Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams

Peter Gibson Excerpts
Monday 7th December 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Education
Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this evening, Mr Gray, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this important debate.

I pay tribute to school leaders, teachers and support staff across my constituency, who have worked tirelessly throughout the coronavirus lockdown to keep schools open for the children of key workers, deliver teaching online in difficult circumstances, and reopen schools to all students. Their commitment has been extraordinary, but they have not had the support from the Government that they should have been able to rely on. First, in relation to laptops, tablets and wi-fi provision, it was completely obvious at the very beginning of the coronavirus lockdown that the impact on education would be far worse for students who did not have dedicated access to a laptop or tablet, and reliable wi-fi. Yet across my constituency the number of laptops provided has not come close to meeting the need, and in October the allocation was revised down. One headteacher tweeted that in September the school was promised

“115 laptops for disadvantaged students”,

that on 22 October schools had a

“legal requirement to deliver remote learning”,

and that on 23 October as the school broke up for half term it received 23 laptops. The headteacher added that the children had not “got less disadvantaged” between September and 23 October.

Secondly, in relation to costs, schools have incurred significant extra costs as a result of introducing covid-safe measures. Many schools in my constituency are seeking to reclaim between £12,000 and £20,000 in extra costs—money that they have already spent; but there is no transparency from the Government about reimbursements. Some schools’ applications have been refused entirely, others have had a partial amount, and others have received the full sum for which they applied. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain how she expects schools to balance their budgets in those circumstances, when the Government do not fully account for and reimburse the significant extra costs. Will she commit to reimburse all the additional costs that schools have incurred related to covid-19?

Finally, on exams, it is important that children can be confident that everything possible will be done to ensure that they do not suffer long-term disadvantage as a result of the terrible year of coronavirus. The handling of exam results was a fiasco. It caused deep, lasting distress to many students and their families, not all of which could be repaired by the Government’s U-turn. Even after that U-turn, there was still a widening of the disadvantage gap in results, with private schools seeing the biggest improvements in grades. Applying blanket measures to all students in the coming year will not address the disadvantage gap either. Students who have had good access to online learning will still fare better than students who have not had the laptops or wi-fi that they need, even with knowledge of the subjects that will be on the exam paper.

Coronavirus has scarred our country enough. The Government must ensure that they do not do long-term damage to young people in relation to either the quality of their education or their mental health. Funding laptops, reimbursing schools for additional costs and delivering a fully functioning, comprehensive catch-up programme are the minimum requirements that children should be able to expect.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on leading today’s debate.

I thank all the schools in Darlington—the teachers, headteachers and other school staff—for their amazing efforts throughout the last nine months in keeping schools open and continuing to educate our children online and in the classroom. In preparing for tonight’s debate, I have spoken with Nicole Gibbon, the fantastic head of St Aidan’s Academy in my constituency. She said to me:

“Children need to come to school for their mental health, their stability and their routine. They need goals to work toward and I welcome the announcements in respect of next year’s exams although I would have liked them sooner.”

I agree with Nicole and I believe that it is right for schools to be open and children to be at school. It is also right for exams to take place.

We are of course living in unique times, and that is why I welcome the measures that were announced last week, including a three-week delay to exams, more generous grading, advance notice of some topics and exam aids. I am conscious that some of my constituents want schools closed and exams cancelled, with more than 1,000 people from Darlington signing the petitions before us. However, as the chief medical officers of each of the four nations set out, schools are the best place for children to be, while the Children’s Commissioner stated that Ministers should ensure that schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen.

We are all conscious of the risk to children of missing out on education in the long term and of social isolation and the potential damage to their development. I firmly believe that the best place for our children in the future is in school, for their education, their social development and their mental health. I am proud of the work undertaken by schools and colleges right across Darlington, which have responded to the challenges of 2020 and have remained open in a covid-secure manner. To close them now would be a betrayal of their hard work and the trust placed in them. It is right that the Government remain committed to exams going ahead in 2021, and they have responded to the challenge that that poses with a number of sensible measures.

