I will hold the microphone closer to my face.
It is not only vulnerable children who have been impacted by the lockdowns. I am lucky enough to be the father of two primary age boys, and they have been lucky enough mostly to continue to attend school, as my wife has worked on a supermarket shop floor throughout, but even they have missed their social lives and have missed out on a lot of experiences. They have seen both their education and development impacted. This time in the lives of our children and young people is hugely important, whether it is early development as a primary school student mastering the academic basics, learning to make friends, understanding the school environment and how to act around other people, or whether it is a teenager studying for major qualifications while also coming out of their shell and becoming an adult and finding themselves. How much more difficult must it be for them to begin to find their independence and their own self separate from their parents when they are forced to spend every day at home with them and they do not get to go and do anything else?
In terms of what we do about it—this is the key going forward—the Government have talked a lot about academic catch-up and tutoring, which is welcome, but the biggest challenge that parents and teachers have raised with me is a social one, not an academic one. Teachers have told me that children have forgotten what it means to be in school—how to act and behave—and having to relearn all of that after having changed those behaviours as they are not used to being around groups of people, seeing their friends or being in the classroom. They have shrunk back into their shells after having spent so much time on their own, and it is a challenge now to draw them out again. That means we need to focus not only on academia but on the social side of things.
We should offer more support to extracurricular activities, including sport. Let us not forget the health and fitness impact, too, and the inequalities that will have grown as a result of lockdown and the inactivity that came with it. We could start by looking seriously at how we can open up our sports facilities. Some 40% of our nation’s sports facilities remain locked behind school gates at evenings and weekends.
We have to focus on transitioning children back into the classroom when they need it, and supporting teachers to do that. Children moving to secondary school this year, for example, will have missed so much of the transitional process that they normally would get. The Government could promote and support things such as nurture provision at both primary and secondary level to help children adapt and ease into school life at their own pace, rather than being chucked in at the deep end. I hope the Government will be able to support schools to deliver some year 7 transition as much as possible for the end of this year.
A few years ago, the then Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), launched a programme of introducing and expanding mental health support in schools. I spoke to the Schools Minister recently about that. Will he update the House on any discussions about whether that plan, which at the time seemed wide ranging and positive, is considered still to be adequate, or can we speed it up and extend it in the light of the struggles that many will face as a result of the pandemic?
On the issue of academia, the Prime Minister’s idea of one-to-one tutoring could be great if it could be done as an addition to the social support that is needed. It will be important to work across schools, colleges and universities to ensure that there is a recognition of the challenges that young people have faced and of the difference between grades given this year compared with other years, because clearly nobody should be disadvantaged as they seek to move on to the next stage of their lives.
All of that calls into question some of what we do around our assessment. I am no detractor from testing at all—I think it is important—but we saw the major challenges faced as a result of so much of our assessment being built only on exams at the end of the year. In the absence of those, there have been all sorts of problems. Obviously, other countries have different systems. Some have an ongoing system of teacher-led assessment as a matter of course. I wonder how the Minister feels those countries might have compared in terms of the challenges of assessment through this period.
I particularly question whether there is really a need to formally assess year 2 students, for example. Also, in the light of covid, perhaps we should be more willing to trust our teachers and to rely on their ongoing assessment as to what children in their care need. They are better placed to assess the ability and the support needed by children at a young age than an exam paper is, particularly if the needs of those children at four, five or six years old are more social as opposed to academic. Perhaps that is something we could look at. Teachers’ knowledge of what their students need will be more important than ever as we seek to recover from the pandemic. Both teachers and students would benefit from having that trust in their relationship within schools to help support children.
There are lessons to take from online learning, too. Although some have struggled, others have loved it and have excelled. They have attended, whereas they might not have done before. There may be a role for using remote learning permanently in some instances. My local college reported excellent attendance among some of the students who had not been engaged or showing up before; it reported excellent work and excellent progress by, for example, many students with autism, who might have struggled in a classroom environment but found online learning really positive. Across the board, but perhaps particularly for post-16 and with SEND pupils, we should review how remote learning could benefit young people. I know that is part of the Prime Minister’s plan for independent and individual tutoring.
Finally, I will touch on skills. I welcome the Government’s further education White Paper, which has some excellent proposals for boosting and supporting further education. The Minister knows my view that many children would benefit from more access to technical and vocational education as part of their curriculum within school or from being allowed out to college earlier in their school life. I have always felt that is an opportunity for the 18% who currently leave school with no qualifications at all to do something different, and to fall in love with education through learning in a way that is directly linked to the world of work or to things they enjoy.
Given the impact on so many children who have been out of education for so long and the challenge of getting them back into the classroom and comfortable in the classroom again, I hope the Minister will give consideration to how that might work, not only as a chance to get young people back into learning after covid, but to complement the FE reforms that have been brought forward by the Government and to help all our young people to get the most out of education in the long term, including that 18% who previously have not managed to get those qualifications through traditional schooling.
With that, I will wrap up. I finish by saying that this is hugely important and, as I said at the start of my speech, we owe it to all our young people and our children to put them at the heart of our recovery plans. Ultimately, they are the ones who will have to deal with this for the longest, for the future of our country, our economy and all of us, and they should be front and centre of every decision we make as we look to recover from this pandemic.