Tuesday 23rd March 2021

(2 weeks, 6 days ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems they should email the Westminster Hall Clerk’s email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I would also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con) [V]
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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?

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
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I intend to call the Opposition spokesperson at 5.33 pm and the Minister at 5.38 pm. That gives four minutes maximum to Back-Bench speakers, so please confine yourselves to four minutes or less. I call Emma Hardy.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Provision and support for children with special educational needs and disability was broken before the pandemic. During the pandemic, those children have been forgotten. My plea to the Minister is, now that we are looking at how to improve education, let us put those children back at its heart.

The Select Committee on Education report of October 2019 took 18 months, heard more than 70 witnesses and received 700 pieces of written evidence. To quote from the document, these were the problems found pre-pandemic:

“There is too much tension between a child’s needs and the provision available…a general lack of accountability within the system…Parents and carers have to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, full of conflict, missed appointments and despair…many local authorities are struggling with the reforms, and in some cases this has led to unlawful practice…struggling against the tide of unintended consequences of policy decisions.”

The report states:

“This generation is being let down—the reforms have not done enough to join the dots, to bring people together and to create opportunities for all young people to thrive in adulthood.”

It adds:

“We are seeing serious gaps in therapy provision.”

The summary concludes by saying:

“Special educational needs and disabilities must be seen as part of the whole approach of the Department’s remit, not just an add-on.”

During the pandemic, they have not even been an add-on; they have been an afterthought.

The Government’s response to the report was to commission their own review, which they promised would be published in January 2021. After I submitted a written question to the Department, I was told that it would be published in spring 2021. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us when we can expect to see that document.

That report led me to set up the all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities, now chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), which is looking particularly at the impact of covid on these children. The situation during covid has got worse for these families, with many families pushed to breaking point, because the children have been an afterthought. As the Government and the Minister were promoting the use of technology and laptops for school pupils, no thought was given to assisted technology for our pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.

Although all those children were allowed to attend school, because they had their education, health and care plans, little thought was given to what would happen when more than 90% of children in a special school attend at the same time; or to when we introduce a policy saying that these children have to be tested, knowing that some of them have serious sensory conditions and cannot administer the tests themselves, leading to many parents feeling extremely worried about the idea of a teacher having to forcibly test their child. That left headteachers in the impossible situation of wondering what to do if all the children decided that they could not take the test because they find it too distressing. Again, the children were an afterthought. No thought was given either to the staff working in these special schools, who need to be prioritised for vaccination to keep these pupils safe.

Families have been desperately worried. I am so worried about, and hope the Minister will look into, the number of parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities who have started home schooling and who now inform me that they have no intention of sending their children back to school when the risks of the pandemic have eased. It is not only the parents and the children, but the special educational needs co-ordinators, three quarters of whom say they are experiencing challenges in providing support for children and young people with EHCPs during lockdown. Any question or debate about improving the education system after covid-19 has to put these children back at the heart of the conversation, because a system that delivers for these children is a system that can deliver for all. I still believe that every child matters.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con) [V]
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this timely debate. I will concentrate, in the time I have, on two things. On the face of it, they are quite different, but I believe that they are related and speak to two of the major challenges that we face in education post pandemic.

We have long known it to be the case, although the pandemic has emphasised it, that education is about not only those tangible outputs such as exams but the whole self and preparing young people for the world. It is often measured in the absence of things that only become tangible when they go wrong. We are seeing the fruit of that dropping from the tree now—lost learning, and young people with deep mental health concerns, issues with socialising and increasing anxiety. For some, perhaps even many, being away from formalised school during the crisis has left deep scars that we really need to address right now.

The pandemic has taught us some lessons about ourselves too. In my constituency, we suffered disproportionately poor outcomes from covid due to underlying health conditions. We have also seen young people becoming even more reliant on devices and social media for schooling and for their friendships. We have to ask ourselves how we can learn from these things and how we can change them for the better. I do not for a second believe that we can put the genie back in the bottle on using the internet, and nor should we ever want to, but we can challenge ourselves to ensure that this fantastic tool is used better. Similarly, we can re-emphasise the importance of outdoor education and start to head off now some of those issues that will impact young people later in life.

To touch on online skills and political literacy, we are at a time when, like it or lump it, politics is everywhere— politicians have made a disproportionate number of decisions about how people live their lives, earn a living and how they learn—so interest and frustration with politics is at an all-time high, but are we equipping young people with the skills they need to engage and to see the wood for the trees? In 2018, the National Literacy Foundation found that only 2% of children in the UK have the skills needed to determine whether a piece of information is real or fake. If the last year has shown us anything, it is that misinformation and low levels of media literacy pose serious threats to societies across the globe. It has been common to speak of a crisis in democracy for years, but in the past 12 months it has been brought into sharp focus. Our education system is at risk of being out of date. We must ensure that resources are there to prepare students for life in a 21st century democracy. The covid-19 pandemic has brought challenges that most of us could not imagine over a year ago, and the education system and teachers have been hit incredibly hard, but they have more than risen to these challenges. Even with that adversity comes an opportunity—an opportunity to have some conversations like this debate, and to open up about how we can improve and what rebuilding looks like.

Outdoor education is one subject that we should be focusing on. In Cumbria, we are blessed with many excellent centres and I have greatly enjoyed visits to a few of them recently, such as Kepplewray. However, that sector is on its knees. Outdoor education is not just about exercise or getting outdoors. It is about teaching valuable life skills, such as teamwork, resilience and communication. It is already a vital part of the British education system, but without it schools, children and communities will permanently lose important formulative educational experiences.

If we are genuinely looking—to coin a phrase—to build back to a better education system after this pandemic, we cannot only look to protect this sector but must utilise it more and head off some of those underlying issues that I mentioned before. We owe it to the next generation to equip them with the tools they need to navigate the world around them, whether that is online or outdoors. The pandemic provides an opportunity; I really hope the Minister and his team will seize that opportunity.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD) [V]
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The covid pandemic has taught us to revalue many things that we simply took for granted. Top of that list is the importance of teaching and learning, especially the value of quality teaching. The pandemic has also shone a bright light on the high levels of inequality that exist in our country. The pandemic has made them worse. There is a lot we can do to make our education system fairer for young people and mature students alike. The lessons we are learning from the pandemic can be a driver for real positive change.

We talk about schools and universities, but all too often we leave out the further education sector. Yet it is the worst-funded sector in the education system. It is also at the heart of addressing the hard-wired inequalities in this country. At the end of last year, the Government announced that colleges and sixth forms would benefit from an extra £400 million investment, and that funding would be maintained in real terms for 2021-22. That was welcome and long overdue, but not nearly enough to fill the £1.1 billion funding gap that has opened up for 16 to 19-year-olds since 2010. As funding is based on previous student numbers, an increase in students could still result in a fall in funding per student in real terms.

For adult learners, funding is yet more unpredictable. Total spending on adult skills has fallen by about 45% in the last decade. As our economy and workforce prepare to adapt to the new challenges after the pandemic, there is no better time to talk about the vital role of further education. The CBI predicts that nine in 10 employees will have to reskill by 2030. Investing in reskilling our adult workforce is financially clever and imperative for individual and collective wellbeing. Our further education colleges are at the forefront of those efforts.

In Bath, we are lucky that Bath College has formed a partnership with Bath Spa University and the Institute of Coding to create a groundbreaking plan to reskill and upskill our local workforce. The project is called I-START and it delivers across innovation, technology, arts, research and teaching in flexible blended modules that fit easily around busy lives. At the core of the project is supporting learners to build and develop skills in resilience, problem solving, creativity and communication, which will be much sought after by businesses after covid. I hope this unique initiative starting in Bath will serve as an inspiration and a useful model for other parts of the country.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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Having met secondary heads in northern Devon last week, they clearly articulated how they see this as a watershed moment for education, and a chance we should not miss to revisit how the education system works and the outcomes it delivers for our young people. I was a newly qualified maths teacher just before my election in 2019, so I speak with some insight into what is going on in our schools in northern Devon. I take the opportunity to thank everyone who works in them, and for everything they have done throughout the pandemic. I also thank all the parents who have been home-educating, which will have ensured this generation of schoolchildren have learnt many more life skills than perhaps previous generations, given the very difficult year we have all endured.

Northern Devon consists of my constituency of North Devon and neighbouring Torridge. As the head of the school where I taught described it, it is located at the top of the country’s longest cul-de-sac. The area is remote, rural and coastal and presents unique challenges that, to date, have not been reflected in education policies, nationally or regionally.