I welcome the steps taken to tackle the digital divide, which needs to cover kit, connectivity and skills. I urge the Minister to continue to send out kit to children in Darlington as soon as it rolls off the production line. While I am issuing a Christmas list to the Minister, will she please commit to the additional costs being reimbursed to all our schools?

I know that schools and colleges right across Darlington have been working hard to ensure that no pupil misses out. I want that to continue, with our schools staying firmly open and vital exams taking place.

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

I congratulate my good friend, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), on setting the scene, as he often does. He has brought his knowledge of education to the House, which we all benefit from. Well done to him. I also thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me the opportunity to speak.

Education is clearly a devolved matter, so the Minister has no responsibility for what happens in Northern Ireland. However, I will add my comments, which will replicate the comments of other right hon. and hon. Members on what is important in education and the best way to achieve the safety and education of children. This debate has illustrated that I am not the only MP inundated with parents’ concerns; I believe that much of the mail I receive every day in relation to education will be the same in Strangford as elsewhere. The queries of parents uncomfortable with their child being on the bus to school, in class or taking part in after-school activities are valid, and their concerns are entirely understandable.

However, the other side of that is a letter from an equally concerned parent that their child’s academic and social development is being adversely affected by remote teaching, as the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) clearly referred to. Queries about the focus on home learning and children being prevented from attending normal after-school activities are equally valid and understandable. The Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, Peter Weir, said that schools will remain open right through to the normal school holidays. That is good, because children need a routine; that is important, as has been coming through to me. He is in regular contact with the Education Minister here, and they try to ensure continuity between what happens here and in Northern Ireland.

I hear from teachers concerned for their families. It seems that every day we hear of more community transmission. Although the rate is lessening thanks to the steps taken, it is still in schools, and I hear from teachers concerned for the health of their loved ones at home. There was a covid-19 outbreak in my granddaughter’s school, and year 8s and year 9s had to go home as a precaution. I will not mention which school, but it is good that they are now over that, that there were no fatalities and nothing serious came out of it. All teachers and pupils have recovered.

I hear from other teachers who highlight their concern for children who are unable to learn at home due to a lack of support or the need for enhanced professional support. One teacher told me that their heart was breaking for a child she believes soaks up the kindness from teaching staff; there are children who really need that more than anything else. When she went to call the child’s mother on Zoom to check on the child during the covid lockdown, she was unable to get through. The child returned to school after lockdown ended, but was withdrawn, quiet and uncertain. In the teacher’s own words, her heart “literally ached” for that child.

Let me be quite clear that this child is not in any physical danger; she is fed and clothed in clean clothes. Nevertheless, this teacher urged me to tell the story of all the children who need to be in school for the kindness and encouragement that they receive, even for that little two minutes that the teacher spends with them on a one-to-one basis. Other children look forward to the structure of school, while for many children it is the nutritious lunch they get at school that they look forward to; that is valid to me and it is valid to their families as well.

One teacher highlights the need for an additional week of school holiday, to give the two-week buffer after the five-day Christmas period relaxation. However, another says that she cannot do that:

“I have GCSE and A-level students who need to be in”.

Both views are valid, and there is a balance that education Ministers and even schools themselves are always trying to strike in the education system. But herein lies a problem for schools. What one family needs is not what all children need; what will work for one teacher might not work for another. Are any of those teachers wrong in what they say? No, I do not think they are.

So, what can we do? How do we design a place to satisfy the valid concerns of both sides, who have opinions that are polar opposites? The question is difficult, yet what every teacher and every parent agree on is that there is more riding on this issue than an attendance percentage on a report. For many children, it is about establishing their foundation for learning; for others, it is the difference between excelling and merely attaining.

I got no further than GCSEs at school, or their equivalent at that time; I will put that on the record. I often say to children at exam time that through hard work, determination and working my way up, I ran my own business and managed to make it to this place. Exams are not the be-all and end-all, but education is, and we must do all we can to protect the education of our children, to protect the necessary social interaction between them and to protect a generation of innovation and hope. Are we getting things right? I am not really sure. Do we need to keep listening and reacting to new information and situations? The answer to that is, “Absolutely.”