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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:11 pm on 3rd February 2022.

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Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 3:11 pm, 3rd February 2022

I would like to thank Robert Halfon for bringing forward this important debate. It could not be more timely, a year on from Sir Kevan Collins’ appointment as the Government’s education recovery commissioner. I want to start by recognising the huge contributions that our nation’s school and college staff, and parents, have made to preserving and protecting our children’s education every day since the beginning of the pandemic. They continue to do so day in, day out. I also want to echo the contributions of colleagues from across the House who have set out the education recovery challenge we face with clarity and compassion.

We have heard from a number of right hon. and hon. Members in what has been a broad debate covering high needs challenges, the crisis in mental health, the level of exclusions and the need for urgency in tackling the issues at scale. My right hon. Friend Mr Brown spoke about the importance of communication with parents, and raised concerns about ventilation and supplies of tests to schools. My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh, who is a tireless champion for schools and colleges in her constituency, spoke about the last-minute chaotic announcements and the impact on schools and children. She also spoke powerfully about children not getting a second chance and why we have to get recovery right. My hon. Friend Kate Green spoke about the importance of adequate resources to meet the challenges faced, investment in early years and Labour’s recovery plan. I pay tribute to her for her tireless hard work on this ambitious plan.

While recovery is vital and the focus of today’s debate, school staff, parents and pupils are still living with the day-to-day reality of covid across the country. Pupil absences are up 35% since the start of January, and a quarter of schools have 15% of their teachers and leaders off work. But on both vaccination and ventilation, Ministers continue to fall short on basic measures that would keep children learning together and playing together. The Education Secretary has yet to tell us exactly how many volunteer teachers have come forward and what his workforce plan looks like. Any member of school staff will tell you that we are not out of the woods yet when it comes to covid. Yet we must act immediately to tackle the generational education recovery challenge we face.

As it stands, Ministers’ complacent and inadequate plans risk widening existing inadequacies and inequalities, compounding the damage caused by a decade of Conservative cuts and stunting the life chances of a generation of children. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that an average loss of six months schooling could see a reduction in their lifetime income of 4%. This equates to a total of £350 billion in lost earnings for the 8.7 million school-age children in the UK.

This is the stark scale of the generational challenge we now face, and the Government’s ambition must match it, yet the total package of so-called catch-up funding equates to just £300 per pupil. That is just £1 per day that children have been out of school. Let us compare that with the £1,685 per pupil recommended by the education recovery commissioner, the £1,800 per pupil in the US and the £2,100 per pupil in the Netherlands. It is no wonder that Sir Kevan resigned in protest. This meagre package will also compound the damage done by a decade of cuts in school spending. Even with the money announced in the spending review, the IFS says that per-pupil funding remains lower than a decade ago, and the broken national funding formula will see the least deprived schools receiving more money than the most deprived, to the tune of almost 5% by 2023. Despite rehashed announcements this week on levelling up that were big on rhetoric but low on practical delivery, the bottom line is that this Government will continue to hollow out areas of historical deprivation when it comes to education funding and recovery.

Meanwhile, the Government’s flagship national tutoring programme is failing children and failing taxpayers. Recent figures show that the scheme has reached less than 10% of those due to receive support in this academic year. The Government’s contractor is unable to say whether it is hitting targets to engage children receiving the pupil premium who are most in need of support. There have also been huge problems with the tuition partners’ online platform, frustrating engagement for many schools. Three quarters of tutoring providers surveyed recently said they felt that it did not have sufficient resources to deliver the scheme. Will the Minister therefore commit today to publishing information on the reach of the programme by region and among those who had the most time out of school? Will he also say what he will do to work with schools to address the problems that are preventing engagement?

I want to turn now to mental health, which has long been a silent pandemic. Even before covid, the NHS suggested that as many as one in six five to 10-year-olds suffered from mental ill health. The Royal College of Psychiatrists claims that 2020 saw the highest ever number of young people referred for mental health help. The poorest 20% of households are now four times more likely than the wealthiest 20% to have a serious mental health problem by age 11. CAMHS have been systematically cut in the last decade and interventions have been forced to move away from preventive work to crisis response. Once again, however, Ministers have ducked another generational change. The recent funding for mental health support teams will cover just 35% of schools by 2023. This is not nearly ambitious enough to meet the heightened demand or to counteract a decade of underinvestment in children’s mental health. Barnardo’s and others have been clear that there should be a dedicated mental health support team in every school, and Labour agrees.

After 21 months and four waves, this Government are still fundamentally unable to combat the impact that this pandemic is having on our children. The Government response has meant that disruption and uncertainty have become an exhausting normality for teachers, school staff, pupils and parents. That cannot continue. As we learn to live with covid, education recovery presents a historic challenge and we must rise to it. Labour wants to harness the opportunity that this watershed moment provides to tackle long-standing inequalities. Our children’s recovery plan would support our country’s children to play, learn and thrive together once again. Our clear, costed proposals are an ambitious plan that would deliver school activities and breakfast clubs, quality mental health support to every child and every school, and small group tutoring for all those who need it, as well as making a real investment in our teachers.

Schools continue to battle covid in classrooms as we speak. Meanwhile, the consequences of learning loss loom larger with every passing day. Time and again, the Government have demonstrated that they are fundamentally unable to plan for or mitigate the impact of covid on our children’s education. The summit of Ministers’ ambition for education recovery falls well below what our children need and deserve.

The Government are paralysed by the Prime Minister’s repeated scandals, and while they dither, inequalities widen. Without further intervention, the damage of the pandemic will become irreversible and the impact will plague children, the education system and the wider economy for decades to come. Every day this Government waste is another our children will not get back. If Ministers will not step up for our nation’s children, the next Labour Government certainly will.