For me, levelling up starts with education and skills. One measure that highlights that there is work to be done in northern Devon is the social mobility index. Of the 324 local authority district areas, in the south of Devon, South Hams is ranked at 49 and Exeter 81, yet my constituency ranks 238th and Torridge is at 283. The pandemic has shown how our schools deliver much more than just the three Rs to our young people and their families. Our headteachers talk of a holistic egality strategy for North Devon and Torridge that comprises education, special educational needs, social services and child support. The headteachers are uniquely placed to feed into that long-overdue strategy, and also to manage the resources that they need to deliver it within northern Devon, more specifically than just Devon.

As we look into education and building back better, I very much hope that the next generation will be inspired by the work delivered by our world-leading scientists in developing treatments and vaccines for covid-19. I know that, locally to me in North Devon, the children at the primary school in Tawstock are keen to become broadband engineers after seeing at first hand how Openreach connects their school and having had the chance to splice fibres and better understand how fibre broadband works and is delivered.

For our levelling-up agenda to be realised we need to better integrate schools with local employers, and embed at a far younger age what it means to be an engineer or a scientist. This might at last be my opportunity to inspire more youngsters to pass their maths GCSE, as a ticket to achieving an exciting career near home in lovely North Devon.

We also need to devise policies that are effective in remote rural locations and use the expertise of the teaching profession in those locations to really build back better. I very much look forward to working with the Minister and the team of fantastic heads in northern Devon to begin to move the agenda forward.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
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One year on from the first lockdown marks an entire year since schools first closed, so perhaps it is time for the Department for Education’s performance review. We could reflect on the exam results fiasco or the free school meals U-turns, or even the utterly irresponsible decision to allow schools to open for just 24 hours in January, enabling the post-Christmas virus to circulate far and wide, driving up infection rates. However, I will instead focus on the remote education support scheme, which will be of vital importance for the topic of today’s debate —improving the education system after the pandemic.

After the uncertainty of the opening months it quickly became clear that the pandemic would have a long-term impact on education, and that connectivity would be vital to continue learning. So, back in June, MPs, charities, unions, past Education Secretaries and even a former Prime Minister all joined me in writing to the Secretary of State to call on his Department to ensure that no child would be left behind because they could not access the internet or a device at home.

Ten months on, this week’s results in the National Audit Office report are damning. The Department did not even aim to provide equipment to all children who lacked it. How does the Minister think that children on the wrong side of the digital divide have been able to log in and learn from home? The answer is simple: they have not. Every click has widened the attainment gap. The Government pledged 1.3 million devices, without connectivity, but there are still 300,000 missing. Where are they?

It is now March 2021 and I am still driving around Mitcham and Morden, dropping donated devices to my local schools. Although I am very grateful to all the individuals and organisations who are donating devices, stepping in where the Government have failed, there is still far to go. St Mark’s Academy needs 303 devices, Harris Academy Morden needs 100, William Morris Primary School needs 50, Stanford Primary School needs 15, Liberty Primary School needs 50 and St Teresa’s RC Primary School needs 52.

Before the pandemic, children on free school meals were leaving school 18 months behind other children and the gap was getting worse. How far behind will those on the wrong side of the digital divide have fallen now? This is no problem for the past; we are now well and truly a digital society and there is no going back. The focus has to be on how these children will catch up, and closing the digital divide is an imperative first step.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD) [V]
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I will start my remarks by focusing upon the plight of our outdoor education centres. I am deeply concerned about them. We know that of the 15,000 people who worked in the sector at the beginning of the pandemic, 6,000 have already lost their jobs, and there will be many more who are freelance workers and who have not been taken on again for the seasons that have been missed.

There has been a complete drying-up of the market for these outdoor education centres and of course there is no direct bespoke financial package for them either. We should remember that in Scotland and Northern Ireland there has been a specific financial package to help outdoor education centres. The fact that there has not been one in England is a reason why we are losing thousands of staff and beginning to see the closure of such centres.

