School Week

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 27th June 2022.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee 4:30 pm, 27th June 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 597715, relating to the school week.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. The petition calls on the Government to require schools to introduce a three-day weekend. It argues,

“Children can have lots of stress at school due to exams and homework and with a 3 day weekend, children could have a longer time to relax”.

When we received the petition in Parliament and I saw how fast it attracted more than 100,000 signatures, my first thought was, “What lies underneath this request?”, so I set about finding out We arranged informal discussions with teachers, healthcare professionals and young people to help inform our debate today. One message that came across loud and clear from everyone that I spoke to was the state of our children’s mental health post lockdown. Teachers told us that children are finding it difficult to make it through the school week, and pupils said they found coming to school difficult and struggled to make it all the way to Friday.

From April to September 2021, more than 337,000 under-18s were referred to child and adolescent mental health services. That is up by a staggering 81% from the same three months in 2019. That compares with only an 11% rise in referrals for adults aged 19 and above. It is clear that the pandemic has had a significant impact on our young people’s mental health. One teacher I spoke to, who had worked in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the north-east, said that she had never experienced anything comparable to the pandemic in terms of the ongoing mental health impact on her pupils.

As part of our outreach, the Petitions Committee ran a survey. Most of the young people that responded expressed strong support for a four-day school week as a solution to the stress and anxiety that many face. One said,

“If Fridays were a part of the school weekend, I would feel so relieved and happy as I can get a longer break from…the stress, peer pressure, bullying…and it would allow more ‘me time’ as some call it.”

Another one told us,

“I at one point had to take GP recommended mental health days off from school, I found that on the days I was at school I was more focused, more excited to leam and more positive about my education in general.”

Another found school to be an inherently stressful place and, distressingly, said,

“Right now, when I walk through the gates of school, I get itchy skin and the bottom of my jaw goes bumpy from stress.”

It was heartbreaking to hear some of the anxieties that many children have around going to school. Our schools should be places to learn about the world and to socialise and develop in a variety of ways. That many children have such fear about going to school should be a concern for us all. How much can a child learn if they are stressed and anxious to the degree that some of these young people clearly are?

None the less, I worry that reducing the number of days that children spend in school would not be the right solution. From the conversations I have had, I know I am not the only one. Let me set out the reasons why. I worry that it would not address the root cause of the problems that many students are concerned about: bullying, peer pressure, harassment on social media, or problems keeping up with their school work. I fear it would simply increase the pressure on young people on their remaining days in school. Without wider changes to our education system, children would have to learn the same curriculum and prepare for the same exams, but in less time, with just four schooldays a week instead of five.

I am also acutely aware of the impact that a four-day week would have on the country’s most marginalised children. For some, school is the only place that they get a decent meal, or gives them respite from a difficult situation at home. The idea of taking that away from them fills me with concern, and many teachers share that concern. Although I cannot support moving to a four-day school week, we cannot ignore the petition as a cry for help.

Many children and young people are still recovering from the emotional trauma of the past two years and dealing with the collapse in mental health support. With all the demands of the curriculum, some of the schools they attend are clearly struggling to find the time and support to look after their pupils’ wellbeing. To gather more in-depth evidence, I spoke to a group of year 7s and a group of year 8s at a school in Newcastle. I wanted to hear at first hand what the school week felt like for them, and whether they thought the call for a three-day weekend would help. Their feedback was so helpful, and I am so grateful to all the young people who engaged and contributed so thoughtfully, as well as the staff who helped to facilitate it.

At the beginning of the session, I asked both groups to indicate with a show of hands whether they thought shortening the school week to four days was a good idea. In the year 7 group, every single pupil put their hand up and agreed with the petitioners. Among the year 8s, however, the proposal was not so popular: only about half supported it. At the end of the session, I asked both groups again what they thought. I will tell Members in a moment how their views changed.

