Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:17 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire 8:17 pm, 18th January 2021

Nourishment is fundamental to learning, as to so much else. In recognition of its importance, of course, eligibility has been extended three times since 2010—among infants, in further education colleges as my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon mentioned, and with the extension of the universal credit roll-out.

In current circumstances, it has been right to extend support into the holidays, during the depths of this crisis. I support the covid winter grant scheme. In Hampshire, I welcome the programme elements that go considerably beyond lunches and children eligible for free school meals, as my hon. Friend Steve Brine mentioned, to target help where it is most needed, with things such as discretionary school grants, community pantries, provision of fuel cards where needed and other elements and channels.

Looking beyond covid, I hope that it will be possible to maintain and indeed extend the holiday food and activities programme, which a number of colleagues have mentioned and which we grew while I was at the Department for Education. The best programmes in that scheme include a variety of purposeful activity and family food-preparation workshops. I was very impressed when I visited to two such programmes run by Connect4Summer in my constituency of East Hampshire, in Headley Down and in Bordon.

Turning to the other part of the motion, on resources for learning remotely, this has clearly been an immensely difficult time for teachers, parents and children and I commend them all for what they have done. I support the unprecedented effort to provide extra hardware on top of the devices that schools already had, but of course, this is not only about that tech. That is far from the only aspect of remote education. Indeed, there are limits on it, especially further down the age range. Many schools have created fantastic paper resources, and old technology such as textbooks continue to play an important role. It is important to maximise the effectiveness of the less new technologies, which are widely available, and I am pleased that the BBC has now announced more programming. I wish that that had happened earlier, because although there are many companies that can make great online resources, there are few that can do broadcasting.

The move to remote learning was so rapid that teachers and others did not have time to plan, but much has been learned since then by schools, ed tech suppliers and others. We have seen how to improve the balance, for example, between live lessons and at-your-own-pace work. We have learned more about what tech can and cannot do, and about how it can augment learning. The range of ed tech available now is truly outstanding, and the all-party parliamentary group on education technology is looking at the lessons that can be learned from lockdown. The road ahead is surely challenging for this generation of children and their amazing teachers in terms of getting back on track and re-narrowing the attainment gap, and it is essential that what we have learned in this time through the albeit enforced distance learning is put to best use when, in time, we return to normality.