Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords]

Gavin Williamson Excerpts
Gill Furniss Portrait Gill Furniss (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Having spent most of my working life in further education, I am delighted to speak in this extremely important debate. My constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough is home to two excellent colleges that are well attended by local people of all ages who undertake qualifications of all types. It gives me no pleasure, however, to report that my constituency also has one of the highest instances of child poverty in the country. It is my firm belief that good education provision is one of the most powerful tools to eradicate poverty, so it is essential that people who live in my constituency can access high-quality education.

I am pleased to hear that, according to the Secretary of State, there is still a promise to keep BTECs, because the previous Ministers and Secretary of State were completely unable to commit to that, but I do have some sense of cynicism about the matter. The roll-back of BTECs would reduce student choice, degrade the variety of qualifications that employers can look for in potential employees and deny existing employees the opportunity to upskill. The education system helps to close the skills gap and also needs to play its part in the levelling-up agenda. I have always been unconvinced that the way to do that is to remove a successful qualification that is being taken by almost a third of 16 to 18-year-old level 3 students.

The success of BTECs as a driving force of social mobility cannot be ignored. The Social Market Foundation found that almost half of white working-class students had at least one BTEC on entering university and that almost two fifths of students from diverse backgrounds enter university with only BTEC qualifications. That clearly means that students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be adversely affected were the proposal on BTECs to go through. Surely pathways should be extended and not closed off.

There are many concerns about what the T-level curriculum will look like and who will be able to access T-levels. If the changes took place tomorrow morning, only 40% of Sheffield College’s 16 to 19-year-old level 3 students would move to a T-level. The rest, who are studying other advanced generals, would be displaced without a full-time level 3 programme.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con)
- Hansard - -

The hon. Lady might be aware that T-levels are already up and running, so she has the opportunity to see the depth and breadth of the T-level curriculum. Perhaps she could take the opportunity to see at first hand the benefits it will bring to her constituents.

Gill Furniss Portrait Gill Furniss
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have spoken to the principals of Sheffield College and Longley Park sixth-form college in my constituency and they are extremely concerned about the proposals.

Four of the five most popular courses at Longley Park sixth-form college are applied generals. Such qualifications can help young people to gain entry to university or, indeed, enable them to access employment or further training. Longley Park is a sixth-form college at the heart of a council-housing estate in a deprived area that ensures that 1,200 young people a year enter adulthood with a level 3 qualification.

It seems that the Bill attempts to solve a problem that many local colleges have already addressed. For example, Sheffield College has 2,500 employer partners. Having successfully built these relationships over many years, the college offers a varied choice of qualifications and employment opportunities to students and prospective students of all ages across the city. That is why it is of great concern that under the Bill the Secretary of State will choose the employer representative bodies. There is very little detail on how the Secretary of State will make such decisions. If the Government are serious about levelling up, the Bill must ensure that local leaders get a say in how local ERBs are formed and who serves on them.

Over the past 15 or so years, the number of adults in further education has fallen by half. Over that same period, funding has been cut by two thirds. Boosting the number of adult learners is key to driving down poverty and fulfilling the levelling-up agenda. The lifetime learning guarantee is welcome, but I agree with the Association of Colleges, which wants to see the scheme broadened to include a wider range of courses and the ability to undertake a second level 3 qualification, so that people can retrain and reskill. There are also concerns that the guarantee has no statutory footing. I urge the Government to demonstrate their commitment to the guarantee and to give it a wider scope on a statutory footing in the Bill.

Ultimately, the post-16 education sector is ready to deliver a boost in skills and to play its part in levelling up. However, the sector cannot do that without the significant investment it has been calling for over the past decade. I hope that the Bill progresses through this House in a collaborative way and that the Government will listen sincerely to Opposition Members who want to help to improve it and to make sure that our education system works for the needs of learners, the economy and local communities.

--- Later in debate ---
Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con)
- Hansard - -

We talk about levelling up, and there is surely no better way to level up throughout the country than through investment in our human infrastructure—in the people across communities in the north, south, east and west—and that is what this Bill is all about doing and delivering on. At the heart of that has to be an understanding that employers play a critical role. This is not an issue that we have been debating for just the past five or 10 years; indeed, the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal party have discussed it for the past 100 years. We have recognised that there are skill gaps in our country that we have needed to address and that other countries have had a competitive advantage in the way they have dealt with skills and made sure that their workforce have been better able to respond than ours have.

One key thing is the need to ensure that all the qualifications that are undertaken, whether at colleges or universities, are based on employer-led standards. There should be no shame in saying that what not only our young people but people of all ages learn will equip them with the skills needed for them to walk into work. That is our duty, it is what we want to give to everyone in our country and it is why the Bill is so incredibly important.

If we look at Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and so many other countries around the globe, we see that one area in which they are so much stronger than we are in this country is qualifications above A-level and below degree level—the higher technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5. If we do not plug that gap, we will continually be out-competed by other nations. Some 10% of our workforce between the ages of 18 and 65 have a level 4 or 5 qualification, compared with 20% in Germany and 34% in Canada. We need to address that, which is why the lifelong loan entitlement is so critical. But as well as bringing that forward, we need to get it right.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend the right hon. Gentleman’s point about employer-led qualifications and an employer-led direction. I am sure he will take this opportunity to commend the Northern Regional College, which has just today started a pioneering new project that will bring employers on board with students and lead directly to proper employment with the manufacturing taskforce in Northern Ireland.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

I very much join the hon. Gentleman in commending the Northern Regional College for its work. We see such work right throughout the United Kingdom, but the Bill will give us the opportunity to really power that work forward in colleges and, hopefully, universities right across England. That is going to be key. We have to look at how we start to close the competitive gap with other countries. We need to make sure not only that all our qualifications have employer-led standards but that we drive people up the skills ladder as we go. We have the opportunity to do that.

I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister sums up, he will touch a little on the LLE, which is really important, and that he can reassure me from the Dispatch Box this evening on this point about those who make use of it. One key element of the LLE is the ability to take qualifications, whether a full degree or a level 5 or 4 qualification, in a much more modular way. In the interests of students, it would be useful if the Minister could spell out from the Dispatch Box that students who take a full level 6 qualification, which is done in a modular way, would not be paying any more than £9,250, which is what someone who is taking a classic and standard degree qualification pays. That would greatly reassure many people, and I hope that the Minister is able to do that from the Dispatch Box this evening.

This is not about pitching colleges and universities against one another. An interesting point was made on this by a number of Lords in the other place: for us to be able to deliver on the Government’s aspirations for more level 4 and level 5 qualifications, universities need to play their part. Indeed, they have an incredibly important role to play in that delivery. Putting this skills Bill into statute, making sure that we actually put employers at the heart of decision-making and that they have a clear say would be truly transformative.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would like to put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend for his time as Secretary of State and for listening to me pecking his head for years about further education. Was he truly inspired by the colleges and students that he met around the country, since his work was a lot of what got us to where we are today?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend and I went to the same college, and we were both very much inspired by that.

Across the country, so many colleges are doing an amazing job, but what we have been seeing over the past year and more is investment flowing in that direction. None the less, let us not underestimate how important it is that employers are involved in this. They need to have a say and an influence, and they need to be able to design the qualifications. If we look at T-levels, we can see that they have been designed hand in glove with employers to make sure that when those youngsters leave college or school, they can step into the world of work and succeed. That is the hallmark of a great qualification, and that is what we should be proud of.

Adoption Provision

Gavin Williamson Excerpts
Tuesday 7th September 2021

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Written Statements
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Hansard - -

Every child should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Children thrive in loving, stable families. However, some face challenges which most of us can only imagine. They will often have experienced abuse and neglect. Where a child cannot live with their birth parents, the best alternative home will often be with other family members or within loving foster families. For some children, adoption is the best alternative.



We cannot overestimate how important a new family is to an adopted child. Their security comes from knowing that they are safe and cared for, that they will get the love and support they need and will be supported to make the most of life’s opportunities. That is why we published our new adoption strategy “Achieving Excellence Everywhere”. A copy of the strategy can be found at: www.gov.uk.



In 2015 the adoption system was highly fragmented, with around 180 agencies recruiting and matching adopters; most of these were operating at a very small scale. This caused delays in the recruitment of adopters and in the matching of children with approved adopters. Since then, we have moved successfully to a regionalised approach with 31 regional adoption agencies covering 145 local authorities across the country. Regional adoption agencies are delivering adoption services more effectively at a greater scale with the regional leaders collaborating to improve services and address challenges.



In 2015 we introduced the Adoption Support Fund to help children who have experienced abuse and neglect to get the therapeutic support they need. Since then, over 36,000 individual children have been supported and had their lives transformed.



We have reduced the number of children waiting from 5,000 in 2010 to 2,600 now, and children are moving in with adoptive families faster, with more families now getting the adoption support they need. This is good progress, but we need to do more. Two thousand six hundred children waiting is still too many. One thousand children are still waiting over 18 months to be matched; this is too long. This typically includes older children, children from ethnic minorities, sibling groups and children with additional needs. This is unacceptable.



Our strategy sets out a bold and ambitious vision which will see regional adoption agencies building on their collaborative approach to deliver a framework of national standards and working with other agencies across health, education, and justice so that high-quality provision is available everywhere across the country. This will help to ensure that adopted children and their families can access the services and support they need to flourish wherever they live.



A new framework of national standards will mean services delivered to the same high quality across the country. It means that best practice will drive services as part of a culture of continuous improvement.



The strategy will see us recruiting adopters from all communities and from all walks of life so that we recruit all those who are able to provide loving homes to the children who are waiting to be adopted—a service where children are matched seamlessly across organisational boundaries with families that can provide a loving home without unnecessary delay.

Our strategy sets out how we will radically improve adoption support from the moment a match with a family has been approved. This includes not only direct support in the home, but also by schools and local health services, and support which continues throughout their childhood whenever it is required.



Sector leaders will build on their collaborative approach to ensure that all services are delivered to the same high standards across the country, developing the new national standards. Where it is most effective, we will look to deliver services on a national scale, for example on adopter recruitment or some elements of support.



To ensure that the needs of adoptive families become a high priority for all, sector leaders will develop strong partnerships with local authority children’s services, voluntary adoption agencies, education, health, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, the judiciary and voluntary and community groups.

We are making significant investment in 2021-22 as part of the strategy:

£1 million for regional adoption agency leaders to collectively improve recruitment and the adopter approval process;

£500,000 to increase early permanence arrangements, whereby a child is placed with prospective adopters when first removed from their birth family;

£46 million to continue post adoption support for families through the Adoption Support Fund;

£500,000 to employ a national regional adoption agency strategic leader and a support team of two project workers to progress collaborative working on agreed priority areas;

£100,000 funding to commission research on outcomes of children who left care on an adoption or special guardianship order.

Our ambition is to deliver adoption swiftly and effectively when adoption is the right path for the child. They and their families deserve the very best services we can offer to help them thrive and to achieve the best possible outcomes. Our strategy will help them to do so.



A copy of the strategy will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

[HCWS274]

Oral Answers to Questions

Gavin Williamson Excerpts
Monday 6th September 2021

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

2. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential effect of (a) covid-19 quarantine requirements for international students and (b) outbreaks of covid-19 in universities on the safe return to physical teaching in the 2021-22 academic year.

Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Hansard - -

We have worked closely with the sector to ensure that international students will be supported and welcomed. Universities UK International has published bespoke self-isolation guidance for universities. The Government’s approach to the lifting of restrictions has been guided by data analysis and advice from public health and the scientific community.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The University of Stirling has offered international students who arrive from red-list countries free on-campus isolation accommodation that includes meals, polymerase chain reaction tests and airport transfers, saving the students more than £2,000. Given the huge economic benefits that international students bring to this country, will the Government consider financially supporting universities to replicate the good practice at Stirling?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

We work with the university sector throughout the United Kingdom to attract the highest-quality talent from around the globe to study at our universities. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out the important economic benefits that international students bring to the whole United Kingdom. We will continue to work closely with the sector to attract students, and with the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that their access to the UK is easy and properly supported.

Jake Berry Portrait Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I draw the House’s attention to my role as a governor of the Valley Leadership Academy. That school, among others in Rossendale and Darwen, sends lots of pupils to university to take vocational courses and to study for vocational qualifications. With that in mind, I thank the Secretary of State for the funding to rebuild two schools in Rossendale—Whitworth Community High School and All Saints’ Roman Catholic High School; will he also fund a new building at the Valley Leadership Academy for all the pupils who want to go on to vocational courses?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I thought that if I gave my right hon. Friend two schools, it might shut him up, but he continues to ask for a third. I would love to make such a large promise for him at the Dispatch Box. I would be more than happy to sit down with him to discuss it and see what can be done. He is absolutely right about the value of technical education and how it delivers so much not only for youngsters themselves but for the economy.

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Here we are in September and there is a certain sense of groundhog day, with campus chaos caused by the actions, or inaction, of the Government set to return. In November last year, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies published a report that showed that covid outbreaks on campus could be reduced through the provision of air-ventilation filters. The Welsh Labour Government have committed funding for such machines but the UK Government have not. According to a poll by Manor Interiors, the greatest concern among students returning to their accommodation is air ventilation, so why have the UK Government not provided funding to make campuses safe?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman seems to have missed quite a significant difference between this year and last year: we have rolled out one of the most successful vaccine programmes anywhere in Europe. We were one of the first countries to offer people not just one vaccine but two and to make sure that the adult population had that available. That is the big difference between this year and last year.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hope that all our standards of dress meet your expectations, Mr Speaker.

It is good to be back, but in the previous academic year many of us were shocked to see the scenes of international students having to queue at a food bank in London because economic opportunities for them had dried up due to lockdown. What provision has the Secretary of State put in place to support international students should there be similar lockdowns during this academic year?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

May I say that you are brilliantly attired today, Mr Speaker, as you always are?

