Government’s Education Catch-up and Mental Health Recovery Programmes

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:08 pm on 3rd February 2022.

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Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 2:08 pm, 3rd February 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the effectiveness of the Government’s education catch-up and mental health recovery programmes.

I thank Kim Johnson for coming to the Backbench Business Committee to secure the debate. The impact of covid-19 on education has been nothing short of a national disaster for our children. Lockdowns and school closures for most children have heralded the four horsemen of the education apocalypse: a widening attainment gap, a mental health epidemic, increased safeguarding hazards and damage to life chances. Even prior to the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were already 18 months of learning behind their better-off peers by the time of GCSEs, and only yesterday The Times newspaper, as part of its education commission, reported that 25% fewer poorer pupils achieve English and maths GCSEs compared with their wealthier peers.

Today I would like to focus on three key issues affecting children’s recovery. First, I will start with the ghost children. On Sunday, the respected Centre for Social Justice published a new report, “Lost but not forgotten”, which continues to highlight the worrying situation of the over 100,000 children—and the number is increasing—who have mostly not returned to school since schools were reopened last year. Across the country, 758 schools are missing almost an entire class-worth of children. About 500 children are missing in half of all local authorities across the country. The Government want exams to go ahead, which I agree with, but 13,000 children in a critical exam year

“are most likely to be severely absent.”

As my Education Committee heard from a headteacher last week:

“Pupils need to be physically in school to even start to learn.”

However, the effects of persistent absence go well beyond academic progress. The CSJ again points out that while

“school attendance is not a panacea, it…offers opportunities to detect wrongdoing and intervene much earlier.”

This would prevent safeguarding concerns from escalating and would provide the families with the support they need when they need it. We only need to remember the tragic cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson to realise this truth.

Of course, I welcome the Government’s recent announcements

“to tackle the postcode lottery of avoidable absence”,

but this is no way near enough. The Department for Education must prioritise gathering live data about who and where these children are—the data is absolutely crucial—and I urge the Government to use any underspend from the national tutoring programme, as the Centre for Social Justice has recommended, to fund 2,000 attendance advisers to work on the ground to find these children, work with the families and get the children back into school. Charles Dickens wrote in “Oliver Twist

“of so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired!”

We must do much more to save this “Oliver Twist” generation of ghost children, who are out in the streets and facing safeguarding hazards, including joining county line gangs, and facing online harms at home and possible high-pressure home situations such as domestic abuse. If we do nothing or we do not do enough, we will be haunted by these ghost children forever.

Secondly, we must consider the efficacy of the Government’s education catch-up programmes. I strongly welcome the catch-up programmes—I campaigned for them for literally the year during lockdown—and I welcome the £5 billion invested in education recovery, but my key worry is that the funding, however welcome, is not reaching the most vulnerable children in our communities.

The national tutoring programme is falling short of its targets: 524,000 children were supposed to start tutoring this year, but only 8% have begun. The Education Policy Institute has found that there has been a marked disparity in the take-up of the national tutoring programme between the north and the south. In the north just 50% of schools engaged with the national tutoring programme, whereas in the south upwards of 96% of schools engaged with the programme. In December, the Department published its own annual report evidencing that the Government believe the risk that their catch-up programme will fail to recover lost learning is “Critical/very likely”. That is a direct quote from the Department’s own annual report.

Headteachers and tutoring groups have described to us the inaccessibility of the hub, and the lack of quality assurance about the tutors on offer. Yesterday, I did a roundtable with heads from university technical colleges —an initiative I am incredibly supportive of—and the principal of Aston University Sixth Form in Birmingham said that, despite receiving about £60,000 of recovery funding and an offer of three NTP tutors, as of yesterday just one had started, and it is now forced to resort to expensive private tutoring. The NTP has the potential to be a really great intervention by the Government to support children’s recovery, but it is not going far enough or happening quickly enough. I strongly urge the Minister to look again at the contract and seriously consider enacting the break clause and working with Randstad to up its game or literally say goodbye.

However, recovery is not just about academic catch-up. We need to look at other measures to support pupils. I welcome the pilot scheme in Wales on extending the school day, in which 14 primary and secondary schools will trial an additional five hours of bespoke activities in art, music, sport and core academic sessions. Let me be clear: when I say we should consider extending the school day, I am not talking about pupils sitting through eight more hours of algebra, although the Minister would probably like that. Instead, as in Wales, a longer school day should be used to support enrichment and extracurricular activities, which have been proven to support academic attainment.

The Education Policy Institute found that a longer school day could increase educational attainment by two to three months. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport found that an extended school day can boost numeracy skills by 29%. Young people who participate in school clubs are 20% less likely to suffer from mental health problems. Why cannot the Government at least consider implementing a pilot for longer school days, as Wales has done, to help to give disadvantaged children in England the best chance of closing the gap with their peers?

Thirdly, we must address the challenges with children’s mental health. Like the Minister, I go to schools in my constituency and all over the place, and I am struck again and again, when speaking to students, that they talk about mental health in a way I have not heard over the past few years. That has been hugely caused by the damage of lockdown and shutting schools, which we must never, ever do again.