On 22 February, which is now more than a month ago, the Prime Minister read out his road map for the unlocking of the country. Lots of things are on that road map—an opening date for nightclubs was on it. That is very good; I am glad it is there. However, there was nothing for outdoor education centres. If, as I do, the Minister speaks to the heads and teachers of primary and secondary schools, he will discover that those heads and teachers throughout primary and secondary education are desperate to be able to confirm, or indeed to book, day sessions and residential sessions at our outdoor education centres, many dozens of which are in Cumbria, especially in my constituency. So, I ask the Minister this: why have he and the Government not added outdoor education centres and their reopening to that road map?

Will the Minister today do three things? First, will he announce the road map for the reopening of outdoor education centres? Secondly, will he provide a bespoke financial package to keep our outdoor education centres going and the outdoor education industry’s head above water, as Scotland and Northern Ireland have done? Thirdly, will he do something truly radical and positive, which is to deploy the talent within our outdoor education centres within schools, to help reconnect our young people with a love of learning, building up the confidence they may have lost during the pandemic and connecting them to education again? Outdoor education centres contain people with exactly the set of skills that we need at this time; the tragedy is that that is exactly the time when this Government are allowing those skills to wither on the vine.

So, will the Minister do those three things? Will he also pay tribute to the teachers who have made such an outstanding contribution in every part of education over the last 12 months? Many people are reflecting—indeed, we all are—that 12 months has passed since the start of this pandemic. It is right to pay tribute to so many different people who have been public servants throughout that time, but it is also right to focus in particular today on the service provided by our teachers.

Thinking about what teachers did at the drop of a hat last March—teach remotely from scratch—we see that, throughout the time since, they have cared for the vulnerable and the most needy, very often providing food for them directly out of their own pockets. We have also seen how, at short notice, they provided ways of ensuring that assessments were made when exams were cancelled; we have seen how they went through their school holidays without taking any break whatsoever, in order to get ready for new arrangements, such as covid testing; and we have seen how schools have reopened again, and how they have done so seamlessly and with attendance maintained at such a high level. Teachers have ensured that our young people get the best possible education, in school if they are the children of key workers, and at home by remote teaching.

Teachers’ performance has been outstanding; they are national treasures. On behalf of every parent in my constituency—indeed, I think every parent in the country—I pay tribute to every single one of them.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for setting the scene so very well —we appreciate that. It is good to see the Minister in his place. I think he has always been there—at least it seems like it. That is not a bad thing, by the way. We very much look forward to his response.

Obviously, education is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, so the Minister does not have any responsibility for it, but I wanted to feed in to this debate and give the perspective of what it is like in Northern Ireland. I know that what we have experienced in Northern Ireland is the same as what other hon. Members have experienced across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I have had many fears for our children during the outbreak. I think education probably features fairly high on the constituency problems page. I have fears for children’s paths of learning, fears for those who have not been able to learn online, fears for their mental health, fears for their social skills—so many fears. The question is: what will we in this House do to support them through those fears?

Today’s papers, which I read on the way over—the local and provincial press—were full of photographs of the Education Minister back home meeting some pupils in schools. There were also pictures of the pupils with absolutely glorious smiles. In some cases, they had ice-creams—I am not quite sure if it was 9 o’clock in the morning. The teachers, principals and classroom assistants were all responding very positively, and the hugs that they were giving the children told the story.

We have seen that online learning has a role, but there is nothing that beats physical presence in schools. I have spoken to GCSE teachers recently, and they are very concerned that many children will not go on camera, and they do not know whether they understand the work. They have said that there is nothing like walking around the room to see the children working through, and checking for understanding. That underlines my view that we can incorporate more online, but we cannot and must not imagine that it can replace what teachers are gifted at doing. Teachers get to know their pupils and what works for them. The personal, face-to-face contact really motivates the child individually whenever they are falling behind.

I am given to understand that parents have been given access to teaching staff during the pandemic, allowing greater communication. It has been wonderful to build up relationships. That, I believe, should continue when we get out of the pandemic, but with appropriate guidelines that allow teachers to have their evenings off without being bombarded. All staff in every job, when they finish their day’s work, should have a balance with their home life. There is pressure on pupils, teachers and classroom assistants.

The lessons that we can learn are clear: there is a role for technology and for face-to-face, and there is also a place for greater home-school co-operation. In all this, there is a need for real investment in our education system to ensure that children have access to technology, and that parents are aware of what is happening in their children’s lives. I understand that some parents may not have as big a role in their child’s life, but they need to do that.