The hon. Lady asks an important question about international students. Such students have always had access to hardship funding, which is available to them as it is to domestic students.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3. What steps his Department is taking to protect freedom of speech on university campuses.

--- Later in debate ---
Suzanne Webb Portrait Suzanne Webb (Stourbridge) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

17. What steps his Department is taking to support young people into high- quality jobs.

Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Hansard - -

We are supporting young people to ensure that they have the skills and the high-quality, secure and fulfilling employment through the plan for jobs package with £500 million of Department for Education funding. This includes the largest ever expansion of traineeships and an increased incentive payment of £3,000 for employers hiring apprentices.

Simon Jupp Portrait Simon Jupp
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Future skills and technical education are at the forefront of skills investment in East Devon following the Prime Minister’s visit to launch the lifetime skills guarantee. Exeter College has opened a groundbreaking future skills centre and has also launched a new Institute of Technology Digital and Data Centre. Does the Secretary of State agree that Devon must continue to diversify in education to improve skills and career opportunities to help provide a future for more young people in Devon?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

Having had the privilege of visiting Exeter College, I can say that, with its Institute of Technology, it is a brilliant example of how a college can expand its range of careers and opportunities for so many young people and ensure that they do not think that there is only one route, which is to go to university. My hon. Friend is right to highlight how important it is to have a broad range of opportunities, especially in the new and emerging technologies, which will be so vital in driving the economy forward in East Devon and the south-west.

Gary Sambrook Portrait Gary Sambrook
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I recently spoke to staff and students on a visit to Construction College Midlands based at King’s Norton Business Park, which offers courses on scaffolding, roofing and road maintenance. Does the Minister agree that those skills are vital to our economy and that what he and his Department are doing will help people to gain these new skills and to change jobs mid-career if they want to do so?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend raises a key point about making sure that people can skill up throughout their career and have the opportunity to take different routes. So much of British industry has been crying out for certain types of skills, which they have sometimes had to look abroad for. What is so key is ensuring that we have those skills available not just for young people, but for all people so that we can meet those skills needs in this country.

Suzanne Webb Portrait Suzanne Webb
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am a great believer in the idea that a university education is not always the route to a high-quality job and that T-levels are a fantastic opportunity to provide not only the technical qualifications, but the industry placements, which are so important. Will my right hon. Friend support me in my drive and mission to encourage businesses in my constituency to come on board and provide those industry placements? It is a win-win situation not just for young adults, but for businesses because they can circumnavigate the recruitment process as they will have those candidates on board and can experience what they can deliver.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend has identified the real opportunities that exist for businesses in working with young people and colleges and bringing them into their company. T-levels have been designed hand in glove with employers, making sure that they are not only fit for employers, but work for students as well. I join her in encouraging employers to take on placements for T-levels. We are seeing a big expansion this year and expect an even bigger expansion next year.

Chris Law Portrait Chris Law (Dundee West) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Scotland has the highest proportion of school leavers going into positive destinations anywhere in the UK. Free tuition in schools, colleges and universities saves Scottish students up to £27,000. Given that fees will be imposed on English students seeking vocational courses, can the Minister detail what assessment has been carried out on the impact of fees for vocational courses in England?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

We are working across the sector to ensure that there is an ever-expanded offer of higher technical qualifications. The lifetime skills guarantee has been introduced and has already had excellent take-up, which means that if people have missed a level 3 qualification, they have the opportunity later in life to take one completely free of charge in order to boost their future employment and earnings potential.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he is doing on skills and for the Government’s excellent holiday activities programme over the summer. The attainment gap between boys and girls is widening, with 62.3% of boys receiving A to C grades at GCSE, but 74% of girls receiving the same results. What is he going to do to ensure that boys are not left behind, including in the jobs market?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend and I are very much united in the same mission: to ensure that youngsters from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds are given every possible advantage to be able to do the very best in their life. There is a concern about the widening gap between boys and girls, which is why all the interventions regarding standards and small group tutoring are about driving up attainment and achievement. Some of the initiatives that we have introduced—such as the summer schools in which half a million students have taken part over the last few weeks and the tutoring programme—have started to have an impact, but I recognise that there is so much more to do. That is why we are absolutely committed to deliver on this.

Sam Tarry Portrait Sam Tarry (Ilford South) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5. What steps he is taking to help ensure that the structure of GCSE and A-level examinations in summer 2022 is equitable for all students, including those with limited access to online learning.

--- Later in debate ---
Kieran Mullan Portrait Dr Kieran Mullan (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

10. What steps his Department is taking to promote lifelong learning and skills development.

Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Hansard - -

As set out in the skills for jobs White Paper, we are implementing an ambitious reform programme. We are already offering free level 3 qualifications, skills boot camps and, from 2025, a lifelong loan entitlement that will ensure everyone can upskill to get great jobs in sectors that the economy needs.

Kieran Mullan Portrait Dr Mullan
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

South Cheshire College in my constituency has put forward ambitious employer-led plans to become an institute of technology, which will help address the employer skills gaps we have locally. That will deliver levelling up for not just Crewe and Nantwich, but the whole region. Can I encourage the Secretary of State to give his full support to its ambitious plans to become an institute of technology?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

South Cheshire College, along with many colleges up and down the country, has demonstrated the real value and worth that further education can deliver, working in conjunction with the higher education sector. I am afraid I cannot be drawn into an early awarding announcement, but we recognise the real importance of such colleges and the obvious success that the early, first-wave institutes of technology are already having in the communities they serve.

Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

11. What steps his Department is taking to support the development of T-levels.

--- Later in debate ---
Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I would like to update the House on what my Department is doing to support the successful return to education. We remain committed to reducing disruption to children and young people’s education, allowing schools and colleges to deliver face-to-face learning. Schools are maintaining proportionate protective measures such as testing, ventilation and extra hygiene to keep pupils and staff safe. On-site testing will be offered as students return, followed by regular at-home testing. Students aged 16 and 17, as well as younger children aged 12 to 15 in eligible groups, are encouraged to take up the offer of the vaccine.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Russell Scott Primary School in Denton had an extensive £2.7 million refurbishment a few years back. Unfortunately, the work was done by Carillion just before it went bump. Some £670,000 has been spent patching the structural problems caused by its works, but another £5 million is needed, and even then, Tameside Council is not convinced that the building will be fixed. This is serious, so may I ask the Secretary of State for an urgent meeting to look at how we can help Russell Scott give the children there the very best education in the very best buildings?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of Russell Scott Primary School. I know that my noble Friend Baroness Berridge would be very happy to meet him and other representatives to discuss in detail some of the challenges that the school is facing.

Jason McCartney Portrait Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

T3. Sixth-form education will play a pivotal role in building back better after covid. Will the Secretary of State join me, please, in supporting an increase in base rate funding for sixth-form students to at least £4,760 in the forthcoming spending review? Will he also please agree to meet members of the all-party parliamentary group on sixth-form education, which I co-chair?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I would be absolutely delighted to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on sixth-form education. He will no doubt be aware that we have already been putting extra resources into 16-to-19 education. An additional £400 million was awarded in 2019. We recognise that it is important to invest in the quality of estate, which is why we are putting £1.5 billion into upgrading that estate.

Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Earlier this year, in June, I stood at this Dispatch Box and confronted the Minister about the number of nurseries and childcare providers that were closing because of the Government’s inability to fund the early years sector properly. The Minister accused me of scaremongering. Since June, there has been a further loss of 500 childcare providers in the sector, which brings the net loss for this year alone to nearly 3,000. Will the Minister make up for dismissing the concerns of parents, children and carers by providing targeted funding for the early years sector from this Government?

--- Later in debate ---
Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Council for At-Risk Academics has called on the UK Government to set up a fellowship scheme for scholars at risk in Afghanistan similar to the PAUSE scheme in France. Will the Secretary of State consider implementing such a scheme?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I think we all recognise the amazing work that academics and teachers did in Afghanistan, doing so much to support education there. We would certainly look very closely at all options to support people who are most vulnerable as a result of the Taliban regime.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

T7. We now know from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that the chance of 12 to 15-year-olds ending up in intensive care with covid is two in a million. Given that statistic, is it still proportionate that millions of children are losing school days this week to be tested for covid?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that we will be reviewing the need for children to be doing home testing at the end of September. If there is not a requirement to do that, we will be looking at removing it. It is important that we continue to keep these matters under review. That is why we will be doing so at the end of this month.

Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

T2. Disabled children and those with high needs have suffered disproportionately as a result of missed education and a lack of assessment. There is a huge shortage of educational psychologists, which is delaying the drawing up of education, health and care plans. Can the Minister tell me what steps she is taking to help those children to get the services they need and to catch up?

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

T9. As my right hon. Friend knows, maths makes an invaluable contribution to our economy and our way of being, whether that is in computing, encryption, artificial intelligence or even the development of the covid vaccine. The London Mathematical Society has been raising awareness of maths through its “Protect Pure Maths” campaign. Will he tell the House what he is doing to encourage more people to study maths at university and to support the Government’s science, technology, engineering and maths agenda?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

We have seen a real revolution in maths over the last 10 years, with maths being the most popular subject to take at A-level. This has been supported not just by changes in the curriculum, in terms of how people are learning maths, but by the introduction of new specialist maths schools that are making sure that young people have the opportunity to excel in mathematics, which is so vital.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

T4. At the University of St Andrews in my constituency, a number of students are unable to start their studies due to difficulties getting visas and visa decisions. Is the Minister for Universities aware of these delays with international students and what conversations are being had with the Home Office accordingly?

--- Later in debate ---
Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman  (Harrow East) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

T10.   Thank you, Mr Speaker—I was going to wear my headset especially for you, but I could not find anywhere to plug it in. My right hon. Friend recently had a meeting to discuss defibrillators in schools, but will he give us an update on where that will happen and how we can make sure that schools are safe for everyone?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

It was incredibly moving to speak to Mark King and listen to his tragic experience of losing his son, Oliver—he was joined by Jamie Carragher as well. It really does focus us on the need to do as much as possible to encourage schools to have defibrillators. That is why we will look at changing the regulations, which are underpinned by secondary legislation, to ensure that all schools have defibrillators in the future and hopefully prevent such a tragedy visiting more families.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

T5. Safeguarding young people in statutory settings such as schools must always be a priority, yet the same children in community settings are being exposed to huge risks, including consuming large volumes of alcohol, and being exposed to drug dealing and sexual exploitation. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the lack of youth provision for our young people and the importance of putting these services in place, like on the Little Knavesmire in York?

--- Later in debate ---
Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Secretary of State kindly speak to the Secretary of State for the Home Department about getting visas for the 12 at-risk Afghan scholars—some still in hiding, some in Pakistan—who have been awarded sponsored places by high-quality British universities and who need the visas to take them up?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I will most certainly undertake to do that. We have seen the education community in the United Kingdom coming together to support those who want to resettle from Afghanistan to this country; we also want to look at the opportunities for those brilliant, amazing people from Afghanistan and the part that they can play in our education system in the UK.

Teachers

Gavin Williamson Excerpts
Wednesday 21st July 2021

(1 year ago)

Written Statements
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Hansard - -

The 31st report of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) is being published today. Its recommendations cover the remit issued in December 2020, regarding the pay award for teachers that is due to be implemented from September 2021. The report will be presented to Parliament and published on gov.uk.

The Government recognise that public sector workers play a vital role in the running of our public services, including in their remarkable commitment to keeping the public safe in the continuing fight against covid-19.1 am extremely grateful to all teachers and leaders for the dedication they have shown in enabling schools to remain open and supporting pupils with remote education throughout the pandemic, to ensure pupils get the best possible education.

The Government values the independent expertise and insight of the STRB and takes on board the useful advice and principles set out in response to the Government recommendations outlined in the report.

As set out at the spending review (2020), there will be a pause to headline pay rises for the majority of public sector workforces in 2021-22. This is in order to ensure fairness between public and private sector wage growth, as the private sector was significantly impacted by the covid-19 pandemic in the form of reduced hours, supressed earnings growth and increased redundancies, whilst the public sector was largely shielded from these effects. This approach will protect public sector jobs and investment in public services, prioritising the lowest paid, with those earning less than £24,000 (full time equivalent) receiving a minimum £250 increase. The pause ensures we can get the public finances back onto a sustainable path after unprecedented Government spending on the response to covid-19.

My remit letter to the STRB welcomed views on uplifts for those unqualified teachers, earning below £24,000 (full time equivalent).

The STRB has recommended a pay award of £250 for all teachers earning less than £24,000, or the recommended equivalent value for teachers in the London pay areas. Their report outlines recommendations for how to implement this, including adjustments for London.

The STRB has also recommended that advisory pay points are reintroduced on the unqualified teacher pay range, as was the case for classroom teachers on the main pay range and upper pay range last year.

I am today confirming my proposed response is to accept these recommendations in full.

A full list of the recommendations and my proposed approach for implementation can be found online at: Written statements - Written questions, answers and statements - UK Parliament

I would like to reiterate that the £250 award should be paid to all eligible teachers, whether located on a published pay point or not, and that the pause on pay will apply to headline pay uplifts only. Teachers earning below the maximum of their pay range may be eligible for performance- related pay progression and teachers can also continue to apply for promotion. Academies, as usual, have the freedom to set their own pay policies.

Finally, this pay award will be affordable within school budgets due to this Government's three-year investment package announced at the 2019 spending round. We are increasing core schools funding by £2.2 billion in the 2021-22 financial year, compared to 2020-21—the second year of the three year school funding settlement from the 2019 spending round—and will increase it by a further £2.4 billion, to £52.2 billion in 2022-23 overall. As previously set out, the funding schools have previously received through the teachers’ pay and pension grants will be part of schools’ core funding allocations as determined by the schools national funding formula from 2021-22, and there will be no increase to these grants in respect of this year’s pay award.

