Emily Carver: The decision to mandate masks in classrooms is utterly indefensible

5 Jan

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

To his credit, the Prime Minister has stuck to his guns and refused to follow the devolved administrations and bring in tougher rules.

This is a rational decision. We know that Omicron has proven to be milder than previous variants, and despite a surge in the number of people in hospital “with Covid”, the speedy roll-out of booster jabs has kept the number of patients on ventilators low. Indeed, the latest data shows that the number of people in ICU has in fact fallen in recent weeks and it not tracking the rise seen last winter. While pressure on the NHS is severe, it is manageable.

Even Professor Neil Ferguson, who predicted last month that there could be 5,000 Omicron deaths a day (over three times the peak last January) has admitted that this wave is “substantially less severe” than previous ones, and that he is now “cautiously optimistic” Omicron cases are plateauing among 18 to 50-year-olds in London, the age group that has been driving the recent wave.

Yet, despite the fact we are so very far from worst case scenarios (and Ferguson’s best-case scenario), the Government has decided that it is proportionate to demand children wear masks throughout the entire school day. It is now once again “recommended” for all secondary school pupils in England to wear masks eight hours a day, with only a short break for lunch.

Politicians have argued that mask-wearing is a small price to pay to keep schools open. The opposition has also parroted this line. But they’re not paying the price. It is not office workers or MPs who are being forced to don a sweaty, germ-ridden mask all day.

And where is the evidence that mask-wearing will slow down the spread of the virus, keep schools open, or indeed save lives? Surely there must be an extremely high bar to justify a “recommendation” that will impact children’s learning and quality of life?

According to the Health Secretary, the guidance is based on two assessments. First, the evidence that Omicron, though milder, is highly infectious. And second, that an “observational” study of 123 schools undertaken by the Department of Education supports the use of face masks in schools – a study which is yet to be published.

One of the major criticisms from those sceptical of the Government’s approach is that it has failed to communicate or publish cost-benefit analyses for its ever-changing patchwork of Covid rules and regulations. You would have thought that, when seeking to intervene in children’s lives, the costs should be even more meticulously assessed?

Anyone who has ever worn a face mask will know they inhibit basic social interaction. This may not be as important in some professions, but in schools it is essential. Only in November, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam defended the Government’s decision not to mandate masks in schools. He said they can be “quite inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children, involving speech and facial expressions. It’s difficult for children in schools with face masks”. This will be worse for those with special educational needs, or for the growing number of children already suffering with their mental health. Has his view changed?

It seems the Government is more interested in being seen “to do something”, even if that means children are scapegoated. Indeed, in a meeting of the Education Select Committee meeting, children’s minister Will Quince admitted that there was “very limited evidence as to the efficacy of masks in educational settings”, but that mask mandates would be used as a “precautionary measure” nonetheless.

Considering this, it’s hard not to see this weakly-evidenced intervention as anything more than a political decision used to appease those who would rather keep schools closed. Certainly, if the decision were left up to the teachers’ unions and some councils, schools would remain shut to most pupils, and teaching would continue online-only.

We’ve heard in recent days from the NASUWT that remote learning is “the only sensible and credible option at this time to minimise the risks to those working in schools and to safeguard public health”. The leadership of the NEU has warned its members that it is not safe for them to return to school until mid-January at the earliest and has even provided template letters for their members to refuse to go back to work.

Then there’s the added problem of the Government’s own increasingly unworkable Covid self-isolation rules – rules which are wreaking havoc on our public services.

Not only are head teachers fearing up to a quarter of staff will be off work in January, but one in ten NHS workers are out of action, rail services have abandoned popular routes, and councils have scaled back rubbish collections. Economists have predicted that the impact of one million people now estimated to be self-isolating could knock several percentage points off GDP, amounting to billions of pounds.

If the Government is serious about children’s education, maintaining a functioning economy and finally learning to live with a virus that is clearly going nowhere, it must rethink these rules. It is clearly unsustainable for working people who are asymptomatic, or who are suffering only mild symptoms, to isolate for seven whole days. And if keeping schools open is the priority, sending teachers and children home for an arbitrary period if they test positive for a virus is no longer defensible. Especially when for most the symptoms are now akin to the common cold.

