Covid-19: Impact on Attendance in Education Settings

– in the House of Commons at 12:42 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education 12:42 pm, 30th June 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the impact of coronavirus on children and young people’s attendance in education settings.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

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 safeguarding 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.

T he 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.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

Data published yesterday showed that 375,000 children were out of school last week because of coronavirus. It is nine weeks until the new academic year begins, but we have no idea what the Secretary of State plans to keep them in class. School leaders dread another last-minute announcement. They need time to put plans in place, and their staff desperately need a break over the summer.

The Secretary of State has briefed that the bubbles policy will be replaced with daily testing from September. Will testing take place in schools? If so, what support will they receive to do it? Can he tell the House the results of the pilots in schools using regular testing instead of bubbles? What impact has that had on the number of coronavirus cases in the school community and the number of hours that children and staff remain in class? Will he tell us why, if he believes he has a solution that will keep children safely in the classroom, he is waiting until September? What is he doing now to keep children in school before the summer holidays?

Time and again, Labour has called for mitigations to keep children learning, including ventilation and Nightingale classrooms. Why has that not happened? Will the Secretary of State clarify why he abandoned the policy of masks in schools when cases were rising and masks were still required in shops and indoor spaces? Will he share the scientific evidence that led to that decision?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that children who have to isolate over the summer and cannot attend the holiday activities and food programme will still receive free meals? Finally, will he tell us when he expects to receive Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice on vaccinating older children? Does he believe that they will begin receiving the vaccine before September?

Ministers’ negligence on letting the delta variant into our country is keeping hundreds of thousands of children out of the classroom. The Secretary of State must act now or make way for someone who will.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

On daily contact testing, that is something that Public Health England has been running trials on. We expect it to report back to the Department of Health and Social Care and to us in the coming weeks. We are very clear that we want action to be taken, and that is why we very much want to see the lifting of more restrictions and of the bubbles in schools as part of the next step. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, that decision has to be made across Government as part of the next stage of our road map, but we will of course be informing schools and keeping them up to date as to progress in plenty of time before the start of the next term.

The Labour party deigns to give advice. Let us not forget that its advice was to join the European Union vaccine programme. Well, where would that have got us? It was the Labour party that said that it would not be possible for schools to deliver testing right across all our schools and colleges, yet that was what we were able to do. And it was the Labour party that opposed children going back into the classroom and did not support this Government’s efforts to ensure that children were able to get their education at the earliest possible stage. At every point, the Labour party has done everything it can to frustrate and stop the opportunities for children to be in school.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he is doing to try to keep schools open, but we have 300,000 children being sent home. In addition, 93,500 children are missing 50% of school or more, as identified by the Centre for Social Justice this week in a hard-hitting report.

We are in danger of creating a generation of ghost children, denied a proper chance to climb the education ladder of opportunity. Will my right hon. Friend update the guidance and look to establish mobile testing units in schools as soon as possible, even before September, to stop the need for children to be sent home? Will he also set out a plan, galvanising the forces of the Department, local authorities and schools, for how these 100,000 ghost children are going to be returned to school properly so that we can bring their education back to life and do not damage their life chances for decades to come?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My right hon. Friend raises the important issue of children who are not attending school. That is why we have pulled together the REACT teams, which are a combination of DFE teams, regional schools commissioners, local authorities, the police and, crucially, schools themselves, to target those children, working alongside the supporting families initiative led by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is already extensive testing in schools. In fact, some 57 million tests have already been conducted in schools and colleges across the country, so we already have a well-established testing mechanism. The next stage, as we move to step 4 of the road map, is that we want schools to be able to operate more freely. We want all children to be able to be part of the summer activities, whether that is the holiday activity and food programmes or the additional summer schools that schools are laying on. That is why, as part of step 4, we are looking at lifting the restrictions and bubbles that schools currently have to operate, and we are looking at doing that at the very earliest opportunity, so children will be able to benefit through the summer.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Will the Secretary of State stop this dither and delay? On education matters, everyone in this House should be united, but there is a generation of young children who have missed education and will continue to miss education. Families, and parents particularly, want certainty. They want to know what the rules are and what they can expect, so that they can plan their everyday lives. Most of all, all of us who care about education know that the upcoming summer holiday could be an opportunity for a vast number of national volunteers to work with children, to give them the vital support they are missing because they have missed so much school education. Come on, Secretary of State, take the lead and do something positive, imaginative and bold.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughts. We have already outlined, if he had listened to my answer to my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, that we are looking towards lifting the restrictions, especially bubbles, as part of the next step of the road map. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government will, in the very near future, announce the next step of the road map, and lifting the restrictions will very much be part of that. It is important that all our actions, right across Government, are properly co-ordinated as part of a process of easing restrictions right across the country.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I am delighted that the Government prioritised the reopening of schools as we eased lockdown; I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all his efforts to make sure that children return to schools and get in-person education as much as possible. Does he agree that rolling out regular testing as we do so will ensure that we not only stop the spread of the virus, but prevent children from being unnecessarily sent home and missing out on their education? At the same time, we must make sure that the tests are carried out properly and appropriately.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend will probably have seen the figures: more than 50 million tests have already been conducted across schools and colleges. We are very much aware that testing has been an important part of getting schools reopened, and we continue to work with colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care and in track and trace to ensure that testing is available to all pupils and their families.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

