to get the second doses for 12 to 15-year-olds that are now on offer. They can make appointments for both doses on the NHS booking service, and any children who are at risk in the five-to-11 age group can also get a jab by the middle of this month. There will also be a vaccination service in schools for those children who are eligible for jabs, beginning on Monday.

We have already delivered more than 350,000 carbon dioxide monitors, which settings have found extremely helpful in managing ventilation. Teachers have told us that they are finding the monitors helpful to manage ventilation, and in the majority of settings existing ventilation measures are perfectly adequate for the job. For the few—the very few—cases where maintaining good ventilation is more challenging, we are sending out up to 8,000 air cleaning units from next week. Alongside other protective measures such as testing, vaccinations and better hygiene, these will help to manage transmission and keep settings open.

To keep as many people as possible learning in school and college and higher education, we have said that face coverings should be worn in classrooms and teaching spaces for pupils and students in year 7 or above. We would not normally expect teachers to wear face coverings in classrooms if they are mainly at the front of the class delivering a lesson. I know people feel very strongly about this, and some have said we are wrong to do it. I follow the data, however, as I have always done. The UK Health Security Agency has said that the measure will help reduce transmission at a time when rates of infection are so high with the omicron variant. My Department has also looked at observational data from a sample of 123 schools where face coverings were in use in the autumn term and found that there was a greater reduction in covid absence compared with those where students did not wear face coverings.

Obviously, wearing face coverings is not ideal. It is distracting for children at a time when they should be concentrating or listening to their teachers. I also know that it is not great for any child’s wellbeing and I have commissioned staff from my Department to conduct further research to better understand the negative impacts of face coverings on education along with publishing the initial findings today, but I have to strike a balance between the vital need to keep schools open and reducing the spread of infection. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North rightly pointed out in his article in The Times,

“Facemasks are a price worth paying to keep kids where they belong, in the classroom.”

So, for the shortest possible time, and not a day more, that is what we will recommend. It is the sensible and pragmatic thing to do, and it is a proportionate thing to do.

I will review the recommendation on 26 January when I hope the data will allow us to ditch masks in class. Our young people have put up with an awful lot over the past two years. By doing everything that has been asked of them, they will have sacrificed many of the things all of us here took for granted when we were growing up. I am determined that we take whatever precautions we have to take now for the shortest possible time so that children can get back to the life that they should be leading and that they deserve.

We all owe it to this generation to give them the world-class education they deserve. For this reason, I commend this statement to the House.

Happy new year to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I am glad that children are back at school this term, and I pay tribute to all the staff working right across education, whose commitment, dedication and hard work make that possible. Labour wants children to be in school, learning and playing together. Every day missed from school is a day they do not get back in their lives and in their learning. Last term alone, children in England missed over 10 million school days for covid-related reasons. More than 1 million children have left secondary school since the pandemic began. Almost 2 million of our youngest children have never known a normal school year. That is why Labour has set out a clear, costed and ambitious children’s recovery plan that would support our children where they have missed out, with school activities, breakfast clubs, and small-group tutoring. The Government’s plans are so limited and inadequate that their own recovery chief resigned in protest.

We will get on top of this disease by driving down transmission through vaccinating eligible children, ventilating our classrooms and testing regularly and frequently, but the steps the Government have taken so far, with further details announced at the very last minute and in the House today, simply do not rise to the challenge we face.

The Christmas break was an opportunity for the Government to ensure proper ventilation was in place in our classrooms, to get eligible children vaccinated and to ensure an ample supply of tests for families. On ventilation, 18 months ago, in July 2020, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies considered a paper on the aerosol transmission of covid, and recommended:

“Particular attention should be paid to planning for winter to ensure that spaces can be effectively ventilated without significantly compromising the thermal comfort of occupants.”

In July 2021 we were told that an air purifier trial, a pilot study, was under way in Bradford, but by the time the full report of that study is available, it will be more than 30 months since the Government first ordered schools to close. How can anyone look at that timeline without concluding that for this Government our children are an afterthought?

Meanwhile, at the weekend, we heard that a further 7,000 air cleaning units are to be issued to schools. That trial will tell us either that those units are a waste of money, or that for hundreds of thousands of classrooms 7,000 units is wholly inadequate to meet the challenge they face. Which is it? While Ministers take their time to decide, it is winter. Windows are open in schools across England, and children are having to be wrapped up in their coats to learn. It is incompetent, complacent and inadequate. Our children deserve better.

