Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams

Wes Streeting Excerpts
Monday 7th December 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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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.”

Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

I begin by thanking all those who signed the petition and in particular the two people who started it, and I echo what we have heard already around the Chamber, namely that it is particularly encouraging to see so many young people engaging in the democratic process and making their voice heard in this year of all years.

For all the reasons that we have heard during the debate, Labour Members believe that it is absolutely essential that we keep pupils learning. In fact, the big challenge that our pupils face this year—and I fear that it will be the big challenge that our country will face for many years to come—is that pupils have spent so much time out of school. So, we certainly cannot support a proposal that would take pupils out of school for even longer.

We also believe, not least because of the experience last summer as well as because of other well-known and well-recognised concerns about the potential for bias outside of examination conditions, that it is in the best interests of pupils for examinations to go ahead. Our argument has been that the Government need to take action to ensure that exams go ahead in a way that is fair and accessible to all pupils, and that takes into account the levels of lost learning this year. I am afraid, however, that the Government have failed England’s school pupils. They have failed on exams, failed on attendance, failed to protect the vulnerable, failed on home learning and failed on funding.

Let me take exams first. We all saw the unmitigated disaster that was last year’s exam results; 31.9% of teachers’ A-level predictions in England were downgraded by the algorithm and pupils from poorer backgrounds were more likely to have received a bigger downward adjustment. Indeed, under the original algorithm, the subject in which students did best relative to their predicted grades was Latin.

That information was known by Ministers in advance of results day. They were presented with evidence of the inequities but proceeded anyway, into a results day where the disaster was not just foreseeable but actually foreseen. I cannot imagine any Labour Education Secretary over the years being presented with such evidence and not taking immediate action ahead of the disaster.

Even then, the current Education Secretary mishandled the fallout. Alternatives to the algorithm were put in place at the last minute. The Education Secretary announced that the system would switch to a triple lock before Ofqual signed it off. Ofqual was only told about the plan on 11 August, just two days before results day.

With the lessons of last summer’s disaster not having been learned, we have seen dither and delay. Surely, the one lesson we should learn from the exams debacle is to ensure that preparations are made for the coming set of exams, and that those positions are well understood by pupils, parents and schools alike. Instead, the Government have dithered and delayed, announcing only a three-week delay in October as the grand sum of their package, until last week, when the Education Secretary came before the House and presented a range of measures, many of which we could support, but which did not go far enough.

The measures are not targeted. We know that lost learning is disproportionately impacting pupils from different backgrounds and schools in different communities, yet we saw a blanket approach with standard measures put in place for all schools and pupils regardless of their circumstances. There was no real focus on tackling the severe disadvantage that some have faced disproportionately.

The big announcement was the proposal to establish

“a new expert group to look at differential learning and monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country.”

This is really obvious stuff. We know there has been a differential impact. We know that pupils and schools have been affected differently. Why was the Education Secretary not announcing the outcome of such a review last week, rather than simply commissioning one just before Christmas? It is absolutely unacceptable.

Despite measures announced such as providing schools and pupils with topics in advance of exams, and proposals around revision aides and written materials to take into exams, the Education Secretary has not said when that information will be available. We were given a commitment of late January, but there is such little teaching time left this academic year before pupils are meant to be revising that he really ought to have that information out to schools by the beginning of term in January at the latest.

On attendance, we have all talked about the importance of getting pupils to school, but in recent weeks we have had as many as 1 million children missing school each week. Worse still, the Government are hiding the extent of the crisis by refusing to publish a regional breakdown of data. Finally, we have a commitment from the Department to publish that regional breakdown before the end of December. If we do not know the extent of the problem, how on earth can we work to tackle it?

On vulnerable children, we know that rates of absence for children with social workers and special educational needs are even higher than the general figures. We also know that prolonged absences have been a disaster for the most vulnerable children. Only last week, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector said:

“Covid-19 has exposed an already crumbling infrastructure that fails to meet the needs of our most vulnerable children all too often”.

