Children have suffered throughout the pandemic in so many ways. Many have lost loved ones, and all of them have been through the same stresses and tensions as the adult population. Research published by the Education Endowment Foundation found:
“For many children the experience of lockdown was made harder by cramped living conditions, no access to green spaces, parental mental health difficulties and financial hardship.”
Young people have had to deal with restrictions on their lives and on their opportunities to develop social skills.
The lack of opportunities for social interaction has meant that the children of the pandemic have had a very different start in life from what would usually be the case. They have missed out on the fun of making friends, playing together and growing together. Those are important experiences for children, so it comes as no surprise that recent research by Parentkind found that mental health and wellbeing is now a major priority for nearly nine in 10 parents. We must ensure that education policy and the way schools operate support that priority. We must put children’s happiness and wellbeing at the forefront of all decision making about the education children receive.
Of course, a child is far more likely to do well if they are enjoying their learning. I recently visited Woodchurch Church of England primary school in my constituency, one of just six primary schools in the country to have been selected to take part in the “Life-Changing Libraries” initiative being run by BookTrust, which aims to develop a culture of reading for pleasure. BookTrust has provided funds that have been used to transform a space in a corridor into a magical reading environment, stocked with a specially curated book list of approximately 1,000 titles chosen by BookTrust’s expert team.
Talking to the staff, it is absolutely clear that the project is a real success. It is noticeable that there is so much enthusiasm for reading in the school, with children reading in the playground at break times and sharing books with each other. I ask the Minister to look at that scheme and beyond just the phonics that the Minister for School Standards’ opening speech focused on. Encouraging a love of reading in childhood reaps so many rewards, improving reading levels while engaging in the world beyond the immediate here and now. Every child should be given that opportunity. There is absolutely no need to test reading for pleasure; one just needs to create the environment for it and encourage an appetite for it.
That brings me on to the issue of testing. If we are serious about putting children’s wellbeing at the centre of their educational experience, it is time we took a long hard look at just how much we are testing them. There are numerous stories of parents worried sick that their children are being over-tested, and recent polling by Parentkind found that 80% of parents disagree that SATs provide parents with useful information about their child's achievement or progress in school.
The National Education Union has reported that pressure on teachers and children from cramming for SATs
“is extreme and school staff have very little time to deliver interesting, varied lessons, as they feel forced to ‘teach to the test’”.
Will the Government scrap SATs and put pupils’ wellbeing at the forefront of education policy?
There needs to be a proper look at the curriculum too, to ensure that all children have the opportunity to develop their creativity and are given the opportunity to study and engage in subjects such as art, music, drama and dance—I note the comments by the Minister for School Standards earlier. The OECD’s programme for international student assessment, known as PISA, measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. The OECD is introducing a creative thinking assessment to PISA in 2022 as an optional additional assessment. It is immensely disappointing that England has opted out of that, and I ask the Minister to explain why.
There are other things that the Government should be doing to improve children’s experience of education. They should reinstate the £20 uplift to universal credit, because we all know that children who are hungry struggle to learn, and that it is no good for children’s wellbeing when their parents are struggling to pay the bills. Ministers should get behind the “Right to Food” campaign of my hon. Friend Ian Byrne and end the scandal of hunger and foodbanks once and for all. The Government should also get rid of the two-child limit in universal credit that punishes families with more than two children. The Government have responsibility for the wellbeing of every child. They should give every child access to qualified in-school counselling staff, as Labour would do, to provide psychological support for children when and where they need it.
If we are to look after our children, we need to look after their teachers too. The Government cannot be getting it right when, as National Education Union research has shown, two thirds of teachers in state-funded schools in England feel stressed at least 60% of the time and over half of teachers say that their workload is either “unmanageable” or “unmanageable most of the time”. Education policy has to be about the wider social environment in which children are growing up. If we have a Conservative Government who are determined to destroy public services, as we do at the moment, then our children will suffer and their futures will suffer too.
The massive cuts inflicted on Wirral Council by central Government since 2010 have left the future of numerous libraries in my constituency hanging in the balance. A loss of libraries and of skilled librarians does a huge disservice to the children of our country. Those cuts, too, have put the future of Woodchurch leisure centre and swimming pool at risk. How are the children supposed to learn to swim if they do not have a leisure centre because of these cuts from central Government? The impact of cuts to public services on our communities cannot be overestimated. The Government are creating cultural deserts and opportunity deserts, and children will suffer as a result.