What came out most strongly from our discussion was just how tired pupils feel by the end of the school week. Many thought that a four-day week would be a sensible solution, helping them to feel less tired. Others argued that since they were so tired and unproductive by the end of the week, an additional day off would not actually affect their performance at school, because they would have more time to rest and recover and be more productive on their days in school. One pupil just said, “By Friday, I’m so tired.” I am sure many adults would sympathise. Some argued that they had to spend most of Saturday recovering from the school week, and would then do their homework on Sundays, so the two-day weekend did not give them much of a break. One respondent to our survey said,

“Some weekends I can’t even fit homework in which requires me to have to wake up extra early in the morning or stay up extra late at night in order to get it done which leaves me exhausted for the next day. It just feels like a never-ending cycle and that I am drowning in responsibilities.”

Those are the words of a child.

When pupils were asked what they would do with their extra day off, some said they would enjoy enriching activities such as painting and drawing, while others said they would play outside. When challenged, some did admit that they might end up spending more time on their mobile phones, and the teachers we spoke to suspected that late-night phone use and gaming contributes to their tiredness as much as school does. However, I was hugely impressed by how deeply those Newcastle pupils thought about the proposal. As the discussion in the classroom progressed, there was a clear shift in both groups’ views, as they reasoned that increasing the weekend would have a knock-on effect on the school week. There was a realisation that Monday to Thursday would become very intense and rigidly academic: teachers would have to cover the same curriculum in fewer days, and might be forced to drop some of the activities that the children enjoy. Some year 8s said that the need to cram everything into four days would actually cause more stress.

I worry that the proposed four-day week would not address the issues of stress and anxiety, and could actually add to them. We have some evidence of that: while there have been no significant experiments with a four-day week in this country, it has become common in some parts of the United States. The National Conference of State Legislatures has estimated that around 560 districts in 25 states have allowed at least one of their schools to adopt a four-day school week. More than half of those districts are in just four states: Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma and Oregon. However, that shift has not reduced the length of time that pupils spend at school. Teachers have made up for the lost day by adding extra time to other days or, more rarely, shortening the school holidays. As The Colorado Sun reports,

“Since the North Conejos School District switched to a four-day week last year, teachers cut out the chill afternoons when kids would watch movies, the free time that sometimes filled the space between math and art class. It is bell-to-bell learning.”

As it is, schools in this country already find covering the curriculum almost impossible. For example, one of the issues that the Petitions Committee is looking at is that of water safety. Some 277 people in the UK lost their lives in water accidents last year, which campaigners have told us could be prevented with some very basic water safety knowledge. Water safety is part of the school curriculum and is supposed to be taught in every school, but it is just not happening. The teachers we spoke to said that they have to spend a great deal of time helping children to learn social and emotional skills that the education system presumes are already there. One teacher at a disadvantaged primary told us:

“All I’m teaching in Reception is basic parenting”.

If the school week, the curriculum and school funding allowed for more enrichment activities that developed social and other skills, it would make school more fun and less tiring for children and young people; it would help teachers who are feeling overwhelmed, and support better learning outcomes.

Some of the pupils suggested reconfiguring the school week to have more spaced-out breaks. They said it could look something like the French model—although they did not label it as that—where there is time off on Wednesdays to space out breaks a little more, or university, where people get Wednesday afternoons for sport. Others wanted optional clubs on the day off, so they could go into school for half a day and use it for sport and social activities—a bit of breathing space in the middle of the week.

When Alan Shearer, the famous Newcastle footballer, opened the Sport@Gosforth centre at Gosforth Academy, he gave a speech that left quite an impression on me—I hope I am not putting words in his mouth. He said that he did not particularly enjoy the academic side of school, but what got him up every morning and got him there was the promise that he would get to play football. We need to ensure that every child gets to do something they love in school. If they love it, it is generally because they are good at it, and if they are good at it, it builds their confidence in other areas of their education.

Another problem with reducing the school week is that it could disproportionately impact children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, which would exacerbate the existing inequalities in our education system. Parents and carers would be required either to look after their children or find someone else to do so, particularly in the case of younger children, and we know that a lot of families face challenges relating to childcare. One parent told us:

“I know many children rely on school as a lifeline for food, respite from difficult home environments and for childcare for working parents who have low-paid work.”

More than half of pupils who responded to our survey said that they would spend significant time on their extra days off taking part in activities such as music, art or learning another language. Likewise, parents told us that they would pay to supplement their child’s learning through participating in clubs, educational visits, outdoor learning or other lessons. My concern is that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds would miss out on those opportunities because their families have fewer resources. Within schools, children have access to the same learning resources and the same learning environment. Although disadvantage still plays an outsized role in determining educational outcomes, schools are a really important space for trying to level the field—level up, if you like—for every young person.

I am especially concerned about the potential impact on the most disadvantaged, including those with special educational needs and children with extremely difficult home lives. One pupil told us that she would like to have the extra day off, but she worried about her autistic brother because his default behaviour is not to leave the house unless he must. She said that she would go to the park on her extra day off, but an extra day at home for her brother would just be another day with no one to talk to. Although 83% of pupils told us that they would spend Fridays with family, we know from the explosion in post-lockdown safeguarding disclosures that many parents are at work five days a week, so that could add to the challenge of finding childcare and making sure children are safe. For others, home just is not a happy place to be. I worry that less time at school means that more safeguarding would be missed. One teacher told us that for some of her pupils, a school meal is sometimes the only meal they get. She asked:

“If we take that day away from them, are we confident they’re going to get it at home?”

When I asked the pupils what they thought about the four-day week for the second time, after discussing all these issues, the results were quite different. After thinking about it and discussing it, every year 7 pupil who supported it at first was against it in the end. Year 8s, who had been less supportive initially, were even less so by the end, with just one pupil sitting on the fence. If I am honest, I think those young people made the right call.

For the reasons I have outlined, I cannot personally support the petitioners’ call to reduce the school week, but I hope the Minister has heard the case made by the almost 150,000 people, many of whom are young people at school, who signed this petition. I hope he will give their views full and proper consideration when he responds. We have to engage with the concerns that lie beneath the petition.

We have discussed children and young people’s mental health in this House many times, but the virtual collapse of child and adolescent mental health services is the elephant in the room. The number of children and young people on a CAMHS waiting list soared over the pandemic, as I mentioned earlier, but the wheels came off the system long before that. The tragic reality is that more and more young people with incredibly serious mental health issues are being turned away and told they do not meet the required thresholds.

The Guardian reported earlier this year that one actively suicidal child, who had been prevented from jumping off a building earlier that day, was told they could not be assessed by the crisis CAMHS team unless their GP submitted a written request. In another part of the country, a pre-teen boy was found with a ligature in his room, yet the absence of any marks around his neck meant the referral criteria had not been met because it did not appear that he had tried to take his own life. There is not a single CAMHS employee who wants things to stay this way. They care deeply about their services and children and young people’s mental wellbeing. They are trying to do their best with what they have been given, but we need to invest in child mental health services.

I know that the Government do not agree with the petitioners’ call for a four-day school week either, because they have written to say so, but I hope that the Minister will look at this issue. Children and young people face significant challenges as a result of the pandemic. We are now living through a crisis in mental health that cannot be ignored. It is abundantly clear that the support available in schools and the NHS is not sufficient to meet demand. We need a proper plan to change that. We need to fund a full-time member of staff in every secondary school whose job it is to support pupils’ mental health and stop problems escalating. Primary schools must be able to access specialist support in their area. We need an expansion of our mental health workforce and guarantees that in the more severe cases, young people can access timely support for their mental health—within a month at most.

We need not only to treat the symptoms of poor mental health in young people but to address the causes, including an intensely pressurised curriculum that leaves less time to develop other, broader skills and for children to do the things that they love. It is no criticism of teachers and support staff, because they work incredibly hard to deliver a dense curriculum within constrained budgets and timeframes. That is why the system must find the breathing space for children and young people to do a bit more of what they love to give them a spring in their step as they go to school each morning.

As our children recover from the traumatic experience of the last two years, we need to support schools to deliver enriching activities, to build in time for children to socialise and learn new skills, from music, drama and sports to outdoor activities. We have to be able to offer something for everybody in school. If we are genuinely looking to level up and help people to improve their life chances, which surely has to be the purpose of our education system, let us not reduce it to four days: let us make the five more enriching and more fun.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 4:48 pm, 27th June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell on introducing the debate. She spoke powerfully about a number of issues of shared concern: the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health; the anxiety and stress some children face when they go to school; the need to ensure that school works for everyone; how a four-day week may increase pressure on children, and how a reduction in school days could disadvantage children from poorer backgrounds. I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for engaging, as part of her Committee’s work, with a number of children to understand their views and concerns, including about the solutions to the issues that have been raised.

I understand that the petition was co-ordinated mainly by children, so I want to take a moment to applaud their campaigning efforts and dedication to raising the issues that matter to them. Their voice is not always heard in this place. Unfortunately, on this occasion I cannot give them exactly what they want, but their petition raises some important issues that I would like to address.

First, Labour believes that the best place for children to learn is in a classroom with their friends. Although the impact of the pandemic still looms large on absence rolls and in attainment, the majority of children are now back in the classroom on a regular basis. Given the two and a half school years of unprecedented disruption that pupils experienced, with millions of days of school missed and a lack of access to extracurricular activities, I do not think parents or the wider economy would thank me if the Labour party were to advocate for a shorter school week, which would mean losing a further 38 days per year.

We know that those who spent the most time out of school during the pandemic suffered the greatest disadvantage. We also know from a recent report by the Children’s Commissioner that the majority of children missed their friends and that they value those relationships, which are so important for children’s wellbeing and for honing the skills they will need throughout their lives.

Ministers have announced a 32.5-hour school week as part of their White Paper and subsequent Schools Bill, but that is business as usual for most schools. Eight out of 10 are already delivering it, and the reality is that those that do not are so close that the change will add only minutes.

There are ways that we can enrich the school day without being prescriptive about its length. Both the Education Policy Institute and the Education Endowment Foundation have said that delivering a range of extracurricular activities, from arts and music to academic and pastoral support, should be a critical part of any lost learning recovery plans. As you will be aware, Ms Rees, the Labour Government in Wales are seizing the initiative by running a fully funded national trial that guarantees five hours of enrichment activity for children per week. It may be small in scale but it is big in ambition. Activities include art, music and sport, as well as sessions linked to core academic skills such as reading. The schools involved volunteer to take part in order to support disadvantaged learners and improve access to social and cultural opportunities following the pandemic.

A couple of months ago, I travelled to Neath to visit a school taking part in the trial. Although we arrived as the school day was ending, the halls were buzzing with activity. I met students who had done a cooking class, making spaghetti, cookies, and even pizza in a mug. I met a pupil called Ben, who was carefully sculpting a small clay pot. He eagerly explained that he had never done anything like this before, and around the room a series of other creations were coming to life. Welsh Labour’s investment in children’s futures is filling classrooms with knowledge, creativity and excitement.

For these reasons, extracurricular activities are central to Labour’s recovery plan. Our proposals would deliver a fully funded range of extracurricular clubs and activities to boost time for children to learn, play and socialise after months away from their friends. Labour is prioritising the value and experiences that children get in school. That delivers genuine enrichment in a way that Ministers’ arbitrary clock watching does not.

The petition and the associated survey rightly prioritise the importance of mental health and wellbeing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North mentioned. Children and schools increasingly find themselves on the frontline of that silent pandemic. Even before covid, the NHS suggested that as many as one in six children aged between five and 10 suffered from mental ill health, but across England last year three quarters of children were not seen within four weeks of being referred to children’s mental health services. Worse still, over a third of children were turned away from mental health services, despite having a referral from a professional. On this Government’s watch, waiting times have exploded and the availability of treatment has plummeted. That is why Labour’s children’s recovery plan prioritises having a mental health professional delivering quality support for children in every school.

The current school week is also important in the context of childcare—a problem facing many families across the country. Childcare is critical for learning and development, and it is intrinsically linked to our wider economic prosperity, but the cost of living crisis means that parents are increasingly priced out of care. Before the pandemic, children on free school meals arrived at school almost five months behind their peers. Spiralling costs will make that worse.

The average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen by almost £1,500 over the last five years. The United Kingdom has one of the highest childcare costs as a proportion of average income; at 29%, we are 19% higher than the OECD average. That is perpetuating a gross inequality that is holding women back. Some 1.7 million are prevented from taking on more hours of paid work due to childcare issues. We lose £28.2 billion in economic output every year as a result. That contributes to the farcical situation in which a young family’s income would actually be higher if they remained on universal credit than if both parents were back in work and paid for childcare. Of course, that is more punitive for single parents.

Changing the length of the school week would mean that those parents would find childcare solutions even more challenging. That is not a cost we can reasonably ask them to bear. We need wider action to tackle the cost of childcare, which was rising even before the cost of living crisis. The latest bright idea—to cut the number of adults looking after groups of children—will likely reduce the quality of provision, and it will likely have no impact on availability or affordability. That is why Labour’s children’s recovery plan includes investment in childcare places for young children on free school meals—and because we know that childcare pressure does not stop when children start school, we would invest in before-school and after-school clubs for children.

I will briefly mention the wider problem of persistent absence, which is urgent. The Children’s Commissioner found that 22% of pupils were persistently absent in autumn 2021. Labour welcomes the long-overdue proposed register of children not in school and wants to see it implemented without further delay, but that treats the symptom and not the cause of the problem. Ministers should properly address post-pandemic learning and development, provide the mental health and wellbeing support that is needed, and show a bit more curiosity about why such a large proportion of those persistently absent are pupils with special educational needs or disabilities and those who are disadvantaged. Addressing the structural challenges that mean those children are not in school should be an important part of the Government’s approach. Fining parents will work in some cases, but many others will see it as a punitive and regressive approach, which could mean that children are lost in the system for good.

Removing a day of school a week is not the solution to challenges that children and parents face. Instead, we must restore the support that children and parents need so that pupils thrive in school. That is Labour’s plan—because, after two and a half school years of disruption, that is exactly what they deserve.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Minister of State (Education) 4:57 pm, 27th June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank Catherine McKinnell for the way she opened the debate. It was fantastic to hear about the way she engaged with pupils and students in her constituency, listening to them but also deploying her powers of persuasive reasoning—we have heard them during the debate—to conduct that before-and-after exercise and show that people can be won round to understanding the importance of the school week.

I recognise that a large number of people have signed the petition, which raises a number of important issues. I completely understand how an extended weekend can look, on the surface, very attractive to a lot of people, in particular children in school. However, it is important to recognise how shortening the school week would adversely impact children’s learning, as well as reducing opportunities to socialise and participate in enrichment activities, which I will come to in more detail. This is more crucial than ever in the context of the covid-19 pandemic. Overall, reducing time in school reduces children’s life chances, so the Government have no plans to require schools to close on Fridays.

I will begin by setting out the Government’s long-term vision for pupils’ academic achievements, and the importance of being in school to achieve that. I will then set out some of the work we are doing to maximise time in school and why that is more important than ever as a result of the pandemic, and the challenges that children and young people face when out of school. I will set out the work that my Department is doing to support our children and young people to recover from the pandemic. Finally, I will touch on how spending more time in school can improve children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, enabling support during more stressful times, such as exams, and providing opportunities for enrichment activities.

I am sure that Members present will agree that schooling is fundamental to a functioning society. School equips children with the knowledge and skills to thrive and flourish later in life. My Department recently set out our overarching vision for the school system in the schools White Paper, “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child”. That included our levelling-up mission for schools. Our aim is for 90% of primary school children to achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030. For secondary schools, our aim is that the national GCSE average grade in both English language and maths will increase from 4.5 in 2019 to 5 by 2030.

School life is at the heart of that ambition. That is why, far from seeking to shorten the school week as the petition proposes, we are committed to delivering a richer, longer average school week that makes the most effective use of time in school and includes not just teaching time but enrichment activities, which will help to ensure that all children enjoy a rounded education. To that end, we recently conducted a review of time in school. That found that additional time in school, if used well, can have a positive impact on pupil outcomes. However, some pupils currently receive less time in school than others, because of differences in opening hours. That shortfall accumulates over time. It is simply unfair that a child who receives 20 minutes less teaching time a day loses out on about two weeks of schooling a year.