On vaccination, on 30 December barely half of eligible children aged 12 and over had received even their first vaccination. We have seen in the past month with the booster jab what can be done when the political will is there, but for this Government our children are never a priority. On testing, the Government have encouraged parents to ensure their children take lateral flow tests twice a week. I looked last night for lateral flow tests online. There were none available for home delivery. We cannot test our children twice a week if there are not the tests available to do it.

In closing, I ask the Secretary of State some of the questions not addressed by his statement. What guarantee will he offer parents about the availability of vaccination slots for their children, in schools or elsewhere? What is he doing about those who peddle misinformation on vaccines, and will he bring in exclusion zones around schools? How does he plan to ensure that parents can get lateral flow tests for their children? When does he intend to publish the interim findings of the Bradford air purification trial? What confidence has he that 7,000 devices are enough—and why? Can he confirm that they will not be available until the end of February and that he expects children to sit in classrooms with open windows, in their coats, in winter?

Has the Secretary of State spoken to the Chancellor, who said last summer that he had “maxed out” on supporting our children and refused to fund the recovery plan that Sir Kevan Collins recommended? What advice has the Secretary of State had on whether face coverings would still be necessary if vaccination levels among children were higher and ventilation better? Can he explain why he is unable to tell the House today how many retired teachers and others have come forward to help in classrooms following his last-minute call? What guarantees can he give students with exams this month and later this year about whether they will go ahead? Lastly, but most importantly, when does he plan to return to this House to set out the ambitious recovery plan for our children’s disrupted education that they so richly deserve?

I fear the hon. Lady has very little experience of operationalising anything, given the way she has attempted to misrepresent the efforts we have made to ensure that schools are safe and hygienic. She omitted the fact that we have delivered 350,000 CO2 monitors to our school system. That has allowed us to be confident that, where schools are able to ventilate, they are doing so and therefore do not need the air purifiers. Where schools do need additional help, those 8,000 air purifying devices are going out as of next week, especially to special needs and alternative provision settings, which as she knows are the most vulnerable, and to all other schools that cannot mitigate the problem of ventilation in the classroom.

There has been some corroboration of that modelling by Teacher Tapp, which I am sure the hon. Lady will look at in her own time online. If we take the 350,000 CO2 monitors and look at the data reported back from schools and which schools have had issues, 8,000 air purifiers is a similar number to the one derived there.

The hon. Lady asked about lateral flow tests. She heard from the Prime Minister earlier that we have trebled the number of lateral flow tests going out, from 300,000 a day to 900,000 a day, and supply from 100 million a month to 300 million a month, but in her response to my statement, she unfortunately chose to traduce a testing infrastructure that is probably the best of breed in the world.

On retired teachers, again operationally, it is a bit difficult to say as we have had only one day of school. I need to wait until the end of the week at least before I can talk to the agencies and hear exactly how many teachers and temporary staff have been needed. I will happily share that information with the House, but, alas, the hon. Lady has clearly not had much experience of operationalising.

Some £5 billion is going into catch-up and there will be 6 million tutoring sessions. By any measure, that is a massive scale-up of tutoring. Half a million training opportunities will also be available—we cannot have a great education without having great teachers—and £5 billion will go into that.

The hon. Lady asked about vaccination. I can report to her that the school age vaccination programme will begin vaccinating in schools again as of Monday, as I mentioned in my statement, which she chose to ignore. Parents can also book online, go to GPs or walk-in centres to have their children vaccinated. We already have over 50% vaccinated.

Finally, on exams, vocational exams scheduled to take place in January will go ahead, because those students have worked hard studying for them and they deserve to be able to take those exams. Those who may be down with omicron and need to self-isolate will be able to get in touch with their awarding bodies and have their exam rescheduled. In the summer, we will also go ahead with exams, and rightly so, recognising that there has been much disruption to students’ studying, which is why we are doing it in two steps to go back to the rigorous grading of pre-covid pandemic levels.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and thank teachers, lecturers and support staff across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke for their heroic efforts in getting kids tested on the first day back as well as for promoting getting the vaccine and I join them in those calls. I wait by the phone to be called into the classroom on either a Thursday or a Friday sometime soon.