Considering Omicron is less severe than some feared, and the impact of staff absences is so high, the argument for shortening the isolation period has significantly strengthened.  While it looks like the Government is continuing with its painful policy of encouraging the continuous testing of asymptomatic adult and children, it must at least reconsider its arbitrary isolation rules – reduce the number of days or better yet move to a test and release system to hasten teachers and children back into the classroom.

It’s time for the Government to weigh up the benefits and costs of its Covid policies – and leave children alone.

Robert Halfon: Dealing with child hunger isn’t a left-wing issue. The Government must, and can, do more.

15 Dec

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Today I hope to be speaking in a Westminster Hall Debate on the National Food Strategy organised by my friend and colleague, Jo Gideon MP.

Yet as the country once again grapples with a Covid-Christmas dilemma, many families and schools face a starker challenge of food hunger.

Lockdowns and school closures following the outbreak of the pandemic have had a devastating impact on children’s learning, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ofsted’s latest annual report shows that pupils lost 33 million days of learning. Indeed, at a recent hearing of the Education Select Committee, which I chair, the Education Policy Institute confirmed that for the most disadvantaged secondary school-aged pupils, they had gone from being 1.9 months behind in their reading to 2.4 months over the course of the year.

The Government is rightly boosting support for schools with nearly £5 billion of education catch-up funding targeted towards recovery through the National Tutoring Programme. But all the extra tuition in the world won’t work if children arrive at school without having eaten a nutritious breakfast.

There will be some out there who argue this should be the responsibility of parents and carers. In an ideal world, it should be, but sadly, in too many cases, this is not happening.

Can readers really stand in front of the single mother of three I spoke to, and tell her she should be denied temporary help and her children left to go hungry, because she had been made redundant due to the pandemic and can no longer afford to put food on the table?

The statistics are clear. We know that children who regularly eat breakfast achieve, on average, two higher GCSE grades than children who don’t. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that children in schools with breakfast clubs make two months additional academic progress. According to Kellogg’s (an organisation not usually associated with the left), hunger could cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through lost teaching time spent on dealing with the needs of hungry pupils.

So how, ask those rightly concerned about public finances, are we supposed to pay for this? I was not a great fan of the so-called ‘Coca-Cola tax’, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) introduced in 2018 on sugary drinks. It disproportionately affects those on lower incomes who might simply want to purchase the occasional treat for their kids. But it also generates a revenue of £340 million each year.

Given that the money was originally intended to fund healthy living initiatives, why not use it to fund hunger reduction programmes? That way no-one needs to ask the taxpayer for more money.

According to a new poll conducted by Opinium Research, two thirds of UK adults (66 per cent) would be likely to support the Government increasing spending on school breakfast provision for disadvantaged children through using unspent funds from the Coca-Cola tax.

Magic Breakfast have calculated that for £75 million more per year, funded by the sugar tax, the Government could ensure that 7,300 of the most disadvantaged primary and SEN schools could provide a free, nutritious breakfast to every pupil that needs it.

This would reach an estimated 900,000 pupils throughout the year, targeted to the most disadvantaged schools. This could complement other initiatives such as the deeper strategy to support Family Hubs championed by my colleague Fiona Bruce MP and given the additional £500 million provided in this year’s Autumn Budget.

Currently, the Department for Education’s new breakfast provision service reaches just 30 per cent of schools in high levels of disadvantage and invests just £12 million a year. By comparison last year taxpayers spent £380 million on Free School Meals vouchers.

For some, this may be difficult to stomach, but no Conservative opposed the £70 billion furlough scheme which was in essence, a welfare benefit to employers. And no Conservative opposed the £850 million Eat Out to Help Out scheme – again, another form of welfare relief to the hospitality industry.

Pro Bono Economics report the impact of free school breakfasts on Key Stage 1 pupils’ future economic contribution. If every pupil in disadvantaged areas received breakfast provision, this would translate into nearly £3 billion in long-term economic value.

