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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:52 pm on 3rd February 2022.

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Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston 2:52 pm, 3rd February 2022

I am pleased to participate in this debate, and I agree with so much of what has been said this afternoon.

Children and young people are ambitious and optimistic about their future. As we have heard, education staff have made an incredible effort to keep them learning and to support their wellbeing during the pandemic, but we should not underestimate the impact of the disruption they have suffered, especially those who face the greatest challenges and who experience the lowest attainment.

It is opportune that this debate is taking place against the backdrop of yesterday’s Government announcement of new education investment areas. This initiative has the potential to contribute to children and young people’s education recovery, provided it is properly led and designed; provided lessons are learned from previous initiatives, such as the London challenge and the opportunity areas; provided the right targets and success measures are put in place; provided it is adequately resourced; and provided the professional expertise of teachers and leaders is respected and supported. An overcentralised, over-prescriptive model will not deliver the hoped for benefits.

I echo Mrs Drummond by emphasising the importance of the early years when talking about children’s recovery. We all know that investment in the early years pays the greatest dividends in children’s outcomes, and very young children have seen the greatest proportion of their lives affected by the pandemic. As we have heard, this has adversely affected their social skills, their vocabulary, their development and, indeed, their school readiness.

I welcome the investment that the Government have announced, such as for training early years staff or the Nuffield early language intervention, but more is needed both in resources—the Minister will be aware of Labour’s proposal for an increase in the early years premium to match the primary pupil premium—and in a proper, comprehensive and ambitious strategy for early education.

Funding for schools will not return in real terms to 2010 levels until 2024, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that by 2024-25, resources for colleges will still be about 10% lower in real terms than they were in 2010, and that those for sixth-form colleges will be 24% lower. It is not clear whether the new funding for education investment areas will redress that injustice. I note that additional funds are to be available only to “some priority areas”, and the programme otherwise seems to amount to little more than forced academisation for more schools.

I echo the enthusiasm that we have heard this afternoon for an extension to the school day. Indeed, the Secretary of State himself has suggested that he would like all schools to consider providing a school day of six and a half hours. Research suggests that an extended school day, delivered by staff with high levels of training and linked to existing classes and teaching, could be important in helping children to make up lost learning. It could allow for time to be allocated, too, for the one-to-one and small group tutoring that we know to be effective.

As we have heard repeatedly this afternoon, however, the Government’s national tutoring programme is failing to deliver that. Ministers were warned that awarding a cut-price contract to Dutch facilities company Randstad would deliver neither the quality nor the volume needed, and that is exactly what has happened. Some 600,000 places per term are needed for children’s education recovery, yet the national tutoring programme is currently reaching only 10% of target pupil numbers. The Government need to do some serious thinking about the quality of tutoring provided and the delivery and reach of the programme, so that all children and young people who can benefit from it have the chance to do so. If Randstad cannot deliver the contract adequately, that contract should be removed from it, and those who can handle it better, including our excellent school leaders, should have the chance to do so.

I agree that making more time for children to engage in extracurricular activities is really important as part of the extension of the school day and to support social and emotional wellbeing. Indeed, it might also increase participation by appealing to those pupils who would otherwise miss out but who could benefit most from extended provision, and ensure that these vital wider activities are not squeezed out even further than is already the case in a crowded curriculum. The Education Policy Institute has said that any extra school time should be useful for activity and enrichment activities, and that has also been recommended by the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit. However, teachers in England already work very long hours, including on lesson preparation and complying with monitoring and reporting requirements. In looking at an extension of the school day, it is really important that we hear how the Government plan to staff and resource it and to draw on the research evidence of what is effective.

Finally, as we have heard, there is widespread agreement on the importance of good mental health for successful learning and wider social participation. That applies right across the education sector, from early years to higher education, for students and for the workforce. Parentkind has shown that exam stress remains a top anxiety for students and that serious mental health issues are experienced disproportionately by children and young people from ethnic minority backgrounds, those with special educational needs and disabilities, and those receiving free school meals. It is not surprising that parents give strong support for Labour’s plan for expert mental health support in schools. I hope that Ministers will look really carefully at that. May I also urge the Minister to engage with the #BeeWell programme in Greater Manchester, which aims to work with young people and a range of partners to improve mental health and wellbeing?

We should also note that university mental health and wellbeing services are supporting a higher volume of students, often with more complex needs, as a result of the pandemic. Increased pressure on NHS services means that university support services have stepped in, but the lack of further detail about a new approach to mental health services for 18 to 25-year-olds, as set out in the NHS long-term plan, is an issue of concern. Increasing capacity in statutory services, with seamless transitions across university and NHS services, will be key to both preventing and treating mental ill health among young adults and to supporting their learning and wellbeing. I hope that the Minister will co-operate closely with his counterparts at the Department of Health and Social Care in order to secure that.

Our children and young people should and must be at the forefront of our thinking as we recover from the pandemic. I hope this debate will encourage a bold and ambitious approach from the Government; the Minister will have heard this afternoon the strong support for him in that endeavour from all parts of the House.