The number of children missing school is rising every single day and families are at their wits’ end, while the Government are once again far too slow to react. Will the Government act now and establish a rapid taskforce with public health directors and school leaders, with a mandate to keep schools open safely?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

It is fair to say that Liberal Democrats have never been very good at numbers. Actually, schools are open right across the country—they are welcoming children. Millions of children are in school, benefiting from being with their teachers, and we continue to take action to ensure we do everything we can to maximise the number of children there. As part of step 4, as I touched on earlier, we will be looking at lifting more restrictions; that will be announced in the near future.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s work to keep schools open and his ambition to see the end of the bubble system, but may I ask him to look at a cohort of children who risk being caught up negatively by covid guidance and restrictions: those who are due to start primary school this September? I declare an interest in that my own son is due to start school this September. Under the current guidance, schools are unable to run the settling-in sessions that are essential for children to familiarise themselves with their new environment and have the best start in school life. Will my right hon. Friend take action to ensure that those settling-in sessions can happen?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I will share some of the guidance that we have. There is flexibility for schools, for those key transition years, to have some level of familiarisation with those children. I will organise it that my office shares that information with my hon. Friend.

Photo of Tahir Ali Tahir Ali Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

The number of children self-isolating has quadrupled during this month because of increases in cases of covid. Following this sharp rise, more children are now able to learn online from home with the IT equipment and internet access provided to schools by the Government. Hundreds of families in my constituency of Birmingham, Hall Green have benefited from the scheme, but I am now hearing that many of the devices have been either disabled or taken back by the schools. That has a significant impact on learning, especially for those who are living in poverty. It is important that access to IT equipment should not be disrupted. Will the Secretary of State therefore ensure that children keep the laptops and return them only when they leave school at year 6 or 11?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The investment that we made in IT equipment is there to help pupils. Although those laptops are the property of the schools, we very much want the schools to prioritise using them to help children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. I will certainly take up the hon. Gentleman’s point and look in more detail at whether we can give more guidance and a stronger steer to schools to really emphasise that point.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

We all know that the pandemic has caused many young people to miss out on vital learning experiences and I welcome the Government’s recovery strategy to help them catch up. In Cumbria, we have unique outdoor education centres, such as the Blencathra Centre and the Outward Bound centres, that offer life-affirming educational experiences both as day and residential activities, giving young people a chance to benefit from some of the vital opportunities they have missed out on. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these centres can be a key part of the solution, and will he look into his Department directly supporting and utilising these assets to achieve the educational recovery?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

As part of step 3 of the road map, we lifted restrictions so that people could do overnight residential. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the benefits of outdoor education centres and the real value they bring to many young people. We will certainly continue to work with the sector on how we can promote that, especially as schools have more and more freedoms in the future.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Government have consistently let down our children. To bring down case numbers and to reduce school closures, the likes of me advocated for teachers to be vaccinated, for a circuit break during half-term last year and for other sensible measures, but we were ignored. Now, shockingly, one child in 20 was out of school last week and case numbers are still rising. Will the Secretary of State commit to reviewing the use of the bubble system and to implementing the recommendations now, rather than waiting until the autumn?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I will happily pass on a copy of Hansard to the hon. Gentleman, so he can reference what I said earlier in response to this urgent question.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

The Secretary of State is right to push back on the Labour party. I do not remember Labour Members being huge champions of getting schools back on 8 March, when we were campaigning so strongly for it. Their words are a little bit hollow now.

