Daniel Hannan: It would be unfair to pupils in England to cancel exams next year

25 Nov

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The cancellation of exams this year was bad news for all involved. It was unfair to those students who would have won high grades without an artificial boost. It was prejudicial to past and future cohorts. It was a nightmare for universities, which were presented with an administrative headache. It was a disaster for Ofqual, which failed to rise to its first serious challenge. And, of course, it was calamitous for Gavin Williamson, who got the blame.

Whether that blame was merited is beside the point (I argued on ConHome at the time that the exams débâcle was an example of ministers having “responsibility without power”, because voters blame them rather than the state agencies that they simultaneously demand be “free from political interference”). The fact is that we stumbled into a terrible situation, closing our schools despite children not normally contracting or passing on serious Covid symptoms, and then scrapping exams because it seemed the line of least resistance.

Now we know better. Yet – and I find my fingers trembling with incredulity as I type these words – we look like walking into the same mistake again, only this time without the excuse of having acted blindly. The Labour administration in Cardiff has cancelled GCSEs and A-levels for 2021. The SNP administration in Edinburgh has cancelled National 5 exams (which are very roughly equivalent to GCSEs) and says it will decide in February whether to go ahead with Highers.

In England, the stated position is still that all exams will go ahead, albeit a few weeks later to allow schools to make up for lost time. That line might yet hold. But it seems just as likely that, as has happened again and again during the epidemic, the devolved assemblies will push the Tories into a more extreme position than they want.

Various ideas are being floated that would allow Williamson to climb down while pretending to have kept his promise – some combination of exams and teacher assessment, for example, or full GCSEs going ahead only in core subjects such as English, maths and science. All these ideas should be resisted – for the sake of employers, the Conservative Party’s reputation and, above all, the students themselves.

It is notable that the strongest pressure for cancelling (or decaffeinating) public exams comes from people who were already against them before Covid. Progressive educationalists – what Michael Gove called the Blob – have always seen national exams as intolerably stressful.

It is true that exams can be stressful. It is true, too, that they can be blunt instruments. But no one has come up with a better way to gauge the abilities of students across the nation in a consistent way. Continuous assessment is not a uniform measure. Teachers would be, so to speak, marking their own homework (for once the metaphor seems apt).

We accept this logic for most other acquired skills. Music grades, a driving licence, a foreign language diploma – all require an externally invigilated exam. How could we not apply it to something as fundamental as the qualifications which will determine where students complete their education or what they say in their first job interview?

Of course, not everyone who is against holding exams next year wants them abolished forever. Some argue that it is simply unfair to go ahead given how many kids have had their educations disrupted – not just by the effective loss of much of last term, but by repeated interruptions in this one, as bubbles or even entire year-groups are sent home when a pupil tests positive.

That criticism begs the question. It surely cannot be right to send healthy children home because of a virus which poses next to no risk to young people. It would make more sense to withdraw potentially vulnerable members of staff and let children carry on as normal. We have not taken that route; but we can at least now offer priority vaccination to teachers and other staff who might be at risk, and let school life resume in full – plays, sports, no masks.

More seriously, though, who can doubt, in retrospect, that going ahead with this year’s exams would have given schools a much-needed sense of focus? We had plenty of space, and other countries managed.

Of all the things that 2020 has revealed, the most shocking is the vast distance between ambitious and unambitious schools. Good state schools (and most private schools) tried to run something close to a normal schedule, with online assemblies, music lessons, sports days, the works. Bad ones sent out desultory work sheets and, in some cases, refused to mark them. This was not a question of resources – a Zoom lesson costs nothing – but of motivation. By and large, the schools which were least willing to teach online last term have been the quickest to send kids home this term. And in many cases, the pupils being sent home are those who can least afford the disruption.

Cancelling exams, in other words, serves to widen the attainment gap. Some schools treat Covid as a challenge, others as an excuse. And, though there are good and honourable exceptions, the schools serving poorer communities are often in the second category. If exams are cancelled or curtailed, which schools are likeliest to take their foot off the accelerator? It won’t be Winchester or Westminster, will it?

I argued that this term should start in August, but that proved impossible because the interests of the producers were elevated above those of the consumers. We could, if lost time really is the objection to 2021’s exams going ahead, shorten the Easter holidays and pay teachers a bonus for the extra work. But, either way, we owe it to our teenagers to let them compete fairly for the qualifications that other year-groups acquired.

We keep saying that we will “put children first” but, so far during this lockdown, we have done nothing of the kind. They have suffered enough.

David Simmonds: Cutting early intervention in children’s services would cost more in the long term

25 Nov

David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

Throughout this pandemic, government has extended support for children and families. From furlough, to uplifting Universal Credit, to rolling out the holiday food and activities programme for future school holidays, to keeping vulnerable children learning throughout the pandemic.  These have been appropriate and important interventions. However, the foundations upon which we seek to strengthen and support families are growing increasingly unstable.

Councils are at the forefront of delivering life-changing support keeping children safe and families strong. They are duty-bound to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their families, insofar as this is safe and in the child’s best interests. They are also required to deliver a balanced budget. Before this pandemic, the challenges facing local government finances and rising need for support meant that Children’s Services were placing a significant and unsustainable pressure on local authority budgets.  At a time when funding was falling, councils were being asked to do more and not less. This has only been exacerbated by COVID-19 and despite additional resources from government during the pandemic, there is an acute cash flow problem developing in the sector that means the measures required to balance budgets in year will have a long term impact on children.

Leading children’s charities have also reported recently that those areas the government has promised to ‘level up’ are amongst those where funding for children’s services has fallen the fastest. These also happen to be communities where indicators of demand for children’s services such as rates of domestic abuse, parental mental ill-health, and free school meal eligibility are the highest. Levelling up people and places must mean investing in children and families.

