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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:25 am on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 10:25 am, 13th January 2021

May I congratulate you, Dame Angela, on your recognition in the new year’s honours? It was richly deserved. It is a genuine pleasure to serve with you in the Chair. I thank my hon. Friend Matt Western for securing this really important debate. It says a huge amount about the concern that people have about the state of education in our country at the moment that Members have travelled from right across the country to participate in this debate because it is so important. I, too, thank the House authorities for facilitating this sitting. I hope that sense will prevail and that we can find a way to have virtual participation in Westminster Hall as well as the main Chamber.

Members will know how strongly I feel about where we have got to in the education response to this pandemic and the serious challenges facing children and young people across the country, as well as parents, educators, staff and schools, who have bust a gut throughout the year to keep children learning. I am angry because it did not need to be this way. We have always said that closing schools ought to be a last resort. They should be the last to close and the first to reopen. We reached that last resort because of the Government’s failure to manage the public health crisis.

What are the lessons here? Being too slow to act leads to greater cost overall. We have seen that in terms of lives and livelihoods, and we are now seeing it clearly in terms of learning. Unless we act quickly and decisively, we all pay a greater price. It is outrageous that children and young people across the country, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, will suffer the most.

We all agree that school is the best place for children to be. That is the view of not only hon. Members who are passionate about education, but every single teacher and member of support staff across the country. Indeed, even when they were warning the Government that schools were no longer a safe place for pupils to be if we wanted to manage and contain the spread of the virus, every single union representing teaching staff, school leaders and support staff made it clear that school is the best place for children and young people to be, and we need to get on top of this virus to get them back there as quickly and safely as possible.

As we know from the Children’s Commissioner and from Ofsted, and from all the evidence from the first lockdown, that when children and young people are not in school, it is particularly the most vulnerable children we are concerned about. Even with reports of high numbers of children and young people still turning up to school this week and last week, we know that children from the most vulnerable and at-risk backgrounds are still failing to show, with serious concerns flagged for social services.

Even for children not from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, this has not been an easy time; in fact, it has been a very challenging time, as any parent would agree who is trying to juggle their work and their responsibilities around the home with educating their children at the same time. If ever there was a time to be grateful for teachers, it is right now, and parents across the country are appreciating first hand that teaching is not an easy job

Children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the most excluded. That is what makes the Government’s failure to prepare for remote learning inexplicable and inexcusable. It is not only their competence that is in question, but their values and their ambition for pupils across the country. We know from Ofcom that around 1.8 million children are without a device to study from at home, and around 880,000 children live in households with only a mobile internet connection, with all the challenges that that presents. My hon. Friend Kate Osborne, who has been an outstanding champion in highlighting the digital divide, made that clear in her powerful speech.

Why was it not a national priority to get every child online? Why did the Department for Education have a target of providing only 230,000 laptops by the end of June last year, and, worse still, why was that target missed? We now know that 700,000 laptops have been delivered in total—100,000 of them this week, so the pace is picking up. The Government have committed to 1.3 million in total, but when will those be delivered? Why does the summit of the Government’s ambition still fall short of delivering for the 1.8 million children whom we know are without a device in the home? Only 54,500 4G routers and 9,930 wi-fi vouchers had been delivered by Christmas. Why? How is that acceptable?

We know that children cannot get online. Why are we relying on the goodwill of mobile phone providers to help their customers, because that is clearly not working? As my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh said, many of them are not even bothering to try to help their customers, so where does that leave those children from the poorest and most disadvantaged backgrounds?

Why is it that, even at the start of this term, we had reports that families and schools had not been able to order laptops for primary school pupils? Why is it that sixth-formers were not also given priority for laptops but put at the bottom of the pile? As the research published by the Sutton Trust and Teacher Tapp shows, just 10% of teachers report that all their pupils have access to a device, and that proportion has barely shifted across the entirety of the pandemic. We know that what the Government have been doing has fallen well short of the need of our children and young people.

The digital divide, of course, is not new. If one thing must come out of the pandemic, it should be an understanding that access to online services, education, resources and entertainment cannot be restricted only to those from comfortable or well-off backgrounds; everyone needs to benefit. My hon. Friend Seema Malhotra raised the digital divide. There are plenty of examples of local authorities, such as Hounslow and others, that have grasped the nettle and worked hard to get their local families and citizens online. What will the Government do in the wake of the pandemic genuinely to tackle the digital divide and to ensure that we get not only every child online, but every family?

I am also really concerned about the support available for special schools. For obvious reasons, being open to their pupils presents all sorts of challenges for the safety of both the staff and the young people they serve. I know, from speaking to the heads of special schools in my constituency and across the country, that they have not felt supported by the Government, they have not felt funded by the Government, and they certainly have not felt trusted by the Government. The Government need to focus on and prioritise the provision in special schools, and to trust headteachers to make sensible decisions about managing the flows of children and young people in their school, making assessments about risk and vulnerability and ensuring that children receive the support they need—a point made well by my hon. Friend Tracy Brabin.

Getting every child online is about access not just to kit but to high-quality teaching. I recognise that the Government have put in place a remote learning framework, but there is a lack of understanding of how digital education can best be delivered. It is not always about live lessons, although I know that many schools have done a great job in providing continuous online provision; it is about giving people access to high-quality lessons, which can be delivered by brilliant providers such as the Oak National Academy and the BBC, and, crucially, following up with good-quality contact time with a teacher, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow said in her fantastic speech. That has been somewhat overlooked by the metrics in the framework.