My officials will write to all of the statutory consultees of the STRB to invite them to contribute to a consultation on the Government’s response to these recommendations and on a revised school teachers’ pay and conditions document and pay order. The consultation will last for eight weeks.

[HCWS232]

School Rebuilding Programme

Gavin Williamson Excerpts
Monday 19th July 2021

(1 year ago)

Written Statements
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Hansard - -

I am confirming details of the next 50 schools to benefit from the 10-year school rebuilding programme announced by the Prime Minister in June 2020. I am also confirming the launch of a public consultation on the approach to prioritising schools for future places on the programme.

The school rebuilding programme forms part of the Government’s plans to build back better, supporting teachers in England to deliver a high-quality education, so that pupils gain the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need to succeed.

It is also an important commitment to investing in construction sector jobs and skills, including apprenticeships and T-Level placements, helping drive growth as we recover from the covid-19 pandemic. The programme will have a continued focus on modern methods of construction and provide opportunities across the industry, including for small and medium-sized enterprises.

As with the first schools announced in February, this second group of schools have been prioritised based on the condition of their buildings. The projects include primary and secondary schools, as well as special and alternative provision schools. This also represents a substantial investment in schools in the midlands and north of England, with 32 out of 50 projects located in these regions.

The new school buildings will be energy efficient designs with high sustainability standards that will be net zero carbon in operation and mitigate the risks of climate change.

The 10-year programme will continue to target school buildings in the worst condition across England, and today we have published a consultation on the approach to prioritising schools for the long-term programme. Responses from this consultation will help to shape the way we identify the buildings most in need of replacement or significant refurbishment. The consultation will be open until 8 October 2021.

Alongside the rebuilding programme, the Government have committed £1.8 billion in financial year 2021-22 for maintaining and improving the condition of the school estate.

Further details, including lists of the school rebuilding projects have been published on www.gov.uk. Copies will be placed in the House Library.

[HCWS199]

Skills for Jobs

Gavin Williamson Excerpts
Thursday 15th July 2021

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Written Statements
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Hansard - -

Today, as the Government continue to build back better from the pandemic and begin the critical work of levelling up our country, the Department for Education is announcing the next steps towards delivering the ambitious reforms set out in the skills for jobs White Paper.

This includes announcing the skills accelerator trailblazer areas, a further expansion of skills bootcamps, publishing the national skills fund consultation, and launching a consultation seeking views on simplifying funding for adult skills and strengthening the accountability of colleges.

These reforms will help to put employers at the heart of the system, making sure people have the skills they need to get good jobs in the areas our economy needs. They will also ensure people have the opportunity to train, retrain and upskill at any stage, while empowering and enabling providers to deliver these reforms.

Skills accelerator

The skills accelerator programme will give employers a central role working with colleges, other providers, and local stakeholders to shape technical skills provision so that it meets labour market needs. It establishes partnerships led by employer representative bodies, developing local skills improvement plans that will drive investment in the skills sector.

We are now taking the next step towards delivering the skills accelerator, by announcing 18 development fund pilot areas, of which eight will also be local skills improvement plan trailblazer areas. Details can be accessed here at Skills Accelerator, trailblazers and pilots - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)'>www.gov.uk)'>www.gov.uk)'>www.gov.uk).

The new employer-led plans will ensure that technical education and training is well-aligned to what employers need. Ultimately, this will support learners to develop the skills that will enable them to get a well-paid and secure job, no matter where they live, and in the sectors that are critical to our future economic success.

Members of the pilot development fund collaborations will deliver their proposals, which will enable and enhance strategic partnerships between employers and post-16 providers, and test how these alliances will help shape future technical skills provision.

Skills bootcamps expansion

Since the Prime Minister set out his vision for the lifetime skills guarantee last year, the free courses for jobs and skills bootcamps have been helping adults to gain valuable skills that employers need. Both these adult skills offers are funded through the national skills fund, a long term, substantial investment of £2.5 billion to drive adult retraining at the advanced and higher technical skills levels the nation needs.

The national skills fund has successfully delivered the first wave of skills bootcamps and we are pleased to announce the next wave of this exciting, transformational programme, this expansion will roll out more in-demand skills to approximately 16,000 adults by the end of March 2022.

These innovative, flexible courses of up to 16 weeks will continue to give adults aged 19 and over the opportunity to build up sector-specific skills and fast-track to an interview with a local employer. These skills bootcamps cover a wide range of digital, technical and construction skills, including software development, data analytics, construction site management and retrofitting.

We are expanding the skills bootcamps so they are available to adults across the country and registration for the first of these is open now, with more becoming available over the coming weeks. Details are available here at Free courses for jobs - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)'>www.gov.uk)'>www.gov.uk)'>www.gov.uk).

National skills fund consultation

Through the national skills fund, we are already delivering the free courses for jobs offer which provides adults across England with the opportunity to achieve their first full level 3 qualification by giving access to around 400 fully funded courses. While free courses for jobs and skills bootcamps are already enabling thousands of adults to gain valuable skills, we know there is much more to do and the potential for what we could do through the fund is great.

That is why today we are launching a national consultation to help us ensure that we use national skills fund investment effectively to meet the skills needs of adults and employers to the end of this Parliament.

We are keen to hear from a wide range of stakeholders in response to the consultation, as it presents stakeholders with an excellent opportunity to feed back on the free courses for jobs and skills bootcamps which are already being funded through national skills fund investment. The consultation also requests views on meeting critical skills needs to help us ensure we deliver valued skills that will help us build back better.

The consultation closes on the 17 September and can be accessed via National Skills Fund - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)'>www.gov.uk)'>www.gov.uk)'>www.gov.uk).

Funding and accountability consultation



Today we are also launching a consultation seeking views on simplifying funding for adult skills and strengthening the accountability of colleges. This consultation delivers a key commitment of the skills for jobs White Paper. The proposed changes aim to:

make sure colleges and other providers are better supported to focus on helping their students into good jobs employers are recruiting for, now and in the future;

reduce the complexity of adult funding through the skills fund;

define clearer roles and responsibilities for Ofsted and the Further Education Commissioner. The consultation closes on 7 October and can be accessed via Reforms to further education (FE) funding and accountability - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Conclusion

Today's announcements are key milestones in the delivery of our ambitious skills for jobs reform programme which will transform the whole skills system so that we can train the dynamic and flexible workforce needed to rebuild our economy, build back greener, and compete globally.

[HCWS186]

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Gavin Williamson Excerpts
2nd reading
Monday 12th July 2021

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate 2nd reading Page View all Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I wonder how many of us here ever pause to reflect on how very fortunate we are to be able to do what we are doing right now—discussing freely a subject that many of us will feel passionate about. I suspect that most of us accept without pause that this is what democracy is all about. In short, we take freedom of speech and open debate for granted. Nothing that is precious in life should ever be taken for granted.

The privileges that we are enjoying today and that underpin any successful democratic society are essential and fundamental to a free and liberal society. Genuine academic freedom has long been a cornerstone of our world-leading universities. Their mission to stretch the boundaries of human learning, knowledge and wisdom was only possible because they were free to challenge the views of the time. Without their courage and without the bravery of those who defended their right to speak out, the world would be a much darker place today. Those challenges—those dissenting voices—have not always met with approval or agreement at the time. Some paid dearly for their intellectual independence. Take those trailblazers who argued for gay rights or women’s suffrage, or Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was considered blasphemous and deeply offensive by many but which we now accept as simple truth.

One reason why students from all over the world flock to our universities is they know—or expect—that they will not only get a first-class education but hear a broad range of views and opinions. Academics, whom our outstanding universities similarly attract from a global talent pool, expect to be able freely and fiercely to seek out the truth. What they do not expect and should not tolerate is being prevented from hearing those views or even being silenced themselves. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in any civilised country but especially for students and faculty in higher education, which has always been a crucible for new ideas and ways of looking at the world. Staff and students should be free to discuss, debate and debunk other views.

Fear of censure is deeply saddening and has a chilling effect and spread on campuses. There continue to be too many reported instances where students or staff have been silenced or threatened with a loss of privileges or even dismissal for airing views or opinions that others disagree with. I have previously spoken about how that growing intolerance cannot be allowed to take root and I made it clear that if universities would not protect free speech, the Government would.

I turn to the reasoned amendment, which Mr Speaker has selected. The Government have been clear that the Bill protects lawful speech only. Unlawful speech on campuses will not be tolerated. To be clear, nothing in the Bill encourages higher education providers or students unions to encourage baseless or harmful claims or bad science on campus. We should be proud of our life-saving covid-19 vaccine roll-out, and we are pleased to see that more than half of 18 to 24-year-olds have already received their first dose.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Jones
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is the right hon. Gentleman. I agree totally about freedom of speech, which is one of the best things about this country and one that I am proud of, but what data is the Secretary of State using? If he looks at the Office for Students’ data for 2017-18, he will see that the instances he referred to amount to 0.009%. In an entire year, there were 17 cases among more than 500 academic institutions. What data is he basing his claims on?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I apologise for causing such offence to the right hon. Gentleman by referring to him as “the hon. Gentleman”. It was not right to ignore the fitting status that he holds in this House. I am sure he will not take too much offence by that. In terms of what we are tackling, we are talking about principles and the need for people to feel able to speak freely and challenge ideas. One of the great challenges we face on campuses up and down the country is that so many people are concerned they cannot speak out and give their views because they may be censured by those academic institutions.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In response to the point made by the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), had Darwin been suppressed, that would have affected 0.0001% of debates, but it would have changed the course of history.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. So much of the legislation that goes through this place is the nuts and bolts for things that the Government must do to ensure good government and the delivery of all the things that we wish to see. However, we must not be blind to the fact that this place is also about principle, and the principle of free speech needs to be defended. There are unfortunately too many instances where people feel as if they cannot speak as freely as they wish.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Secretary of State believe in evidence-based policy making? If so, can he cite the evidence for the problem that he is seeking to address? It appears that he is manufacturing a problem in order to have today’s debate.

--- Later in debate ---
Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

We are talking about principles. We are talking about the fact that what we want to do is give people the opportunity to have that freedom. Do you know what was so saddening, Madam Deputy Speaker? When we first announced the intention that we would take this action if it was necessary—

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

If it was necessary. Why is it necessary?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

What we hoped we would see is universities across the country taking further action, but what was so saddening was that so many people contacted me directly to express their concerns about being able to speak freely on campus at the universities where they worked. They were not able to put down their name and address, because they were concerned about the repercussions.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) rightly said that it would be a tragedy if Darwin had not felt that he had the freedom and ability to challenge established thinking. We have to remember that there are Darwins out there who will be challenging the consensus, and we always need to ensure that all our great institutions deliver the freedoms that we expect them to deliver. We are a free and democratic society, and we should never be in a position where we are not doing everything we can to deliver freedom of speech. Does it not seem odd—in Parliament, of all places, where freedom of speech is there to be protected, relished and enjoyed—that the Labour party is not necessarily challenging and trying to amend the Bill, but wants to actively vote it down? It seems perverse that the Labour party is not supporting the principles of freedom of speech and is not doing everything we can to ensure that students and academics have as much freedom as possible to explore ideas.

As we look at how we protect free speech, we should all be appalled that a report by King’s College London only two years ago found that a quarter of students believed that violence was an acceptable response to inflammatory speech. The same report showed that a similar proportion of students were beginning to keep their beliefs and opinions to themselves because they were too scared to disagree with their peers.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

If I could just make a little progress, I will give way to the hon. Lady.

I am sure the whole House would agree that this intolerance is simply intolerable. Recent research by Policy Exchange revealed that 32% of those who identified as fairly right or right have refrained from airing views in teaching and research, with 15% of those identifying as centre or left also self-censoring. This is both unwise and unhealthy. Our universities must not become spaces where ideas are debated within a narrow consensus, with those who challenge majority views subject to censorship. Last year, I warned vice-chancellors that this situation could not and would not be allowed to continue. Although some have taken action, we cannot sit by while others do not. Our students and faculty quite simply deserve better.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the Secretary of State talks about people being scared on campus and what he has asked vice-chancellors to do, I wonder whether he has the data in front of him for sexual harassment and sexual violence cases, which are rife on our university campuses. On the deep principles that he holds, what exactly is he doing about that, and when can I expect a Bill on that? That is surely a principled priority that the Government would want to take.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

It absolutely is. I am sure the hon. Lady was about to come on to the amazing work that the Office for Students has commissioned to ensure that all universities take the action required, including looking at whether that is a condition of registration for universities, which, as she will understand, is absolutely fundamental for universities to be able to operate.

The Bill will protect lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus. We are strengthening the legal duties that exist and ensuring that robust action, including imposing fines, will be taken if they are breached. The central core of the Bill is clause 1, which amends the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to extend the duties of higher education providers relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom. That will ensure that those freedoms are protected and promoted within higher education in England.

As we actively protect students from racism, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, higher education providers will have to take responsibility and reasonably practicable steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for their staff, members, students and visiting speakers. That includes a duty to secure the academic freedom of academic staff. It will mean a change in ethos as well as culture. Providers will be under a duty to promote those fundamental values, as well as to maintain a code of practice setting out how students and staff should act so as to ensure compliance with that duty.

Freedom of speech does not begin and end with providers. As a matter of principle, every student at every university in every corner of the country should have the same freedom and the same rights. Students unions must not be allowed to silence or intimidate other students within a university. That is why clause 2 requires students unions and providers to take “reasonably practicable” steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for their members, students, staff and visiting speakers.