As a former Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, I know the true potential of children’s services: providing relationship support to help keep families together, helping new mothers struggling to adjust to parenthood, working with families and communities to protect children from abuse or neglect, giving children in the care system a second chance at a happy and safe childhood, and care leavers a supported transition into independent living. I also know the impossibly difficult decisions that colleagues in local government are taking right now as they try to balance the books.

They will be thinking about where they can deliver dramatic savings as they have in most years of the past decade. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto committed this Government to champion family hubs. It is exactly this type of provision that is needed, but that councils find impossibly difficult to fund as there is no duty or resource to do so. Perversely, this inability to fund early intervention will increase costs to the public sector in the long run as emerging problems go unaided until urgent and crisis-based intervention is required, adding pressure on other services such as the police and A&E. The life-long human and financial costs associated with childhood trauma can be significant – we ought to reinvigorate our collective efforts to prevent this.

Councils have done an incredible job of maintaining support by a combination of creative partnerships with other councils, charities, and the private sector, but as we see in adult social care, rising costs and market conditions are creating significant headwinds.  We are already well down this path with the numbers of children in care the highest they have been for several decades and rising still, and the cost of care placements skyrocketing as demand outstrips supply; and as costs have risen we have not seen a corresponding improvement in outcomes.

Helping families is core to who we are as Conservatives. As a former Local Government Minister, the Chancellor will be very aware of pressures on council budgets. I recently spoke with a  number of Conservative colleagues heading Children’s Services in local government. They were each honest about the difficulty of the challenge before them and they were all too aware of the cost of failure.  But they were also proud in the knowledge that every day their teams are doing the best they can in unenviable circumstances for their families and vulnerable children. The Spending Review is Rishi Sunak’s moment to deliver urgently needed investment to place children’s services on a sustainable footing.  If we are to build back better for children and families we need to stabilise the foundations. Only then will we truly be able to stand with families through the tough times ahead and turnaround the outcomes of vulnerable children.

Robert Halfon: Who’s up for a Southern Research Group?

18 Nov

Political fusion

Is it really true, as has been suggested over the past few days, that Conservatives can only appeal to either blue-collar voters or the professional classes – but not both?

Those who know me will not doubt my commitment that the Conservative Party should be the party for workers; indeed, I’ve written that about the Workers Party many times on this website.

But, my passion for the Workers Party does not mean that we cannot, nor should not, appeal to the public in cities, as well as towns – the Putneys as well as the Pudseys.

It seems to me there is confusion about so-called metropolitan views. Of course, there is left-of-centre “wokeist metropolitanism” – a school of thought that is unlikely to ever vote Conservative, whatever policies the Government come up with.

But, protecting the NHS, cutting taxes for lower earners, freezing fuel duty, boosting skills and apprenticeships, helping small businesses, offering affordable housing (such as the £12.2 billion investment announced recently by Robert Jenrick) and Help to Buy schemes are policies that transcend the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ divide, as noted by David Goodhart.

Even measures on environmental issues, for example, can have widespread appeal, so long as they are not balanced on the backs of the poor (such as ever-increasing energy bills due to “green” taxes) and are focused on a cleaner, greener Britain (including cleaning up our beaches, tackling litter and safeguarding our forests and countryside). Those who are more sceptical about Brexit might be a bit more optimistic if they could see the reduction in VAT once we’re out of the transition period and we control our own VAT rates.

Similarly, Overseas Aid. At a time when our public services at home are financially strained, spending huge amounts on international development is extremely frustrating to many voters. However, it could be made more palatable if taxpayers money was used to fund thousands of British apprentices to work overseas in developing countries, or even to support our armed forces in some of their peacekeeping roles.

It is dangerous if we are perceived to be identifying solely with one group of citizens or class over another. If the Conservatives are truly the One Nation Party, the Government needs to find political fusion. Whilst, thanks to Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have a solid majority, to be diminished as we are in the great cities like London is neither healthy nor desirable for our party in the long run. Yes, absolutely a Workers Party…but a Workers Party that represents young professionals as much as white van men and women.

Please don’t forget the Southern side of the Blue Wall either

I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t read the words “Red Wall” in a national newspaper. Don’t get me wrong, I am as delighted as any Conservative by how we won so many seats in the North. All the more extraordinary given the long-standing Labour MPs that were deposed. I would, of course, prefer it if the media wrote about the “Blue Wall” rather than red.

But, my point is a different one. Both the Government and the media classes should not forget the Southern side of the ‘blue wall’ either. The politicos and the press seem to be under the illusion that the South is paved with gold; that there are no road, rail and infrastructure issues; that every pothole is magically filled, and that no one lives in poverty.

What about the deprivation and lower educational attainment in the Southern New Towns, coastal communities, inner cities, rural coldspots?

The Centre for Education and Youth’s 2019 report, ‘Breaking the Link? Attainment, poverty and rural schools’, found that in areas designated as “countryside living” – a vast proportion of the South West – the correlation between the proportion of pupils on Free School Meals and their attainment 8 scores was 0.58 – the highest of all types of local authority area. In other words, “rural schools have particular difficulty breaking the link between poverty and low pupil attainment”.

Seaside village Jaywick, in Essex, was named the most deprived area overall for the third time in a row in 2019. We also know, from the Social Market Foundation’s 2019 research, Falling off a cliff, that average employee annual pay in coastal communities was about £4,700 lower than in the rest of Britain in 2018. These areas also saw “much weaker economic growth since the financial crisis than other parts of the country” which will demand urgent Government attention as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Does the South not feature in policy making? Perhaps if there was a Southern side-of-the-wall Research Group, then these MPs might be invited to breakfast at Number 10 and policy meetings with Ministers.  Anyone for another MP Whatsapp group? Perhaps we have enough already.

As I wrote in the first section of this article, we must be careful not to ‘politic’ or govern in silos. We should not Balkanise the Tory Party. Conservatives must genuinely be a One Nation party for all our country – not just parts of it.

Home education

Given the name of this website, I suspect many readers are fully in favour of home education if that is what a parent decides. Although personally I think a child is better off at school – not just for daily education, activities, wellbeing and socialisation with other pupils, I also believe in a free society by which we support parents’ decisions about educating their child. Clearly, many parents who teach their children at home give them a wonderful education. However, this is not always the case across the board.

The Department for Education has a duty to ensure that every child has a proper education – that doesn’t stop just because the child is learning from home. There should be a national register or regular inspections to ensure that these pupils are getting the education they need for their futures. Perhaps, each home educated child could be linked to a nearby school for this purpose. These are all matters that my Education Select Committee is considering as we begin an inquiry into home education.

Rightly, schools are held accountable for the learning and environment they provide, whether that be through Ofsted, local councils, the regional school commissioners or the Department for Education (DfE).  So, too, must there be transparency and accountability for parents providing an education to their children at home. The DfE should have a national register of all home educated children and gather data to assess levels of attainment.

In a recent report on home education, the Local Government Association stated:

“Using evidence provided by councils, school leaders and parents, the LGA estimates that in 2018/19, 282,000 children in England may have missed out on formal full-time education – around 2 per cent of the school age population – but this figure could be as high as 1.14 million depending on how ‘formal’ and ‘full-time’ is defined…. gaps in the coordination of policies and guidance around pupil registration, attendance, admissions, exclusions and non-school education is allowing children to slip through the net, with children with additional vulnerabilities – such as social, behavioural, medical or mental health needs – most at risk of doing so.”

Whilst many parents educate their home educated children to the best of their ability, and with much success, there are too many children falling through the cracks. It is right that there are changes.

Andrea Leadsom and Frank Field: Registering births in children’s centres will boost support for struggling families

11 Nov

Andrea Leadsom is a former Business Secretary, and is MP for South Northamptonshire. Lord Field of Birkenhead is a former Labour MP.

Frank is one of a small number of Labour MPs, and now a life peer, who is admired and respected as much on Conservative benches as he is on Labour benches for his long contribution to social justice. Andrea has for more than 20 years been involved with early years campaigning, and is currently chairing an Early Years Healthy Development review for the Government.

We first worked together in 2013 on the children and families bill where we co-signed an amendment calling for birth registration to take place in children’s centres.

Separately, we had both seen through our work with early years practitioners how difficult it was to engage with some of the neediest families when they have a baby – registering the birth in a children’s centre would provide a unique opportunity for family practitioners to meet parents, carers, and other children in that family, and to showcase the support that is available.

Birth registrations are most often carried out in the local registry office, often at a town hall. If the father is not married to the mother, then he should be present at the registration if he wants his name on the birth certificate. Often, because Mum is dealing with the new baby, the other partner will go alone to register the birth.

Back in 2013, the APPG on Sure Start launched a year-long review into best practice in children’s services. Our report showed a very mixed picture: some of the best children’s centres were those focussed on outreach to the neediest families, rather than expecting new parents to find their own way at a stressful time.

What was totally clear from talking to new parents is that they need to be told what help is available – too many have no idea where to go for help. Vitally, they need support services to be joined up. If you are depressed, or facing domestic violence, or worried about your baby, the last thing you need is to be passed from one service to another, each time having to start and again and explain your problems.

At the time, we identified what we thought would be a ‘laser intervention’ – one that was totally simple, cheap to implement, and could provide a massive improvement for new families. Birth registration in children’s centres would mean the family could be invited along together, whilst there they could meet the staff, start to understand where to go for help, and meet other new parents.

It would also allow the children’s centre staff to assess who is likely to need the outreach support. Do the family seem healthy and well fed? Are parents in work? Do they speak English? Do they appear happy?

Identifying the so called ‘hard to reach’ families early could have a hugely positive impact on giving every baby the best start in life, and in turn that could transform the happiness and wellbeing of our nation’s families. It is during the critical period from conception to the age of two that the building blocks of lifelong emotional and physical health are laid down, and right now we are missing the chance to support strong early foundations.

At our instigation, the Department of Education at the time agreed to carry out a review of where birth registration currently takes place in children’s centres, and how effective the location is in engaging with families.

The Benchill Children’s Centre in Manchester was one example of best practice for birth registrations included in this APPG report. By offering this service, its ‘re-engagement rate’ with new families increased to 87.5 per cent. Once a week, they would register births, inviting families and chatting with them to find out how they were doing with their new baby. As a result of this qualitative look at the family, the parents could raise questions and issues directly with professional staff, who in turn could prioritise which families need support.

As part of our research, the APPG invited the head of the registrars service to talk to us. He made clear that although it would be perfectly possible to carry out registration of births in children’s centres, it would mean an impact on his staff timetabling so he would not consider such a change unless they were required by government to do it.

There is no doubt this decision should be reviewed. In the Early Years Healthy Development Review that Andrea is chairing and Frank is supporting as a member of the Parliamentary Advisory Group, we want to promote this idea as one whose time has come. It would be relatively easy for a registrar to take their laptop into the children’s centre, and for families as a whole to be invited in to celebrate the new arrival, and register its birth. But importantly, those new parents could be shown the services on offer in the centre and the staff could identify those who may be struggling.

This new approach could play a valuable role in delivering a new vision for the critical first 1001 days from conception to the age of two, with a joined-up service focused on the baby and the family to ensure that every baby gets the best start in life.