That is why, as set out in the White Paper, we have set an expectation that all mainstream state-funded schools should deliver at least a 32.5-hour week as soon as possible, and by September 2023 at the latest. We believe that 32.5 hours is the current average length of the school week. I accept the point made by Stephen Morgan that many schools are already achieving that. In many respects, that is a good thing; it shows that it can be achieved within what they have. However, by setting that minimum expectation for all schools, we will help to ensure that all children have fairer access to education, regardless of where they live, to help them to achieve their full potential. The new minimum length of the school week also includes break times, thus allowing children more opportunity for socialisation and enrichment activities, which they missed out on too much during the pandemic.

We are encouraging schools to go beyond 32.5 hours where possible. Monega Primary School in east London, where we launched the White Paper, does that by having an earlier start time—8.30 am. That provides pupils with access to 20 minutes a day of intensive reading development. On a weekly basis, that equates to one hour and 40 minutes extra reading time for all the pupils.

By contrast, if schools were to close on Fridays, as the petition proposes, pupils would lose an average of 38 school days in each academic year. Given what I have said about the benefits of time in school, I cannot accept that that would be in the best interests of children, let alone the impact that it would have, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North rightly said, on parents.

The work that we are doing to maximise time in school is more important than ever in the context of the covid-19 pandemic. During lockdown, parents often struggled with home schooling. That brought a new appreciation of the fantastic work that teachers do and the difference that they make in children’s lives. In the national survey by the Children’s Commissioner for England, The Big Ask, we heard from more than half a million children on their impressions of online learning and the return to school. Children spoke out about how much they liked school, and about how much they missed it and their peers while the gates were closed. They described feelings of isolation during lockdown, as well as uncertainty around schooling.

Children also spoke about the importance of education for its own sake. One 11-year-old girl said:

“I really want to learn even if it’s hard because education is important to me”.

Education was seen as particularly important by children who face challenges at school, including children with special educational needs. Overall, 84% of children reported being happy or okay with school life. The report highlights how attendance in school is crucial for pupils’ education, wellbeing and long-term development.

However, the Children’s Commissioner has also expressed her concern that currently we cannot identify where each child is. We have already announced, as part of the Schools Bill, which is currently before Parliament, that local authorities will be required to keep registers of children not in school, so that no child can fall through the cracks in the system. I welcome the support from the hon. Member for Portsmouth South for that. However, I should be clear that we are not legislating on the length of the school week as part of the Bill. That remains a non-statutory expectation for all mainstream state-funded schools.

Continuing to help children to recover from the impact of the pandemic remains one of the Government’s top priorities. Being in school is crucial to ensure that children and young people can receive the support on offer to them. Shortening the current school week would therefore risk jeopardising the strides that children and young people have already made. Our latest pupil progress data, published at the end of March this year, shows that we are seeing some good progress for many pupils. Evidence shows that by autumn 2021, primary pupils had on average recovered about two thirds of the progress lost during the pandemic in reading and about half the progress lost in maths.

However, we know that there is more work to do. We believe that the best way for children and young people to recover from the impact of the pandemic is through investment in what works. That is why we have invested nearly £5 billion to fund a comprehensive recovery package, including targeted extra funding, teacher training, tutoring and extra educational opportunities. Maximising time in school is key to securing the benefits of our recovery package, which includes investing £800 million to increase hours in 16-to-19 education by 40 hours per student per year from September 2022.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North spoke rightly and passionately about mental health. One of the many valuable aspects of being in school is that it can be a crucial contributor to children and young people’s positive mental health and wellbeing, equipping them to stay mentally and physically well into the future.

That is supported by the evidence. Our most recent annual “State of the nation” report collated a range of data to identify trends in children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing recovery over the course of the 2020-21 academic year. The report found that reductions in wellbeing occurred most clearly for both primary and secondary pupils in February 2021, when varied pandemic restrictions were in place, including school closures. The report also found a link, across all groups of children and young people, between regular attendance at school and college and positive wellbeing, highlighting the critical benefits of being in school for wellbeing.

School is also a place where emerging problems can be identified and early support given. Although educational staff are not mental health professionals, they are well placed to observe children and young people day to day and identify those whose behaviour suggests that they may be experiencing a mental health issue. We have put in place a wide range of training and guidance to help educational staff to identify and understand mental health issues, and to know how to respond effectively. Our recent £15 million wellbeing for education recovery and return programmes provided free training, support and resources for staff dealing with children and young people experiencing the additional pressures of covid-19 and other events, including trauma, anxiety or grief. Around 14,000 schools and colleges across the country benefited from this support, which was delivered through local authorities.