I am delighted to hear my right hon. Friend’s reassurance about exams. Can we hear from the Secretary of State one more time that there is no plan B for the summer, just plan A, so that teachers, parents and pupils have the confidence that exams will go ahead as normal, and that we will get back to the exam structure to which everyone is so desperate to return?

I wish a happy new year to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all colleagues.

Given that there is a break in Ofsted inspections, could the Secretary of State speak to Ofsted about having some of the inspectors return to the classroom, making their inspections more efficient in future?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her question. Just to be very clear, for this first week, because secondary schools are conducting the tests that we have asked them to do for the students’ return, there will be an Ofsted inspection break. Schools can also request a deferral if they have high absenteeism. Moreover, practitioners who are currently heads of schools and also inspectors will not be asked to carry out inspections when Ofsted returns to inspecting after this first week. Equally importantly, because of the safeguarding requirements for children in social care, inspections will carry on as normal.

Is it proportionate to test asymptomatic children, and then, when they are negative, to mask them up anyway? Will my right hon. Friend publish the study to which he referred during his statement about those schools that had lower absences during the autumn?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. We have today published that report of evidence, and I will happily send him a copy of it after this statement.

When school pupils had to have laptops, the Government stepped in, but in future years schools are having to replace laptops out of their own funding. With the catch-up teachers—the retired teachers—coming back, who is funding them and how long will that funding continue?

I mentioned in my statement the covid fund that we have made available, which we have extended further, so schools that need additional support in terms of temporary staff have access to that fund.

It is very much to my right hon. Friend’s credit that he has published the evidence as he promised he would on talkRADIO on Monday. However, as I think I have just demonstrated, these face masks are an incredible inconvenience to us all, and they are an especially harsh imposition on children. I do not have time to put all the caveats in the data on the record, but does he accept that that data needs a lot more work to be really conclusive, and therefore will he really be looking to end this imposition absolutely at the first possible moment?

Just before Christmas, I received an email from a local teacher who said that his experience in the classroom was that schools are at breaking point due to serious underfunding issues. As a former secondary school teacher, I can only imagine how difficult it has been for schools over the past two years. Given that 20 primary schools across Barnsley East are receiving less funding in real terms than five years ago, what investment are the Government going to put into Barnsley schools to help them through this incredibly difficult time?

I remind the hon. Lady that at the spending review settlement we achieved a funding settlement for schools of £4.6 billion, which school leaders, certainly those I spoke to, welcomed.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I thank him and his ministerial team, and the officials at the Department for Education, for working tirelessly throughout the Christmas break to get our children back to school. Labour has repeatedly flip-flopped and muddied the waters for parents on the safety of schools remaining open to pupils. Speaking as a parent myself, can my right hon. Friend confirm categorically to me, to my constituents and to every parent in the country that every step is being taken to keep schools safely open?

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. It is a huge team effort by many of my brilliant civil servants in the Department, and of course the frontline teachers and headteachers, but also the support staff in schools. We must never, ever forget that the support staff in schools have done an incredible job; they have gone above and beyond. It is absolutely clear to me that the best place for children is at school learning with their friends, classmates and inspirational teachers. We saw that in the Children’s Commissioner’s brilliant Big Ask survey, to which half a million children responded: they said they wanted to be back at school. It was brilliant teachers who helped me when I came to this country without a word of English. So I will do everything in my power to make sure that schools, colleges and nurseries remain open and that we begin, I hope—I have said this many times at the Dispatch Box—to be the first major economy to demonstrate to the rest of the world how we transition this virus from pandemic to endemic and live with it in the future.

We have known since early on in the pandemic that air purifiers are one of the most effective and cheapest ways of reducing covid transmission in the classroom, as shown by countries such as the US and Germany, which implemented them many, many months ago. The Secretary of State’s defence today for the very belated announcement of only 8,000 air purifiers for over 300,000 classrooms in England is that they do not need them. Will he publish the data from the CO2 monitors that show that only 8,000 classrooms need them? Why is his Department recommending Dyson air purifiers when actually there are far cheaper ones available on the market?

I think it is worth just taking a step back. We delivered 350,000 CO2 monitors. The majority of schools did not report any issues with the atmosphere in the classroom. The reason why we ordered 8,000 purifiers was that the data we received, the feedback from those schools using their CO2 monitors, demonstrated to us that there are probably classrooms that cannot mitigate easily and will therefore need air purifiers. That is the funnel that we go through, otherwise we waste public money—taxpayers’ money—on buying 300,000 air purifiers for classrooms that simply do not need them. I am sure the hon. Lady can understand that.