I again thank the teaching staff, the pupils, the teachers, the classroom assistants, and everyone in schools who went above and beyond, and who have sourced technology and contacted parents with concerns above and beyond their hours. We are determined to do all we can to get our children back to where they should be, with no one left behind.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
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I thank all the speakers for staying within the time limit. I call the Opposition spokesperson, Toby Perkins, who can have an extra minute.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
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That is very kind; I appreciate it. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees—even more, now I know that you are feeling benevolent. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing the debate, and thank him for sight of his speech in advance. I was expecting to have to express my admiration for his optimism that we might, in one hour, address the many areas of improvement required in our educational system. However, as he made clear, he did not propose to have all the answers in his speech or even to address all the questions. He very sensibly identified some of the issues that a royal commission might look at, and he made some practical suggestions for consideration.

This debate is timely, and the need for substantial action is acute, as we heard from many contributors. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight understandably spent some time on the specifics of the education challenges on the Island. He also identified three national areas for consideration—term and holiday periods, the use of technology, and the coherence of the DFE’s wider approach to education. On term times, he raised some interesting issues. There are many challenges that come with the kind of approaches that he outlined, but I agree that it is useful to discuss them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke passionately about the remote support scheme and the digital divide. She said that each click had increased the attainment gap. Notwithstanding the number of schools that have struggled to access devices and the number of colleges that have been completely left out, on technology, I echo the endorsement that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight made of the fine work done by many schools and colleges to address the academic vacuum that existed in the first lockdown and ensure that things were much improved in subsequent ones. I agree that, at a time when we need young people to leave our educational establishments totally tech savvy, this crisis has opened opportunities that must not simply be set aside in a return to business as usual, post covid.

On the coherence of the current system, I could not agree more on schools, further education, the closing of Sure Start, the huge growth in different apprenticeship standards, and the extent to which so many academies leave parents feeling they have no voice. We feel strongly that this Government have removed the sense of a systematic approach to education. I go further than the hon. Member for Isle of Wight and say that, while there are good providers in all areas of our educational system, there has to be a more systematic approach that empowers learners and their parents, supports educators, and involves employers and local decision makers. I am afraid to say that the skills White Paper offers little hope that the Government’s approach is likely to become much more systematic in the future.

I would like to touch on the contributions of many hon. Friends and Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) spoke passionately about the forgotten children with special educational needs and posed a challenge that we look forward to the Minister responding to. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) was right about the pressures on our further education system and the need for a more holistic approach that recognises the need for FE and HE to work together. The hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) described this as a watershed moment for education and spoke of the need, which a lot of us feel, for a Government response that matches the scale of the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden was excoriating in her analysis of the Government’s education record over the covid crisis. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) focused on the challenges facing our outdoor education centres, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about the number of children falling behind, the pressure throughout the education system and the need to recognise that in the response post covid.

The Labour Party recognises that a decade of underinvestment in our educational system in general—and, as the shadow skills Minister, I would say in further education and skills in particular—has left our nation less well prepared for the challenges of the next decade. Covid has simply exposed many of those challenges more graphically. Labour also recognises the need for an evidence-based response to these challenges post covid and recently launched the Bright Future taskforce, with a dazzling array of contributors who have agreed to take part. I think they will provide an excellent piece of work to address this area.

The taskforce aims to identify the causes of the academic attainment gap, as it pertains to poverty, economic disadvantage, race, and many other areas. It will identify measures that a future Labour Government could take to address those causes. Specifically, the Government must acknowledge that there is a race attainment gap, which goes wider than class disparities, and set specific targets and positive steps to address the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic students who go from outperforming white students at level 2 to getting worse university and work offers and outcomes at level 3 and beyond.

We also identify many systematic failings with the Government’s approach to skills. Many of these have been caused by the missteps of the last 10 years, but we are anxious that the skills White Paper will continue to envisage an approach to education and skills that is far too corporate, and continues to leave thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises and young people on the side lines.

Apprenticeships must be the gold standard, and the Government should recognise that their failure on apprenticeship incentives and on Kickstart means that they need a fresh approach. I urge the Minister to look again at Labour’s apprenticeship wage subsidy proposal.

