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Robert Halfon MP chairs first ever virtual House of Commons Education Committee session

News / Thu 23rd Apr 2020 am30 08:43am

IN the House of Commons Education Committee’s first virtual public session, MPs “relentlessly questioned” the Children’s Minister, Vicky Ford MP, on the Government’s response to education amid Covid-19, chaired by Harlow MP, Robert Halfon.

The session forms part of the Committee’s newly launched inquiry into the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on education and children’s services.

The Members’ questions covered PPE and testing for teachers, online connectivity and devices for pupils, vulnerable children – including those with SEND, in care and in Alternative Provision, a catch-up premium for left-behind pupils, Free School Meals, mental health support and early-years providers and nurseries.

Mr Halfon opened the virtual session with a series of questions directed at the Children’s Minister about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and testing for teachers, particularly in specialist education settings and those looking after vulnerable children. The Minister responded:

“There should be no difference between someone working with a disabled child with a clinical need in a school setting vs. in a health setting. They will have the same ability to get PPE.”

Accepting the hierarchy of need within the NHS and social care, the Chair pressed further and called for testing for teachers if they have been exposed to, or experienced symptoms of COVID-19. The Children’s Minister said:

“Tests were rolled out to the next level of key workers after health and social care last Friday… [The] key worker list of more people who can get tests is being updated all the time. As we get to a stage where we have more schools are being open, we will be pressing to have more teachers on the [list].”

The Chair also questioned the Minister on support for vulnerable children, asking if she was “worried” by the reports in The Times that “less than 1% of pupils are going to school under arrangements for vulnerable children and those of key workers”, and only “5% of children at risk of abuse and neglect or with serious health or educational needs…are turning up” for learning. The Minister responded saying:

“Of course, we are concerned about vulnerable children…The attendance numbers are actually a bit higher than that…those were taken before the Easter holidays. We are very much encouraging vulnerable children to attend school…Where the child does not attend schools, then schools must be in contact with the social worker to make sure they are being safeguarded.”

Having previously been publicly vocal about mentoring for “left-behind children” that haven’t been learning through this period for one reason or another, Mr Halfon asked if the Department was considering a “catch-up premium” to help schools with this. The Minister recognised the importance of early intervention and said:

“The Pupil Premium money is there to try and address the attainment gap…Looking at best practice [and] how you can help those who are most at risk will be a massive amount of our thinking going into the reopening stage.”

When asked by the Chair about ensuring that every child who needs a safe place to go to has one, and hearing quotes from recent reports of Alternative Provision schools closing, the Minister recognised that:

“The AP settings are under enormous pressure.”

The Children’s Minister was not able to disclose the exact figures of the number of AP schools that have closed amid the outbreak, but stated that:

“The attendance in AP in the run up to Easter was higher than in any other sector across education.”

Pressed by the Chair on when the Education Committee would have a response from the Government to their SEND report, the Minister praised the report as “absolutely excellent” and said:

“You will get the response as soon as I can.”

The session closed with thanks from the Chair to the House of Commons staff for helping to “[make] history” with the first ever virtual Education Committee public session.

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