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Covid-19: Schools

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 14 May 2020


The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given today in the House of Commons.

“It is over seven weeks since we asked schools, colleges and childcare settings to close to all but vulnerable children and those of critical workers. This has been a huge ask of teachers and parents, but the greatest impact of all has fallen on children themselves. I am immensely grateful for the response of all those working in education, childcare and children’s social care, but we all know that the best place for children to be educated and to learn is in school, and it has always been my intention to get more of them back there as soon as the scientific advice allowed.

As the Prime Minister has confirmed, we are now past the peak of the virus, and he has set out a road map for the next phases of our recovery. If progress continues to be made, we expect that, from 1 June at the earliest, we will be able to begin a phased return to school, college and childcare for children in key transition years, alongside our priority groups. Primary schools will be asked to welcome back reception, year 1 and year 6 children in smaller class sizes. Nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, will be able to begin welcoming back children of all ages. Secondary schools and colleges will be asked to provide face-to-face support for years 10 and 12, who are due to take key exams in the next year.

On Monday, my department published initial guidance for settings on how to begin to prepare, and we will work with the sector leaders to develop this further in the coming weeks. This guidance sets out protective measures to minimise the risk of infection, including restricting class sizes and limiting mixing between groups. Crucially, all children and staff will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus. This will enable a track-and-trace approach to be taken to any confirmed cases.

We continue to follow the best medical and scientific advice, and we believe that this phased return is the most sensible course of action to take. I know that it will be challenging, but I know that nursery, school and college staff will do everything in their power to start welcoming our children back to continue their education.”

The Answer was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

We will proceed immediately to questions led by the Opposition Front Bench. The Minister will respond to each question in turn. I ask that questions and answers be brief, so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, we all want schools to reopen and children’s education to resume, but the primary consideration before that can happen has to be the safety of pupils, their families and all staff. Yesterday, in the Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Department for Education’s own chief scientific adviser revealed that he had not made an assessment of plans to begin reopening English schools from 1 June and had not been asked to. So much for the Government’s mantra about following the science. Does the Minister now accept that instead of asking schools to implement a hasty and unrealistic return by a specific date, they should be asked to meet certain conditions that, when completed, would signal that it was safe to reopen—a subtle but important change of focus?

My Lords, it has always been made clear that the decision to reopen schools on 1 June is contingent on five tests being satisfied, including a decrease in transmission of the disease, and that once schools reopen there is a hierarchy of controls for them to put in place to lower the rate of transmission of the disease. It has been made clear by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State in the other place yesterday that the opening date on 1 June is anticipated on the basis of the scientific evidence, but matters are under constant review.

As has been said—the Minister will agree—we all want schools to reopen as soon as possible. Disadvantaged children, particularly those with special educational needs, are finding their learning getting further and further behind. But can the Minister understand how parents feel? Young children cannot be put in a bubble or socially isolate. They touch each other and play. It takes just one child or adult to pass on the infection and you have another care-home situation ripping right through our school system. Does she agree with the director of children’s services in Liverpool, who has said that no schools will open in Liverpool until the most rigorous risk assessment of the safety of children in those schools has been carried out? What is her view on that? Finally, will she publish the scientific evidence that shows it is safe to open schools?

My Lords, the Secretary of State made clear in the House of Commons yesterday that scientific evidence will be published, and the minutes of SAGE up until about mid-April are currently available and will be updated. Of course, schools will do risk assessments on pupil safety, but the noble Lord is correct that early years and primary school children cannot be expected to socially distance in the way that adults and older children can. Public Health England’s advice is that the five steps of the hierarchy of control—such as regular cleaning of tables, regular hand-washing and children being in distinct groups of up to 15 with the same teacher and kept separate from other groups in the school—can limit and lower the rate of transmission.

The Government are completely right to invite students at years 10 and 12 to attend school on 1 June this year, because they will be taking GCSE and A levels next summer, but they have lost a whole term’s teaching and disadvantaged students will never be able to catch up on that time. Will the Minister ensure that Ofqual and the examining boards reduce the content of those exams next year to ensure fairness for all students, particularly disadvantaged students?