Cristina Odone: Domestic Abuse isn’t a ‘women’s issue’: it affects far more children than women

7 Nov

Cristina Odone is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice

Domestic abuse affects almost twice as many women as men – 7.9 per cent of women survived domestic abuse in 2018, while 4.2 per cent of men did – but in terms of numbers and proportions, the single biggest group affected by domestic abuse is children: one in five will experience it in the home. Last year, half of the children who were assessed as in need of being looked after by their local authority had experienced domestic abuse. More than 60 per cent of women in refuge in 2017 had a child under 18.

This crime has spiralled during the pandemic and attendant lockdowns. Helplines recorded huge spikes in calls – in June alone, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline recorded a 77 per cent surge. SafeLives, the national charity, surveyed front line workers who said their caseload had increased by more than a quarter. Between April and September calls to the NSPCC almost doubled, reflecting the huge increase in the number of children impacted.

Covid-19 also has made supporting victims more difficult: domestic abuse services are struggling under the increased caseloads; refuges no longer feel like safe havens because of fear of infection; schools’ closure during lockdown deprived many children of much-needed support from teachers and counsellors; and some of the domestic abuse charities in the Centre for Social Justice’s nationwide charity Alliance have found that Covid has compounded mental health issues among parents: staff at Cheshire Without Abuse, a small charity in Crewe, have experienced two victims’ suicides and many more attempted suicides since lockdown began.

These developments will have a significant impact, over many generations. Psychologists and educationalists are beginning to adopt adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as a framework for identifying those children most vulnerable to recruitment by gangs and county lines, and to ending up in care or as NEET. Domestic violence is one of these ACEs, and risks compromising a child’s future – from their cognitive development to their substance abuse. Research shows that living with domestic abuse between parents is as psychologically harmful to children as when they are direct victims of physical abuse themselves. Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, has found an overlap between children’s experience of domestic abuse and their offending behaviour.

The trauma continues beyond the “domestic” and into the courtroom, where the child may become the bone of contention between the perpetrator, who demands access, and the victim, who fears for their child’s welfare and longs to sever all connection with their tormentor. In many cases, domestic abuse may cause a child to lose their home and contact with grandparents and other relatives; it may also mean starting a new life in a refuge and a new school.

The new Domestic Abuse Bill, now in the Lords for its third reading, acknowledges the horrific trauma that this crime causes in children. For the first time the legislation explicitly refers to children as victims, not just witnesses, of domestic violence.

This is welcome, as are the establishment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Office, and the recognition that abuse takes many forms, including economic, emotional, manipulative, and controlling behaviour.

More can be done, however. We would urge the Government to adopt the whole-family approach to address domestic abuse that is being delivered by Safe Lives charity with its One Front Door programme. This brings together multi-agency specialist teams of statutory and voluntary sector partners to identify the needs of every family member at the same time. “Every” family member means engaging with the perpetrators as well as the adult and child victims. For too long many organisations have argued that funding should not be taken from supporting the victim for the purpose of engaging with the perpetrator.

For this reason, interventions that deal with the perpetrator have received a minimal proportion of government funding. Fewer than one per cent of perpetrators, including repeat offenders, receive any kind of specialist intervention. Survivors overwhelmingly agree that there can be no solution to abuse without engaging with perpetrators, yet those working in the sector continue to balk at focusing efforts on offenders.

This has proved short-sighted. The level of re-offending is high – a quarter of high-harm perpetrators are repeat offenders, and some have at least six different victims. Yet the evidence is mounting to show that those interventions working with perpetrators significantly reduce the risk of re-offending.

A study by the University of Northumbria found that these sorts of interventions resulted in a 65 per cent reduction in future offences with a huge social return on investment of £14 for every £1 spent.

A new, family-centred approach would recognise the relational context in which abuse takes place, engaging with perpetrators and children as well as victims. Domestic abuse is not a gender issue. It is a social reform issue – one that the pandemic and its aftermath have made more urgent than ever. Addressing it offers a route out of disadvantage – for children as well as their parents.

Robert Halfon: This time round, let’s keep the schools open – and not risk an epidemic of education poverty

4 Nov

Now is the time to back Boris Johnson

However reluctantly, we need to back Boris on the lockdown.

Regular readers of my column will know that I have been no shrinking violet when it comes to recommending changes to Government policy. But on Covid, I think we have no option but to support the Prime Minister.

When the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the Chief Scientific Adviser, Public Health England and independent modelling all suggest a huge rise in deaths and an overwhelmed NHS on the current national trajectory, what Government wouldn’t listen to that advice?

As we learned from the comfort of our sofas on Saturday evening, we could see, without action, up to twice as many deaths over the winter as we saw in the first wave – exceeding as many as 4,000 deaths per day.

In September, critics hounded Sir Patrick Vallance for saying that there could be 200 deaths a day from Covid by mid-November. In fact, we reached that figure much sooner, in late October, rising to 326 by 31 October.

Even if some predictions seem wildly high, would the leader of our country really be willing to risk it? Death cannot be reversed.

For those who question the statistics, read my colleague Neil O’Brien’s article on this site and his numerous tweets, explaining the data behind the decisions that are being made.

Of course, there are differing views about the science from the professionals involved – there always will be. But, at the end of the day, if you ignore advice from the top medical and science advisers appointed by the State to look after our health, what is the point in having such appointments in the first place?

Moreover, it is not as if Britain is unique in all this. Belgium, Italy, France and Germany faced a similar fate and have imposed tougher restrictions and lockdowns. Are the Government’s medical advisers in these countries, who are also dealing with a second wave, all wrong?

