Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:43 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education 7:43 pm, 18th January 2021

I echo what my hon. Friend said about the importance of the expansion of services at the Oak National Academy, and of encouraging the ever-greater availability of resources on this brilliant platform. I certainly wish him the very best with the new all-party group.

Online learning is a critical means of helping children and young people make the academic progress that they so desperately need at this time. Now that most children and young people are studying remotely, we have increased our expectations of the remote education that they receive. Schools have made huge progress in developing their remote education provision, and are now expected to provide either recorded or live direct teaching, alongside allowing pupils time to complete independently work that they have been set. Schools are now expected to provide a minimum of three hours’ provision a day for key stage 1—it is fewer hours for younger children—four hours a day for key stage 2, and five hours a day for key stages 3 and 4. Schools should also have a system in place for checking daily whether pupils are engaging actively with their work and learning.

We have set out clear, legally binding requirements for schools to provide high-quality remote education, and it is fantastic to see how schools and teachers have risen to the occasion, delivering a real step change in the standard of remote education compared with last spring.

Further education colleges are expected to continue to deliver as much of students’ planned hours as possible, to provide students with regular feedback on their progress and, wherever possible, to provide students with live online teaching when they cannot provide it face to face.

My Department is acutely aware of our huge responsibility to all our children, but none more than those who are socially and economically disadvantaged. We made it a priority to deliver the necessary technology to children in that position very early on in this pandemic, and I am glad to be able to give colleagues an update. Prior to the pandemic, there were an estimated 2.9 million laptops and tablets already in schools’ stock. In March, we began the process of finding a supplier who could deliver hundreds of thousands of computers for disadvantaged children. In April, we awarded Computacenter a contract for an initial 220,000 computers. We extended our commitment in August by a further 150,000, and did so again in September, and in October. By December, we had procured and delivered 560,000 laptops and tablets. In November, we ordered an additional 340,000 devices, bringing our total procurement to 1 million laptops and tablets. This has been one of the world’s largest procurements of laptops and tablets, and it has happened despite intense global demand.

Despite the million laptops or tablets commitment, we wanted to go further, and this year we have already ordered a further 300,000 devices on top of our current order. Already, three quarters of a million computers are in the hands of schools and disadvantaged young people. All this is in addition to the 1.9 million laptops and 1 million tablets that schools already have, most of which can be lent out to those pupils who need them most.

The latest 300,000 devices lift our investment in online learning by another £100 million, meaning that more than £400 million has been invested in supporting disadvantaged children and young people who need the most help and support with access to technology through the pandemic. The 16-to-19 bursary fund was another, existing means of supporting disadvantaged learners in schools and further education settings. As for adults, we introduced a change to the Education and Skills Funding Agency adult education budget last July, so that the most disadvantaged adult learners could continue to join courses that have moved online because of the virus. We have extended the “Get help with technology” scheme, in order to provide disadvantaged 16 to 19-year-olds with further help with devices.

I have concentrated so far in this debate on making clear how we are doing everything we can to ensure all our young people can continue to learn from home during the latest lockdown. However, no child can do their best if they are hungry, and I emphasise clearly, so that there is no doubt whatever, the Government’s commitment to free school meals.

I want to stress that the overwhelming majority of schools have been successfully providing exceptionally high-quality free school meal support to their pupils. However, pictures were circulated last week of food parcels that were simply not acceptable. Along with the Minister for children, my hon. Friend Vicky Ford, I have met those who are supplying these parcels, and I have left them in no doubt that we expect high-quality food and supplies in the parcels they deliver. Our guidance states that the parcels need to contain certain items that parents can use to make a healthy lunch for any child throughout the week.