Covid-19: Impact on Education Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Education

Sarah Olney Excerpts
Monday 15th March 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I really value the opportunity to contribute on all the issues raised by these petitions, and also the wider issues for our education sector as a result of covid-19.

I start by paying tribute to all the teaching staff, school staff, parents and especially children attending schools across my constituency in Kingston and Richmond for the successful way that they all returned to school last week. I was speaking just this morning to the head of the education service for both boroughs, and he was telling me that it has all gone extremely smoothly. I have also had an opportunity to speak to teachers from all sorts of schools across the constituency. The testing in our secondary schools has gone very well. Most children —my own included—are absolutely thrilled to be back at school and back with their friends. It has all gone extremely well, and I pay huge tribute to staff, parents and children across the constituency. I also want to say a huge thank you to all the parents who have been home schooling over the past few incredibly difficult months. They have done a wonderful job and can all pat themselves on the back, having successfully delivered their children back to school, which is where we all want them to be.

I would like to start by asking the Minister for clarity on the use of face masks in secondary school. In particular, what does the science say about their benefits for reducing transmission versus the disadvantages they create for communication? I was very lucky to have a Zoom chat last Wednesday with some year 11 students at Christ’s School in Richmond. It was wonderful to see them in their classroom but strange to see them wearing face masks. I would appreciate clarity from the Department for Education about the value of wearing face masks.

I also want to ask about exams, which the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) raised, with a great deal of interesting insight based on his own experience. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how qualifications are going to be awarded this year. I am very concerned that the lack of standardisation across exam centres will negatively affect some students who may well have achieved better results if they had been able to sit their exams. I would welcome more clarification on that. It is a pity that it has taken until now for any kind of guidance to be issued, given that the probable need to cancel exams was identified some time ago.

The schools I have spoken to are very concerned about the appeals process and the extent to which it is going to create an additional burden for them. I have no doubt that many parents and students will want to appeal the mark they are given, and I am very concerned that that will create a big burden for schools at the end of August, just as they are preparing for the new school year. I would welcome further guidance from the DFE about how it plans to address that particular topic.

The biggest issue faced by most schools in my area is that of funding. Covid has increased massively the pressure on school budgets. Obviously, there are increased costs due to all the covid-secure measures our schools have had to take, both now and in September, in order to welcome children back. Many of them are reporting a hit to their income as a result of being unable to hire out their facilities or host sports clubs, for example. School budgets have not increased to meet costs and they are not being compensated for any additional expense. That is a real worry for some of them. Other hits to their income include the unavailability of grants that they would usually get. In addition, local authorities have not been given guidance or clarity on the extent to which they can use funds to assist schools in financial difficulty.

I will end by echoing a point made by the hon. Member for Ipswich in his opening remarks. It is important that schools are able to respond to their pupils’ individual needs at this time. He is absolutely right about some of the language being used. From my own experience as a parent, but also from speaking to schools in my constituency, I know that what children have really missed is their usual group activities. On catch-up, I want extra funding to go to schools directly, rather than to outsourced private practitioners, so that they can address the problems that lockdown has caused schoolchildren. That would really help our students as they go back to school, which we are all so happy to see.