I just don’t think as a country we can afford to take the view that this is just the sniffles, as the Brazillian President has suggested. As for the comparisons with flu, we have an annual vaccine and significant herd immunity.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have preferred to keep the traffic light tier system as a compromise. I still think we should return to this system in a months’ time. There is real demand for the Government to publish much more data behind its decisions to close certain venues, alongside the impact of lockdown on the economy, livelihoods, poverty, mental and physical health. Apparent anomalies like not allowing pubs to serve takeaway drinks need to be answered.

In press conferences, the Government should do more to emphasise understanding of the devastation these decisions are causing small business owners, their employees and their families, and then set out (in good time) policies to mitigate against these consequences. The Prime Minister’s statement in the Commons on Monday, announcing additional support for businesses and the self-employed through November, was enormously welcome.

However, given that I am not a scientist nor an epidemiologist, if the CMO says that the situation is rapidly becoming much worse, and urgent action is needed, who am I to argue? I certainly don’t think I am an idiot for listening to what they have to say.

So we need to back Johnson at this time. The Government is walking a tightrope between destitution and death. Opposition to what the Prime Minister is doing in a national emergency sows confusion in the eyes of the public. It gives succour to political enemies – who can shout the loudest, without having to take life or death decisions.

Keep the schools open

Of course, more than ever, schools need to be safe for teachers, support staff, children and parents. It is absolutely right that teachers and support staff who are at risk – those who are vulnerable, or need to self-isolate – should be able to stay at home.

However, thank goodness the Chief Medical Officer and others have said that, even with the new restrictions, it is safe to keep schools open and vital for children, pupils and students.

Pointing to the “extensive evidence”, the Chief and Deputy Medical Officers across the UK reached the consensus that “there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19” – with the fatality rate being lower than seasonal flu. In their joint statement, they noted schools are also “not a common route of transmission”. Data from the ONS also suggests teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to the general working-age population.

During the last lockdown, around 2.3 million children did no home learning (or less than one hour per day), according to the UCL Institute of Education.

The Education Endowment Foundation estimated that the disadvantage attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures.

And just last week, a study reported in Schools Week found that Year Seven pupils are 22 months behind expectations in their writing ability. Disadvantaged students have inevitably suffered the greatest.

Scientific research has shown that it is safe to keep the schools open and that closing them would exacerbate issues relating to children’s mental health and wellbeing, safeguarding and academic attainment.

Throughout this pandemic, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has been a powerful advocate for keeping children in school – not only for their education, but mental health and safeguarding. In advance of the lockdown announcement she tweeted, “We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut and first to open. It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close”. I doubt that the Children’s Commissioner would make such a statement if she thought there was significant risk to those in schools.

Even the Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, told Andrew Marr on Sunday that schools should remain open as we go into a second national lockdown, recognising that, “the harm caused to children by not being in school is huge”.

The Head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, issued a response to the Prime Minister’s statement, saying: “It is right that keeping schools open should be the priority in the new national lockdown… Children only get one chance at education, and we have to do everything possible to provide continuity of learning.”

As Serge Cefai, Headteacher of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Camberwell, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Monday: “Good schools and good teachers will always prioritise the needs of the children. And, of course, it’s a balancing act, but we need to understand that the harm in keeping children at home is huge… The idea that sending children home will stop the transmission is absolute nonsense”.

Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation – London’s biggest academy chain of 50 schools – said: “Young people have already lost a large chunk of their education and disadvantaged children have been damaged most. Aside from the loss of education, there is rising evidence of mental health and child protection issues under lockdown. The closure of schools would inflict more, probably irreparable, damage to those who can afford it least”.

So many heads, teachers and support staff are working day and night to keep our schools open. I’ve seen the extraordinary work they do in my own constituency of Harlow.

Other European countries imposing lockdowns have also decided to keep schools and colleges open. In Germany, for example, a conference of Ministers in October stressed that children’s right to an education is best served in the classroom, arguing: “This must take highest priority in making all decisions about restrictive measures that need to be taken”.

The Prime Minister has said that the Government is ramping up testing. Capacity is now at close to 520,000 tests per day. Schools have access to the Department for Education and Public Health England for sound advice and guidance.

To put it mildly, it is disappointing that the National Education Union would rather risk an epidemic of education poverty, rather than doing everything possible to keep our children learning.

Edward Davies: Work and relationships are the core components of mental health. The lockdown has damaged both.

4 Nov

Edward Davies is Director of Policy at the Centre for Social Justice

The Coronavirus crisis will have many knock-on effects, but one of the biggest – the decline in the nation’s mental health – is already daily headline fodder.

Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that recent suicidal thoughts had increased from one in 13 to one in 10 respondents since March: that’s the equivalent of an extra 830,000 adults thinking of ending their life.

A mega-survey conducted by Mind, the mental health charity, found that more than half the adult population reported a deterioration in their mental state during lockdown. Even six months on from telling us all to ‘stay at home’ ONS analysis finds almost four in 10 adults reporting high levels of anxiety in October.

The Department of Health in England has said, predictably, that it is increasing investment in mental health services in response. But maybe it shouldn’t. We need to learn from the last few months that addressing the mental health needs of the country is not about an ever-increasing spiral of public service spending.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are overwhelmed, and the knee-jerk response to expand them is understandable. But by the time a child gets there they are already likely to be suicidal. We must go much further upstream.

The last six months have reminded us that good public services, important though they are, are not at the root of mental wellbeing. In fact, the two core components have little to do with public services or government at all, and were profoundly undermined by the lockdown: our work and our relationships.

First, on work, there are few more important things to a person’s mental health than having a reason to get up in the morning. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is unequivocal about the importance of employment for people with mental health problems, they say it is “central to personal identity; provides structure and purpose to the day; gives opportunities for socialisation and friendship; and increases social networks – a core component of social capital”.