Why Dyson? Because my civil servants also set up a marketplace for other schools that want to buy air purifiers, and they have looked at what is available in the market and recommended more than just the Dyson brand in that marketplace.

Happy new year to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend’s statement is very much to be welcomed. He is right to point out, however, that masks are not a cost-free option. What evidence does he have about their effectiveness, particularly since the evidence from the US suggests that the effectiveness of masks varies from 98% for an N95 respirator down to about 25% for a three-layer cotton mask? If he is insisting that children wear masks, he is presumably also contemplating the sort of guidance he should issue about the constitution of those masks and how they should be worn to ensure maximum effectiveness at preventing transmission.

Masks are one of a number of mitigations. The most important mitigation is the vaccine—that is indisputable, whether it is the first two jabs or, now, the booster campaign—and then the testing we are conducting in secondary schools this week, which I have just described, and in other settings as we have guided. I have today published the work we have done on masks, and it has been referred to in the House; I will share that with my right hon. Friend as well. That work is based on an observational study that we conducted in the Department of 123 schools where they rigorously applied the wearing of masks. By the way, we have supplied the masks so that schools have them available and are able to make them available to their students as necessary.

However, in the face of a highly infectious variant, masks are one mitigation that I thought was necessary, based on that observational study and the recommendation from UKHSA, including some of the evidence from places such as Germany and elsewhere. It is something that I did reluctantly, because the challenges around learning are evident as well, and I want to keep them for as short a time as possible, just as we begin to—I hope—get through the bumpiest of the next couple of weeks with omicron.

I am sure that I am not alone in hoping that when the Secretary of State next replies to questions from the shadow Education Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), he drops the rather patronising tone he took.

The Secretary of State has asked all university students to test themselves before returning to campus, which is very welcome, especially in Nottingham, where we are very proud to be home to 60,000 university students. I know that those students will want to do the right thing to protect themselves, their housemates, university staff and the wider community, but with a national shortages of tests, can he explain how he will guarantee that they are able to do that right thing and test before they come back to Nottingham?

Nottingham has much to be proud of: not only its students getting themselves vaccinated—over 90% of university students have now taken the vaccine, and I thank them for doing so—but being home to the largest manufacturer of lateral flow tests in Europe, which the Prime Minister spoke about earlier.

One of the ways in which we have mitigated and made sure that we deliver more lateral flow devices is by trebling the number. We used to deliver about 300,000 a day: we have increased the delivery infrastructure so that we can do 900,000 lateral flow devices a day. I recommend that people refresh the website so that they can order their devices. On supply, we have gone from 100 million to 300 million a month. As the Prime Minister mentioned, we probably have the largest testing infrastructure in Europe.

Happy new year, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State knows that I do not like the classroom mask mandate one bit. What so many constituents who have contacted me have said—this saddens them and puzzles me—is that we are again holding children to a different standard from the one for the rest of the population. There are masks in classrooms, so why not masks in every single office where people have to go to work? We are testing, testing, testing our children; that has an impact on them and their mental health. Where does he see that in six months’ time or in 12 months’ time when they return after next Christmas? In short, I am asking him: what is his exit strategy for schools from covid?

I remind the House that it is guidance —rather than mandate—on mask wearing in communal parts as part of plan B, which we announced at the end of last year, and now on wearing masks in secondary schools in the classroom. My hon. Friend mentioned the unfairness of this. I agree—I hope my statement struck the right tone—about what children have had to endure over the past two years because of the pandemic. However, I remind the House about a slight difference: we are asking people to work from home wherever possible, so they do not need to go into the office at present, but we want to children to be in school, in a classroom, learning, because we know that that is the best place for them—for their education and for their mental health.

Our plan is clear. As the Prime Minister set out, we will review all the plan B measures on 26 January—in fact, they will sunset then—and I hope that, by then, as we see more evidence, which at the moment, clearly demonstrates that the Prime Minister was absolutely right not to go any further and lock down the country at Christmas or in the new year, we will be one of the first major economies in the world to demonstrate how we transition this virus from pandemic to endemic. I hope that we will get back to what normal life looks like for students as well as for the rest of the economy.