That would be shameful enough, were it not that the Education Secretary and the Department were dragged before the courts to be held to account for their failure in their statutory duty to protect the most vulnerable children. That is not to say anything of the reprehensible decision by this Government not to provide the necessary support to feed vulnerable children over the October half-term. If Treasury sources are to be believed, the Education Secretary and the Department did not even ask for the money to provide that support.

On home learning and catch-up support, we have seen a failure to provide enough laptops. Only this Department for Education led by this Education Secretary could be so incompetent as to provide schools with a new statutory duty to provide home learning on one day and to cut the provision of laptops by 80% the next. Of course, some people are doing very well out of this incompetent and overly centralised means of providing laptops. Computacenter founder and director, Philip Hulme, has given thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. His wife gave £100,000 to the Tories during last year’s general election. Of course, companies like Computacenter just happen to have been given lucrative contracts by the Government.

Even where the Government could have exerted some influence, we have seen some pathetic attempts to make sure that pupils can access learning from home. If there is one thing that we have come to understand from the pandemic, it is that devices are only part of the story. Without internet access, they are as good as useless for home learning.

We asked the Department for Education what work had been done to encourage mobile internet providers to zero rate educational websites. In a reply to a written question, it said:

“To further support disadvantaged households who rely on a mobile internet connection, the major telecoms companies have zero rated the Hungry Little Minds site.”

No doubt the Hungry Little Minds site is great, but it is just one site. What about the BBC? What about the Oak National Academy? We asked if any other websites had been zero rated and the Government could not list any. It is absolutely outrageous.

As we have heard, there has been a £350-million intervention this year to fund the national tutoring programme. Although that is not sufficient, we had hoped that it would give some support to those who need it. Last week, however, we found that the Department is fiddling the figures, so £350 million is not £350 million for this year; it is £350 million over two years, which is effectively half the funding. One big overriding problem with the Department and its Secretary of State is that they are not focusing on or targeting the most disadvantaged enough, so to find an already limited pot cut in half is deeply disappointing.

As we heard from many hon. Members, it is a cross-party concern that schools have been seriously short-changed, and so have their pupils as a result, because the Department is not covering the true cost of covid and all those measures. Headteachers have enough to worry about. They need to be able to put in place safety measures in the certainty that they, their schools and, most importantly, their pupils are not going to be short-changed by the Government. What we have heard so far is simply not enough.

I am sorry that, for the second time that I can recall in recent weeks, the poor Minister has been sent along to take a brickbat for other people. She had to take brickbats on the disgraceful decision to scrap Unionlearn, which no doubt came from the Secretary of State and some of his bizarre ideological hobby-horses, and now she is having to take brickbats for the Minister for School Standards, no doubt because he is absolutely sweating it ahead of appearing before the Education Committee and its difficult questions. I welcome the Minister, but I am sorry that she has to account for it all.

We want to hear from the Minister, so I will conclude by saying an enormous thank you to all the staff—school leaders, teachers and support staff—in our schools who have been busting a gut to keep pupils learning. When I compare their efforts with the work of the Secretary of State for Education, they are truly lions led by donkeys.

Gillian Keegan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
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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 securing this debate. I am also grateful to the petitioners, Ellis, Libby and Alex, and to the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss these important topics of opening schools and colleges and ensuring that exams can fairly take place in 2021.

I offer my thanks, as I am sure all hon. Members would, to teachers and educational leaders for their phenomenal efforts in recent months as they have adapted to the changing environment we all live in. The work of schools and colleges has been critical to ensuring that students have continued to access education in some way, and have continued to feel connected to the classroom and their peers. We accept, however, that that has not been an equal experience across the whole country.

When developing our approach, the interests of students and teachers have always been our priority. Since the pandemic began, we as a Government have rightly put education first, and we will continue to do so. We cannot and must not let covid destroy this year of education, which is why we have taken steps to keep schools and colleges open and exams on track.

The return to school in autumn was driven by the clear benefits to young people and children of a return to educational settings. Those benefits remain unchanged. As many hon. Members said, keeping schools and colleges open is important to mitigate some of the largest risks that have materialised during this period for children and young people who have spent time away from educational settings.

