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Covid-19: Effect on Education in Deprived Communities

Volume 819: debated on Wednesday 23 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education of school children in the most deprived communities.

My Lords, pupils were one to three months behind in their learning in summer 2021; an improvement on spring 2021. Pupil premium pupils were around half a month further behind in reading and maths at primary level and 1.7 months further behind in reading at secondary level. That is why, as well as the universal offer to all students and staff, we are targeting our £5 billion of education recovery funding at pupils who most need support to recover their lost learning.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. She will be aware that the Education Policy Institute has announced that, for the first time since 2007, pupils have fallen behind. It has also said that the number of students on the poverty line has grown. If this so-called £5 billion recovery plan is not successful, what will the Government do? Will more money or other funding streams become available? Will the Minister comment on Teach First’s proposals that we rethink the pupil premium?

The noble Lord is right on the principle that we need to keep close track of the impact of the measures that we have announced already. I remind the House that the interventions that we are funding with the £5 billion package are all those that have the highest evidence base to support them. They are highly targeted, both geographically and by age, and it is a multiyear package.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating the Traveller movement on its effective and popular project of post-Covid catch-up for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma school students? How many of those have been reached with demonstrable effect by the Government’s £1 million education programme, particularly in view of the questions raised over the competence of the Randstad contracts?

I do not have the specific data to hand as to the number of pupils from the Traveller and Roma community, but I am happy to share that with the noble Baroness if it can be found.

My Lords, on my recent trip down memory lane as a Whip, I remember being briefed about family hubs, which I felt were going to go a long way in improving the welfare of deprived children and families, dealing with them from conception to birth. Can my noble friend tell me how the rollout of these hubs is going?

I am sure my noble friend, the Leader of the House, would join me in saying that that lane is always open for my noble friend, whenever she wants to go down it.

The Government are investing £82 million to create a network of family hubs, as part of a wider £300 million package to transform services for parents, carers, babies and children in half the council areas across England, making sure that thousands of families will have access to the support they need. The clear aim is early identification and an approach which will address the range of challenges that a family might face.

My Lords, due to the effect of the pandemic on university experience, greater numbers of young people have deferred their university places. This particularly affects students leaving school this year, as university capacity is limited. Will the Minister say what is being done so that those from deprived backgrounds seeking university places this year do not become further disadvantaged in their education and future life choices, having often been the most affected by two years of a pandemic?

The right reverend Prelate will be aware that we have been working hard with the Office for Students to ensure that there is the strongest possible approach to fair access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We will imminently be making more announcements in that regard and I look forward to debating those with the House.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the impact on preschool children of the loss of educational provision in the past two years is disproportionately affecting their life chances? Will she therefore ensure that not only early childhood education provisions but the providers of preschool facilities, which are probably most impacted in deprived areas, are supported?

I partly agree with the noble Baroness about the disproportionate impact. I absolutely agree with her about the science of early childhood development and how important it is that we prioritise children in the first 1,000 days of their life. However, equally, for those children who have less time remaining in education, it has been incredibly important that we focus on them—for example, lengthening the school week for those in 16 to 19 courses.

My Lords, last year, Sir Kevan Collins resigned when the Government allocated only 1/10th of the funds he said were needed to deliver a real post-pandemic education recovery plan. At £50 per pupil, he said it was “feeble”. In the light of the shocking delayed learning figures that the Minister has just outlined, will she undertake to review and increase the funding?

I do not recognise the noble Baroness’s figure of 1/10th, but we have been highly targeted in our interventions and the early data is encouraging, particularly for primary school pupils, on the rate of catch-up in all areas of the country. The greater concern is about secondary pupils, and that is why we have apportioned a greater share of the funding to that group.

My Lords, is it not the case that Covid-19 and the effects thereof are little influenced by economic background?

I apologise, but I caught only part of my noble friend’s question. I think I understood him to say that a child’s background does not have a great impact on their outcome. The evidence does not support that. We are very pleased that the disadvantage gap decreased between 2011 and 2019 by 13% at primary level and 9% at secondary level, but it is clear that children from disadvantaged backgrounds do less well in education—hence our emphasis on levelling up.

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on what discussions she is having with the independent school sector about partnerships with state schools to support less advantaged students? Does she agree that, while individual collaborations are always to be welcomed, her department has a role to play in brokering systemic and sustained programmes that could utilise online capacity for learning to ensure that support is targeted on those areas most in need, rather than on schools that are geographically close?

As ever, the noble Baroness makes a good point about the potential for online collaboration. The department really supports partnerships with independent schools, and there is some fantastic work going on, from local collaboration to very specific support for children in the care system being offered places at independent schools. We are encouraging that, but I share her desire that we should ensure it maximises the impact for children.

My Lords, at his press conference with the Prime Minister on Monday, the Chief Scientific Adviser said that

“this virus feeds off inequality and it drives inequality and that needs to be borne in mind at all times.”

Those words should perhaps be framed and placed on the desk of every Minister—and, for good measure, that of the noble Lord, Lord Flight. Contrary to the figures that the Minister gave in her Answer, the Education Policy Institute said that disadvantaged pupils in England are 18 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. The Government are not doing enough to reduce that gap. Further to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on the pupil premium, will she consider the suggestion that it should be extended to those qualifying 16 to 19 year-olds in full-time education?

Time does not permit all the details, and I do not have them to hand, but I did look at the difference between the data that we have been using in terms of lost learning and the data to which the noble Lord refers. There are some important points which underlie and explain the difference in the two figures. We genuinely believe that the figures which we are using are the most reliable and the most robust. In relation to pupil premium, of course we keep our policy under review, but we recently published guidance from the Education Endowment Foundation which helps schools to work through how they spend that premium to best effect.