Education Settings: Wider Opening - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 11th June 2020.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 5:21 pm, 11th June 2020

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement.

We all want to see children and young people back in school as soon as possible, not least because if we are not careful, we will see a whole generation of children whose educational progress has been blighted, and we know that the children most at risk are those from disadvantaged circumstances, those in care, and those with learning difficulties.

If I was being kind to the Government’s handling of the reopening of schools, it would be to describe their approach thus far as cack-handed. This is not a time for Boris Johnson’s high-command approach but a time for bringing education stakeholders together to agree the way which is rooted in good practice, which can work and be implemented, will provide a safe environment for pupils and staff, give the reassurance to parents that their children are safe and, as the Children’s Commissioner said, use some imagination in what we are able to do. That imagination might include keeping children in nurseries for longer and admitting them to reception for the term of their fifth birthday. It may include part-time schooling, or changing the school day and school holidays, and staggered starts—anything which helps our children.

Can the Minister now agree that the Prime Minister’s proposal to have a big plan will bring together council leaders, teachers’ unions, experts, opposition parties and parent voices to agree that big plan for the reopening of schools in England before the disadvantage gap becomes a gulf? My party has a five-point national plan, which our education spokesperson, Layla Moran, has sent to the Prime Minister.

As well as getting schools open safely in September, we also need to ensure that we are providing high-quality educational provision now and over the next three months of the summer. As good as the BBC has been in providing Bitesize, this is only a small-bite step in what is needed. Parents who have finances will buy in resources, pay for online tutors and will have the time to go on walks of learning, but for a large number of families this is not possible.

It is interesting to note that the hubs that were set up for key workers and disadvantaged pupils, not surprisingly, saw a massive drop-off rate of the disadvantaged pupils. Can the Minister tell us of any ideas that she might have to ensure that those pupils are being mentored and encouraged to do their work?

The Minister previously has told us of the IT provision that the Government are providing, but in reality it not available to all disadvantaged pupils. In my home city of Liverpool, the laptops provided for children in care were for only 40% of those children. Can the Minister assure us that there will be IT equipment for all children in care so that they can access learning?

Many families are worried about family budgets and how they can provide the resources their children need. Can the Minister take back to her ministerial colleagues the need to look at extending the free school meals over the summer holidays, recognising the scheme is flawed and so combining it with an emergency uplift in child benefit of £150 per child per month, with £100 for every subsequent child, during the crisis? They could also implement a catch-up premium of £700 per disadvantaged child to enable schools and charities to give them a much-needed boost for the next academic year.

Also, could the Minister take on the idea of creating a summer learning fund so that councils can run summer learning camps for children, focused on local authorities in the most deprived areas? Incidentally, that proposal was first made by the Children’s Commissioner for England.

We are living through very difficult times. We need to look to our future as well as our present. Just as the Prime Minister wants our economy to bounce back, surely we want to see our young people and children bounce back. That means doing whatever it takes to make that happen.

Finally, will the Minister agree to abolish SATs and Ofsted inspections during this period and give us regular updates on plans laid and progress made?