And secondly, on relationships, the evidence is even stronger. The Grant Study, a landmark 75-year longitudinal study of Harvard students, is utterly unequivocal about the importance of our relationships to mental and physical health:

“So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

The quality of our close relationships is fundamental to child mental health, too. Family instability is the single biggest reason that children report attending CAMHS. But, deeper than that, NHS data shows the very structure of our family relationships has a fundamental impact on the mental health of our children.

A primary school child with married parents has a six per cent chance of a mental disorder. It rises to 12 per cent for cohabiting parents and 18 per cent for lone parents.

This overwhelming evidence on work and relationships is reflected in the “happiness data” initiated by David Cameron and still quietly being collated by the ONS. After our health itself, the two most significant factors in an individual reporting that they are satisfied with their life is their marital status and employment status – way more important than other items we might assume, such as housing or income.

So what does that mean coming out of this crisis? It means that whenever policy talk turns to mental health, we need to remember the lessons of both this recent pandemic and thousands of years of history and evidence.

Public services are hugely important, but we will not prevent this problem by constantly pouring water on the fire.

If we want to truly tackle mental health problems in this country, we need to go deeper. We need to ask why, if close relationships are so important, we have allowed the most stable relationship form – marriage – to collapse to a quarter of the rate of a generation ago.

Why do our homes get smaller, our commutes get longer, and more people than ever live completely alone? As a start we should invest in greater relationship support in the early years of children’s lives and revive the Government’s Family Test to ensure housing and economic policy supports rather than hinders families’ wellbeing.

The Government has committed (but not spent) £2.5 million to conduct research into family hubs; this shouldn’t be a dry exercise, but should be done quickly enough to provide a road map to the delivery of family hubs in every part of the country.

Rev-up family support at pivotal moments like the birth of a first child. Birth registration should be a gateway into family support at the very moment parents need it most. Simply fire-fighting this problem with well-intentioned hoses of ever more school counsellors and spiralling public services will never prevent it in the first place.

Ryan Bourne: If you want to feed hungry children, don’t target food poverty. Aim to reduce poverty as a whole.

28 Oct

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Covid-19’s initial economic impact fell disproportionately on those least able to mitigate it. An Institute for Fiscal Studies paper in July found that single parents, low educated poor households, and ethnic minority groups suffered the worst relative hit. Since then, workers in low-wage services industries such as hospitality, transport, and retail, have faced both the worst of unexpected job losses and uncertainty about their income.

With this unique shock, it is unsurprising that a welfare state built around previous experiences has exhibited failures in protecting against hardship. Falling incomes, especially for those without savings or access to government benefits, have consequences. The Food Standards Agency reports greater food bank use, self-reported hunger, and families eating out-of-date produce.

That context is why the Government faces intense pressure over extending free school meals during school holidays through Easter 2021. Given the uncertainty around the efficacy of other government support, you can see the temptation to follow the advice of Iain Martin, who proposes caving to Marcus Rashford’s campaign again. Give the “£20m, handshake with Marcus R on steps of Number 10 on Monday and Royal Commission into child poverty,” Martin tweeted.

That defeat might seem a small price to pay to end the optics of opposing meals for hungry children, regardless of any questions you might have about the realities, or the desirability of extending the government scheme. As Isabel Hardman writes, the belief that Conservatives are insensitive to “food poverty,” coming first in righteous anger over food bank use in 2010-2015 and now “free” school meals, has hung around the Conservatives for a decade, whether fair or not.

Martin’s short-term solution, however, neglects that campaigners won’t be satiated by extending out-of-term meal vouchers to Easter 2021. Rashford’s campaign’s ultimate aim, remember, is to implement the Dimbleby Review, which would double the number of kids on benefit-triggered free school meals by extending eligibility to every child from a Universal Credit household (an extra 1.5 million kids.)

Crossbench peer Baroness D’Souza is already pushing for out-of-term meal vouchers to become a permanent feature. Combined, that would be billions of pounds, year on year, not tens of millions.

Come next year, no matter the labour market’s health, the Government will face the same criticism. If much of austerity taught us anything, it’s that even when acute need passes, wrapping up programmess will renew accusations that Conservatives “want to starve kids” by “snatching” their lunches.

Milton Friedman’s warning that “there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government programme,” in part stems from recipients’ aversion to losses. A Royal Commission packed with do-gooders who examine food poverty in isolation will bring further demands for spending and diet control.

That is why, I suspect, some Conservative MPs vociferously oppose the Rashford campaign. It’s not heartlessness, or even this specific extension they oppose, but the precedent and direction of travel. They can foresee the vision of government this type of reflexive policymaking and its paternalistic particulars end with.

The problem for them is that they are on a hiding to nothing in claiming this specific measure risks creating longer-term “dependency” or “nationalising children” if the public think today’s needs are real. Conservatives who believe in a small, limited state have to have answers —about what responsibility the Government should have in dealing with hardship, what tools it should use, and what its role should be for those falling through gaps.

After ten years in government and riding cycles of support for the welfare state, there’s a lack of clarity in the Party’s position, with a mix of preferences among its MPs for income support, service provision, civil society solutions, and combinations of the three. There is a clear, principled alternative vision of how to deal with poverty if the Tories want it. But it requires getting off the fence.

That alternative would say that “food poverty” is not distinct from poverty. Free school meal campaigners are broadly right that hunger is not usually caused by parental fecklessness.

Therefore, logically, food poverty largely results from insufficient disposable income for some families. If widespread hunger is evidenced, the debate should therefore be about whether benefit levels or eligibility are sufficient to meet basic needs—the goal of a safety net welfare state.