This has been a welcome debate, Ms Rees, and I share the view of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight that the Government need to move with real urgency and at scale if, after all their hard work, our educators are not to be left facing an uphill challenge in giving English youngsters the opportunity to compete in the global race with the very best in the world.

Nick Gibb Portrait The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb)
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It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairing of a debate, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this short debate, albeit one on a very important subject matter, and the passionate way in which he opened it.

Covid-19 has presented the education system with the educational challenge of the decade. I take this opportunity to thank, once again, all the teachers and support staff for the truly remarkable things they have achieved over the last year, and to echo my hon. Friend’s thanks to the teachers and support staff on the Isle of Wight. I also add my thanks to Brian Pope and Steve Crocker, who have both been working tirelessly with the Department for Education as we tackle the consequences of the pandemic on the island, and, of course, elsewhere in the country.

Our response to this unprecedented situation must be to build on the successful reforms this Government have introduced since coming to power in 2010. Over the last decade, we have worked tirelessly to drive up academic standards for all pupils, especially the most disadvantaged. We want every child to have access to a great school, where they can gain the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need for a prosperous future.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of higher education, and I would be happy to talk further to him about higher education courses on the island, and how they can and should be provided. He also raised digital technology, together with my hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) and for North Devon (Selaine Saxby).

Digital technology has been essential in supporting high-quality remote education during the coronavirus outbreak. In the long term, it also has the potential, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight pointed out, to support teacher workload and flexible working, and to improve pupil outcomes. We are building on the Department’s significant investment in laptops, tablets, training, and digital services, to create a lasting legacy from that investment.

My hon. Friend also asked about teaching school hubs on the Isle of Wight. These are large-scale organisations operating in areas covering, on average, about 250 schools. The Isle of Wight is therefore covered by the hub area that also covers the districts of Eastleigh, Fareham, Gosport, Havant, and Portsmouth, and the teaching school hub lead is Thornden School in Eastleigh, which is an outstanding school.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) raised the important issue of children with special educational needs, and she will know, as she pointed out in her speech, that we have prioritised the most vulnerable children throughout the pandemic, including those with education, health and care plans, and special schools have remained open during that period for vulnerable children.

The hon. Member will also know that the Government have increased high needs funding by £780 million this year and by £730 million next year, so, over the course of two years, we will have raised high needs funding by 24%. The SEND review, which she referred to, is important, and we will publish it in due course. The delay has been caused by the challenges of the pandemic, and we want to get this very important review absolutely right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) raised the important issue of outdoor education and the importance of such activities for a child’s education, development, mental health and wellbeing. The Government continue to work with industry bodies and sector representatives to address the issues arising from the pandemic, and we will help outdoor education centres plan for the safe reintroduction of educational visits and outdoor education in line with the Prime Minister’s road map.

The covid pandemic has presented one of the greatest challenges to our society in recent times. It is undoubtedly true that extended school and college restrictions have had a substantial impact on the education of children and young people, and we are committed to helping pupils make up the education that they missed during the pandemic. In February, the Prime Minister outlined the road map out of lockdown, and reopening schools was one of the first steps on that road map.

We have evidence of the extent of education lost during the covid-19 pandemic, which shows that there is an impact on all children and young people, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight pointed out, those from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds are among the hardest hit. As part of the Renaissance Learning data, on 24 February, we published interim findings based on more than 400,000 assessments taken in the autumn of 2020, which show that in reading, pupils in years 3 to 9 were, on average, between 1.6 months and two months behind where we would have expected them to be.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy
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I have a quick question: has the Department done any analysis of how many children are now choosing to home educate, and have not returned to either mainstream or special educational needs schools? It is of considerable concern to me, especially when considering parents of children with SEND.

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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The hon. Member will be pleased to know that attendance is very high in primary and secondary schools since we returned to school on 8 March, and of course, attendance in secondary schools increased over the course of that first week. I will write to her with the details of special schools’ attendance rates, and about the proportion of children with ECHPs and children with a social worker—we have attendance rates for those children as well. Again, the figures are good, but of course, they could always be improved. I will write to her, and we can then discuss further her views about that.

In January 2021, the Prime Minister committed to working with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to help schools support pupils to make up their education over the course of this Parliament. As part of this, we appointed Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner in February to advise on the approach for education recovery and the development of a long-term plan to help pupils make up their education. Last June, we announced a £1 billion catch-up package, including a national tutoring programme and a catch-up premium for the current academic year, and in February 2021, we committed to further funding of £700 million to fund summer schools, expansion of our tutoring programmes, and a recovery premium for the next academic year. That funding will support pupils in early years, in schools and in colleges.