We have also recently confirmed an additional £10 million in grants to extend senior mental health lead training to even more schools and colleges, which means the training will be offered to two thirds of all state schools and colleges by March 2023, and to all state schools and colleges by 2025. However, I hear the concerns that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North raised about CAMHS, and I will continue to work with health colleagues to try to ensure that they are addressed.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee

I am grateful that the Minister acknowledges the concerns that I raised. The training he talks about is obviously welcome. Any teacher or education professional would be grateful for the opportunity to identify challenges. What they need, though, is people—experts—they can refer children to, who can then work with them and support them. That must be a priority for the Government, given the explosion in necessary referrals post-pandemic.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Minister of State (Education)

I absolutely acknowledge that point. My health colleagues would say that it is a priority for the Government, but I accept that there is more work to do on that front.

The petition mentions exams and homework as particular sources of stress and anxiety for children and young people. This Government believe that exams and other assessments are an essential part of ensuring that young people have acquired the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in further study and in later life. Exams are the fairest way of judging pupils’ performance, and we know that preparing for them can be motivating for pupils and can consolidate learning. However, we are keenly aware that exams have the potential to exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress among some young people. That is why it is important that schools are clear that, although pupils should be encouraged to work hard and achieve well, that should not be at the expense of their wellbeing.

Schools and colleges should be able to identify signs of exam-related stress whenever it emerges and be in a position to respond appropriately. Teachers are best placed to work with pupils and their families to respond to signs of stress and access appropriate support.

Like exams, we believe that homework is an important part of a good education. Schools have the autonomy to decide whether to set homework and how much of it their pupils must do. Homework that is planned by teachers is an integral part of their curriculum and gives pupils the opportunity to practise and reinforce what they have been taught in class, helping them to consolidate and extend the knowledge and understanding they have acquired. Homework also enables teachers to check pupils’ understanding systematically, to identify misconceptions accurately and to provide clear, direct feedback. I heard hon. Lady’s concerns about children working late into the night and sacrificing parts of their weekend. Clearly, that would be an excessive approach. We want schools to carefully balance study with time to rest and recuperate.

The hon. Lady said, quite rightly, that schools should be fun places that allow children to do more of what they love. Another reason why children being in school is so important is the enrichment support on offer. We know that participation in enrichment activities, which can support wellbeing, fell during the pandemic. The longer, richer school week proposed in the schools White Paper will help to ensure that all pupils have the chance to enjoy a wide range of experiences. We are developing guidance to support schools to develop a varied and high-quality enrichment offer. Inspiration Trust in Norfolk and north Suffolk is an example of a trust that extends the school week beyond 32.5 hours for all of its secondary schools. The schools ensure that all additional enrichment sessions are timetabled and mandatory, which ensures equality of participation by pupils from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Cultural education, which includes arts, music and heritage, is a vital part of school activity. We support this via the curriculum first and foremost, with arts and music being part of the national curriculum, but we also want all schools to offer co-curricular and extracurricular activity in those areas. Cultural education is important for the enjoyment that these subjects bring in and of themselves, for academic progress, for wellbeing, and for increasing life chances and career opportunities in our outstanding cultural and creative sectors and in wider employment. Our newly published national plan for music education, and next year’s cultural education plan, will help to identify opportunities for schools.

I was pleased to announce on Saturday the national plan for music education, which was co-published by the Department for Education and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The plan sets out our vision to enable all children and young people to learn to sing, play an instrument and create music together, and to have the opportunity to progress their musical interests and talents, including professionally. The plan confirms the Government’s continued commitment to music education and includes £25 million of new capital to purchase hundreds of thousands of musical instruments and pieces of equipment, including adaptive instruments for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. The plan sets out clear guidance to schools to provide timetabled curriculum music of at least one hour a week for children in key stages 1 to 3, as well as opportunities outside lesson plans to learn how to sing and play instruments, and to play and sing together in ensembles and choirs. We have also committed £79 million of funding over three years for music hubs to support schools and others to deliver high-quality music education.