The Secretary of State is clearly indicating where he wants to go on getting rid of bubbles. I am not really sure, though, why we cannot do it now. We are going to cause a huge problem for the rest of term and we will not be giving a lot of time for teachers in schools to prepare for the autumn. What I really wanted to ask him was about testing. We have now vaccinated all adults at risk of being seriously ill from covid. Given that covid is going to be endemic, is he really suggesting that for the rest of time we are going to be testing our schoolchildren on a regular basis? I think we need to move back to normal. Once we have protected everyone who is vulnerable to covid—children are not, largely—we need to get back to normal, not ensuring our children have to be continuously tested for the entirety of their school careers.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My right hon. Friend raises a very interesting and thoughtful point. We want to see schools return to normality. We do not want children to feel as if there is an extra layer of things they have to do that we, as adults, do not have to do. That is very important. Testing has been an incredibly important tool in the armoury to get schools back, especially on 8 March when we saw the mass return of schools, but we do keep it under review. We take scientific advice from the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and other scientific bodies. We are looking at this continuously and we have found it a useful tool, but in the much longer term do I see testing as something that we expect children to continuously do always in the future? No, I do not. Ideally, I want to move away from that at the earliest and most realistic possible stage.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

My hon. Friend Kate Green pointed out that there is a risk, as things stand, that children may have to isolate and stay at home when they should be taking part in the holiday activities and food programme over the summer. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that, whatever happens, children who are entitled to access food support over the summer will still be able to do that?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I can absolutely assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is the case. Obviously, the Department for Work and Pensions has its covid support fund, which is available for local authorities to provide free school meals. Any changes as part of the road map that would lead to the lifting of further restrictions and of bubbles within schools would also take effect for the summer holidays, so children who wanted to take part in holiday activity and food programmes would be able to do so without operating within a bubble system.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science and Technology Committee, Chair, Science and Technology Committee

Because of new variants, it is quite possible that long into the future the number of covid cases will increase from time to time. Is the Secretary of State aware that Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who was behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, has said:

“If…high protection against hospitalisation continues despite spread in the community, the public health crisis is over”?

Does my right hon. Friend understand that we must move away from being concerned with the number of cases of covid and disrupting schools needlessly through testing and isolation, and focus squarely on hospitalisation?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I very much have that at the forefront of my mind. If my right hon. Friend has time, it would be very interesting to sit down with him, and with some of my team and some from the Department of Health and Social Care, to discuss this in greater detail. The key thing is making sure that people are not being hospitalised and people are not in danger of dying. The vaccine has had enormous success in doing that, but we cannot then have the brake on children’s lives in the future.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend and thank the Secretary of State for being here today and addressing the concerns of many of us. What happens here sets the direction for regional Administrations. Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the education of young people, with some not being able to access resources and many suffering as a result of the closure of schools. Mental health issues among pupils are rising at alarming levels, so what discussion has he had with school principals and with regional Assemblies to reduce the negative impact on our children’s academic development? What steps can he take to ensure that the education system is pandemic-ready for the future?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

We have always, at all stages, done as much as possible to work with all devolved Administrations across the UK and we will continue to do so, be it on mental health issues, the awarding of grades, or education recovery. Let me take the opportunity to put on the record my thanks for the work that I had the opportunity to do with Peter Weir, who was the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland. We had a very close working relationship and I am very appreciative of all the work he undertook for the children and students in Northern Ireland in his time as Minister.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

The metropolitan borough of Bury currently has more than 2,000 children self-isolating, which is negatively impacting on their social, emotional and educational development. I welcome and recognise my right hon. Friend’s commitment to keeping children in school, but does he recognise and agree—I am sure he does—that we cannot allow this situation to continue? Surely we must learn to live with covid-19 and remove the requirements for school bubbles, together with the current policy of self-isolation, at the earliest opportunity.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

We are very much wanting to go down that course of easing restrictions and ensuring that, as we come out this pandemic, children are one of the greatest beneficiaries. My hon. Friend’s mind and mine are very much in the same place.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Children in the most disadvantaged areas are almost twice as likely to be those self-isolating, such as year 6 in St Mark’s Primary School in my constituency, but they are also likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide, with 23 pupils at St Mark’s still without the kit and connectivity required to log in and learn from home when isolating. With every click widening the attainment gap, will the Secretary of State today back my campaign to ensure that every child entitled to free school meals has access to data and a device at home?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