My Lords, disadvantaged students, particularly those in year group 10 that the noble Lord mentioned, are specifically targeted for the computers that the Government have spent more than £100 million on, so that they will be able to catch up on their studies. Obviously, we have asked schools to have some contact with them before the summer holidays.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether the arrangements for reopening schools will apply equally to supplementary schools, especially those that are registered as community language examination centres?

My Lords, the guidance surrounding the return of schools relates to early years schools and colleges. The colleges the noble Baroness mentioned are out-of-school settings, and as many of those are community places—places of worship, et cetera—they are currently not expected to reopen on 1 June, on the basis that in such settings the rate of transmission can often not be lowered in the way it can with the hierarchies of control that can be applied in schools.

I am grateful to the Minister and the Secretary of State for meeting me and the Church of England education team earlier in the week. The longer that children are learning from home, the wider the disadvantage gap that may well be developing. Does the Minister agree that the risks of not reopening schools in a managed and phased way are actually greater than the logistical challenges presented by reopening?

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his assertion. We in the department are particularly aware of the risks for disadvantaged students and the attainment gap the longer that schools remain closed. I have to say that the teachers and the heads of trusts that I have spoken to are keen to reopen schools because they are particularly concerned about the learning loss for disadvantaged students and the challenges they face to re-engage them in school.

My Lords, ONS data published a few hours ago shows that the level of infection among two to 19 year-olds is equivalent to that of other parts of the population. Will this information influence the decision to reopen schools on or about 1 June?

I can assure noble Lords that all scientific information is being considered by SAGE. In particular, there is a sub-group in relation to children and its advice has obviously been essential in informing the decision. Of course, it is anticipated that the scientific evidence will allow us to reopen schools on 1 June in that phased manner, but it has been clear that if the scientific advice moves, or if the rate of transmission is not decreasing, that position could change. However, a reopening on 1 June is anticipated, and schools should plan for that.

Does the Minister agree that the priority going forward must be those children, especially in deprived areas, who have received little or no education, whether at school or at home, over the last few weeks? Will she look in particular at ensuring the best possible experience for such children when they are leaving primary and transferring to secondary school in September? To this end, will the Government arrange, fund and consult on the provision of additional summer schools and extra classes to aid this transition, because those children who do not settle well into secondary school will lose out completely on their life chances?

The noble Baroness is correct and that is why the transition year of year 6 is one of the priority years to bring children back into school. Of course, we are also looking at the moment to expand the 880 breakfast clubs that we have around the country, and £70 million is being spent on free school meals at the moment. She is right that we need to look at all options to help these children catch up on education. I am grateful for her suggestion and welcome suggestions from any other noble Lords. There will be many parents and teachers awake at night, worried about these disadvantaged children, and I can assure her that Ministers too are concerned about those children.

My Lords, I should declare that I have the honour to be chairman of the Plymouth diocese Catholic Academy Schools Trust. Our 36 schools, as well as most other schools in the country, have been open throughout the crisis for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. All teachers and all staff of schools throughout the country have been hard at work, both with their pupils at school and, in addition, by preparing, delivering and supporting home learning, organising and—often themselves—delivering free school meals, and doing many other tasks. I hope that the Minister will join me in congratulating and sending our profound thanks to all teachers and school staff throughout the country.

As has been said, we want all children back at our schools when it is safe. Parents, staff and governors are concerned. Internationally, eminent medical practitioners, scientists and educationalists have counselled caution. Can the Minister confirm that each school will receive for circulation to parents and staff as soon as possible sourced, independent, expert medical, scientific and educational opinions and advice on the safest and most effective way of building from our current position to the point where all our pupils are safely back at all our schools?

Noble Lords will be aware that the scientific evidence we rely on comes from the SAGE committee. Obviously, I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to the hard work of so many parents, teachers and support staff who have not only delivered school meals but printed out worksheets and delivered work to people’s doors. We will move toward the reopening of all schools but this is contingent on scientific advice, which is the best way forward.

My Lords, I very much regret that the time allotted is now up. The day’s Virtual Proceedings are now complete.

Virtual Proceeding adjourned at 7.27 pm.