This type of limited support that trusts people to use top-ups for the betterment of their families is vastly preferable to a paternalistic state stripping us of responsibility, through demeaning out-of-term food vouchers akin to U.S. style food stamps.

In deep unexpected crises, the case for additional emergency income relief is greater. But if there really is a more structural problem of hunger, then it demands examining why wages plus benefits are insufficient to deliver acceptable living standards. Rather than just look at benefits then, we should examine living costs, too—the poor spend disproportionately high amounts on housing, energy, food, clothing and footwear, and transport.

My former colleague Kristian Niemietz wrote a free-market anti-poverty agenda back in 2011, which I’ve pushed MPs to adopt since. He showed that market-friendly policies on housing (planning reform), food and clothes (free trade), energy (ending high-cost green regulations), childcare (reversing the credentialism and stringent ratios), and cutting sin taxes to economically-justified levels could shrink poverty by slashing the cost of living for the poor, so reducing food hardship, homelessness and more.

Most of this agenda would require no extra spending or busybodying from government paternalists; some of the policies would bring the double-dividend of raising wages .

The Government has ambitious policies in a number of these areas. But why are they never linked to the poverty discussions? As they press for planning liberalisation, why is nobody highlighting how cheaper housing would lessen these tales of distress? Why is nobody identifying the discrepancy of some campaigning about food poverty while opposing trade deals that would make food, clothes, and manufactured goods cheaper, to the huge relative betterment of poor consumers?

Sure, there would be families who make bad decisions and find themselves in trouble, even in a world of cheap and abundant housing and an effective safety net.

But instances of poverty owing to lack of resources would be much lower and these thornier challenges (often stemming from addictions, loss, ill-health, criminality and more) are much better identified by local charities and civil society groups anyway, as Danny Kruger argued in the Commons last week in relation to hinger. Giving nearly three million kids “free” school meals year-round would be an absolute sledgehammer to crack any remaining nut.

In today’s emotive debates, it’s not enough to just oppose proposals when the need is perceived as urgent. Conservatives must be better at re-setting the debate on their terms—a task much easier if they held a clear vision of the role and limits of state action.

Toby Williams: Lockdown has presented huge challenges for the children of alcoholics. Here’s how we can help.

21 Oct

Toby Williams was the Conservative candidate for Mitcham and Morden at the last General Election. He is standing for the London Assembly next year as a city-wide candidate. 

As difficult, painful and tragic as the Coronavirus pandemic has been, it has also brought out the very best in human nature. It has been extraordinary to see people go to great lengths to help loved ones and absolute strangers alike, with communities pulling together, individuals volunteering their precious time to help others and our heroic key workers putting themselves in harms way to keep the country going.

In many ways, we are coming out of the pandemic as even more of a compassionate, big-hearted, and socially conscious country. This puts us in the right position to deal with some of the pressing social problems facing our country – especially those which have been made more acute by the lockdown.

In particular, I hope that we, as a society, are able to turn some of our attention to the plight of the children of alcoholics (COA).

I have been a COA for the vast majority of my life and, despite now living 150 miles away from home, Coronavirus has made an already difficult situation even more challenging. But I shudder to think of fellow COAs who have had to go through the experience of lockdown while still living with their addicted parent. I have no doubt that my experience pales into insignificance compared to theirs.

So many of these children (and most of them will be children) will have been caught up in a perfect storm. As I have seen from the last few months, lockdown has tragically created the circumstances which has allowed alcoholism to thrive. For so many of us, the pandemic has created more space in our lives, and alcoholics tend to fill any vacant space with more alcohol.

Whilst alcohol consumption may have increased, a child’s ability to take some respite from their parent will have all but disappeared, with schools closed and friends out of reach. This will have resulted in a far more intense experience of being a COA, leading to a crippling lack of security at best and abuse at worst.

It’s no surprise whatsoever that the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) – a brilliant charity which runs a helpline for COAs – reported a doubling of calls in the first two weeks of lockdown alone. The COAs who contacted Nacoa were distressed by the lack of routine and alarmed by the intensity of lockdown. COAs described lockdown as “unbearable” and “unmanageable” due to a combination of parents drinking increasing amounts and the usual escape mechanisms simply not being available.

My concern is that all of this represents a shift rather than a spike. Alcoholism is all too often a one-way street, with alcoholics unable to shift into reverse gear and un-do the damage. That is why now is precisely the right time to look at what more we can do protect and support COAs.

This isn’t just important to mitigate the pain caused in the short term, it’s also key to preventing serious problems in the long term. Figures from 2017 show that, compared to other children, COAs are twice as likely to experience difficulties at school, three times more likely to consider suicide, five times more likely to develop eating disorders and four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. By dealing with the difficulties faced by COAs, we can boost social justice, improve our education system, and help to prevent health problems which would otherwise cost the NHS millions.

As Conservatives, we can be immensely proud of our record in government when it comes to COAs. It was, after all, a Conservative government which, in 2018, launched the UK’s first ever strategy to help children affected by parental alcohol misuse, which included £6 million worth of funding to help children with alcoholic parents get support and advice. Importantly, half a million pounds was invested in Nacoa’s helpline – a genuine lifeline and often last resort for so many COAs.

But it’s time to build on this fantastic work, with a key focus on three areas as a “starter for 10”:

1) Boosting awareness for children

Something which is overlooked is that children so often do not understand what alcohol is, let alone alcoholism; my eight-year-old self certainly didn’t. This creates an obvious dilemma: how can COAs ask for help with a problem that they don’t understand or even know exists? It’s time for a review of how the issue of parental alcoholism is approached in schools, and whether this could be done more effectively.