This is very much why we invested hundreds of millions of pounds in the roll-out of 1.3 million devices to be able to support schools, but most importantly to be able to support children, as the hon. Lady set out.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

Can my right hon. Friend reassure me, as we look to 19 July and the end of the summer term, that there can be no question of a return to bubbles and self-isolation when children return in the autumn?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I do not want to pre-empt the decision across Government on the next stage, but our direction is very clear about lifting the restrictions and ensuring that children are not in a situation where they have to bubble. That is very much part of the course of the road map, and of course we would very much expect that our children would not be facing that in September, as my right hon. Friend has said.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

The Secretary of State says that his priority is to keep children in school, yet hundreds of thousands of them are missing yet more precious time in the classroom as well as important end-of-term rituals, and families are angry and desperate. For many months, organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Royal Society of Medicine have been saying that one of the basic things that needs to be done to protect our children is to ensure better ventilation in all classrooms. People who live in New York, for example, can consult a public website to see the ventilation status of every single classroom in the state, and there has been serious investment in ventilation and filtration there. Why has the Secretary of State not done something similar here to introduce those basic mitigation measures and fast-track the assessment of testing pilots? Living with covid must not mean dumping all the risk on our children because the Education Secretary has not acted with anything like the urgency and ambition this crisis demands.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

At every stage, we have put in all the protective measures that are required in order to be able to keep children safe and ensure that they are back in the classroom and have the opportunity to learn.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

The numbers of pupils self-isolating and therefore not at school have risen nationally from 40,000 to 300,000 in three weeks, and in the same period in Gloucestershire they have risen from a few hundred to almost 8,000, which is virtually 8% of all pupils. That is clearly not the direction that either the Education Secretary or any of us want.

We can therefore all agree with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ children’s expert, Professor Russell Viner, who has said that we have to rethink all the rules around our schools. Schools are not the driver of transmission at the moment, and to my knowledge there is not a single child in Gloucestershire in any of our hospitals with the virus, so something needs to be done. My right hon. Friend has already given a clear steer that he wants to see children back at school as soon as possible and the benefits of summer school being enjoyed, so would he consider a pilot project in Gloucestershire to allow all these children who are self-isolating to get back to school as soon as possible?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

Frankly, if there is going to be a pilot project, it is going to be in Staffordshire, not in Gloucestershire, but that was a good old punt.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Labour, Denton and Reddish

Professor Marmot has reported today on the impacts of inequality in large parts of Greater Manchester, including my own constituency, and we know that covid has exacerbated these inequalities. We know that too many children have had and are still having their education disrupted. We all agree that we need to ensure that children and families are supported, not just during self-isolation, and that catch-up is intensified, so what work is the Secretary of State’s Department doing on the wider impact that covid may have on this cohort of children in school or college through the pandemic? How do we ensure that we properly tackle the inequalities created by covid on top of the pre-existing inequalities affecting the same children?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I would very much appreciate it if the hon. Gentleman forwarded that report, as it would be interesting to look at the details. We have been looking closely at the impact of covid on children’s learning right across the country. We have been doing a detailed study with Renaissance Learning to look at the lost learning, not just as a national cohort but very much in granular detail, and that is very much informing our policy development as to how we best address that.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers today and for his commitment to remove self-isolation for schoolchildren as soon as possible. That will be widely welcomed across Wimbledon. Can he reassure me about what the Government are doing to ensure that disabled children get the support they need at home when they have been self-isolating and unable to attend school?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

We very much expect the education to be delivered for all children remotely, whether they are in a mainstream school, a special school or alternative provision. We work with the sector to ensure that that happens, including on the provision of IT equipment and devices, which is so critical for all schools to be able to deliver that.

Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Shadow Minister (Transport)

We remember the appalling free school meals debacle over Christmas, where the Opposition and football players had to try to force the Government to do the right thing. My Ilford South constituents, who are among some of the poorest in certain super-output wards, are extremely concerned that their holiday activities and food programme has not been guaranteed if they are going to be at home self-isolating. Will the Secretary of State please be crystal clear that nobody will go without food this summer?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman probably heard my earlier answer. Of course, the Department for Work and Pensions scheme is there to support children who are in receipt of free school meals over the summer period. The holiday activities and food programme is an extensive scheme across local authorities right across the country. This is an excellent scheme and we want to see all children able to take part in it because of the benefit of not just food, but, as importantly, the activity that is part of the scheme.