As now, the right to lawful free speech will remain balanced by the important safeguards against harassment, abuse and threats of violence as set out in the Equality Act 2010, the Prevent duty and other legislation, none of which we are changing. This is not an ideological effort; it is about fundamental fairness and common sense. These legal duties are key to ensuring that the higher education sector in England continues to be an environment in which students, staff and visiting speakers are not just able but welcome to freely express their views, as long as those views are lawful. The reason we need this effort is because the existing legislation provides no clear means of enforcement, nor does it give a specific right to individuals to seek compensation for breach of freedom of speech duties, leading to concerns that it does not offer serious, sufficient or significant protection.

This is why clause 3 introduces a new statutory tort that will protect visiting fellows, students and other individuals who may not be able to seek redress through employment tribunal. Though this legal route is an important backstop, we do not want all cases going to court where they could otherwise be resolved by other means. We are therefore providing that the Office for Students, the regulator for higher education in England, will play a more active role in strengthening freedom of speech and academic freedom standards in higher education.

Clause 4 imposes new freedom of speech duties on the OFS, including requiring it to promote the importance of freedom of speech within the law and the academic freedom of academic staff at higher education providers. The OFS will also play an important role in identifying best practice and providing advice in relation to the promotion of these rights.

The OFS will have a more direct route to regulate the freedom of speech duties under clause 5, which requires the OFS to set new registration conditions relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom. This clause will ensure that the registration conditions relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom are aligned with the duties on higher education providers imposed by the Bill. The OfS will be able to ensure that these are complied with by using its usual powers of accountability and enforcement, such as the power to impose fines.

As I have said, it is vital that students unions are also doing their bit to ensure freedom of speech on campus. Clause 6 extends the regulatory functions of the OfS so that it can effectively regulate and enforce the new freedom of speech duties that we are placing on students unions. The OfS will monitor compliance and have the power to impose fines.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

When I heard the Universities Minister discussing this matter on the radio some time ago, she suggested that these proposals in the Bill could enable holocaust deniers to seek compensation. Do the Government really want to protect people like that and those sorts of repugnant views? Why is that the Government’s priority?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

As the hon. Lady will know, it is absolutely clear that this Bill will never create a platform for holocaust deniers. She is probably familiar with the Public Order Act 1986, the Equality Act 2010, which was introduced by the Labour party, and the Prevent duties introduced in 2015. If made an Act, this legislation will never create the space to tolerate holocaust deniers.

There is at the moment no direct way for anyone to complain about freedom of speech matters other than for students against their higher education provider. This scheme will provide a route to individual redress for all students, staff and visiting speakers to back up the new strengthened freedom of speech duties provided in the Bill for providers and students unions.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Secretary of State is describing all the protections that will go to the OfS. I simply ask, will any of those protections provide for compensation and regulation in cases where people are raped or sexually abused on university campuses and have no redress? Will that freedom, for those students, be included? Will they be able to get compensation when their universities mismanage their cases?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I refer the hon. Lady to the comments that I made some moments ago; we have asked the Office for Students to look into this whole area to see how we can get this redress. She probably noted that I mentioned some of the conditions of registration for higher education institutions that can be part of that process. That is an area that we are looking at and have asked the OfS to address directly.

The OfS will be able to make a recommendation to the higher education provider or students union, which could include, for example, a recommendation to pay a sum in compensation, or reinstate the complainant’s job or place on a course. The scheme will be overseen by the newly created position of director for freedom of speech and academic freedom within the OfS. The director will oversee the various free speech functions of the OfS, including compliance and enforcement. The provision in clause 8 means that there will be an individual in the OfS who has exclusive focus on championing these key values in our higher education sector.

Clause 9 gives effect to the schedule to the Bill, which contains minor and consequential amendments to other legislation. These amendments are necessary to give effect to the main provisions of the Bill, and to make all the relevant legislation work seamlessly and consistently.

Of course, Government action in this area cannot by itself be enough. Cultural change is essential, but, as we have seen in so many areas, such as gender equality or anti-discrimination, cultural change occurs more readily when it is backed up by law. I began by saying that many of us take freedom of speech for granted. The facts on the ground and in universities tell us that this must change. By introducing concise, clear consequences for any breach of a freedom of speech duty, these legislative changes will preserve, protect and safeguard free speech, and open debate in our universities right now, tomorrow and for years to come. Some day—not long from now—our children will thank us for what we do today. I commend the Bill to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the House will know, my right hon. Friend commands great expertise on issues of national security, and the Secretary of State must satisfactorily answer his question for the House. I know he would agree with my right hon. Friend, with me and with all right hon. and hon. Members that anything that could put our national security at risk, call it into question or give succour to those who seek to harm this country would have to be prevented. If the Secretary of State can put that assurance on the record now, I know that my right hon. Friend would be grateful for it.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

Indeed, there is a great deal of concern among students from Hong Kong about the fact that they are being silenced in university campuses up and down this country. They have not had the freedom to speak on campus, which is why this Bill is so important—so that different voices, be they Hong Kongers or Uyghurs, are able to speak on campus and not be silenced by much larger groups. That is exactly why this legislation is so incredibly important. I would love to hear from the hon. Lady what freedoms she actually does think are worth protecting.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not sure whether the Secretary of State was suggesting that Hong Kong students and Uyghurs are silenced on our campuses, which is of course is what we are talking about in this Bill. I am not aware of instances that the Secretary of State has evidenced of such people being silenced on campuses. Indeed, this is a problem with his whole Bill: it is an evidence-free zone when it comes to underpinning the concerns that he says it is addressing.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will take a further intervention—of course I will.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Sadly, she is misinformed, as there have been a number of instances where minority students have felt themselves silenced as a result of much larger groups of student bodies putting pressure on, especially within student unions, to silence them. This is why this legislation is so incredibly important; those students, be they of Hong Kong or Uyghur descent, should always have the ability to be able to talk openly and freely on university campuses so that these challenges can be properly exposed.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sorry, but I do not think the Secretary of State has been able to answer my direct question about instances of Uyghur and Hong Kong students being deterred from speaking on our campuses. He talks in general terms about some groups being silenced—I agree with him that that is wrong, and I will come on to that point in a moment—but I have asked him to present specific instances to the House. If he cannot do that this afternoon, and I understand that he may not have that information in front of him, perhaps later he will put that evidence in the House of Commons Library so that we can all examine it before the Bill goes into Committee.

--- Later in debate ---
Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

I am curious to know whether the hon. Lady can state what the acceptable level of self-censorship is that she is comfortable with.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The point is not whether I think self-censorship is acceptable—I do not—the question is whether legislation is the right response to it. I just believe that at a time when we have many other priorities to deal with on our university campuses—[Interruption.] There should be no self-censorship of lawful and honourable views, but it is not acceptable to make legislation and use valuable parliamentary time to deal with a small number of cases that could be dealt with more effectively without legislation. The reason I say that is that we already have the legislative framework we need on the statute book.

Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, “Freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges”, reads almost identically to new section A1 under clause 1 of the Bill. It creates a legal duty to promote freedom of speech for students, staff and visiting speakers. Similarly, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 already creates a duty for the universities regulator to protect academic freedom.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Secretary of State should have perhaps made these arguments in his opening speech, but I will of course give way to him again, although I hope he will make time for other colleagues.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

The hon. Lady is always incredibly generous, and it is much appreciated. I hope that I always repay the compliment in return when she intervenes. I am sure she will also be able to set out the steps under the existing legislation that an academic, a student or, potentially, a visiting speaker who has been cancelled could take.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the Secretary of State is driving at clause 3 of the Bill, which would create a statutory tort. [Interruption.] I think he is driving at the need for clause 3 and the statutory tort, and I just want to express some of my concerns about that.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

Would you like me to tell you?

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am answering the question that the Secretary of State asked me a moment ago. The Bill means that we will be in a situation where those who wish to challenge a refusal to allow them to speak on campus—

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - -

Would you like me to tell you?

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, I would not like the Secretary of State to intervene again while I am still answering the question he asked me a moment ago. The problem with the Bill and clause 3, which creates a new route for individuals, is that it is more harmful in its effect. It opens up the possibility for vexatious litigants and their lawyers repeatedly to bypass internal complaints procedures, repeatedly to bypass the Office of the Independent Adjudicator route or the Office for Students route and go straight to the courts, undermining confidence in those procedures, undermining the funding of universities and student unions and causing confusion about the routes for redress that speakers should be able to take advantage of.

I am going to make a little bit of progress, because I know that many others want to come into the debate. The Bill before us tonight is wasting legislative time by repeating provisions already found in law to address a problem that has not been evidenced by the debate so far today. I recognise that the Joint Committee on Human Rights raised concerns that the current legislative framework was complex, but the Government’s plans seem only to complicate things further by duplicating legal duties and creating new legally actionable wrongs that would operate in parallel to university and student union processes. It seems impossible that the Bill will leave the position clearer than it is currently.

Let me be generous and assume for a moment that, despite the provisions that already exist in our laws, this Bill is needed, that in the face of the evidence we have heard so far there is a crisis of free speech on campuses and that the Bill will remedy the situation. Let us see if it succeeds on its own terms. It does not. It is a mess of duplication, poor definition and ill-thought-through provisions that will set back free speech. Let me start with an easy problem: the extent of the Bill. It applies to registered higher education providers and to student unions, and immediately we appear to hit a gap in coverage. Oxford and Cambridge colleges are not included in the register kept by the Office for Students. Does that mean that if a violation of free speech takes place in a building owned by, say, Balliol college, Oxford, instead of by the University of Oxford, it is not within the scope of the Bill? Or if it takes place in a pub in the city of Cambridge owned by the university, and someone is removed from the pub for offensive but legal speech, could they take legal action against the university?

Who are members of the university for the purposes of the Bill? MillionPlus, for example, has asked whether it would cover emeritus professors. Is it desirable to risk the Office for Students, a body whose board is appointed directly by politicians, effectively becoming a state censor of controversial topics? Why does the Secretary of State believe that clause 3 is needed? Why does he think that we need a route straight to court, bypassing university complaints procedures? If he does believe that a route to court is necessary, can he say whether there will be any limit on the damages that could be awarded? Does he not understand that, as Universities UK has warned, this risks giving a free pass to vexatious litigants and their lawyers?

Even if we thought the Bill were needed, it is poorly drafted and counterproductive. Today, we are debating a Bill that has been put forward in response to a problem that exists largely in the mind of the Secretary of State. Even if the problem did exist, the Bill would not be needed because its core provisions already exist in our laws, and even if new legislation were needed, the Bill creates more problems than it solves and is poorly drafted. In short, in every way that a Bill can fail, this Bill fails.

However, the real menace is what the Bill will achieve if the Conservative party is able to get it on to the statute book. It will enshrine legal protections for harmful and divisive speech. The kind of speech that we would not tolerate in this House would be protected in universities across the country. The Bill creates a new legal framework that allows for those responsible for such harmful speech to take legal action against universities, eating into the resources that ought to be educating our young people and supporting our world-class research programmes. The Bill is unnecessary and it is poorly drafted, but above all, it is deeply wrong and those of us on the Labour Benches will not support it. I commend our reasoned amendment to the House.

Covid-19: Education Settings

Gavin Williamson Excerpts
Tuesday 6th July 2021

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on restrictions that will be lifted for schools, early years, childcare, colleges and universities when we move to step 4, which is currently anticipated to be on 19 July. The Prime Minister has announced that at step 4 we will be able to remove swathes of restrictions on daily life and that, after 16 months of sacrifice by people across society, we will return ever closer to normality.

We have faced down, together, an historic public health emergency, and we all owe a great debt of gratitude to pupils, parents and teachers, who gave up so much as we took action to save lives. However, I highlight to everyone that step 4 does not mean the end of the pandemic. Some restrictions will be kept in place as we move towards more of the population being fully vaccinated. Although the pandemic is not over, we are moving into a new phase of managing covid, from strict rules towards ever greater personal responsibility.

When I came to this place last week, I again set out my priority to put the interests of children first. We know from our own experience and evidence that children are better off in classrooms with their friends and teachers. Since 8 March, millions of children and young people have been back in the classroom learning with their friends and teachers. That is hugely valuable for their wellbeing as well as for their education.

I also made it clear that I do not think it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions, over and above those of wider society, especially since they have given up so much to keep older generations safe during the pandemic. Therefore, having balanced the risks, I am pleased to tell Members across the House that key restrictions on education and childcare will come to an end as we move to step 4.

Although keeping children in consistent groups was essential to control the spread of the virus when our population was less vaccinated, we recognise that the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education. That is why we will be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS Test and Trace system for early years settings, schools and colleges. Where there are outbreaks, schools and colleges may be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and they will also work with local health teams as they do now. We are also setting out new rules that mean that, from 16 August, children will need to isolate only if they have tested positive for covid-19. I am also pleased to be able to say that there will be no restrictions on in-person teaching and learning in universities, unless students are advised to isolate or impacted by local outbreaks.

From step 4, a more proportionate set of controls will apply in early years, schools, colleges and higher education institutions. These will maintain a baseline of protective measures in education settings while maximising attendance and minimising disruption to children and young people’s education. In addition to ending bubbles, it will not be necessary to stagger start and finish times. Schools and colleges may, of course, continue with those measures until the end of the summer term if they so wish.

My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary outlined earlier today that we can ease restrictions on the self-isolation rules for close contacts of someone who has tested positive for covid-19. In education settings, all other existing measures, including guidance on isolation of contacts, will stay in place until the end of this term, in line with isolation rules for the rest of the population as more adults are vaccinated. Settings will continue to have a role in working with health protection teams in the case of a local outbreak. Where necessary, some measures may need to be reintroduced.

