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 thank the hon. Gentleman, who always makes such valid points. I will cover that issue in a moment, but he is absolutely right. Access to broadband internet is an essential provision and should be a part of our critical infrastructure so that every household has it. Whether someone is working or studying from home, it is as important as getting gas, electricity or water to the household.

It has been clear from the outset that with the majority of children removed from school and college settings, there is a huge challenge in delivering educational learning in terms of both channel and approach, both from the delivery and the receiving end. According to Ofcom, up to 1.78 million children in the UK—about 9%—do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. Almost 900,000 of those live in a household with just a mobile internet connection.

According to the education charity Teach First, four in five schools with the poorest pupils are hit the hardest and do not have enough devices and internet access to ensure that those self-isolating can continue to learn. However, recent Government announcements have been more positive, including that on 560,000 laptops and tablets, and a further 300,000 were announced yesterday. That is welcome. Perhaps the Minister will confirm the Department’s total cumulative number since March and April against the objective of 1.78 million.

The move by Three UK, followed by British Telecom, Vodafone and many others, to provide free data and unlimited broadband in support of the hardware is also very welcome and should be applauded. But why did it take the Government so long? Why did they dither and delay when the need was there from March last year? The initial announcement in April, when the Government stated that they would seek to ensure that disadvantaged pupils would benefit from free laptops or tablets, was immediately challenged by the Good Law Project, a legal campaign group, which said that the numbers announced were a “drop in the ocean”. The group went on to say that it found the lack of details about the scheme troubling as only a small subset of pupils would benefit.

Back in June I raised the issue with the Minister’s Department in a written question and I followed it up in the Chamber. In reply to my written question I was told that 200,000 laptops and tablets had been ordered on 19 April. However, a Government document entitled “Devices and 4G wireless routers data: Ad-hoc Notice: Laptops, tablets and 4G wireless routers for disadvantaged and vulnerable children: progress data”—Members may not have seen that report—stated:

“The first devices were ordered on 15th May, and the first devices were dispatched on 18th May.”

It is still not clear to me what happened, and which was true. Was it 19 April or 15 May? It certainly seems that the Government were slow to react to the challenge and to recognise the ongoing need.

At the same time, in Warwickshire, I was told that 1,463 laptops had been requested, but that by early July only 45 had been received. By 1 June the Government had certainly missed their target of delivering 230,000 laptops and tablets. On 21 October the Secretary of State said that he would deliver 500,000 laptops, noting that 200,000 had already been delivered, but by early November the Government had announced that they had slashed the allocation of Government-promised laptops for the poorest and most vulnerable children across the country by a staggering 80%. My question to the Minister is why the number was reduced. Why was that announcement made?

As I say, more recent announcements have been more positive, but for schools in my constituency there is clearly a long way to go. In Warwick and Leamington, on average, 17% of pupils do not have access to digital equipment or broadband for home working. In the absence of Government support, 83% of schools, according to my own survey, have provided laptops out of their own funds. Those are hard-pressed funds in schools. One primary school that will remain nameless confided that it has almost 50 children without devices, and has received just four in total.

Of course it is all too easy to think of the issue as about purely the supply of laptops, but even when a household has a device and internet access that does not mean that the pupil can make use of them, because of such factors as low parental computer literacy, parents who work from home needing to use the device, school- age siblings also needing to use it, or simply access to broadband capacity. Perhaps there may also be a lack of access to printers or other hardware in the household. That is all understandable. For many there is simply the problem of broadband or mobile internet access, as Jim Shannon said. In particular, there are certain buildings in remote rural areas where mobile signals are limited.

Finally there is the question of content support. It is worth highlighting this week’s positive move by the BBC to deliver an education offer to children, teachers and parents through CBBC and “BBC Bitesize Daily”, while BBC2 will provide programming aimed at supporting the GCSE curriculum. That is all immensely welcome and will complement greatly the online teaching that is being facilitated through Oak National Academy and other providers such as the website Hungry Little Minds. Naturally, there is also a need to deliver online teaching, which in turn leads to demand in relation to training needs for the delivery of the new channel for learning.

Many schools are also reporting significant financial pressures. In the survey that I conducted across Warwick and Leamington during the autumn term it was apparent that there were immediate and significant costs—operational costs, but also a need for capital support. As for operating costs, a couple of primary schools faced additional costs of £20,000, but the average figure across the board was something like £13,000, or £1,400 per month—the additional cost of sanitising, cleaning, and ensuring that the physical environment is safe and usable for pupils and teaching staff alike. However, all schools reported a significant unmet staffing need because of budget limitations, and 83% stated that they had faced staffing shortages.

Schools also said that there was a greater need for them with respect to their responsibility for protecting children and ensuring their general wellbeing, and while mental health is of course a particular and obvious concern, there is also the issue of the increased risk of harm to children. According to a report for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in the first lockdowns there was a 22% increase in the number of counselling sessions relating to physical abuse, and a threefold increase in the number of Childline counselling sessions per week about child sexual abuse within the family. Those are all areas where we need to provide greater support for pupils, young people and teaching staff.

There have been pressures on school leadership teams, who faced the responsibility of undertaking flow testing of pupils and additional tasks alongside the ongoing pressures they already have. I highlight the need for more support for special schools, which face huge pressures having to teach face-to-face in intense environments, and where there is a real need for more financial support, for additional staffing and, I would advocate, for the vaccination of teaching staff and pupils.

On the point about nurseries, the transmission data, from October 2020, is outdated. According to the Office for National Statistics, transmission among zero to five-year-olds is now the same as among five to nine-year-olds. Funding is needed to support our nurseries.

I will move on to the situation with free school meal vouchers. One of the implications of pupils not being in school is for their health and welfare while they are at home, possibly alone, where many will go without a decent hot meal that would have ordinarily been provided by the school. That is why the provision of free school meals has been so important, in particular via the vouchers during the first wave. It is surprising that the Government and, dare I say, their Back Benchers voted not to continue with that provision in subsequent holidays and into the future, until there was the Marcus Rashford-inspired U-turn.

With so many pupils out of school again, the need to provide the equivalent of free school meals is significant and many schools are urging that cash payments be made. The Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East echo that call for cash payments as a replacement for free school meals, as they know what children need and that allows choice, accessibility, discretion and safety, all of which are valued by families.