Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con) [V]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered improving the education system after the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I understand it is your first chairmanship, so many congratulations if that is the case. I thank Members, and most of all the Minister, for taking time to participate in the debate. Frankly, all debates on education are important. I pay tribute to the work that the Minister has done. He is a long-standing Minister and is much respected in his field.
I will start off with a couple of other thank yous that are relevant to the Isle of Wight. I know how hard the headteachers, teachers and pupils on the island have worked, and I thank them all. It has been a difficult year and I think the Isle of Wight has done pretty well overall, especially compared with the national average. It has not been easy and we are grateful to everyone for the efforts that they have made. I thank our education team at the council: Brian Pope and Steve Crocker, and Councillor Paul Brading. I thank them for their dedication to the wellbeing of the island.
One of the worst of many damaging aspects of covid has been the effect on the education of children and young people. Even with our best efforts, it will now take years to repair the damage. Significant events such as pandemics and, indeed, world wars, often serve as disruptors, but they can be positive disruptors. Not only do we now have an opportunity to learn from the past year with its virtual as opposed to real, in-person education, but such situations provide a window of opportunity for sometimes radical change. I want to look at two or three ideas to suggest potential changes to the education system that could benefit not only folk on the Isle of Wight but everyone in the UK.
As I said, the pandemic is no different from significant disruptor episodes, and has identified some important issues such as, in the healthcare context, the link between the health and care home sectors—or lack of it—and how that worked during the pandemic. I want to take this opportunity to ask some big questions about how things can be done differently in education. The Minister has been in his post for some years so I am trying to frame the debate as questions to him, because he has significantly more expertise than I do in the matter. There are three things I want to look at, and the first is term time. The Secretary of State has spoken about that recently. The second is the use of technology to improve education, and the third is Government working in a more integrated and coherent way. I shall refer to my constituency too.
The three-term school year has absolutely had its day. We have not lived in an agrarian society for the best part of 150 years, if not 200 years. Children, teenagers and young people no longer need to go and help with the harvests for a six or seven-week period over the summer. That has not had to happen for decades, if not a century or two. We know that long holidays can damage kids’ learning. I remember going back to school in September pretty much having forgotten everything that I learned the previous year, because in the seven weeks over summer people simply swich off. Research shows that the poorer the children, the worse the damage. Additionally, poorer children are less likely to take part in enriching activities in summer, such as travel abroad, and they are sadly more likely to be malnourished and are more vulnerable to isolation and periods of inactivity. This is a social and mental health problem, as well as an educational problem.
The Secretary of State said that we should look to move to a five-term year, and I completely agree. We should be doing so permanently, and perhaps a royal commission could look at whether it is a four-term or five-term year. We need to split up the term time in order to have shorter but more consistent terms throughout the year. Yes, we still need summer holidays, but they can be staggered depending on the exact school term for any academy or county, with changes in term time. Holidays do not have to be crammed into six or seven weeks in summer; they could be taken in June, July, August or September, depending on when the exact term time falls for any given school.
Why do we have a school year that runs from September to July? Why not from January to December? Why should we have exams in summer, which is full of disruption? Summer is fun—people want to be outside, and it is a very distracting time of year. Why not have exams in March or April, over a winter period in which it is easier to encourage kids to work at home and to study because it is raining outside or it is cold? There is an argument that if we think it is right to do something, let us get on and do it.
My second point is about using technology to improve education. We need to implement the best learnings that we can to enhance education, and I thank the Academies Enterprise Trust, Julian Drinkall and his team for their excellent work at Ryde Academy—some really ground-breaking stuff. Although some schools have struggled with virtual learning, most have not. The Isle of Wight has done very well by comparison and, again, I thank everyone involved, but we need to take the lessons from the pandemic and find the best balance between in-person teaching and virtual learning, because kids need to learn to react with screens as well as in person. I know there is an issue with people saying that sometimes children are watching too much TV at home, but screens can be a great way to encourage engagement with technology at school. Everyone will be living virtually online and in person now, and this is not an option.
Every child should have a tablet or laptop for the duration of their schooling, in the same way that they would have had a pencil and notebook 50 years ago. Certainly when it comes to exams and testing, screens can be almost a non-stressful way to encourage testing at the end of a lesson, at the end of the day or at the end of a week. Testing can become part of the support for children, and indeed for teachers, rather than painful occasional hurdles that need to be overcome. For some children, virtual learning has enhanced their education. For some, it has not worked, and vulnerable children need to be in the classroom, either with in-person teaching or with tablets. For some kids, however—as far as the teachers to whom I have spoken say—more at-home learning has actually been of real benefit, as has been more interaction with technologists. For example, I understand that some children with autism have benefited from being able to work at home with a more flexible timetable. This is about an important duty of care as well as education.
That links to the critical national infrastructure that we actually need, which is not a railway between London and Birmingham; it is fibre to premises for homes, schools and businesses throughout the country. That is the critical piece of infrastructure that we cannot do without in future and that we should prioritise.
My third point is about coherent and integrated working. Talking to educational experts—I like to talk to them anyway, but I wanted to make sure that I had some valid points to make in my speech—there is a sense from some of them, and from some teachers, that although the Department for Education is doing excellent work, it could work more effectively and coherently with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on skills, and with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on kit and support for schools in a virtual world, in order to improve education and work experience. I am sure the Minister will let us know his thoughts on this issue.
Finally, I want to talk a bit about improving education on the Isle of Wight. We have an improving school system on the Island, for which I am very grateful. The officers we have had from Hampshire, who now work on the Island, have helped us drive up standards.
We have had an issue with higher education, only because we have not had it and not had enough of it. My huge frustration has been that for 30 years, while higher education in Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Southampton and Brighton have driven not only education in those cities but student life and the prosperity it brings to those city centres, that education revolution has completely passed by the Isle of Wight, which is painful for us.
The worst thing is that, if someone is young and smart and wants to get a degree, they would pretty much have to leave the island. That inability to keep our most talented people has been a problem for us. Once kids leave, they might not come back until they are 50, 60 or 70. They might come back to retire, but getting them back has been a problem. I would very much like to do more to develop higher education, specifically with a higher education campus in Newport.
We have the Isle of Wight College, under the excellent leadership of Debbie Lavin. Anything the Minister could do, not only with the DFE but also the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, working with me to develop more degree level courses, which people can take on the island, perhaps doing that through the Isle of Wight College or virtually, or with other people setting up a campus here, would be incredibly valuable for us.
I want others to have time to talk, so I will wrap up there. I will be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say to those critical points. To sum up: on term times, can we change the school year and potentially the times we do exams, to enable kids to learn better and more consistently throughout the year? Can we use technology better, with that interaction between the best of in-person learning and learning virtually on screen? We need that for the future, because kids will need to be able to adjust to the real life that they are going to find once they leave school. Thirdly, what can the DFE do to work more coherently with other Departments, to ensure that we drive forward a skills and learning agenda, which is critical for the future of the country?