If support can be made available to businesses feeling the brunt of the pandemic, then surely we could provide welfare in the form of breakfast clubs, holiday activities and free school meals to children.

Dealing with child hunger should not be a left-wing issue. Indeed, the Levelling-Up agenda has the potential to heal some significant social injustices in our country and provide every child with a hand-up to climb the ladder of opportunity.

Supporting high-quality education and increasing academic attainment in schools must be crucial to levelling-up but we can’t expect pupils to succeed on an empty stomach.

No-one has to ask the taxpayer for more money to do this – the money is waiting in Treasury coffers to be used. So as we look towards a new year, and a new start, let’s make free school breakfasts a new year’s levelling-up resolution.

Robert Halfon: Distracted by Covid, policymakers run the risk of creating a mental health epidemic in schools

1 Dec

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

For me, the major concern presented by Omicron is not so much about whether we will be sitting down to Christmas dinner this year, but whether the country is moving again towards de facto school closures.

Even with the vaccination of millions of teachers, support staff and pupils over aged 12, hundreds of thousands of children are still being sent home to isolate. According to the Department for Education’s latest figures, as of November 11 2021, 130,000 of all pupils on roll in state-funded schools did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons.

Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency, confirmed directly to me that, like other forms of Covid, thankfully, children are less at risk from the new variant. Moreover, children are not significant vectors for transmission.

Readers may recall from my last column that I recently introduced a 10 Minute Rule Bill, backed by the current and former Children’s Commissioners, and by two previous Children’s Ministers, which aims to prevent future school closures.

The Bill would introduce a ‘triple lock’ of protections to safeguard against any future school closures, except in cases of extreme emergency. The Government would have to seek the advice of the Children’s Commissioner on the necessity of closing schools, hold a debate and vote in Parliament to agree the measure, and then seek the further advice of the Children’s Commissioner and a further vote by Parliament every three weeks to place a strict time-limit on any future disruption.

Ministers follow the science and advice from SAGE and the JCVI when it comes to our health, so it is only logical that they must also follow the advice provided by the Children’s Commissioner and those with the best interests of our children at the heart of their mandate.

Statistics published by the Education Policy Institute show that primary aged children were 3.4 and 2.2 months behind in maths and reading. For disadvantaged pupils, this is even great with 4.2 months and 2.7 months of lost learning respectively.

In 2019-20, the number of children being referred for mental health treatment soared by 60 per cent. In the same year, there was a 46 per cent rise in child eating disorder referrals.

The question that policymakers should be asked is: when considering the risks of Covid to children (minimal – thank goodness), do they also consider the perhaps bigger risk of creating a secondary mental health epidemic, and damage to children’s life chances and educational attainment?

There are three measures the DfE should take to combat these rising mental health challenges.

First, every child must receive a mental health assessment. This is important to understand the full scale of the problem.

Second, Ministers should rocket-boost the proposal in the recent Young People’s Mental Health Green Paper to place a designated senior mental health lead in every school by 2025.

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing has identified that good mental health and wellbeing at age 14-15 has a significant and positive association with educational attainment at age 18. Furthermore, research published by the DfE shows that pupils with better emotional wellbeing at age seven were more than one term ahead of pupils with poorer emotional wellbeing.

Third, we know that social media is like a wrecking ball for young people’s mental health.

According to NHS Digital, 16.7 per cent of children aged 11-16 said the numbers of ‘likes’, ‘comments’, or ‘shares’ they received had a significant impact on their mood. The Royal Society for Public Health found that one in six young people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life and that four of the five most used social media platforms make their feelings of anxiety worse.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, a USA Congressional hearing on social media showed that Facebook knew about the harmful mental health effects that Instagram was having on young girls.

The Treasury should introduce a mental health levy for social media giants. Ofcom published a report earlier this year which stated the revenue for social media companies is £4.8 billion. Introducing a two per cent levy could create a funding pot of around £100 million. This could then be distributed to schools to provide mental health support and digital skills training for young people to build the resilience and online safety skills they need.

Teaching and implementing resilience tools and techniques as a means of preventing worsening mental health are fundamental.