2) Boosting awareness for adults who work with children

It remains the case that the way in which the state deals with alcoholics is very focussed on the alcoholics themselves. For example, doctors rightly focus on getting an alcoholic help, but too little attention is paid to the needs to any children involved.

Teachers are encouraged to spot the signs of all kinds of child abuse, but there is a lack of awareness of the support available to COAs. It would be enormously beneficial to provide new guidance and training to these professionals to enable them to have COAs in the forefront of their minds and know where to turn to get these children support.

3) Getting the funding right

Spending is only part of the answer to big social problems like addiction, but now is a sensible time to review what the Government is spending on helping COAs. As touched on above, in 2018 £6 million was invested in supporting COAs, but this money is set to run out next year.

As we deal with the myriad of challenges inevitably caused by a pandemic, it is essential that the often silent voices of COAs are not allowed to simply fade into the background. With thousands of COAs having just gone through an incredibly difficult period, now is the right time to build on the proud Conservative track record of delivering the support that they need and deserve.

In doing so, we will help to ease the pain of the present and avoid the problems of the future. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Peter Golds: The skewed enforcement priorities of Tower Hamlets Council

21 Oct

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Here are two matters of concern taking place on the same road. They give an indication as to why my local authority has problems with the public.

My first example concerns a single mother living in a house with her daughter. She is qualified in both banking and architecture and holds a responsible job with a major corporation. In order to work, she employs a properly registered child-minder and ensures that all tax and national insurance with regard to the child-minder is paid and correctly recorded. She is, by any standard, a model citizen and is both active and popular within her local community.

A while ago, and to her surprise, she suddenly received correspondence from the borough’s council tax that she was living with a person aged over 18. She was quickly able to prove that she lived with her daughter and a dog.

Next, and very disturbingly, she received an early morning visit from two officers from the council’s social services. They were checking allegations of “neglect of her child” and “illegal employment.” This was easily proven to be false, but the resident lost a day’s work. I was approached, as the local councillor, to see where the council stood in this. I got no further than the council has to investigate all allegations.

This was followed by a formal visit from Ofsted investigating a complaint that this resident was operating an “unlicensed child care facility,” where a child was being neglected. This was again quickly proven to be untrue, confirming the presence at the address of a registered carer looking after a single child, at home, whilst the parent was at work.

Then she began to receive, on a daily basis, addressed envelopes with nothing inside. The police were contacted but undertook no investigation despite being made aware that this appeared to be part of an ongoing campaign of harassment of a single woman living alone with a child.

The most recent problem she had was while replacing rear doors and windows. To ensure this was in order she obtained a “certificate of lawfulness” from the council’s planning department and went ahead. One morning recently, a man appeared at her front door, saying that he was from Tower Hamlets council’s building control department investigating a complaint and demanding entrance to view the work. He flashed an official council pass, but would not permit the resident to photograph the pass or take details. After a stand off, she secured the name of the officer. Despite producing the council’s certificate of lawfulness, an inspection took place. It is obvious that somebody, somewhere, aware that planning was completely lawful, complained to building control, who appeared not to work with planning within the same local authority.

This completely law-abiding and popular local citizen, facing continuous harassment and vexatious complaints, then sought information as to the source of these incidents via the Freedom of Information process. This has been refused by Tower Hamlets Council. The question I have asked is how much longer will this continue and how many other council departments will be involved? Equally, the police should be taking this seriously. We have a single, law-abiding woman, living with a child, facing an ongoing and organised campaign of harassment and threats. She deserves more than a CAD number.

Further up the same road is a small housing development called Thames Circle. It includes some flats and a row of town houses around a circle. Within the area is an uncompleted piece of land for which planning permission for a block of flats was given eighteen years ago – but the consent lapsed. For a period, portacabins were placed in this area and used by a local school on a temporary planning consent. The council declined to extend the temporary planning consent for the school and it moved elsewhere.

A few months ago portacabins arrived on the site and a takeaway kitchen commenced operation. This involved preparing food for adjoining residencies and a local Church, and the distribution of the food by car, scooter, and bicycle. The scooters are all badged with an L plate. Thames Circle is off a busy major A road, with bus routes, one of which operates 24/7 and on a curve. Scooters and cycles moving in and out of the development, dodging traffic and ignoring the local speed limit, on top of the emissions and smell from the kitchens do not add to the quality of life.

I met residents and made enquiries of the council who wrote to me to confirm that the site does not have planning consent for the operation of the kitchens. The council has “an ongoing inspection concerning smoke complaints” and no licence has been issued to the operator regarding licensable activities. In addition, I discovered that there is no traffic management scheme. The operator ultimately applied for a retrospective planning application in June but there was “missing information that would be required to be able to make it valid and add to the planning register.”

In short, this is a business operating without planning or licensing, while the council took no enforcement action whatsoever.

We have two important council concerns on the same road, just a short distance apart. There is a completely innocent woman facing a campaign of harassment by a person or persons who are manipulating the council to harass a resident, whilst the same council departments are unable to deal with an illegal operation.

Across the borough, Tower Hamlets Council spent, between January 2019 and August 2020, the sum of £2,660,000 on “liveable streets” projects. Of that sum, £978,000 was spent on preliminary design to “inform consultation workshops.” The result has been chaos in parts of the borough, with roads suddenly closed and concerns about access to emergency vehicles.

Yet on the Isle of Dogs, there is a road where residents lives are a misery due to anti-social behaviour which can be traced to parking bays, and avoided by residents because of drug dealers. Residents, supported by the police, have been asking the council to remove the parking bays and extend the pavement. Despite spending over £2.5 million on “liveable streets” the council response to these residents with genuine problems is – organise a petition…