From 16 August, those under the age of 18 will no longer be required to self-isolate if they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace as a close contact of a positive covid-19 case. That will balance the need to keep children safe with allowing them to get the education that they deserve and need. Instead, children will be contacted by Test and Trace, informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test. Eighteen-year-olds will be treated in the same way as children until four months after their 18th birthday to allow them to have the opportunity to get fully vaccinated.

Having listened to teachers, and balancing the risks to health and education to maximise attendance and minimise disruption to children and young people’s education, some protective measures, including enhanced hygiene and ventilation, will remain in place for the autumn term. From step 4, face coverings will no longer be advised for pupils, students, staff and visitors either in classrooms or in communal areas and social distancing will no longer be necessary.

As I mentioned earlier, testing programmes remain important as we move cautiously out of restrictions. With that in mind, secondary schools and colleges will be asked to provide two on-site tests to their students at the start of term, with regular home testing continuing until the end of September, when that will be reviewed. It is vital that secondary school and college students continue to test for the last few weeks of this term and throughout September. Education settings still operating over the summer will continue to test twice a week, with asymptomatic test kits still available to families over the summer break as well.

I want to encourage all teachers, educational staff and eligible students to get their vaccines. It is incredibly important for all staff to get the second dose of a vaccine as soon as they are eligible, so that they secure the strongest possible protection against covid-19. In line with wider changes to isolation from 16 August, if in close contact with someone who has tested positive, fully vaccinated teachers will be able to remain in the classroom from the autumn term.

My Department has just set out more detail and published new guidance for arrangements in education settings from step 4, covering both the summer period and the following term, when children will return to school. I want to take this opportunity to assure Members that headteachers in their constituencies can contact the Department for Education if they have any questions about the new guidance that we have published.

No Government would want to restrict people’s freedom in the way we have had to do since the spread of covid-19. We have prioritised education since the start of this pandemic. We made sure that schools and colleges were the last to close but the first to open. We kept school and college places open to vulnerable children and those of key workers throughout the pandemic, and procured millions of laptops and tablets for children to learn at home. None of this could have been achieved without the incredible work of our inspirational teachers and wider educational staff, and I thank parents and students, who have shown patience and flexibility over the last 18 months.

I know that many colleagues will agree that today, as a nation, we prize the role of schools, colleges and universities more than ever before. With the ending of these restrictions, children and young people will be able to get on with their education and lives while we continue to manage this pandemic. I commend this statement to the House.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. I echo his tribute to the education staff, pupils and parents who have done so much over the past 15 months to keep children and young people learning.

Just over an hour ago, the Department for Education confirmed that, last week, 623,000 pupils were not in school because of coronavirus. Although 471,000 of those pupils were out of class because of a bubble collapsing, there were still over 150,000 who were not in the classroom with confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus, or because of potential contact with a case outside the classroom. It is not just bubbles that have driven pupils from the classroom; it is the Conservatives’ negligence in letting the delta variant take hold at the same time as they fail to support schools with the necessary precautions.

I have always said that school is the best place for children—for their learning, wellbeing and development—which is why we must do everything we can to keep them there safely. Many parents will be relieved to hear that the chaotic bubbles policy is coming to an end, but the Secretary of State has not given us confidence that his alternative will keep more children in school without driving up infections. His Department has piloted using testing instead of the bubble system, but he did not mention that in his statement. Can he tell us the results of the pilots using daily testing in some schools? Did it mean more hours in the classroom? Did it mean more cases? Did it mean an unmanageable workload for school leaders? Can he confirm how many schools pulled out of the pilots and whether the reasons for schools’ withdrawal are informing his Department’s planning for next year?



The Secretary of State said that bubbles will end when we reach stage 4 but there will be no on-site testing until September, so what support is he putting in place to keep pupils in the classroom for the remainder of this term? He said that bubbles need to end in order to support summer schools. Can he confirm that they will have mitigations in place in addition to testing, so that children can learn and not just isolate over summer? Separate from summer schools, his Department has promised a holiday activities and food programme. Can he tell me what measures will be in place to ensure that this programme can run so that children do not miss out on the opportunities it offers?

The Secretary of State spoke of a baseline of protective measures when schools return in September. Can he say more about what they are? He mentioned better ventilation. Will all schools receive support from his Department to put that in place? Specifically on masks, can he explain why masks were required in schools in March and April but are not required now, when case numbers are much higher? Will he publish the scientific evidence that I am sure he has received to underpin his decision? If he cannot do that, will he reconsider it?

We know that the vaccination programme delivered by the NHS remains our route out of the pandemic, but we still do not know whether the vaccine will be available to children. When does the Secretary of State expect to receive that advice, and when will he make it public? If the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation does propose vaccinating older children, can he guarantee that the infrastructure will be in place to begin that process before the return to the classroom in September? As we look ahead to the new academic year, can he guarantee that schools, staff and pupils will know his plans for assessments next year by 1 September at the latest?

The Secretary of State mentioned on-site testing in colleges, but what other measures will be in place? Have they been supported to implement better ventilation, for example? I am sure students will welcome the return of in-person teaching and learning in higher education, but can he say what protective measures will be in place in these settings? What steps will be taken to support the return and safe learning of international students?

I want nothing more than for children to be in class, learning and spending time with their friends and teachers, and it is right for their learning that we move away from the chaotic bubbles system, but we cannot simply wish away the real challenges of the pandemic. Today’s statement offers no clarity on how the Government will stop infections spiralling. The Conservatives’ inadequate testing regime, lack of action on ventilation and recklessness at the border have put our children’s education at risk. This must not continue.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Lady touches on a number of areas. With regard to universities, we of course always support universities with international students, but we are also supporting them to get back to face-to-face teaching and to welcome youngsters back into the lecture theatre, which I know is part of the university experience that so many students have dearly missed.

The hon. Lady seems to have missed what is probably the biggest thing that has changed over the past few months. I appreciate that she is probably wedded to the European Union vaccine programme, and probably feels a sense of disappointment that this country decided to go out on its own and procure our vaccines, but the biggest difference is that in this country we have seen over 80 million vaccines already delivered into people’s arms, giving them more protection. There is so much more protection today than we had back in March and April of this year, as this incredibly successful programme, led by the Prime Minister, has had a real impact in saving lives, keeping hospitalisation down and ensuring that we can take these important steps back to normality, and that adults and, most importantly, children can get on with their lives.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I strongly welcome the Government’s announcement today, and I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. We need to keep our children in schools, not out of them. We know that covid-related absence in secondary schools was 10.4% on 1 July, up from 6.2% on 24 June. Other analysis suggests that year 10 pupils due to sit GCSEs next summer have missed, on average, one in four days of face-to-face teaching this year. What assessment have the Government made of the impact on children not at school in exam years, and what remedial action will they take to ensure that those children who have missed so much school have a level playing field for next year’s exams?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue that is, of course, a concern to teachers and parents, but most of all to pupils who will be looking towards 2022 and assessment and the awarding of grades. It is our intention to move back to an exam system, but we recognise that we must ensure that mitigations are in place for pupils taking that assessment in the next academic year. We will look at sharing more information about what those mitigations are before the summer, and we will update his Education Committee and the House accordingly.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Many young people are extremely worried about next year’s exams. One young constituent recently told me:

“I have never felt less confident in my ability to take part in next year’s exams—if there even is that opportunity—and I’m sure many others are also struggling. I ask for 2022 GCSE exams to be simpler, easier and adapted to our lack of necessary education, out of compassion.”

What does the Minister say to them? When will schools get certainty about changes to next year’s exams and assessments?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Lady might not have heard my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). We are looking at giving further guidance and information to schools imminently, and we are very much looking at putting in place mitigation measures there, while recognising that the best form of assessment is always examination.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Secretary of State for putting children first. In the last year, the education of children has been trashed. Although every death of a child is tragic, we have to understand that there are 12.7 million children in this country and, sadly, every year 6,000 die. Can we have a sense of proportion? Will the Secretary of State reassure parents that the chances of any child falling seriously ill from covid are “vanishingly small” and there is no risk to children from what he has announced today?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend is right to point out, as Professor Chris Whitty has done so many times, that children have very few adverse effects from covid, if they are unfortunate enough to get it. That is why, combined with the vaccination programme that we are rolling out right across the country, we think it is right to take this next cautious but important step forward, in the light of the scientific, medical and health evidence.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Today’s announcement about the scrapping of bubbles and self-isolation for pupils will be welcome news to many parents, pupils and teachers across the country. The Secretary of State made passing reference to the importance of ventilation. We know now about the importance of ventilation because it is an airborne virus. Therefore, what more is he doing to support schools to put better ventilation in place? Yesterday I visited Richmond upon Thames School in my constituency, which has spent £15,000 alone on improving ventilation. Many schools simply cannot do that, as they are already struggling to balance the books. What more support will he put in place, following the example of Germany and New York City?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

At every stage during the pandemic we have provided support for schools to put in place the measures needed to restrict the transmission of covid and ensure that they can open. We recognise that good hand sanitising and good hygiene, along with ventilation, are important. We continue to offer schools advice on how best to deliver that.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Digital inclusion is a huge issue for people across Rother Valley. However, both the Government and local businesses such as AESSEAL have stepped in to eliminate that barrier. AESSEAL has provided computers for over 1,500 households across Rotherham, and the Government have provided 1.3 million laptops and tablets to disadvantaged students across the country during the pandemic. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that pupils will continue to benefit from this record investment in IT equipment?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My hon. Friend highlights not only the amazing work done through the Government’s distribution of laptops right across the country, but the wonderful work of local businesses such as AESSEAL, which has gone out of its way to support its community, help children and make a real difference. That shows how communities have come together to support the elderly and our children. It is a great testament. I very much hope that the investment that AESSEAL and the Government have made in laptops and education technology will have a long and lasting legacy of bettering people’s education not only in his constituency but in every one of our constituencies.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I press the Secretary of State on the question of exams, which other right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned? My constituent Ian, who is a teacher, points out that every time there has been a change to the exam system in order to cope with the pandemic over the past couple of years, it has been made at the last minute, with very little time for schools and pupils to prepare. If the Secretary of State is considering changes to the exam system, will he have an open consultation with school leaders and teachers, and will he get the plans in place as early as possible, so that there is not the sense of teachers being dumped on at the last minute?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that we talk continually to school leaders, teachers and many in the education sector on these issues. I can assure him that, as I have mentioned a couple of times in answer to questions today, we will be sharing further information on assessment in the next academic year.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the return to normality and stability with the contingencies and safeguards he set out. Does he agree that although people sometimes talk about a balance between education and health objectives, actually overwhelmingly they go together because being in school is so important for children’s mental and physical health? Indeed, for some children there is also a safety protective factor.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend is exactly right. The greatest single act to support children’s mental health was welcoming them back into schools on 8 March. That was the single biggest act that anyone could have done to help every single child. [Interruption.] Opposition Members are shaking their heads. They would probably like a situation where schools remained empty and children just remained at home. We on the Government Benches recognise that the beneficial effects of education and children’s welfare are delivered by children being in school.

Diana Johnson Portrait Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I know that the Secretary of State is familiar with Hull and knows about the educational challenges we faced in the city before covid. I just want to press him on whether he really believes that less than one hour of tutoring a fortnight over the next school year is really enough to make up for the 115 days of in-school teaching that children in Hull have missed this year.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The right hon. Lady is right to say that I know Hull very well, as my family come from Hull. I recognise that schools have faced great challenges, not just in the great city of Kingston upon Hull but right across the country. That is why our support for schools is not just about tutoring. She will be aware that there is so much evidence showing that small-group tutoring delivers some of the best educational catch-up and results of any intervention, in terms of money invested. Covid recovery support premium has gone out to schools, so they are able to build on further actions and interventions that they themselves can take to support children to catch up on the work they have missed.

Ben Spencer Portrait Dr Ben Spencer (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I also welcome the statement and thank my right hon. Friend. I thank everyone—the families and the staff—who has worked so hard to ensure that education has been delivered to children over the course of the pandemic. However, will my right hon. Friend clarify a point around the self-isolation requirements? As every parent knows, children—especially very young children—have coughs and colds and temperatures two a penny. At the moment, a temperature leads to a family self-isolation requirement, causing huge disruption to the child’s educational development and a huge impact on families. Can he unpack a bit what the requirements will be around children developing coughs and colds, particularly in early years, and what guidance and protocols will be taken forward? Will isolation be necessary, will testing be necessary, or can it be passed over if it is just a simple cough or cold?

--- Later in debate ---
Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

We would always encourage people, if they are poorly or ill, to remain at home in order to be able to get better. But for clarity, those who have been in contact with someone who has had covid will still be able to access education and be able to come in to school, but if they have had that contact, Test and Trace would then be in touch with them and advise them to take a PCR test. But that individual is able to continue to attend school during that time, unless of course they are demonstrating symptoms of covid—we would always advise people to self-isolate if that is the case—or have had a positive PCR test. Those reasons apart, they would be able to attend school.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Secretary of State has told us that there will be a spike in infections following the relaxing of restrictions, and currently there are 150,000 school pupils with suspected covid-19 that are out of school, so we know that that figure will go up. So this is not about children dying of the infection; it is about schools being a vector for infection. What is the Secretary of State going to do when the winter months are coming, and we have increasing numbers of infections, to ensure that that does not happen, by improving ventilation and assisting schools with the resources that they need to deliver a safer environment?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I do not wish to contradict the hon. Gentleman, but schools have not been vectors of transmission; they have been reflective of the wider rates of covid in the community. That is why we continue to have measures in place, including the testing that will be in place for schools as they return after the summer period; and the continued twice-weekly testing that will run through September for children of secondary age, those tests to be taken at home.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

We now go by video link, or rather audio link, to Mark Harper.