I recently visited Newham Collegiate Sixth Form and met with students. The Headteacher described the preventative work they do in the school to help equip students with the mental health tools they need to cope with the hurdles the world puts in their path.

For example, a coach is employed to work with students to develop techniques to conquer their anxieties and school assemblies are utilised to teach the tools needed to help manage highly pressured environments. In private study periods, the desks are set up to resemble an exam hall to help pupils become familiar with the setting so when it comes to a real exam, it does not trigger a reaction causing the student to underperform.

As the Head said to me: “Whilst recognising the seriousness of mental health diagnoses when they occur, we mustn’t allow the narrative of ‘mental health’ to become the crutch that every little challenge is defined under”.

Prevention and resilience are the key weapons that should be amassed to build this arsenal of tools and techniques which can be replicated across the country to conquer poor mental health in our children.

Above all, ensuring that schools are not a revolving door of openings and closures for children is the best way to support young people’s mental health and improve their educational attainment and life chances.

Robert Halfon: Skills shortages cost the UK billions a year. Re-setting our education system can change this – and boost pupils’ prospects.

17 Nov

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Last month, the Chancellor delivered a historic budget that cemented ambitions for a skills revolution.

I wish the new team leading the Department for Education every bit of luck. They have taken on some of the most profoundly important challenges as we begin to build back better.

‘Schools’ and ‘skills’ must be the two most important words in the Government’s vocabulary as we transform our education system. They are the key to delivering our mission of creating an economy that works for everyone.

Of course, we must retain our focus on education recovery. The pandemic has had an apocalyptic effect on the life chances of our young people. However, even before our schools closed their doors, there were signs that the education system was failing to support those most in need. Disadvantaged pupils were 18.4 months behind their better-off peers and the progress made on closing this attainment gap had come to a faltering halt.

But educational catch-up is not all. In order to meet our skills ambitions, education must adequately prepare pupils for the world of work. It is estimated that skills shortages in the UK are costing us £6.3 billion every year because previous governments have not given skills the priority they deserve. New Ministers have inherited an education system that is at odds with the demands of our modern economy.

Whenever I speak to employers and business leaders in my constituency, they say they want individuals with the knowledge required to do the job, but they also need to have strong skills, be good communicators, excellent problem-solvers and strong team players.

From Harlow to Huddersfield, local employers get the importance of skills. In towns like mine, there’s a strong vocational and skills culture: my constituents are proud of apprenticeships and skills, and what’s more, employers attach immense value on skills beyond academic qualifications. The Government’s own Employer Skills Survey reveals that academic qualifications are just one small part of today’s recruitment process. Employers across the country place the most value on technical, practical and so-called ‘soft’ skills.

Despite the name, these skills aren’t soft at all. Pupils need skills like resilience, financial education, oracy and teamwork to secure jobs and thrive in employment. In a recent survey of the UK labour market, looking at the data from 21 million job adverts, communication, planning and organisation skills were in the greatest demand from employers. In an increasingly digital world where AI is king, these skills will become even more important.

The keystone to education must be about providing young people with a ladder of opportunity so that they can go on to gain fulfilling employment, job security and prosperity for themselves and their families. Despite the fundamental link between education and employment, we currently give these skills scant attention in our education system.

But it does not have to be like this. Some schools are bucking the trend and blending knowledge with practical skills.

XP is an Outstanding-rated school in Doncaster. They recognise that knowledge and skills depend upon each other so they have tightly integrated project-based learning with an academically-rigorous curriculum. Recently, pupils embarked on a research project to better understand the relationship between Doncaster and the history of its rail industry. At the end, they published a book which has become the third highest-selling local book in the area.

School 21 is another Outstanding school which empowers young people to use their voice, developing oracy skills that employers see as invaluable. They give pupils the chance to give mini TED talks in front of large audiences to develop their confidence and public speaking skills. School 21 also offers pupils real-world learning placements where young people gain professional communication skills through work experience.

These schools are incredible examples of what is possible if schools focus their efforts on cultivating both the skills and knowledge that pupils need. However, they are remarkable exceptions, and not the rule. We need to do more to transform the education system to value skills as highly as knowledge.

