School Closures: Support for Pupils — [Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:31 am on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:31 am, 13th January 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered support for pupils’ education during school closures.

May I congratulate you, Dame Angela, on your new status, which is well deserved? Thank you for chairing the debate this morning. Yesterday, it looked as though it might not proceed because of the uncertainty over Westminster Hall debates, so I thank the House authorities and all the staff for being present here today to enable this sitting to happen. I hope that good sense will prevail later today over future arrangements.

I start by paying tribute to the extraordinary professionalism and commitment of the teaching staff and senior leadership teams in all our local schools and colleges. Like our health professionals, they are very much frontline workers and have worked relentlessly during the past 10 months. In today’s debate, it is essential that we recognise the importance of schools in addressing the inequality gap.

It is estimated that in the first lockdown some 575 million learning days were lost; the average loss was 65 days per pupil. All of us, having been through the education system, can think back to those days and recall a particular piece of information being imparted by a teacher and how that registered with us. We can also think of the days that we missed when others attended school and what we subsequently learned from them. We felt a sense of loss that we were not there to participate, so the fact that children and young people could have lost 65 days is of course quite significant for their future development.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, concluded in her report in December that just five days had been lost on average across schools in the autumn term, but in some places it may have been up to 10 days. Certainly in Warwickshire, primary schools on average saw 92% attendance, state secondary schools averaged 82% and special schools averaged 80%. But just looking at the autumn term, we see indications quite early on that the trends were concerning. By the week ending 16 October, some 400,000 children were off school, with 50,000 estimated to have covid and the remainder self-isolating, and by the last week of November, 1 million children were out of school. At one secondary school in my constituency, just 63% were physically present.

Of course that has a disproportionate impact, as the Children’s Commissioner said. It has considerable consequences for children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that is particularly concerning when the UK has one of the worst levels of inequality in the developed world, as highlighted by the United Nations interlocutor in his report back in 2019. We have 4.2 million children living in poverty, 600,000 more than in 2010, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, so even before the pandemic, UK schools faced considerable challenges.

With the introduction of the third lockdown, we are seeing more children being sent to school than attended during the first lockdown. The figures that we have show attendance of between a quarter and a third of pupils in school; that compares with 10% to 15% in the first lockdown. A main driver has been the change to the definition of what constitutes a critical worker, or what is necessary attendance, putting schools in the difficult position of having to assess this on a case-by-case basis. Parents are also having to make decisions based on financial demands rather than the guidance. A headteacher in my constituency believes it is an absolute scandal. They quoted the Department for Education, which states that

“we are reducing overall social contact across…the country rather than individually by each institution”,

which is leading to the overloading of our schools and their acting almost as care workers for younger people to support that.

The much higher attendance rates have resulted in staff being in school when they should be teaching from home. If teachers are delivering face-to-face learning to a blended age group of pupils and are expected to provide digital content, they are effectively doubling their workload. In turn, schools are having staffing issues due to illness and the need to self-isolate, and often the staff themselves face childcare issues. The other principal driver of the increased numbers in school is that those without laptops or space to study are now eligible to attend school. That has led to unions such as the National Association of Head Teachers highlighting how the high numbers will simply undermine the purpose and effectiveness of the shutdown itself. That is why online learning and the tools to enable it are so crucial.