Photo of Simon Fell Simon Fell Conservative, Barrow and Furness

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to end bubbles. Last week, some 74% of children who were isolating in England were doing so not because they had caught covid but because someone in their bubble had done so. This puts a huge strain on them and their parents. With that in mind between now and the terminus date, will my right hon. Friend consider accelerating the rapid testing programme to ensure that we see less self-isolating for children?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

We always continue to work with the Department for Health and Social Care on testing and being able to maximise that so that we can catch people with covid at home, so they are not in a position of infecting their friends at school and the teachers.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

With nearly 400,000 children and young people out of school just last week for covid-related reasons, the Government’s failure to secure our borders against the delta variant has demonstrated the damage that it is doing to children and their future. Given those failures and the incompetence, frankly, of the Secretary of State over the last year in getting a grip and supporting schoolchildren, is it not time that he worked with the Chancellor to get the funding that is needed for catch-up, as was recommended by the former catch-up tsar, Sir Kevan Collins? There is a shortfall of £13.6 billion. Is it not time that that money was provided so that children do not continue to suffer because of the mistakes of the Secretary of State’s Government?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady seems to be blissfully unaware that we have already invested over £3 billion in supporting children to be able to catch up in our schools. As she requested, we will continue to work closely with the Treasury—as we have been doing—as we approach the spending review to see what further action is needed to be able to support our children.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

Last week, 375,000 pupils were off school through self-isolation and there has been a 40% increase in anti-depressants being prescribed to under-17-year-olds. Given that children are extremely unlikely to suffer serious ill health as a result of catching covid, and given the damage being done to their education and their mental health, is it not time we stopped this self-isolation madness and got all pupils back in the classroom where they belong?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My right hon. Friend raises a really important issue in terms of children’s mental health. This is why we have been so concerned to put interventions in place to be able to support children, as well as those who work in our schools and colleges, with their mental health at this incredibly difficult time. The best way of helping children and all people—all staff—with their mental health is by actually having schools functioning as normally as possible. That is why we have always been clear that when we are in a position to be able to remove those restrictions, and to be able to make those changes and make it easier for schools to operate as normally as possible, we will always take those steps at the earliest possible stage.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My constituent Stephen sums up the frustrations of parents and pupils when he tells me that his boy is now home again for a third time—10 days of isolation—because somebody has tested positive in his school, even though he wears a mask. He has tested negative on a PCR test, plus two further tests a week. Stephen asks how we can justify 40,000 people hugging each other at Wembley, but his son cannot see his friends. The effect on pupils has also been raised by my constituent Joe, who teaches and has seen the mental health effects to which the Secretary of State just referred. What additional support will be put in place to support Joe and the pupils that he supports during this mental health crisis?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Member is probably aware that both the Department of Health and Social Care and my Department have outlined support packages for schools to boost mental health provision, including training to ensure that there are people trained to deal with mental health issues in all schools, right across the country. He is probably also aware of the comments I made earlier about the lifting of restrictions and the removal of bubbles. That is the next step that we very much want to take, but it has to be done in line with the broader changes and steps to unlock the country that are part of the road map.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

Getting children back into school without having to self-isolate cannot come soon enough, as there is no substitute for learning, attainment and keeping children in face-to-face education. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that keeping children in an educational setting whenever it is safe to do so remains his priority?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is so right. The provisions—whether it was the roll-out of mass testing across all schools, or the restrictions and levels of safety that we had to put into schools—have all been designed around getting children into schools for the maximum amount of time, ensuring that they are in front of the teacher with their friends, having the very best classroom experience. That is the No. 1 priority. As we move out of this crisis, we want to lift as many of those restrictions as possible and liberate schools to be able to operate in the best possible way for themselves.

Photo of Janet Daby Janet Daby Labour, Lewisham East

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s failure to get border controls in place has enabled the delta variant to take hold in the UK, forcing children out of classrooms and away from their friends?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

At every stage, the Government have been one of the first to act in order to keep this country safe; this was one of the first countries in Europe to impose travel restrictions on India as a result of the delta variant. The new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Transport Secretary and the Prime Minister take that responsibility incredibly seriously.

Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. I have recently finished a 10-day period of self-isolation following someone in my office testing positive for covid. However, the flatmate of that person was able to go about their daily life in a normal way, using the Government’s daily testing trial. As we learn to live with covid, surely it is time to move quickly to a more nuanced approach that does not endlessly interrupt children’s education, as it cannot be right to have learning continuously disrupted by unnecessary self-isolation.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

There is nothing that I can really disagree with my hon. Friend about, so I had better just sit down, hadn’t I?

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

Too many schoolchildren across my constituency of Blaydon have faced disadvantage from being out of school under the current arrangements. Will the Secretary of State be absolutely clear with school leaders well in advance of any new arrangements to be put in place? It is vital that they have that information. Will he also talk about the support that can be given to disabled children to ensure that they have the chance to catch up on the education opportunities that they have missed?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I very much want to reassure the hon. Lady that we will give all schools good notice of any new arrangements. As I have committed to, we are aiming to issue guidance and advice to schools in conjunction with the details of step 4. On disabled children and children with special educational needs, we will continue to have a really strong emphasis in terms of how we support special schools or alternative provision. In particular, we will weight the level of support at a much higher level for those schools than we do for mainstream schools.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

Like others, I would also like to see the immediate return of the daily testing that has been so successful in the pilot schools, so that pupils can remain in school. I agree with others that we should go back to normal as soon as possible, preferably in September. Yesterday, the Minister for School Standards stated that we are consulting parents, teachers and pupils about extending the school day. Will the Secretary of State make it clear during the consultation that the extended day should be for enrichment activities as well as time for extra tutoring where necessary?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I very much want to see children spending as much time in school as possible, although I do want them to have the opportunity to go home at certain points, Mr Speaker! As part of that extra time, I want them not only to be learning from a rigorous curriculum that has been carefully crafted by my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards—they will get a lot of fun out of learning from that rigorous and detailed curriculum—but to have more fun doing sporting activities, cultural activities, art and so much more as well.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

Over the past few weeks, I have been touring secondary schools in my constituency. The current self-isolation policy, which, incidentally, resulted in a Twickenham secondary having to close its doors entirely last week for several days, combined with lockdowns is not just impacting academic progress; the No.1 issue, according to heads and safeguarding leads, is the mental health impact. As well as ensuring support for academic catch-up, may I urge the Secretary of State to do everything he can to speed up the roll-out of mental health support teams in schools? Will he also please speak to the Health Secretary to provide urgent additional capacity for tier 4 child and adolescent mental health services beds because too many children are being turned away? From the evidence that I am being presented with, it is not exaggeration to say that children’s lives are at risk because teachers and school counsellors just do not have the skills to deal with those cases.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady raises a very thoughtful and important issue. I am very much with her in that I want to see the roll-out of mental health support in schools as quickly as is feasibly possible. That also plays an incredibly important role in tackling some of the further pressure that is then put at the door of CAMHS services. I am very happy to take up the point that she raised with the Department for Health and Social Care, which runs CAMHS, as to how best we can support children in those early stages and, if there is a need for clinical intervention, how that can be best supported and swiftly supported in order to be able to deal with the problem early on.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

The Government prioritised reopening schools above almost anything else. Schools in Stoke-on-Trent have been doing an absolutely amazing job in keeping education going, given the challenges that they have faced. I know that schools in my constituency are struggling with several covid cases right now. It is vital that we keep children in school as far as possible, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to ensure that no more time is lost and that all our young people receive the good quality education that we want to see?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I know my hon. Friend has done so much for education in Stoke, including his efforts to secure a new free school for the Stoke-on-Trent South constituency. He is right: we constantly review what needs to be done to keep children in school for a maximum amount of time so that they can benefit from the education. We recognise that that delivers the best benefits for children not only in his constituency, but in all of our constituencies.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

Teachers and school staff in Warrington North have moved heaven and earth over the past 18 months to try to support the education and welfare of our town’s young people in the face of last-minute, changing and often contradictory guidance. Nowhere is this more the case than in special educational needs and disability educational settings, especially as testing can be traumatic or, indeed, impossible for some children with special needs. When will schools know what is to happen in September and, can the Secretary of State confirm that this will be shared with schools well in advance of the summer holiday to ensure that staff are not required to work across their summer leave, and that specific guidance will be provided for SEND schools rather than their being an after-thought?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

Specific guidance is always provided for special educational needs schools. I can ensure that the detail on the gov.uk website is available to the hon. Lady so she might be able to read it if she is interested in doing so. I absolutely assure her that, as I have said in answer to other questions, we will provide that information at the earliest possible stage.

Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley

I have been contacted by parents across Burnley and Padiham, some of whom have children who are off for the third time despite having never had coronavirus themselves, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s work to end isolation for students. One thing that will really help schools is getting the testing solution right. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care about new types of testing, such as saliva testing, that would be far quicker and easier for schools to implement?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

We always work with our colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England in respect of the very best forms of testing. We are always aware that there is new technology and innovation and we want to be able to use that to the best of our ability, to make sure that not only all my hon. Friend’s constituents in Burnley who want to attend school are able to do so but everyone throughout the country can do so as well.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I have had lots of emails from desperate parents in south Manchester whose children have suffered multiple periods of isolation and are worried about more. They all say that we need to review the isolation rules urgently. We now hear that the Secretary of State is looking at announcing plans as part of step 4, but there is no reason to wait for step 4: schools have a problem now and they need to know what to do about it. Every time I have met headteachers in the past year, their biggest complaint is always about the lateness of guidance from the Secretary of State’s Department. Why is it that the Department for Education is always so slow with advice? Why do pupils and schools always seem to be the after- thought in this crisis?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I assure the House that we always do everything we can to ensure that all guidance is available to schools at the very earliest opportunity.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, in Keighley and Ilkley, we have been subject to restrictions since the pandemic began, whether under the local or regional approach. There is concern among some of my constituents that a regional approach to the implementation of restrictions may return at some point. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if that was the case—I do not want to see it—we would not end up with a situation in which schools in Keighley and Ilkley were forced to close when others in the country were able to be open?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I assure my hon. Friend that I want schools in Keighley and Ilkley always to be open and never to be closed, and that is certainly something that we want to ensure happens. We do not want to see schools in different parts of the country having to close, which is why we will take all the measures that are required to ensure they stay open.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Schools will not stay open because the Secretary of State wills it—we need a long-term plan. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care told the House on Monday that we are going to have to live with the virus. What does that mean for schools? Where is the plan for improved ventilation and Nightingale classrooms so that children can socially distance in schools and not have to be sent home in bubbles? The virus is not going away—where is the plan?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman seems to have paid little heed to some of the measures we have put in place to ensure that children can get back into school. That is probably not surprising given that his party’s policy seems very rarely to be to encourage and make sure that schools are open—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to ask his question—

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

You sent our kids back to school with the Kent variant!

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

We will continue to do everything that we can to ensure that children are able to benefit from a great education. That is what we have been doing. We have seen schools open up and down the country—99.8% of schools are open—and we will continue to take the measures required to keep schools open.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Parents, pupils and, of course, teachers have borne the brunt of difficulties in respect of bubbles and the self-isolation of children, but it now feels that the whole country is a goal for progress on these issues. Has the Secretary of State heard today, as I have heard, that the Labour party would now support him if he felt able to go where it feels his spirit wishes to lead him and make progress on ending self-isolation and bubbles? Can he now count on their support?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I would probably count the Opposition as a rather unreliable ally, but I certainly hope that they will not do the usual flip-flop that we are accustomed to seeing from the Leader of the Opposition.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

The Secretary of State has again been found sleeping at the wheel. One in 20 pupils were self-isolating last week, and today my office was told of another Coventry school being forced to close. Teachers are doing the best they can, but with mitigation rules relaxed and without additional resources, the delta variant will continue to rip through schools. Why were masks required in class in April but not now, given that case rates were lower then than they are now? Will he abandon his “feeble” catch-up plan—not my words, but those of his former adviser? Will he now put in the resources needed to mitigate covid and for educational catch-up—that is £15 billion—as his adviser recommended?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is arguing for more restrictions or fewer—her question did not seem to be that coherent. Perhaps if she can write to me to clarify whether she is pro restrictions or against then, I would be happy to answer.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

I thank the Secretary of State for his update, and for the promise of ending bubbles and school isolation. Does he agree that it is surprising to hear the Labour party’s latest change in position on pupils attending schools, especially given that only earlier this month it was advocating moving away from formal learning, rather than catching up on crucial lost lessons?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I suppose one of the great advantages of opposition is that consistency is not something that has to be adhered to. There has been an element of inconsistency there. What we are focused on, as we come out of the pandemic, is ensuring that we do everything possible to support schools, teachers and, most importantly, children, to help them catch up on what they have missed over the last year and a half.