First, the Government must double down our efforts to close the attainment gap, focusing additional support with laser precision to reach those most in need. To do this, the Government should review whether pupil premium funding is up to the task. The Education Select Committee heard from experts who said that the support base for pupil premium is too broad. We should reform pupil premium so that it concentrates on pupils in persistent poverty.

Second, we must reform the post-16 curriculum. All children deserve high expectations and a curriculum which stretches them. However, we must make sure that when we’re stretching pupils, it’s always with an eye on securing positive post-16 destinations, rather than idolising a narrow set of academic subjects.

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) has led to a narrowing of the curriculum. Subjects like Design & Technology (D&T) and Computer Science are being squeezed out, with entrances for D&T GCSEs down by 65 per cent from 2010. The EBacc needs to be reformed to create a parity of esteem for vocational subjects alongside a rigorous academic offer.

Finally, we must take a renewed look at the assessment system. Our current system was created in a world where children left school at 16 and the skills they needed for life were very different. I propose that we move to a new system where children have the option at aged 18 to complete an International Baccalaureate, which focuses in equal measure on academic knowledge and skills.

The combination of skills and knowledge is not an unattainable ideal. In fact, it is the international standard. Over 150 countries and 5,000 schools already offer the International Baccalaureate. This qualification allows pupils to study a range of academic subjects alongside a skills-based project of their choice. If we want our young people to compete for the jobs of tomorrow, we need a similarly broad baccalaureate that obliterates the false dichotomy between vocational and academic achievement that has unfairly constrained our young people for decades.

The outgoing Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, advised his successors to push forward with a knowledge-based curriculum. In his article published a couple of months ago, he argued that our education system faced a battle between his traditionalist world view, and the ideology of progressives.

I have enormous respect for Gibb. During his time as Minster, he was a relentless champion of phonics, and through his hard work, the proportion of pupils passing Year 1 of phonics screening checks increased from 58 to 82 per cent in 2019.

While I retain a lot of admiration for his legacy at the Department for Education, I believe his article did not fully address the problems the education system is facing.

Nobody will benefit if the Conservative Party wastes our energy on fighting a straw man. We live in a world where we can, and should, equip young people with both knowledge and skills. If we neglect either one, we are setting our children up to fail.

Re-setting our education system to grapple with the demands of the modern economy will not lead to a worsening of school standards – it is the only way that we can achieve our skills ambition and level-up education for those who need it the most.

We promised to deliver a skills revolution. Now we need to make this promise a reality.

As universities cling onto their Covid measures, students have quietly found new bargaining powers

28 Sep

Over the weekend, readers of this site may remember that I wrote about the GP crisis; in short, the fact that many surgeries around the country have continued to operate in pandemic conditions, in spite of the successful vaccine roll out – and the economy being fully reopened.

On a similar note, universities have been tentative about getting back to normal, with reports of them enforcing face masks, social distancing and even vaccine passports for events on campus. The measure attracting the most negative media attention, however, is the use of online courses in academia.

Recently it was revealed, for instance, that 20 out of 24 Russell Group universities would maintain what’s now called “blended learning”; a sophisticated way of describing face-to-face and online teaching combined. Nottingham University even has plans to use “pre-recorded teaching materials” on its courses, which it can presumably recycle numerous times among students.

With undergraduates paying £9,250 a year for their degrees, it’s unsurprising that there’s been huge backlash against universities’ plans. People could understand the need for online measures during the pandemic, but not now.

So why are universities doing this? And what is to be done about it?

The most sympathetic explanation is that administrators – and sometimes students – are simply fearful about Coronavirus outbreaks, which can lead to localised ones too.

It makes sense that the activity administrators are most likely to put online is lectures, as opposed to small seminars, due to the fact that tens – and even hundreds – of students gather there, making them potential “superspreader” events.

Professor Dennis Hayes, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Derby and the Director of Academics for Academic Freedom, also points out just how much money universities spent “for campuses to be Covid safe” and that “they’re very wary about dropping everything” should there be a sudden change in the UK’s situation. Measures, for all their inconvenience, are designed to prevent future disruption. 

But critics of the current system say universities have used Covid as an excuse to cut costs – and that the pandemic has simply accelerated their pre-existing goal to move courses online. They will point out that contact time with tutors has been declining for a very long time (and I empathise with this position as a graduate of 2010, who had two hours of teaching time per week in her final year).

It will also reinforce suggestions that the UK has become overly dependent on overseas students for business. Perhaps administrators are more worried about catering to this market, by way of online content, than trying to ensure a “normal” campus experience for the students already there.

As with GPs, the Government will be keen to get universities back to normal. Hayes thinks “a very clear statement about the importance of face-to-face teaching would be welcome” from the Government; “it would win support from university managers”.

Chris Skidmore, who was Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, warns that the Government needs a “national strategy” for accommodation, lest “another variant comes along”.

One of the Covid measures that has been most unfair for students surrounds their accommodation. Many were banned from it during the peak of the pandemic, despite paying full cost.

“Government could be providing accommodation support for students that’s outside of the tuition fee, particularly if we go into another lockdown and students have to leave their accommodation”, Skidmore adds, pointing out the large disparities in whether students got a rebate or not.

This idea might help to alleviate the quiet “refund war”, if I may, that’s been taking place between universities and students. A month ago, it was reported that University College London had paid a total of £68,748.33 in tuition refunds due to Covid in the last two years.

This came as something of a shock to the university’s President and Provost, who previously said it was “just not possible” to provide students with a refund, as online learning is “very expensive”.

Actually, students have more powers than ever before to pressure their universities. This is not only thanks to student unions clubbing together (more here), but due to a change of rules from The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE), an independent body set up to review student complaints about higher education providers in England and Wales.

It now allows for “Large Group Complaints”, described as instances when there’s a “high degree of commonality between complaints and where the complaints could be considered collectively”.

Essentially, this means large numbers of students can co-ordinate a complaint; if they feel, for instance, that they were sold a course much different than the one they got.

Moreover, market forces are going to have an effect on universities. Students now have a much greater idea of which ones are going to offer “blended learning”, and that will feed into their UCAS choices. 

In the background, they also know that there are new non-graduate opportunities. The hospitality crisis has been the subject of alarming headlines, but for young people, it may present choices against overpriced, online degrees.

In short, the media coverage has made it easy to believe that students are victims in the university equation; and they have been dealt a bad hand in many ways.

But there are also signs of a pushback against a sector that has long taken its consumers for granted. By all indications, that’s about to change.

Miriam Cates: The Government should be immensely proud of its Holiday Activities and Food programme

1 Sep

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge.

There’s something special about the school summer holidays. Six weeks away from the classroom, a chance to relax, have fun, sleep in, go somewhere nice and spend time with friends and family.

As a child (and more recently as a teacher) I used to start looking forward to the summer holidays in about January each year, and I know my own children count down the days during those last weeks of the summer term. Many of us will have wonderful childhood memories of the long summer break.

But for some families, the school holidays are far from carefree. For parents who are already struggling to make ends meet, the prospect of having to feed and entertain children without the support of school for six long weeks can be daunting indeed.

It’s easy to think of school holidays as a pause in education, but they are actually an important opportunity for children to learn from a broader range of experiences, like trying new sports, widening cultural knowledge and even having the chance to stay away from home with grandparents or on activity camps.

It is these opportunities that help prepare children for adult life, by teaching skills such as confidence, resilience, and broad mindedness; skills that are just as important for a successful adult life as those learned in formal education.

As a Conservative, I believe that all children should have the opportunities they need to succeed but sadly, children from disadvantaged homes just do not have access to these invaluable holiday experiences.

This has long-term implications far beyond the school holidays; indeed research from the US suggests that much of the educational attainment gap between rich and poor can be explained by the stark differences in children’s experiences during the school holidays.

In other words, children from all backgrounds make good academic progress throughout the school year, but during the long summer break, wealthier kids continue to learn from a wide range of enriching experiences whereas poorer students fall behind, even demonstrating learning loss.