The £1 billion catch-up package for 2020-21 includes a £650 million catch-up premium to support state primary and secondary schools in making up for lost teaching time. The package includes £350 million for the national tutoring programme to deliver one-to-one and small group tuition to hundreds of thousands of pupils, which the evidence says is an effective way of helping disadvantaged children, in particular, to catch up. Building on this £1 billion catch-up package, a further £700 million for the 2021-22 academic year was announced in February, and that includes a one-off £302 million recovery premium and £22 million to scale up well-evidenced programmes, building on the pupil premium. That funding also includes an additional £83 million for the national tutoring programme, and a £102 million extension to the 16 to 19 fund.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Perkins
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The Minister has announced many different pots of money. One of the things that really concerns us is that he will allocate money, but these chunks of money will not end up getting spent because the mechanisms, or systems, to get them utilised will end up with those funds not being used. What assurances can he give us that the amounts he is announcing will actually be spent on the things he is announcing they will be spent on?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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The £650 million, of course, is allocated to schools on a per pupil basis—£80 per pupil—and most of that money has now been distributed. For the £300 million that we announced as part of the £700 million, again, the recovery premium is being allocated to schools on the basis of the pupil premium eligibility in those schools, so that will be allocated to schools to use at their discretion. The national tutoring programme is run by the Education Endowment Foundation, and we have approved 33 tutoring companies: we wanted to make sure that the quality of tutoring was there. So far, 130,000 pupils have been signed up for the programme, but we envisage reaching significantly more—something like three quarters of a million students—in this coming academic year.

Through the get help with technology programme, the Government are investing over £400 million to support access to remote education and online social care services, including making 1.3 million laptops and tablets available for disadvantaged children. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) raised this issue today, as she has done in other debates. She will be aware that we are procuring 1.3 million laptops that have to be built from scratch. They have to be ordered, shipped in, checked and have software added. On top of the 1.3 million that we have acquired and procured, there are the 2.9 million devices in schools ready to be lent to pupils that schools had before the pandemic.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh
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The Minister will know that 1 million of those laptops have been distributed. Where is the balance of the 300,000? Where are they right now? How does he address the matter of the 880,000 households that do not have any internet connection, given that only 45,000 MiFis or other routers were provided?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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Actually, 1.2 million of those computers have already been delivered and the remainder will be delivered before the end of March. The hon. Member will also be aware that we have worked with mobile operator companies to provide free uplift data to disadvantaged families who do not have access to wi-fi in their homes. They can use their mobile phones to get some educational material without paying the hefty charges for data use. We have partnered with the UK’s leading mobile operators, as I said, to offer free data, as well as delivering over 70,000 4G wireless routers for pupils without connection at home. The programmes I have outlined are focused on helping the most disadvantaged pupils, targeting them for support.

Alongside those catch-up programmes, we also continue to learn and understand what more is needed to help recover students’ lost education over the course of this Parliament, and we will ensure that support is delivered in a way that works for both young people and the sector.

We are also concentrating on the quality of teaching and making sure that teachers are supported in the early years of their careers through the early career framework. We are transforming the training and professional development that teachers receive at every stage of their careers to create a world-class teacher development curriculum and career offer for our teachers. That is one of the most important things we can do as we support schools in recovering.

Ultimately, the Government want all pupils to make up for the education they lost as a result of the pandemic. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that pupils get the opportunity they deserve to redress the balance. We are absolutely determined as a Government that no child will suffer any damage to their long-term prospects as a consequence of this terrible pandemic that we are all fighting to defeat.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
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Bob Seely, would you like a couple of minutes to sum up?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely [V]
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Thank you very much, Ms Rees. I can sum up in a sentence. I absolutely share the Minister’s sentiments when he says that we must do our best to make sure that nobody suffers a long-term disadvantage. It is clear that long-term debate about delivering the best education system we can will continue, so I thank you for your chairmanship, Ms Rees, Members for their contributions, and the Minister for attending and listening.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered improving the education system after the covid-19 outbreak.

Sitting adjourned.