I want to return to the issue of exams and assessments. Young people have a real sense of fairness. When they are seeing some areas of the country where infection levels are incredibly high and other areas where these are lower, they are concerned that there will not be equality across the country to demonstrate their ability and for their futures. How will the Secretary of State ensure that every single child will have their assessment in such a way that their full ability will come to the fore?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s important and thoughtful question. We are doing several things. As I have made clear, we are going back to examination. Exams will take place this month—some of the vocational examinations that are coming through—and then in the summer. I spoke about our work with the regulator, Ofqual, on recognising the disruption to students’ learning because of the covid pandemic. Through Ofqual, we will also share advance information with teachers and schools so that we, again, recognise the challenges around exams this summer for students. As I mentioned, we will go back in two steps to pre-covid grading, recognising the challenge that students have faced.

It is vital that schools remain open and I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s clear determination to keep them open. I share, however, the concerns of other hon. Members who have spoken about the mask mandate, which I believe will cause harm to all children in terms of concentration, their educational development and social interactions. There are some for whom that impact will be even more severe. A teacher in my constituency wrote to me earlier today to say that three of the pupils he teaches are partially deaf and depend entirely on lip-reading. He tells me:

“Their experience over the next few weeks will be awful as they are denied normal interactions”.

What can my right hon. Friend say to those children to ensure that they will not be left behind?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important point. I remind the House that when teachers are standing at the front of their classroom, they are not required to wear masks, and those students who are deaf and rely on lip reading will obviously continue to be able to learn. Nevertheless, it is an important point that a number of children will be unable to wear masks, whether because of a disability or otherwise, which is why it is guidance and at the discretion of teachers and school leaders. We trust teachers to do the right thing on this.

The importance of ventilation in schools was first highlighted in spring 2020, yet it has taken until 2022 for the Government to offer just 7,000 air-cleaning units when there are well over 20,000 schools and 300,000 classrooms in England. Schools in my constituency are doing a brilliant job, but I have seen an email from one school asking children as young as four to come to school in extra layers so that the windows can be kept open in winter. Is not the Government’s failure to get to grips with ventilation in our schools another example of them treating our children’s education as an afterthought?

I thank the headteachers, teachers and support staff in the hon. Lady’s constituency for their work. Teachers have gone above and beyond. Some 99.9% of schools were open at the end of last term and we are seeing similar numbers now that are determined to stay open and be a place of enrichment for young people.

I will not repeat myself, but we have roughly 24,300-plus schools and we have sent out 350,000 CO2 monitors. The feedback from the majority has been that they do not need air purifiers. When we did the modelling, we thought that they would need roughly 8,000, which is what we have. The first ones go out next week. That is the right, proportionate and cost-effective way to deal with it.

By the way, the 350,000 CO2 monitors cost £25 million of taxpayers’ money. We are stewards of taxpayers’ money; we have to be responsible in how we support schools to remain open and do what they do brilliantly, which is educate young people.

My constituents, old and young alike, believe that it is of paramount importance to keep schools going, no matter the circumstances. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and its clarity, which is in big contrast to what the Opposition have done during the pandemic, which is to sow confusion with their flip-flopping about whether schools should be open.

I hope that the shadow Front-Bench team will continue to think about their position and change their mind.

May I wish you a happy new year, Madam Deputy Speaker? I also thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Local directors of public health have been important in the fight against covid, especially in schools in earlier waves. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised with the Prime Minister the issue of real-time information getting to local directors of public health. Clearly, he did not give her an answer—he never does to anything—so I ask the Secretary of State directly whether he can give an assurance that the information from the testing that is going on in schools will be given in a timely way to local directors of public health, who can react to it to assist schools to drive down break-outs where they occur.

The right hon. Member raises a really important question. This week, I deliberately had a Zoom meeting with pretty much all local directors of public health—more than 200 attended—because I wanted, first, to thank them, and secondly, to hear from them what they are seeing and picking up on the ground and to get that evidence. It is important for me and my team to ensure that we have that communication. I will go further and say that it is about local directors of public health working with school leaders, and the communication must be absolutely paramount. That is why I wanted to have that conversation directly with the directors so that they could hear from me how important they are in this whole endeavour. Local doctors who are responsible for public health are equally important.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work that he, his team and the entire teaching profession have done to keep our children in the place that is best for them, which is in the classroom, learning. So many children have fallen back over the past two years. The Secretary of State spoke earlier about the plans to enable catch-up; will he say a little more about when we might be able to implement them?

Absolutely. We managed to secure further funding in the spending review, so the total amount of funding going into catch-up is now just short of £5 billion—I think it is £4.9 billion. Those students who have the least time left in education—that is, 16 to 19-year-olds—are getting, in effect, an additional 40 hours of education, because it is important that we focus on their catch-up. Secondary and primary schools focus very much on disadvantaged students.

The major tutoring programme through which we are delivering 6 million tutoring sessions, each of which is, in effect, 15 hours of tutoring for those kids, means that we are seeing a real difference in outcomes. Tuition used to be the luxury of the very wealthy, but we want to make sure that every child has it available to them and I want parents to make sure that they ask schools what they are doing about the additional tuition that we are making available.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his positive statement. What discussions have been held with the devolved Administrations and the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that the focus is on ensuring that children—particularly those with big exams coming up, whether GCSEs or A-levels—are taught at school? Furthermore, will additional funding be available for schools to run catch-up classes as and when they are needed?

I mentioned earlier the funding settlement in the SR, and when I talk to school leaders, they say that they think that has been a good outcome for us in education. Of course, I also spoke about the £5 billion of catch-up funding. We are sometimes in danger of getting into an arms race in respect of how much we can announce, but my focus is on output: how many children have we managed to get to catch up, whether through the tuition partners scheme or any of the other schemes I have mentioned?

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) about the £4.9 billion for catch-up. Going forward, there is an opportunity to make sure that we get our pupils in front of teachers, and one way to do that is to extend the school day. The idea was raised with the Secretary of State’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), and the Chair of the Education Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), is a big advocate of it. Is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considering taking the idea forward as a long-term plan to make sure that pupils really are educated to the best of their ability?

That is what we are doing as part of catch-up for 16 to 19-year-olds, who have the least time left in education and therefore in effect face the greatest challenge because of covid. I have also said at the Dispatch Box previously that because of our research capability in the Department we now know that the average school day is 6.5 hours; I would like those whose days are below average to move towards that average. I will always look at what the high-performing schools and multi-academy trusts do to deliver additional work, and not just academic work. The Minister for School Standards is looking at all the other things that deliver a rounded, healthy individual who becomes a brilliantly capable adult.

Happy new year, Madam Deputy Speaker. We all agree that there is nothing better for attainment and learning than keeping pupils in school, but will the Secretary of State assure me that mental health has been considered in his priorities for keeping schools open? As the Milton Keynes youth cabinet highlighted to me a few months ago, there is a potential mental health time bomb from children losing the structure of a school day, so will he confirm that it is our absolute priority to keep schools open?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his incredibly important question. He cites the Milton Keynes feedback that he has received. Half a million children responded to the Children’s Commissioner’s Big Ask survey, including 2,500 children of Gypsy and Roma families and 16,000 children with special educational needs and disabilities. This generation is not a snowflake generation—it has been a pretty resilient generation through covid—but, actually, one thing the children cite very clearly is the impact on their mental health of schools not being open, and obviously being available only for the most vulnerable children and children of critical workers. I think that was a painful lesson for us to learn. I will never want to repeat that, and I will do everything in my power to keep schools open.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a shame to find myself bottom of the class, but I guess I must try harder.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and his commitment to keeping schools open, which will be really important to parents in my constituency. It is not without its challenges, but given what we know about the lower heath risk to children and the emerging evidence about perhaps the less severe impact of the omicron variant, arguably the biggest challenge is staffing, which is why some of the measures he took over Christmas are so important.

I have two questions. First, could the Secretary of State tell my residents whether his scheme to promote people coming back into classrooms is still open, and if so, how can I encourage my constituents to sign up or where can I encourage them to sign up? Secondly, along with teachers, support staff are clearly hugely important—at Mansfield council, we have found shortages of cleaners and all sorts of other very important roles in schools—so has his Department considered what support or advice he might offer schools about those roles?

My hon. Friend is certainly not bottom of the class. His experience of local government and his contribution to national Government are exemplary. That was a very good double question. On the first question, we have set up a dedicated site where people can register, inquire and come forward, and then be signposted to local agencies in their area to be able to sign up. On his second very good question, I am also looking at and monitoring support staff absenteeism because of the omicron virus, because they are equally important in making sure that our schools continue to remain open for face-to-face education.

Thank you. The House is very grateful to the Secretary of State. We now come to the next item of business—she said slowly, in order to allow a dignified exchange of personnel while keeping social distancing. I think we have achieved that now.