Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:25 pm on 17 May 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon Labour 7:25, 17 May 2022

My Lords, my contribution on the most gracious Speech, delivered by His Royal Highness Prince Charles on 10 May, will be very brief. I thank Her Majesty the Queen for her dedicated loyalty and send my warmest wishes to her on her Platinum Jubilee.

I wish to focus my contribution on the gracious Speech on education and the devastating impact of the global pandemic on young people’s mental health. The consequences of the pandemic have been vast and felt across society, but some groups, such as young people in education, have been affected more than others. Many noble Lords have spoken at length in this debate on the subject of education with more experience than I have, so I will not repeat what they have said. I will focus on Covid.

The Health Foundation’s Covid-19 impact inquiry draws on statistics from the young people’s future health inquiry, which focused on gathering evidence from a range of sources to understand the immediate and long-term implications of the pandemic for young people and thus the support needed as the UK moves through recovery.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, school closure restrictions during lockdown reduced young people’s participation in learning, which is an essential building block for a healthy future. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that secondary school pupils spent 4.5 hours per day on learning in the first lockdown, compared with 6.6 hours before the pandemic. There was also a substantial difference in who was spending the most time on learning, with the richest third of pupils spending more time than the poorest third.

One of the most significant impacts of coronavirus was the exposure of the digital divide that exists in the UK. Class differences and social mobility meant that some of the most disadvantaged children were deemed more likely to be affected by a lack of access to remote learning because of technological issues. In 2019, a study by the Office for National Statistics found that 60,000 children aged 11 to 18 did not have internet access in their home, and around 700,000 children did not have a computer, laptop or tablet with which to access online learning. Therefore, schools will never be the same after being enlightened by e-learning and their new-found awareness of disadvantaged students.

While schools reopened in autumn 2020, disruption to learning was still common and access to in-person teaching was not consistent. By mid-November, 51% of teachers in private schools reported being fully open to year 11 compared to just 33% in state schools. School closures put educational outcomes at risk throughout the pandemic, especially for disadvantaged students. Existing inequalities and attainment gaps are already being aggravated, as opportunities for early identification of emerging learning problems have also been missed during the school closures. I have always believed that education is the best gift to children as it dilutes boundaries and will take children, depending on their capabilities, anywhere in life. There is much more to say but I will limit myself to what I have already said.

As part of my role as a Peer in the House of Lords, it is both a duty and an obligation to focus on inspiring and encouraging young people—irrespective of age, race and background—to engage in various activities that promote inclusion and respect. Given the knock-on effects of the pandemic and the drastic change to the schooling system in response in recent years, and in line with the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech, how do Her Majesty’s Government intend to reform higher education and the quality of schools, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds?