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Robert Halfon quizzes education minister on “vulnerable children not attending school”

Education: Secondary / Sat 2nd May 2020 am31 09:12am

ON Wednesday morning, Robert Halfon MP chaired the Education Committee’s third virtual session, questioning the Education Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson MP on the Government’s response to COVID-19.

The session was opened by the Chair, who paid his thanks to the teaching and education support staff for their hard work during the coronavirus pandemic. He then turned his questions to the Education Secretary, pointing to the Department for Education’s own statistics to highlight “mounting social injustices” amid the school closures. He said:

“We know that vulnerable children are not attending school. Your figures from the DfE suggest that just 5 percent of vulnerable learners are attending an educational setting…and 55 percent of teachers from the most disadvantaged schools think that the average pupil in their class is learning for less than one hour a day.

“Do you agree that unless serious action and thinking is taken by the Government, there [will be] a wave of educational poverty that could potentially come crashing down on thousands of children across our country?”

The Education Secretary responded to these points by praising the “amazing input” of social workers who are “reaching out” to vulnerable children. He added:

“It’s all children that we are concerned about falling behind but there are particular concerns about children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.”

When asked by the Chair if the Department knows “how long pupils are spending learning each day and the extent to which that is affected by their socio-economic position”, the Secretary responded:

“We don’t at the moment have that data”.

But explained that:

“We were the first country that actually gave the opportunity for vulnerable children to be able to continue to attend school through this crisis.”

Addressing the “digital divide”, the Education Secretary also confirmed that “a first priority” was to get laptops to Year 10 pupils and those with a social worker, at the expense of £100 million. However, Mr Halfon expressed his concerns that many still will be without online access:

“Does the Department know how many disadvantaged learners are not eligible for the free laptops under the Government scheme and what are your plans for those individuals to make sure they have access to some form of online learning?”

The Secretary clarified that the Department is asking if the laptop scheme “is something that could be expanded… is it something that could be worth expanding?”

The Chair also referenced The Safeguarding Alliance charity’s findings that there is a “new frontier of vulnerabilities” in terms of “mental health” and “potential serious online harms” amid school closures. Mr Halfon pressed the Secretary of State on the Government’s safeguarding measures asking:

“Does the [Department for Education] have a clear picture about exactly what is happening to vulnerable children who are not attending school” and asked if he was “satisfied that there are adequate measures to ensure their safety?”

In his response, Mr Williamson said:

“We’ve sadly always seen in times of crisis, sometimes predatory behaviours emerge…This is why you’ve seen a lot of work through social services but also working closely with schools, making sure that there is regular contact with those children.

“I’m pleased to report to the Committee that over 1,000 social workers have come back into the service in order to help us in this quite extraordinary time.”

Recognising that “most homes – 95 percent – have a TV” whilst they may not have a laptop or online connectivity, the Chair suggested “working with the BBC to provide a long-term national education service on TV that would broadcast a few hours a day” through the Red Button. The Education Secretary welcomed this suggestion and said:

“We’ve been working closely with the BBC… If we are in a position where we could do more with the BBC…then we are incredibly keen to do that with them.”

The Chair also questioned the Secretary on closing the disadvantage gap through catch-up tuition by an “army of volunteers” – an idea that has been widely supported by the likes of the Centre for Social Justice, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and the Education Endowment Foundation. Mr Halfon explained the programme and said:

“Do you support the idea that I floated [of a catch-up premium for schools] to provide extra tuition and mentoring for those vulnerable pupils who may not have attended school…supported by a nationwide network of volunteers – of graduates, retired teachers, Ofsted inspectors… – in the way the Government has done with the NHS volunteer scheme.”

The Education Secretary explained that the policies in this area “are not yet ready to be launched” but that:

“[The Department is] looking at different ways about how we can use the enormous volunteer army of people that have come forward, many with past education experience”.

The Chair also sought clarity for schools on their reopening. When asked if he has have a date as to when schools will reopen and whether this will be done in stages, the Education Secretary said:

“We do not have a date as to when schools will be reopening…The information that we get from Sage [Foundation] and Public Health England will be the key parts of what informs us of how best to open schools. I do expect schools to be opened in a phased manner.”

He later explained that the reopening of nurseries and early-year providers will be assessed in the same way.

The Chair concluded the session by welcoming the birth of the Prime Minister and Carrie Symond’s new baby boy, saying:

“I’m guessing there will be a big focus on early-years in the coming months”

He thanked again the teaching and support staff at this time, the Secretary of State, and also “the thousands of DfE officials who have been working overtime to solve these very difficult issues”.

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