Physical education, school sport and physical activity are also an extremely important part of school life. All children and young people should have the opportunity to live healthy, active lives, which begins with high-quality PE lessons, opportunities to experience a range of sports, and ensuring that children meet the chief medical officer’s recommendation of 60 active minutes a day, of which 30 minutes should be within the school day.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North mentioned the inspirational figure of Alan Shearer and how football motivated him to go to school. That is one of the reasons why in October 2021 the Government announced nearly £30 million of funding a year towards improving and opening up school sport facilities in England, as well as improving the teaching of PE at primary schools. It is also why we confirmed on Saturday that the £320 million primary PE and sport premium will continue for the 2022-23 academic year, to support primary schools to improve the quality of their PE, sport and physical activity.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge the serious impact that the proposal to have a four-day school week would have on working parents, particularly those with younger children, for whom childcare arrangements would need to be put in place on Fridays. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North spoke very well about this issue in her speech and has also raised it in other debates recently. It would be a significant additional cost for many parents, many of whom are already struggling with the cost of living.

I am grateful to hon. Member for providing an opportunity to debate this important issue. It is heartening to see that so many children are invested in talking about their education, but I think we are in agreement on the outcome of the petition. At the heart of the Government’s vision is ensuring that every child and young person can fulfil their potential. The steps we have taken to maximise time in school are key to achieving that mission, but we do not want to reduce opportunities for young people to be in school. Therefore, we have no plans to remove Friday from the school week.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee 5:13 pm, 27th June 2022

I thank the Minister for his thorough response. I think it is safe to say we all agree that it would not be in the best interests of every child to reduce the school week to four days, but I do not think that diminishes the cause of the petition, the voices that have been heard today, or what I interpreted as a cry for help from young people.

We are at quite a unique time in history—one that we should not ignore. We must not plough on as though nothing has changed, because young people are asking us to recognise that things have changed. The covid pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives. As adults, we have adapted many working practices and the way we do things. Many people have reassessed their lives, their priorities, how they want to spend their time, and what they want to live for. Young people have done the same. I do not think the petition is young people saying that they do not want to be educated. I think it is young people saying that they do not want to feel the enormous crushing pressure that many now feel at school.

I wanted to see how well our education system is performing in comparison with other systems around the world—I looked at this when I was a member of the Education Committee—and I saw an alarming statistic. We perform very highly on one metric: we are in the top five in the world for the number of girls who feel a crushing fear of failure and high levels of anxiety. It is right that the OECD measures those things—not just educational output, but how young people feel and their experience and wellbeing in school.

Everything the Minister has outlined in terms of ensuring that we enrich the school day is positive and encouraging, but it is important that we do not fall down the warren of quantity over quality. We have to ensure that children’s wellbeing is catered for as well as their educational attainment during the time that they spend in school. That is the real challenge for Government.

We cannot ignore the glaring challenge of mental health. There is a general issue that many young people are grappling with: the social media world. Many of us did not grow up with social media; it did not exist when we were at school, but it is something every young person now grows up with. They now have to find a way through that world, managing their mental health and living an online and a real-world existence while juggling their education.

Fundamentally, we cannot ignore the pandemic and pretend it did not happen. It has had a significant impact on our children and young people. We need that additional investment now to meet some of the challenges that have emerged for this cohort of young people who were incredibly isolated. Of course other groups in society were isolated as well, but it was so unnatural for children to be put in that situation of being away from their friends, family and everything they love. The long-term implications are significant. We should put in place the investment needed to support children through this period and to provide support generally with mental health and wellbeing. We should prioritise that support as much as educational outcomes in the way we assess schools and their performance. We have to prioritise happiness and wellbeing, because, ultimately, that is how we will get better educational outcomes. If we have happy, well-balanced and mentally well children, they will perform better at school. We just have to ensure we have the resources in place.

I commend the petitioners and everyone who signed the petition. I appreciate that children may be disappointed they are not getting a four-day week at the end of this debate. Hopefully, what they will be getting is a richer, happier and more well-rounded five days at school that will help them to really fulfil their potential, wherever they might be in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered e-petition 597715, relating to the school week.

Sitting adjourned.