--- Later in debate ---
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the data show, in York infection rates are soaring, particularly in school-age children, people are poorly, and as a result we are seeing major disruption in young people’s education. So as we see infection rates soar across the country, it means that education will be further disrupted, and I hope that the Secretary of State recognises that. How would he ensure that effective testing is put in place, working with our public health teams on the ground locally, to mitigate against that spike in infections and ensure that young people and their families are supported when they have to isolate and miss school?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

It is absolutely right that schools have, and should continue to have, close and strong working relationships with local public health teams, not just in York, but right across the country. We have emphasised that point as part of the guidance that we have issued and made available to schools, because we recognise that we still have more to do. Work to defeat this virus will continue past the summer and into the winter.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome today’s announcements. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the easing of restrictions will not affect his plans to provide high-quality tutoring alongside normal education in schools?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that that is the case. High-quality tutoring, with the roll-out of the national tutoring programme that will have a positive impact on so many, is one of the absolute top priorities of this Government. It is the single thing that can probably have the biggest impact on helping children to catch up on lost learning. That is why we are making such a substantial investment in it.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

What are the Government doing to prevent the chaos of last year by ensuring that all higher education students can receive both vaccinations before moving around the country to their university? How will the Secretary of State ensure that those turning 18 late in this academic year are offered both vaccinations before they move to university?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Lady raises an important point. That is why we are so pleased that we have been able to say to all those who are 18 and above that they have access to a vaccination. We are working very closely with the university sector to really get the message through about how important it is for youngsters—students—to be out there getting their vaccine: it protects not only them, but their friends, their family and their community.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Having called for it in last week’s debate, I warmly welcome the Education Secretary’s statement today about pricking the school bubbles and self-isolation system with effect from 19 July. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the timing? Is it entirely up to the schools themselves whether they implement any or all of these measures in the last week of term? What will happen during the summer schools? How does the timing of the measures combine with his statement that children need to self-isolate only if they test positive after 16 August?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My hon. Friend asks and then it is delivered for him, so that goes to show his power. We are leaving it to the discretion of schools for the final few days of term. We are not expecting bubble systems to be operating during summer schools, including the holiday activities and food programme. This will be purely a test and trace approach, as is currently taken with the whole adult population. As we move to 16 August, that will be the moment we move to a system of children not having to self-isolate, as they will be able just to go for a PCR test and get the confirmation that they do not have covid. If they do have covid, they will, sadly but understandably, have to isolate.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Schoolchildren have a had a pretty miserable year and covid is a pretty miserable disease. It does not recognise the inequalities in society and it disproportionately affects some of the poorest, most disadvantaged communities—the same communities that often need extra resource and help to get that educational attainment. What more is the Secretary of State doing to tackle that inequality, which was there before covid—it will still be there after it and will be exacerbated by it—to ensure that those children have the best start in life? They are our country’s future. What more can we do to help them to catch up and excel?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Member and I share the same passion to deliver that sort of change and opportunity for so many children. It should never matter where they grew up or what their personal circumstances are; the ability of every child in this country to access the world’s best education and the very best opportunities drives us on both sides of the House.

We have talked about the investment we are making to support children and help them to catch up, but we must not lose sight of the fact that in the drive to raise standards of education and ensure that knowledge-rich curriculum, we are pushing every child, no matter their background, to their absolute maximum, so that they can excel and have the opportunities that all of us want for our own children, and that we want for the nation’s children. That is where the focus will be. As we cast our eyes to the year ahead, we look forward to spelling out a longer plan for how we will deliver that education, ensuring that we deliver not only for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but for all our constituents, regardless of their background.

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan (Kensington) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I understand that testing will continue in secondary schools until the end of September, and at that point it will be reviewed. Will he update the House on what criteria we will consider at the end of September? I do not think any of us want testing in schools in perpetuity.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

None of us wish to have testing in schools in perpetuity, but as the Prime Minister has set out at every stage, we are taking a cautious, gradual approach to ensure that as we are able to lift restrictions, we do not get to a position of having to reimpose them. We feel that this prudent and sensible step needs to be taken. If there are concerns and a continued need to have testing in schools, we would of course consider doing that. Most importantly, for all of us, is to ensure that schools remain open and pupils are in them.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Bendrigg Trust outdoor education centre in my constituency, and it was a massive joy to see residential activities slowly starting again, with young people getting the benefits of outdoor education. It is a reminder of two things. First, 6,000 of the 15,000 people who worked in outdoor education at the beginning of the pandemic have now lost their jobs, and because of a lack of a specific bespoke package to support those centres, many have closed and many more are on the cusp of closing. Secondly, our outdoor education specialists in Cumbria and around the country have a unique set of skills that we need to deploy at this very moment, to encourage young people to re-engage with learning, and reignite a love of learning. What will the right hon. Gentleman do specifically to commission outdoor education centres to do that, out in mainstream schools, and will he meet me and some outdoor education specialists so that we can explain how that could be done?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

It is as if the hon. Gentleman’s constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) and the hon. Gentleman think incredibly alike—perhaps not on absolutely everything, but certainly on this issue. My hon. Friend met me just last week, and we spoke about that exact matter. The best thing we can do to help those outdoor centres is ensure that their doors can open to welcome not just day visitors, but those who want to stay there on a residential basis. We will continue to look at what other measures we can introduce to support the sector. I know the value and enrichment that comes from doing so many activities, whether on Lake Windermere or in many other excellent locations around the country, and it brings real benefit. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and the four schools in Stoke-on-Trent North, including Goldenhill Primary Academy, have received condition improvement funding. Rather than flogging the dead horse of exams, which I was going to do, I will jump to a different issue. Let us take 10% of pupil premium funding and ensure that it goes into high quality, extra-curricular enrichment activities, as laid out by me previously in the House, and by the Challenger Trust, which does excellent work in Gateshead. Let us ensure that we give those disadvantaged pupils the access to high-quality enrichment activities that many enjoy, such as those in the school that I attended, the private school Princethorpe College.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My hon. Friend is a man who likes to chew off a Secretary of State’s ear, especially when it comes to condition improvement funding for his schools. It is great to see four schools benefiting from his assiduous lobbying, making sure that he is delivering for his constituency.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the use of pupil premium funding. We want to see schools considering how it can be more effectively targeted, especially at pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and those who need extra support. In the past, far too often, pupil premium funding has been seen as just another stream of funding going into schools. We need schools to consider how pupil premium funding is delivering for the pupils it is targeted at.

Tahir Ali Portrait Tahir Ali (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can the Secretary of State explain how children will access free school meals if they have to isolate away from holiday activities and food programmes during the summer? Does he agree with me that a cash transfer system, enabling parents to get the supplies that are right for their children, would ensure that better support reaches all those who need it?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman raises a valuable point, and it is why the extra support provided by the Department for Work and Pensions, through local authorities, to ensure children are fed through the summer is such an important part of our holiday activity and food programme, which will of course be delivering not just food for so many students but activities that are just as valuable.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In the hope that communications have improved in the Forest of Dean, we will try to go back to Mark Harper.

Mark Harper Portrait Mr Harper
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. When schools return in September, every adult will have had the chance to be vaccinated at least once, which provides the bulk of protection, so why is regular testing still going to continue, perhaps forever? Last week, the Secretary of State said he wanted to see it end. What has changed?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

Not only do we get my right hon. Friend’s voice, but we get his picture on the screen too, so it was enhanced in every possible way.

Of course, we want to see schools return to as much of normal as possible as quickly as possible, but we have always taken the view that we need to take a cautious and careful approach, because we want things to be in a place where we do not have to take a step backwards. We have one of the most successful testing programmes that has ever been run in this country, and it was delivered in schools from the week commencing 8 March. We have seen it play an important role in containing and dealing with covid and, most importantly, ensuring we keep schools open and welcoming to pupils.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

While all these huge issues are going on, the largest teaching union in the country, the National Education Union, has said there is an “urgent” need to “decolonise” the curriculum and how classroom layouts, in fact, represent colonialism. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is probably a more urgent need for the largest teaching union in the country finally to focus on the urgent need for kids to catch up on their learning, and for it to work constructively with the Government, perhaps for the first time, to try to ease these remaining restrictions?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My hon. Friend is a new Member, and he arrives here with a lot of optimism. I reassure him that we have a broad, balanced and knowledge-rich curriculum of which we should be proud, although we always work to make sure it gets even better.

It is with some sadness that I say the National Education Union started off by saying it did not want teachers to teach pupils in person, and then said it did not want teachers to teach students online. It starts to make me question whether the National Education Union really believes in education at all. We will wait and see, and hopefully it will be more co-operative and hard-working in the next academic year.

Barbara Keeley Portrait Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Regular testing for pupils and staff is going to be a vital part of stopping the spread of covid-19, but the decline in testing numbers shows that home testing is currently not working well. Tackling this with on-site testing would mean some schools in my constituency having to test 600 children a day, which they tell me they simply do not have the resources to do. Will the Secretary of State give schools the resources they need, including external support if they need it, to make sure they are able to carry out testing and keep children safe?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that we will be supporting schools as they roll out the testing. Schools have delivered asymptomatic testing on school premises incredibly successfully already in this academic year and we will look at providing the same level of support to them as we did earlier on, in March. We have every confidence that we will be able to deliver that right across the country.

James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome these changes, which will mean that healthy pupils can spend more time in the classroom. Following my recent visit to Ashwicken Church of England Primary School, may I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that, as part of the recovery plan and with an eye to the spending review, schools get the special educational needs funding that is required now more than ever, so that every child’s needs are met?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion for not only the schools in his constituency, but children with special educational needs—we all have a shared passion to do more for them. He is tempting me into public discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury over the Dispatch Box and straight to the Chancellor. Although I am tempted and he is desperately trying to lure me down that path, I will decline on this occasion to enter that public discourse. But of course children with special educational needs are a top priority for us, and I would certainly expect that to be properly reflected in any future settlements.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome the end of mandatory bubble isolation, which has caused such disruption to parents, teachers and children, but the impact of covid continues and the poorest are hardest hit. Over the past five years, child poverty in my constituency has risen by 13 percentage points, to 45%, which is six times the national average increase. So what additional support can children in my constituency expect, apart from the catch-up plan, which the Government’s own educational recovery commissioner described as “feeble”?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

One thing we can do to best help all children across the country is keep up the continued drive to raise standards across our schools. The hon. Lady dismisses the more than £3 billion of investment that we have made, but it is important investment, targeted at the interventions that will deliver the biggest benefit to her constituents.

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Last Monday, I made clear my view, and that of many in my constituency, about the unfairness of the bubble system and the consequential isolation, so I welcome today’s confirmation. However, is it not the case that sending the whole bubble home because of one positive case is no more necessary now than outdoor sports days being cancelled or held behind closed doors, or end-of-term events being ruined? These are things we never get back. How can the Secretary of State and his team help colleagues across all educational settings feel supported to get the balance right come the new term?

--- Later in debate ---
Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My hon. Friend hits upon the issue of sports days. Let us be absolutely clear: the guidance is there in black and white saying that sports days can proceed, and parents should be able to attend. We encourage schools to be able to do this because, as he rightly points out, these are things people cannot get back. That is why we wanted to be able to lift those restrictions at the earliest possible moment. I know that he is familiar with his regional schools commissioner, and if there are challenges, having local dialogue with the regional schools commissioner’s team plays an important part, as they can deal with the school directly.

Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Early years providers and nurseries—such as the fantastic Grasmere nursery in Luton North, which I had the pleasure of visiting recently—are a vital part of our education system. Although primary and secondary schools have been compensated for some of their covid costs, nurseries have not had a single penny of the costs incurred during the pandemic reimbursed. Why are nurseries always an afterthought for this Government? Will this unfairness be rectified? If not, why not?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I am sure that Grasmere nursery is reflective of the many nurseries right across the country that had the benefit of being funded at pre-covid levels. We carried on that level of funding in recognition of the fact that they were operating in truly exceptional times.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the step back to normality and letting children be children that the scrapping of the bubbles system brings, but there continues to be an anxiety that affects people on both sides of the debate, which is whether the vaccination programme will be extended to those under 18 years of age. Will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts to work with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to push the JCVI to come forward with its recommendations so that, one way or the other, a decision can be made that takes that additional anxiety away from young people?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of ensuring that we have the correct and best information to inform decisions on the vaccination of children. It is my hope that the JCVI report will be imminently forthcoming, and that will obviously inform the decisions that the Government make in the best interests of all our children.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

For many months now, school leaders have been spending a lot of their time on weekends making contacts when they are notified that someone has covid-19, so I am glad that some of that responsibility will be shifted to NHS Test and Trace, but will the Secretary of State clarify exactly what the relationship will be, given the references in the guidance to settings still having a role to play in that situation?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

Of course. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the amazing and important role that schools, headteachers and our whole education team have played in supporting the efforts on test and trace. We expect the contacting to shift from schools having to do it to Test and Trace doing it, but of course contact information will sometimes still be asked of schools. We see the current burden that schools face being scaled back considerably, very much to the benefit of headteachers and teachers.

Covid-19: Impact on Attendance in Education Settings

Gavin Williamson Excerpts
Wednesday 30th June 2021

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the impact of coronavirus on children and young people’s attendance in education settings.

Gavin Williamson Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. This Government are absolutely focused on returning society back to normal as soon as possible, and that includes in our schools, colleges and right across the education sector. As I have made clear throughout the pandemic, my top priority has been to keep children in school. Indeed, as I speak today, millions of children have been back in the classroom since 8 March, learning with their friends and teachers. As I am sure the House will agree, that is exactly where they belong. The vast majority of schools are open—99.8% of state-funded schools were open on 24 June—benefiting children who have given up so much during the pandemic.