There is clear evidence of the negative educational impact of missing school for all students, but particularly younger children, as investments in children’s learning tend to accumulate and consolidate over time. School and college closures put educational outcomes at risk, especially for disadvantaged students, due to existing inequalities and attainment gaps being exacerbated. The opportunities for early identification of things such as emerging learning problems are also missed when pupils are not in school.

As was mentioned by many hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), school closures have been found to cause a deterioration in children’s mental health. Evidence suggests that the mental health of adolescents is particularly affected and that their cognitive, social and emotional development outcomes are at risk, as is their physical health. For vulnerable children, the impact of school closures has had an adverse effect on their wellbeing and educational outcomes due to reduced access to essential services. One regional study presents evidence that schools have been the source of 40% of child protection and safeguarding referrals.

Keeping settings open remains the Government’s priority, and we have taken other steps across society to manage down virus prevalence by closing other sectors in order to allow schools to remain open at full attendance. We have prioritised education at all local restriction tiers. The Government’s policy is that education settings will remain open, and parents should therefore continue to send their children to school. Schools have implemented a range of protective measures to minimise the risk of transmission. The risk of children becoming severely ill from coronavirus is low, and there are negative health impacts from being out of school. Senior clinicians, including the chief medical officers of all four nations, still advise that school is the best place for children to be.

To respond to Libby’s specific question—several hon. Members have raised the issue of finishing school two weeks earlier—we will provide guidance to schools and colleges on the end of term and on how to manage the short period afterwards, when their support might be required with contact tracing. Further guidance will be issued, but let us be clear: this will not be a typical Christmas for any of us, and we will all need to take extra care, as the Prime Minister has said. We want to maximise the time in school as much as possible. Young people have missed simply too much of their education.

Let us turn to some of the support that we provide to schools, particularly on their use of technology and on whether they have been able to access technology. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), who is no longer in his place, mentioned that. We have taken access to technology very seriously. By the end of this year, over 500,000 laptops, as well as 50,000 4G wireless routers, will have been provided by Computacenter, which has always been on the procurement framework. We have also introduced a service to provide more flexibility and to make sure they get to the right places, if there are specific lockdowns or large areas where kids need them. People can call that service and receive a laptop in just two days—I am sure the people of Darlington will welcome that.

The EdTech strategy, which we published in April last year, set out the Government’s commitment to support and enable schools and colleges to use technology more effectively. Of course, that has been really important, as we have all had to go and do pretty much everything online. The strategy set out the building blocks for effective use of technology in education: good digital infrastructure, capacity building, capability building across the sector, and a better understanding of the things that work in practice.

The same building blocks from the strategy have been an essential part of our response, but at a greater pace than we could have ever anticipated, to ensure that both schools and parents feel supported and that young people continue to thrive. That includes a whole host of measures, such as the introduction of the EdTech demonstrator network, which is a peer support network of schools and colleges that aims to increase expertise in their use of technology. That includes targeted support, weekly webinars and an online library of resources that can be shared. That is to help schools that are not as comfortable or familiar with the technology, so that those that are further ahead on the tech journey can help others in need.

In recent months, the network’s support has included how to maximise the investment that the Government have made to freely access Microsoft 365 or the G Suite for Education digital platform; how to ensure that pupils are safe online, including anxiety-busting strategies and activities; and how technology can help better support pupils with complex needs. There is a lot of work going on in this area. Crucially, that support also considers how our investment in technology can offer long-term benefits for pupils and teachers, as disruption to education could continue. Even after it reduces, there will be a legacy of blended learning.

On 27 November, the Department announced a new covid workforce fund for schools and further education settings to help them remain open. It will fund the cost of teacher absences over a threshold in schools and colleges for those with high staff absences that are facing significant financial pressures. The fund will help schools and colleges meet the cost of the absences that they have experienced from the beginning of November until the end of this term.

A number of Members mentioned budgets and additional costs. Schools have already received payments of £102 million for exceptional costs during the summer months, and there will be a further opportunity later in the year for schools to claim any costs that fell between March and July in the same approved categories for which they did not already claim in the first window. We will continue to review the pressures that schools and colleges are facing in the next term.