Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams — [James Gray in the Chair.]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:12 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:12 pm, 7th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis on securing this debate. I am also grateful to the petitioners, Ellis, Libby and Alex, and to the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss these important topics of opening schools and colleges and ensuring that exams can fairly take place in 2021.

I offer my thanks, as I am sure all hon. Members would, to teachers and educational leaders for their phenomenal efforts in recent months as they have adapted to the changing environment we all live in. The work of schools and colleges has been critical to ensuring that students have continued to access education in some way, and have continued to feel connected to the classroom and their peers. We accept, however, that that has not been an equal experience across the whole country.

When developing our approach, the interests of students and teachers have always been our priority. Since the pandemic began, we as a Government have rightly put education first, and we will continue to do so. We cannot and must not let covid destroy this year of education, which is why we have taken steps to keep schools and colleges open and exams on track.

The return to school in autumn was driven by the clear benefits to young people and children of a return to educational settings. Those benefits remain unchanged. As many hon. Members said, keeping schools and colleges open is important to mitigate some of the largest risks that have materialised during this period for children and young people who have spent time away from educational settings.

There is clear evidence of the negative educational impact of missing school for all students, but particularly younger children, as investments in children’s learning tend to accumulate and consolidate over time. School and college closures put educational outcomes at risk, especially for disadvantaged students, due to existing inequalities and attainment gaps being exacerbated. The opportunities for early identification of things such as emerging learning problems are also missed when pupils are not in school.

As was mentioned by many hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend Damien Moore, school closures have been found to cause a deterioration in children’s mental health. Evidence suggests that the mental health of adolescents is particularly affected and that their cognitive, social and emotional development outcomes are at risk, as is their physical health. For vulnerable children, the impact of school closures has had an adverse effect on their wellbeing and educational outcomes due to reduced access to essential services. One regional study presents evidence that schools have been the source of 40% of child protection and safeguarding referrals.

Keeping settings open remains the Government’s priority, and we have taken other steps across society to manage down virus prevalence by closing other sectors in order to allow schools to remain open at full attendance. We have prioritised education at all local restriction tiers. The Government’s policy is that education settings will remain open, and parents should therefore continue to send their children to school. Schools have implemented a range of protective measures to minimise the risk of transmission. The risk of children becoming severely ill from coronavirus is low, and there are negative health impacts from being out of school. Senior clinicians, including the chief medical officers of all four nations, still advise that school is the best place for children to be.

To respond to Libby’s specific question—several hon. Members have raised the issue of finishing school two weeks earlier—we will provide guidance to schools and colleges on the end of term and on how to manage the short period afterwards, when their support might be required with contact tracing. Further guidance will be issued, but let us be clear: this will not be a typical Christmas for any of us, and we will all need to take extra care, as the Prime Minister has said. We want to maximise the time in school as much as possible. Young people have missed simply too much of their education.

Let us turn to some of the support that we provide to schools, particularly on their use of technology and on whether they have been able to access technology. Bill Esterson, who is no longer in his place, mentioned that. We have taken access to technology very seriously. By the end of this year, over 500,000 laptops, as well as 50,000 4G wireless routers, will have been provided by Computacenter, which has always been on the procurement framework. We have also introduced a service to provide more flexibility and to make sure they get to the right places, if there are specific lockdowns or large areas where kids need them. People can call that service and receive a laptop in just two days—I am sure the people of Darlington will welcome that.

The EdTech strategy, which we published in April last year, set out the Government’s commitment to support and enable schools and colleges to use technology more effectively. Of course, that has been really important, as we have all had to go and do pretty much everything online. The strategy set out the building blocks for effective use of technology in education: good digital infrastructure, capacity building, capability building across the sector, and a better understanding of the things that work in practice.

The same building blocks from the strategy have been an essential part of our response, but at a greater pace than we could have ever anticipated, to ensure that both schools and parents feel supported and that young people continue to thrive. That includes a whole host of measures, such as the introduction of the EdTech demonstrator network, which is a peer support network of schools and colleges that aims to increase expertise in their use of technology. That includes targeted support, weekly webinars and an online library of resources that can be shared. That is to help schools that are not as comfortable or familiar with the technology, so that those that are further ahead on the tech journey can help others in need.

In recent months, the network’s support has included how to maximise the investment that the Government have made to freely access Microsoft 365 or the G Suite for Education digital platform; how to ensure that pupils are safe online, including anxiety-busting strategies and activities; and how technology can help better support pupils with complex needs. There is a lot of work going on in this area. Crucially, that support also considers how our investment in technology can offer long-term benefits for pupils and teachers, as disruption to education could continue. Even after it reduces, there will be a legacy of blended learning.

On 27 November, the Department announced a new covid workforce fund for schools and further education settings to help them remain open. It will fund the cost of teacher absences over a threshold in schools and colleges for those with high staff absences that are facing significant financial pressures. The fund will help schools and colleges meet the cost of the absences that they have experienced from the beginning of November until the end of this term.

A number of Members mentioned budgets and additional costs. Schools have already received payments of £102 million for exceptional costs during the summer months, and there will be a further opportunity later in the year for schools to claim any costs that fell between March and July in the same approved categories for which they did not already claim in the first window. We will continue to review the pressures that schools and colleges are facing in the next term.