Back in February, the Prime Minister set out an extensive road map. We need to continue to be careful to complete this cautious but irreversible road map to freedom. We understand the frustration of parents and pupils who may feel that they are being asked to isolate unnecessarily. As I have said throughout the pandemic, children are best off in school. As we continue with our educational recovery, it is vital that absence is minimised as far as possible, and that children and young people attend school. I am looking carefully every day at how we manage the balance between safeguarding children’s education and reducing transmission of the virus, because I know that too many children are still having their education disrupted, no matter how good the remote education they receive.

T he new Health Secretary and I have already discussed these matters, and I am working with him across my Department, as well as with scientists and public health experts, to take the next steps. However, as the House is aware, some restrictions remain in place in schools. I want to see those restrictions, including bubbles, removed as quickly as possible, along with wider restrictions in society. I do not think that it is acceptable for children to face restrictions over and above those on wider society, especially as they have given up so much to keep older generations safe over the past 18 months. Further steps will be taken to reduce the number of children who have to self-isolate, including looking at the outcomes of the daily contact testing trial, as we consider a new model for keeping children in schools and colleges. We constantly assess all available data, and we expect to be able to confirm plans to lift restrictions and bubbles as part of step 4. Once that decision has been made, we will issue guidance immediately to schools.

I would like once again to put on the record this Government’s sincere thanks to all teachers for their dedication and work at this time. My commitment to the House and to the children of Britain is that, as we open up wider society, we will stick to the principle that children’s education and freedom comes first.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

Data published yesterday showed that 375,000 children were out of school last week because of coronavirus. It is nine weeks until the new academic year begins, but we have no idea what the Secretary of State plans to keep them in class. School leaders dread another last-minute announcement. They need time to put plans in place, and their staff desperately need a break over the summer.

The Secretary of State has briefed that the bubbles policy will be replaced with daily testing from September. Will testing take place in schools? If so, what support will they receive to do it? Can he tell the House the results of the pilots in schools using regular testing instead of bubbles? What impact has that had on the number of coronavirus cases in the school community and the number of hours that children and staff remain in class? Will he tell us why, if he believes he has a solution that will keep children safely in the classroom, he is waiting until September? What is he doing now to keep children in school before the summer holidays?

Time and again, Labour has called for mitigations to keep children learning, including ventilation and Nightingale classrooms. Why has that not happened? Will the Secretary of State clarify why he abandoned the policy of masks in schools when cases were rising and masks were still required in shops and indoor spaces? Will he share the scientific evidence that led to that decision?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that children who have to isolate over the summer and cannot attend the holiday activities and food programme will still receive free meals? Finally, will he tell us when he expects to receive Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice on vaccinating older children? Does he believe that they will begin receiving the vaccine before September?

Ministers’ negligence on letting the delta variant into our country is keeping hundreds of thousands of children out of the classroom. The Secretary of State must act now or make way for someone who will.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

On daily contact testing, that is something that Public Health England has been running trials on. We expect it to report back to the Department of Health and Social Care and to us in the coming weeks. We are very clear that we want action to be taken, and that is why we very much want to see the lifting of more restrictions and of the bubbles in schools as part of the next step. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, that decision has to be made across Government as part of the next stage of our road map, but we will of course be informing schools and keeping them up to date as to progress in plenty of time before the start of the next term.

The Labour party deigns to give advice. Let us not forget that its advice was to join the European Union vaccine programme. Well, where would that have got us? It was the Labour party that said that it would not be possible for schools to deliver testing right across all our schools and colleges, yet that was what we were able to do. And it was the Labour party that opposed children going back into the classroom and did not support this Government’s efforts to ensure that children were able to get their education at the earliest possible stage. At every point, the Labour party has done everything it can to frustrate and stop the opportunities for children to be in school.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he is doing to try to keep schools open, but we have 300,000 children being sent home. In addition, 93,500 children are missing 50% of school or more, as identified by the Centre for Social Justice this week in a hard-hitting report.

We are in danger of creating a generation of ghost children, denied a proper chance to climb the education ladder of opportunity. Will my right hon. Friend update the guidance and look to establish mobile testing units in schools as soon as possible, even before September, to stop the need for children to be sent home? Will he also set out a plan, galvanising the forces of the Department, local authorities and schools, for how these 100,000 ghost children are going to be returned to school properly so that we can bring their education back to life and do not damage their life chances for decades to come?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend raises the important issue of children who are not attending school. That is why we have pulled together the REACT teams, which are a combination of DFE teams, regional schools commissioners, local authorities, the police and, crucially, schools themselves, to target those children, working alongside the supporting families initiative led by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is already extensive testing in schools. In fact, some 57 million tests have already been conducted in schools and colleges across the country, so we already have a well-established testing mechanism. The next stage, as we move to step 4 of the road map, is that we want schools to be able to operate more freely. We want all children to be able to be part of the summer activities, whether that is the holiday activity and food programmes or the additional summer schools that schools are laying on. That is why, as part of step 4, we are looking at lifting the restrictions and bubbles that schools currently have to operate, and we are looking at doing that at the very earliest opportunity, so children will be able to benefit through the summer.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Secretary of State stop this dither and delay? On education matters, everyone in this House should be united, but there is a generation of young children who have missed education and will continue to miss education. Families, and parents particularly, want certainty. They want to know what the rules are and what they can expect, so that they can plan their everyday lives. Most of all, all of us who care about education know that the upcoming summer holiday could be an opportunity for a vast number of national volunteers to work with children, to give them the vital support they are missing because they have missed so much school education. Come on, Secretary of State, take the lead and do something positive, imaginative and bold.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughts. We have already outlined, if he had listened to my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), that we are looking towards lifting the restrictions, especially bubbles, as part of the next step of the road map. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government will, in the very near future, announce the next step of the road map, and lifting the restrictions will very much be part of that. It is important that all our actions, right across Government, are properly co-ordinated as part of a process of easing restrictions right across the country.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am delighted that the Government prioritised the reopening of schools as we eased lockdown; I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all his efforts to make sure that children return to schools and get in-person education as much as possible. Does he agree that rolling out regular testing as we do so will ensure that we not only stop the spread of the virus, but prevent children from being unnecessarily sent home and missing out on their education? At the same time, we must make sure that the tests are carried out properly and appropriately.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend will probably have seen the figures: more than 50 million tests have already been conducted across schools and colleges. We are very much aware that testing has been an important part of getting schools reopened, and we continue to work with colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care and in track and trace to ensure that testing is available to all pupils and their families.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The number of children missing school is rising every single day and families are at their wits’ end, while the Government are once again far too slow to react. Will the Government act now and establish a rapid taskforce with public health directors and school leaders, with a mandate to keep schools open safely?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

It is fair to say that Liberal Democrats have never been very good at numbers. Actually, schools are open right across the country—they are welcoming children. Millions of children are in school, benefiting from being with their teachers, and we continue to take action to ensure we do everything we can to maximise the number of children there. As part of step 4, as I touched on earlier, we will be looking at lifting more restrictions; that will be announced in the near future.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s work to keep schools open and his ambition to see the end of the bubble system, but may I ask him to look at a cohort of children who risk being caught up negatively by covid guidance and restrictions: those who are due to start primary school this September? I declare an interest in that my own son is due to start school this September. Under the current guidance, schools are unable to run the settling-in sessions that are essential for children to familiarise themselves with their new environment and have the best start in school life. Will my right hon. Friend take action to ensure that those settling-in sessions can happen?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I will share some of the guidance that we have. There is flexibility for schools, for those key transition years, to have some level of familiarisation with those children. I will organise it that my office shares that information with my hon. Friend.

Tahir Ali Portrait Tahir Ali (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The number of children self-isolating has quadrupled during this month because of increases in cases of covid. Following this sharp rise, more children are now able to learn online from home with the IT equipment and internet access provided to schools by the Government. Hundreds of families in my constituency of Birmingham, Hall Green have benefited from the scheme, but I am now hearing that many of the devices have been either disabled or taken back by the schools. That has a significant impact on learning, especially for those who are living in poverty. It is important that access to IT equipment should not be disrupted. Will the Secretary of State therefore ensure that children keep the laptops and return them only when they leave school at year 6 or 11?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The investment that we made in IT equipment is there to help pupils. Although those laptops are the property of the schools, we very much want the schools to prioritise using them to help children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. I will certainly take up the hon. Gentleman’s point and look in more detail at whether we can give more guidance and a stronger steer to schools to really emphasise that point.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

We all know that the pandemic has caused many young people to miss out on vital learning experiences and I welcome the Government’s recovery strategy to help them catch up. In Cumbria, we have unique outdoor education centres, such as the Blencathra Centre and the Outward Bound centres, that offer life-affirming educational experiences both as day and residential activities, giving young people a chance to benefit from some of the vital opportunities they have missed out on. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these centres can be a key part of the solution, and will he look into his Department directly supporting and utilising these assets to achieve the educational recovery?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

As part of step 3 of the road map, we lifted restrictions so that people could do overnight residential. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the benefits of outdoor education centres and the real value they bring to many young people. We will certainly continue to work with the sector on how we can promote that, especially as schools have more and more freedoms in the future.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Government have consistently let down our children. To bring down case numbers and to reduce school closures, the likes of me advocated for teachers to be vaccinated, for a circuit break during half-term last year and for other sensible measures, but we were ignored. Now, shockingly, one child in 20 was out of school last week and case numbers are still rising. Will the Secretary of State commit to reviewing the use of the bubble system and to implementing the recommendations now, rather than waiting until the autumn?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I will happily pass on a copy of Hansard to the hon. Gentleman, so he can reference what I said earlier in response to this urgent question.

Mark Harper Portrait Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Secretary of State is right to push back on the Labour party. I do not remember Labour Members being huge champions of getting schools back on 8 March, when we were campaigning so strongly for it. Their words are a little bit hollow now.

The Secretary of State is clearly indicating where he wants to go on getting rid of bubbles. I am not really sure, though, why we cannot do it now. We are going to cause a huge problem for the rest of term and we will not be giving a lot of time for teachers in schools to prepare for the autumn. What I really wanted to ask him was about testing. We have now vaccinated all adults at risk of being seriously ill from covid. Given that covid is going to be endemic, is he really suggesting that for the rest of time we are going to be testing our schoolchildren on a regular basis? I think we need to move back to normal. Once we have protected everyone who is vulnerable to covid—children are not, largely—we need to get back to normal, not ensuring our children have to be continuously tested for the entirety of their school careers.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend raises a very interesting and thoughtful point. We want to see schools return to normality. We do not want children to feel as if there is an extra layer of things they have to do that we, as adults, do not have to do. That is very important. Testing has been an incredibly important tool in the armoury to get schools back, especially on 8 March when we saw the mass return of schools, but we do keep it under review. We take scientific advice from the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and other scientific bodies. We are looking at this continuously and we have found it a useful tool, but in the much longer term do I see testing as something that we expect children to continuously do always in the future? No, I do not. Ideally, I want to move away from that at the earliest and most realistic possible stage.

Stephen Timms Portrait Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) pointed out that there is a risk, as things stand, that children may have to isolate and stay at home when they should be taking part in the holiday activities and food programme over the summer. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that, whatever happens, children who are entitled to access food support over the summer will still be able to do that?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I can absolutely assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is the case. Obviously, the Department for Work and Pensions has its covid support fund, which is available for local authorities to provide free school meals. Any changes as part of the road map that would lead to the lifting of further restrictions and of bubbles within schools would also take effect for the summer holidays, so children who wanted to take part in holiday activity and food programmes would be able to do so without operating within a bubble system.

Greg Clark Portrait Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Because of new variants, it is quite possible that long into the future the number of covid cases will increase from time to time. Is the Secretary of State aware that Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who was behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, has said:

“If…high protection against hospitalisation continues despite spread in the community, the public health crisis is over”?

Does my right hon. Friend understand that we must move away from being concerned with the number of cases of covid and disrupting schools needlessly through testing and isolation, and focus squarely on hospitalisation?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I very much have that at the forefront of my mind. If my right hon. Friend has time, it would be very interesting to sit down with him, and with some of my team and some from the Department of Health and Social Care, to discuss this in greater detail. The key thing is making sure that people are not being hospitalised and people are not in danger of dying. The vaccine has had enormous success in doing that, but we cannot then have the brake on children’s lives in the future.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend and thank the Secretary of State for being here today and addressing the concerns of many of us. What happens here sets the direction for regional Administrations. Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the education of young people, with some not being able to access resources and many suffering as a result of the closure of schools. Mental health issues among pupils are rising at alarming levels, so what discussion has he had with school principals and with regional Assemblies to reduce the negative impact on our children’s academic development? What steps can he take to ensure that the education system is pandemic-ready for the future?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

We have always, at all stages, done as much as possible to work with all devolved Administrations across the UK and we will continue to do so, be it on mental health issues, the awarding of grades, or education recovery. Let me take the opportunity to put on the record my thanks for the work that I had the opportunity to do with Peter Weir, who was the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland. We had a very close working relationship and I am very appreciative of all the work he undertook for the children and students in Northern Ireland in his time as Minister.

James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The metropolitan borough of Bury currently has more than 2,000 children self-isolating, which is negatively impacting on their social, emotional and educational development. I welcome and recognise my right hon. Friend’s commitment to keeping children in school, but does he recognise and agree—I am sure he does—that we cannot allow this situation to continue? Surely we must learn to live with covid-19 and remove the requirements for school bubbles, together with the current policy of self-isolation, at the earliest opportunity.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

We are very much wanting to go down that course of easing restrictions and ensuring that, as we come out this pandemic, children are one of the greatest beneficiaries. My hon. Friend’s mind and mine are very much in the same place.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Children in the most disadvantaged areas are almost twice as likely to be those self-isolating, such as year 6 in St Mark’s Primary School in my constituency, but they are also likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide, with 23 pupils at St Mark’s still without the kit and connectivity required to log in and learn from home when isolating. With every click widening the attainment gap, will the Secretary of State today back my campaign to ensure that every child entitled to free school meals has access to data and a device at home?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

This is very much why we invested hundreds of millions of pounds in the roll-out of 1.3 million devices to be able to support schools, but most importantly to be able to support children, as the hon. Lady set out.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can my right hon. Friend reassure me, as we look to 19 July and the end of the summer term, that there can be no question of a return to bubbles and self-isolation when children return in the autumn?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I do not want to pre-empt the decision across Government on the next stage, but our direction is very clear about lifting the restrictions and ensuring that children are not in a situation where they have to bubble. That is very much part of the course of the road map, and of course we would very much expect that our children would not be facing that in September, as my right hon. Friend has said.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Secretary of State says that his priority is to keep children in school, yet hundreds of thousands of them are missing yet more precious time in the classroom as well as important end-of-term rituals, and families are angry and desperate. For many months, organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Royal Society of Medicine have been saying that one of the basic things that needs to be done to protect our children is to ensure better ventilation in all classrooms. People who live in New York, for example, can consult a public website to see the ventilation status of every single classroom in the state, and there has been serious investment in ventilation and filtration there. Why has the Secretary of State not done something similar here to introduce those basic mitigation measures and fast-track the assessment of testing pilots? Living with covid must not mean dumping all the risk on our children because the Education Secretary has not acted with anything like the urgency and ambition this crisis demands.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

At every stage, we have put in all the protective measures that are required in order to be able to keep children safe and ensure that they are back in the classroom and have the opportunity to learn.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The numbers of pupils self-isolating and therefore not at school have risen nationally from 40,000 to 300,000 in three weeks, and in the same period in Gloucestershire they have risen from a few hundred to almost 8,000, which is virtually 8% of all pupils. That is clearly not the direction that either the Education Secretary or any of us want.

We can therefore all agree with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ children’s expert, Professor Russell Viner, who has said that we have to rethink all the rules around our schools. Schools are not the driver of transmission at the moment, and to my knowledge there is not a single child in Gloucestershire in any of our hospitals with the virus, so something needs to be done. My right hon. Friend has already given a clear steer that he wants to see children back at school as soon as possible and the benefits of summer school being enjoyed, so would he consider a pilot project in Gloucestershire to allow all these children who are self-isolating to get back to school as soon as possible?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

Frankly, if there is going to be a pilot project, it is going to be in Staffordshire, not in Gloucestershire, but that was a good old punt.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Professor Marmot has reported today on the impacts of inequality in large parts of Greater Manchester, including my own constituency, and we know that covid has exacerbated these inequalities. We know that too many children have had and are still having their education disrupted. We all agree that we need to ensure that children and families are supported, not just during self-isolation, and that catch-up is intensified, so what work is the Secretary of State’s Department doing on the wider impact that covid may have on this cohort of children in school or college through the pandemic? How do we ensure that we properly tackle the inequalities created by covid on top of the pre-existing inequalities affecting the same children?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I would very much appreciate it if the hon. Gentleman forwarded that report, as it would be interesting to look at the details. We have been looking closely at the impact of covid on children’s learning right across the country. We have been doing a detailed study with Renaissance Learning to look at the lost learning, not just as a national cohort but very much in granular detail, and that is very much informing our policy development as to how we best address that.

Stephen Hammond Portrait Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers today and for his commitment to remove self-isolation for schoolchildren as soon as possible. That will be widely welcomed across Wimbledon. Can he reassure me about what the Government are doing to ensure that disabled children get the support they need at home when they have been self-isolating and unable to attend school?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

We very much expect the education to be delivered for all children remotely, whether they are in a mainstream school, a special school or alternative provision. We work with the sector to ensure that that happens, including on the provision of IT equipment and devices, which is so critical for all schools to be able to deliver that.

Sam Tarry Portrait Sam Tarry (Ilford South) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

We remember the appalling free school meals debacle over Christmas, where the Opposition and football players had to try to force the Government to do the right thing. My Ilford South constituents, who are among some of the poorest in certain super-output wards, are extremely concerned that their holiday activities and food programme has not been guaranteed if they are going to be at home self-isolating. Will the Secretary of State please be crystal clear that nobody will go without food this summer?

--- Later in debate ---
Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman probably heard my earlier answer. Of course, the Department for Work and Pensions scheme is there to support children who are in receipt of free school meals over the summer period. The holiday activities and food programme is an extensive scheme across local authorities right across the country. This is an excellent scheme and we want to see all children able to take part in it because of the benefit of not just food, but, as importantly, the activity that is part of the scheme.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to end bubbles. Last week, some 74% of children who were isolating in England were doing so not because they had caught covid but because someone in their bubble had done so. This puts a huge strain on them and their parents. With that in mind between now and the terminus date, will my right hon. Friend consider accelerating the rapid testing programme to ensure that we see less self-isolating for children?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

We always continue to work with the Department for Health and Social Care on testing and being able to maximise that so that we can catch people with covid at home, so they are not in a position of infecting their friends at school and the teachers.

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

With nearly 400,000 children and young people out of school just last week for covid-related reasons, the Government’s failure to secure our borders against the delta variant has demonstrated the damage that it is doing to children and their future. Given those failures and the incompetence, frankly, of the Secretary of State over the last year in getting a grip and supporting schoolchildren, is it not time that he worked with the Chancellor to get the funding that is needed for catch-up, as was recommended by the former catch-up tsar, Sir Kevan Collins? There is a shortfall of £13.6 billion. Is it not time that that money was provided so that children do not continue to suffer because of the mistakes of the Secretary of State’s Government?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Lady seems to be blissfully unaware that we have already invested over £3 billion in supporting children to be able to catch up in our schools. As she requested, we will continue to work closely with the Treasury—as we have been doing—as we approach the spending review to see what further action is needed to be able to support our children.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey (Tatton) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Last week, 375,000 pupils were off school through self-isolation and there has been a 40% increase in anti-depressants being prescribed to under-17-year-olds. Given that children are extremely unlikely to suffer serious ill health as a result of catching covid, and given the damage being done to their education and their mental health, is it not time we stopped this self-isolation madness and got all pupils back in the classroom where they belong?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend raises a really important issue in terms of children’s mental health. This is why we have been so concerned to put interventions in place to be able to support children, as well as those who work in our schools and colleges, with their mental health at this incredibly difficult time. The best way of helping children and all people—all staff—with their mental health is by actually having schools functioning as normally as possible. That is why we have always been clear that when we are in a position to be able to remove those restrictions, and to be able to make those changes and make it easier for schools to operate as normally as possible, we will always take those steps at the earliest possible stage.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My constituent Stephen sums up the frustrations of parents and pupils when he tells me that his boy is now home again for a third time—10 days of isolation—because somebody has tested positive in his school, even though he wears a mask. He has tested negative on a PCR test, plus two further tests a week. Stephen asks how we can justify 40,000 people hugging each other at Wembley, but his son cannot see his friends. The effect on pupils has also been raised by my constituent Joe, who teaches and has seen the mental health effects to which the Secretary of State just referred. What additional support will be put in place to support Joe and the pupils that he supports during this mental health crisis?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Member is probably aware that both the Department of Health and Social Care and my Department have outlined support packages for schools to boost mental health provision, including training to ensure that there are people trained to deal with mental health issues in all schools, right across the country. He is probably also aware of the comments I made earlier about the lifting of restrictions and the removal of bubbles. That is the next step that we very much want to take, but it has to be done in line with the broader changes and steps to unlock the country that are part of the road map.

Suzanne Webb Portrait Suzanne Webb (Stourbridge) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Getting children back into school without having to self-isolate cannot come soon enough, as there is no substitute for learning, attainment and keeping children in face-to-face education. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that keeping children in an educational setting whenever it is safe to do so remains his priority?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My hon. Friend is so right. The provisions—whether it was the roll-out of mass testing across all schools, or the restrictions and levels of safety that we had to put into schools—have all been designed around getting children into schools for the maximum amount of time, ensuring that they are in front of the teacher with their friends, having the very best classroom experience. That is the No. 1 priority. As we move out of this crisis, we want to lift as many of those restrictions as possible and liberate schools to be able to operate in the best possible way for themselves.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s failure to get border controls in place has enabled the delta variant to take hold in the UK, forcing children out of classrooms and away from their friends?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

At every stage, the Government have been one of the first to act in order to keep this country safe; this was one of the first countries in Europe to impose travel restrictions on India as a result of the delta variant. The new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Transport Secretary and the Prime Minister take that responsibility incredibly seriously.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. I have recently finished a 10-day period of self-isolation following someone in my office testing positive for covid. However, the flatmate of that person was able to go about their daily life in a normal way, using the Government’s daily testing trial. As we learn to live with covid, surely it is time to move quickly to a more nuanced approach that does not endlessly interrupt children’s education, as it cannot be right to have learning continuously disrupted by unnecessary self-isolation.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

There is nothing that I can really disagree with my hon. Friend about, so I had better just sit down, hadn’t I?

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Too many schoolchildren across my constituency of Blaydon have faced disadvantage from being out of school under the current arrangements. Will the Secretary of State be absolutely clear with school leaders well in advance of any new arrangements to be put in place? It is vital that they have that information. Will he also talk about the support that can be given to disabled children to ensure that they have the chance to catch up on the education opportunities that they have missed?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I very much want to reassure the hon. Lady that we will give all schools good notice of any new arrangements. As I have committed to, we are aiming to issue guidance and advice to schools in conjunction with the details of step 4. On disabled children and children with special educational needs, we will continue to have a really strong emphasis in terms of how we support special schools or alternative provision. In particular, we will weight the level of support at a much higher level for those schools than we do for mainstream schools.

Flick Drummond Portrait Mrs Flick Drummond (Meon Valley) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Like others, I would also like to see the immediate return of the daily testing that has been so successful in the pilot schools, so that pupils can remain in school. I agree with others that we should go back to normal as soon as possible, preferably in September. Yesterday, the Minister for School Standards stated that we are consulting parents, teachers and pupils about extending the school day. Will the Secretary of State make it clear during the consultation that the extended day should be for enrichment activities as well as time for extra tutoring where necessary?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I very much want to see children spending as much time in school as possible, although I do want them to have the opportunity to go home at certain points, Mr Speaker! As part of that extra time, I want them not only to be learning from a rigorous curriculum that has been carefully crafted by my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards—they will get a lot of fun out of learning from that rigorous and detailed curriculum—but to have more fun doing sporting activities, cultural activities, art and so much more as well.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Over the past few weeks, I have been touring secondary schools in my constituency. The current self-isolation policy, which, incidentally, resulted in a Twickenham secondary having to close its doors entirely last week for several days, combined with lockdowns is not just impacting academic progress; the No.1 issue, according to heads and safeguarding leads, is the mental health impact. As well as ensuring support for academic catch-up, may I urge the Secretary of State to do everything he can to speed up the roll-out of mental health support teams in schools? Will he also please speak to the Health Secretary to provide urgent additional capacity for tier 4 child and adolescent mental health services beds because too many children are being turned away? From the evidence that I am being presented with, it is not exaggeration to say that children’s lives are at risk because teachers and school counsellors just do not have the skills to deal with those cases.

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The hon. Lady raises a very thoughtful and important issue. I am very much with her in that I want to see the roll-out of mental health support in schools as quickly as is feasibly possible. That also plays an incredibly important role in tackling some of the further pressure that is then put at the door of CAMHS services. I am very happy to take up the point that she raised with the Department for Health and Social Care, which runs CAMHS, as to how best we can support children in those early stages and, if there is a need for clinical intervention, how that can be best supported and swiftly supported in order to be able to deal with the problem early on.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Government prioritised reopening schools above almost anything else. Schools in Stoke-on-Trent have been doing an absolutely amazing job in keeping education going, given the challenges that they have faced. I know that schools in my constituency are struggling with several covid cases right now. It is vital that we keep children in school as far as possible, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to ensure that no more time is lost and that all our young people receive the good quality education that we want to see?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I know my hon. Friend has done so much for education in Stoke, including his efforts to secure a new free school for the Stoke-on-Trent South constituency. He is right: we constantly review what needs to be done to keep children in school for a maximum amount of time so that they can benefit from the education. We recognise that that delivers the best benefits for children not only in his constituency, but in all of our constituencies.

Charlotte Nichols Portrait Charlotte Nichols (Warrington North) (Lab) [V]
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Teachers and school staff in Warrington North have moved heaven and earth over the past 18 months to try to support the education and welfare of our town’s young people in the face of last-minute, changing and often contradictory guidance. Nowhere is this more the case than in special educational needs and disability educational settings, especially as testing can be traumatic or, indeed, impossible for some children with special needs. When will schools know what is to happen in September and, can the Secretary of State confirm that this will be shared with schools well in advance of the summer holiday to ensure that staff are not required to work across their summer leave, and that specific guidance will be provided for SEND schools rather than their being an after-thought?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

Specific guidance is always provided for special educational needs schools. I can ensure that the detail on the gov.uk website is available to the hon. Lady so she might be able to read it if she is interested in doing so. I absolutely assure her that, as I have said in answer to other questions, we will provide that information at the earliest possible stage.

Antony Higginbotham Portrait Antony Higginbotham (Burnley) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have been contacted by parents across Burnley and Padiham, some of whom have children who are off for the third time despite having never had coronavirus themselves, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s work to end isolation for students. One thing that will really help schools is getting the testing solution right. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care about new types of testing, such as saliva testing, that would be far quicker and easier for schools to implement?