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Covid-19: Education Attendance

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 1 July 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 30 June.

“I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this Urgent Question. This Government are absolutely focused on returning society back to normal as soon as possible, and that includes in our schools, colleges and right across the education sector. As I have made clear throughout the pandemic, my top priority has been to keep children in school. Indeed, as I speak today, millions of children have been back in the classroom since 8 March, learning with their friends and teachers. As I am sure the House will agree, that is exactly where they belong. The vast majority of schools are open—99.8% of state-funded schools were open on 24 June—benefiting children who have given up so much during the pandemic.

Back in February, the Prime Minister set out an extensive road map. We need to continue to be careful to complete this cautious but irreversible road map to freedom. We understand the frustration of parents and pupils who may feel that they are being asked to isolate unnecessarily. As I have said throughout the pandemic, children are best off in school. As we continue with our educational recovery, it is vital that absence is minimised as far as possible, and that children and young people attend school. I am looking carefully every day at how we manage the balance between safe- guarding children’s education and reducing transmission of the virus, because I know that too many children are still having their education disrupted, no matter how good the remote education they receive.

The new Health Secretary and I have already discussed these matters, and I am working with him across my department, as well as with scientists and public health experts, to take the next steps. However, as the House is aware, some restrictions remain in place in schools. I want to see those restrictions, including bubbles, removed as quickly as possible, along with wider restrictions in society. I do not think that it is acceptable for children to face restrictions over and above those on wider society, especially as they have given up so much to keep older generations safe over the past 18 months. Further steps will be taken to reduce the number of children who have to self-isolate, including looking at the outcomes of the daily contact testing trial, as we consider a new model for keeping children in schools and colleges. We constantly assess all available data, and we expect to be able to confirm plans to lift restrictions and bubbles as part of step 4. Once that decision has been made, we will issue guidance immediately to schools.

I would like once again to put on the record this Government’s sincere thanks to all teachers for their dedication and work at this time. My commitment to the House and to the children of Britain is that, as we open up wider society, we will stick to the principle that children’s education and freedom comes first.”

My Lords, according to the Department for Education’s own figures, last week one in 20 children in state schools in England were absent due to confirmed coronavirus infections. I hope that the Minister can explain why secondary school pupils were no longer required to wear masks in classrooms from mid-May, when cases were rising and masks still had to be worn in shops and other indoor spaces. Parents, pupils and teachers need to know what is to happen in September with bubbles. Can the Minister confirm that school leaders will be told well before the end of this term, allowing time for plans to be put in place and to give their staff a desperately needed break over the summer?

My Lords, the four tests were met for step 3 of the road map at that point, so that is why, on the advice of Public Health England, masks and other restrictions were lifted at that stage for secondary school pupils. We expect to confirm plans to lift restrictions and bubbles in line with step 4 of the wider road map. Obviously, there will be an announcement in advance of that, which should be within term time for the vast majority of pupils, though there are one or two areas where state-funded schools begin to break up on Friday 9 July.

My Lords, in the decisions that are made—and made, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, so that schools know well in advance of their return in September—how much of the scientific data has been taken into account?

My Lords, the Department for Education is obviously guided by the advice from the Department of Health and the Education Secretary is working closely with his counterparts in health and social care and on the advice of Public Health England. On Monday, Minster Keegan and Minister Gibb wrote to schools and colleges to outline the situation at the moment and to give instructions about the pause on testing during the summer but the requirement to still test if children are in school for summer school. They have as up to date a position as we can provide them with at the moment.

My Lords, obviously all children have been adversely affected in their education by the pandemic, but may I commend to the Minister and her department the importance of addressing and recovering lost ground in those subjects and extras, such as gymnastics and PE and the playing of musical instruments, where the plasticity of the brain and its co-ordination with muscles is so impressionable in children and their mental welfare, especially those with special needs?

My Lords, much of the specialist tuition that the noble Lord outlined takes place in out-of-school settings. They have been able to offer provision without restrictions for reasons of attendance. Also, instrument tuition was one area where Zoom was particularly used by teachers. Of course, the pupil recovery premium—£650 million of which is in the bank of the schools at the moment—can be used if additional tuition of that nature is needed.

My Lords, given that almost a third of children are classed as inactive as a result of lockdown restrictions—not even doing 30 minutes of exercise a day—does my noble friend accept that it is essential to formulate an urgent plan to improve the physical and mental health of all children, one that tackles obesity and prioritises the reopening of youth activities now and throughout the summer? Does she recognise that this can be done only if we tear down the walls of departmental silos so that all relevant departments—health, education, sport and local authorities, to name just some—take up the challenge together to address the fact that we may face the most unfit generation of British children ever?

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will be aware that within the guidance we gave to schools when they returned, we gave prominence to the need for children to be physically active and to recover their agility. There was also the childhood obesity strategy. It is precisely for this reason that we have also funded £200 million for summer schools for year 6 transition; well over 80% of secondary schools have applied to the department for that. The holiday activity fund, which is £220 million, will also now be run in every local authority area; it will provide nutritious food and activities during the summer.

My Lords, on Monday, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care told the House of Commons that we are going to have to “learn to live with” the virus. Can the Minister tell us what this means for schools? Where is the plan for improved ventilation and classrooms where children can socially distance within school? When does the Minister think a decision will be taken on vaccinating all 12 to 17 year-olds?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s last point, we do not have medical advice at the moment to say that we should vaccinate young people of that age, except those who have serious neurological conditions. We are wating for the JCVI to give that advice. We will look at the data. Government departments are obviously working closely together and we will provide an update on step 4 in the near future.

What advice would the Minister give to parents if their child says that he or she has a tummy ache and does not want to go to school? Parents would usually reply, “You’ll be fine, darling, remember that education is so important”. Now, after months of forcing hundreds of thousands of pupils to stay isolated at home, even though they are well, surely the lesson is that school is not so important. Does she also have any advice for teachers in the future, chasing homework or confronting truancy after so long socialising pupils to think that school attendance is provisional?

My Lords, current attendance levels—despite those who are self-isolating—are at around 87%. One feature of the pandemic has been the appreciation for teachers and the workforce. On the importance of school, many young people now report that they appreciate it more than they did in the past. We have been clear that we wanted education settings to be the last to close and the first to reopen.

My Lords, may I ask about the children not attending school and not in contact with any other services? What are the Government doing to ensure that these missing children and safe and being well cared for?

My Lords, there has been increased reporting of children being electively home educated through surveys from directors of children’s social care. But there is this other group of children missing an education—those not on the school roll and not being electively home educated. There are specific officers in every local authority who should make inquiries to track down those children and make sure that they have appeared on the school roll in another local authority area in England or one of the other three devolved nations.

Throughout the pandemic there has been a noticeable lack of briefings aimed specifically at children and a great absence of their voices. I was glad to host an event for MPs and key leaders in Gloucestershire where all the input came from young people. Can the Minister give an assurance that, in looking at the impact of Covid on the lives of children, it is they who will be asked and heard?

My Lords, one interesting feature of the consultation that we recently conducted on exams was that over 50% of the responses were indeed from students. We have been pleased to hear their voices throughout this and have sought to communicate directly with them. I also draw attention to the very successful Big Ask, run by the Children’s Commissioner, to which over 500,000 children and young people responded.

My Lords, the Minister has talked about plans for when schools return for the September term, but in many areas there are two to three weeks of this term left and over 300,000 children a day not attending. What action is being taken to increase the number of children attending school this term?

My Lords, the REACT teams from the Department for Education, working alongside local authorities, have an attendance strategy. They are working closely with schools, particularly for those young people with special educational needs and vulnerable children, to ensure that as many as possible are in schools. In relation to the bubbles, they are one way that schools can limit the number of contacts but, even if a child within a bubble tests positive, that does not necessarily mean that all children in the bubble have to go home; it is still only those who qualify as close contacts in line with the risk assessment by the school.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, during the first two weeks of June, the number of Covid cases in early years settings doubled? Can she tell me how many nurseries have closed because pre-school children are isolating? If the Government withdraw the requirement for schoolchildren to isolate, will this also apply to pre-school settings? This is, as she knows, an area under huge strain and challenge at the moment and it would be good to have as much clarity as possible on this point.

My Lords, I can tell the noble Baroness that the latest figures we have are for 24 June this year, when 55,000 early years settings were open. That represents 82% of all settings, and we estimate that that means that 937,000 children were in an early years setting on that day. When we are able to confirm step 4, the advice will obviously relate to all education settings.