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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:43 am on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 10:43 am, 13th January 2021

May I add to your embarrassment, Dame Angela, by adding my congratulations to you on your very well deserved damehood, and say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning? I congratulate also Matt Western on securing this debate.

Education is a national priority for this Government. That is why we have endeavoured to keep schools open throughout the pandemic. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the inequality in education that existed even before the pandemic. That is why closing the attainment gap has been the driving force behind all our reforms in education since 2010, which had led to the attainment gap closing by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools since 2011.

During this period of restricted attendance in schools, early years settings will remain open, as will schools for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. All schools and colleges in England have switched immediately to remote education for students who do not attend face-to-face provision. Preparations and expectations for that were set out in revised guidance last year.

Despite restricted attendance, lateral flow testing should continue for students and teachers who are attending schools, and from 4 January, rapid asymptomatic testing has been successfully rolled out for secondary schools and colleges, alongside weekly testing of staff and daily testing of close contacts for staff and pupils who test positive. That rapid testing programme will help to identify asymptomatic positive cases, and will further help to break the chain of transmission of the virus and minimise further disruption.

We recognise that teachers are under enormous pressure in dealing with the impact of covid-19 on their schools. I join the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington in paying tribute to staff in our schools for their enormous efforts since the beginning of the pandemic. We know that significant time in the classroom has been lost already, and that will continue as the pandemic continues. It is critical that we mitigate the impact on students of being out of school, through high-quality remote education. Most pupils are now receiving education remotely, and schools have made huge progress in developing their remote education provision, so it is right that we increase the expectations of what pupils receive.

In October, the Secretary of State issued a direction under the Coronavirus Act 2020, placing a legal duty on state-funded schools to provide remote education. In our July guidance, which was again updated last week, we set out clear expectations, including a requirement that schools provide between three and five hours of teaching a day, depending on the child’s age. Schools are now expected to provide remote education that includes either recorded or live direct teaching.

Teachers and heads have gone to enormous lengths since March to improve the quality of remote education. Ofsted’s report on visits to schools during the autumn term commended the increasing sophistication in schools’ approaches to remote education. I would, of course, be delighted to discuss with my right hon. Friend Esther McVey and the Blue Collar Conservativism group the future opportunities that online education can bring to our schools.

To support remote delivery, we are investing more than £400 million to support access to remote education and online social care. We have bought more than 1.3 million laptops and tablets, and by the end of this week we will have delivered three quarters of a million devices, more than half a million of which had been delivered by December last year. That has been a huge procurement exercise: more than 1.3 million computers bought to order on the global market.

We have targeted support at those who need it most. On top of the 1.3 million computers, schools already have 1.9 million laptops of their own and an estimated 1 million tablets, all of which can be lent to their pupils. As Siobhain McDonagh pointed out, we have partnered with mobile phone operators to deliver zero rating for the Oak National Academy and BBC Bitesize, and the free data uplifts for disadvantaged families. We are grateful to EE, O2, Sky Mobile, Smarty, Tesco Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone. We continue to invite a range of mobile network operators to support the offer.

As every child and young person in the country has experienced unprecedented disruption to their education as a result of covid-19, they will need support to catch up, alongside remote education and the delivery of devices. The Government have introduced a catch-up package of £1 billion, including a catch-up premium of £650 million for all state-funded schools. Schools will be able to tailor the funding for specific circumstances and target the pupils who need it most. To support schools in making the best use of that money, the Education Endowment Foundation has published a covid-19 support guide for schools, with evidence-based approaches to catch-up for all students.

All schools should use their catch-up premium as a single total from which to prioritise support for all pupils, guided by individual need. That will often focus on pupils from deprived backgrounds, but will include other pupils, especially those facing challenges, such as those with a social worker, young carers, and those with mental health needs.

Alongside that, we have the £350 million national tutoring programme for disadvantaged pupils, which will increase access to high-quality tuition for the most disadvantaged young people, helping to accelerate their academic progress and tackling the attainment gap between them and their peers. The national tutoring programme for schools was launched in November 2020, and nearly 90,000 pupils are now confirmed to have enrolled in it. It is estimated that, this academic year, approximately 15,000 tutors will support the scheme, offering tuition to more than a quarter of a million pupils. During this academic year, the national tutoring programme is also providing funding to support small-group tuition for 16 to 19-year-olds and the improvement of early language skills for reception-age children.

We know that time out of the classroom affects disadvantaged children and young people most significantly, and the Government remain committed to ensuring that they continue to be supported. In March, we took the decision to continue to provide free school meals to eligible children while at home, and to extend that during the Easter holidays and the Whitsun half term. The national voucher scheme that we introduced has distributed some £380 million of vouchers for families, and with the prompting of Marcus Rashford we extended the voucher payments during the summer holiday, too.

During the current national lockdown, schools should continue to provide meal options for all pupils who are in school. Meals should be available free of charge to all infant pupils and pupils who are eligible for free school meals who are in school. Furthermore, we are providing extra funding to schools to ensure that they continue to support eligible children who are at home. Schools can work with their school caterer to provide food parcels, or they can consider local arrangements, such as vouchers. Schools will be able to claim for reimbursement of those additional costs. The centrally funded national voucher scheme will reopen from next week to ensure that every eligible child can access free school meal support while schools are restricted from opening to all pupils.

The quality of the food in the photographs shared on social media is totally unacceptable and does not reflect the high standard of free school meals that we expect to be sent to children. Chartwells has rightly apologised and admitted that the parcels in question were not good enough. My colleague the children’s Minister met its chief executive officer yesterday, and they assured her that they have taken immediate action to stop further deliveries of poor-quality parcels. Chartwells will ensure that the schools affected are compensated and provide additional food to the eligible children, in line with our increased funding.

Vulnerable children and young people are strongly encouraged to attend their school or college, but where a child does not attend, school absence will not be penalised. We expect schools to follow up attendance where absences are not related to covid-19, as they would normally do when schools are open. We have asked all social workers to strongly encourage those in care to attend school. Children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker can go to school if required, and schools should speak to parents and carers to identify who needs to go to school. If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time, they should do so.

We know that every school will have a different number of children of critical workers who need to attend, so it is important that on-site provision is provided for those pupils. There is no limit to the number of those pupils who can attend, and schools should not limit the attendance of those groups. That is because, as Kate Osborne said, we are reducing overall social contact across areas and the country, rather than individually by each institution.

Wes Streeting raised exams. We recognise that the decision to restrict access to schools means that primary assessment cannot go ahead as intended. We will therefore cancel the statutory key stages 1 and 2 tests and the teacher assessments planned for summer 2021, including the key stage 2 tests in reading and maths. We remain determined to ensure that every young person, no matter their age or background, is provided with the education and opportunities they deserve, despite the challenges faced by schools. We know that schools will continue to use assessment during the summer term to inform teaching to enable them to give the necessary information to parents.