The Government’s pioneering Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme seeks to address this inequality and it has been a delight to visit two of these projects in my Penistone and Stocksbridge constituency in recent weeks.

The HAF has been funded by the DfE to the tune of £220 million and will run during summer, Christmas and Easter school holidays, providing a wide range of exciting activities and a nutritious meal to all children who are eligible for free school meals.

The HAF programme offers disadvantaged children the chance to take part in activities like swimming, sports camps and drama for free, experiences that many of their wealthier peers take for granted.

Crucially, the provision of a substantial meal alongside the programme of activities helps to ensure that children who might otherwise go without are properly fed throughout the holidays.

The issue of food poverty has rightly been highlighted during the pandemic, and there is much more that we need to do to make sure that everyone in the UK – and especially our children – has enough to put food on the table.

We Conservatives like to say that work is the route out of poverty; it certainly should be, but we have to face the fact that many people who work hard still struggle to make ends meet, often due to issues around low pay and a tax system that places an unfair burden on households with children.

But a Conservative approach to tackling poverty doesn’t just look to provide money to those who need it (though of course this is important) but also to provide opportunity. It’s not just food that can be in short supply over the holidays for children in low-income families; many also lack access to vital educational opportunities that are just as foundational for future success as formal education.

I’m often asked what “levelling up” really means, and I confess that although it’s a phrase that resonates deeply with many people, it’s not always easy to articulate. But the HAF programme is a living, breathing example of levelling up in action.

This is a Conservative answer to inequality, using Government as a force for good by spreading opportunities more fairly across our nation, giving our disadvantaged children a hand up and closing the gap between rich and poor.

Robert Halfon: We need to get a handle on home education – and the surge of kids who’ve vanished from the school roll

28 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Thanks to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that around 93,500 children missed over 50 per cent of their school sessions in Autumn 2020. As disturbing as this may be, at least we are aware of these children and can track them with the hope of getting them back into education.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the many thousands of children across our country that are being home educated. We have little information, limited data and no analysis of these pupils’ outcomes. Astonishingly, the Department for Education does not even collect national figures on the number of children in elective home education.

For too long, a fog has shrouded home education.

Compared with our European neighbours, the English model is relatively permissive. A survey from 2018 showed that in a dozen countries, including Germany, home education was possible only in exceptional circumstances and in many cases, parents had to get authorisation. Students’ progress was “monitored and assessed everywhere except in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom”.

Survey figures suggest that, over the year to October 2020, there was a 38 per cent increase in the number of home educated children, with around 75,000 being educated at home. Further to this, Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, has identified around 20,000 thousand children who have completely vanished from the school roll. We are faced with a surge of missing children, catalysed by the Covid-19 crisis.

The Education Select Committee, which I Chair, published a report this week looking at what steps can be taken to strengthen and support home education. The report was passed unanimously by the Conservative and Labour members of the Committee.

First, our report recommends that the Department for Education should collect much more data and information about home educated pupils. One way of achieving this would be to have a register collected by local authorities. Data from the register would be anonymised nationally. It would enable resources to be targeted. The Department for Education would be able to seriously lend a helping hand to the families of children who have been let down by the school system.

Second, our report notes that every parent is required to secure a suitable education for their child. As we point out, home education should aim to enable the child, when grown-up, to function as an independent citizen in the UK. Individuals are surely independent if they have the qualifications and basic key skills in numeracy and literacy needed to gain access to the jobs ladder of opportunity.

Our report suggests that home educated children should be assessed at least once a year in maths and English. It is worth noting that Anne Longfield, the respected former Children’s Commissioner, has argued for termly visits to home educated children.

Third, too many parents have been forced into un-elective home education. This is especially true of families of children with special educational needs. One parent told our Committee that support for children with special needs was inadequate and that many parents remove their children from school in order to protect them. We are, therefore, proposing the introduction of independent advocates for these families to help them wade through the treacle of bureaucracy and to get the right support for their child.

Fourth, if it is agreed that there should be a register and that home educated children should be assessed, it only seems fair that there should be a level playing field for exams. In practice, this would mean that the Government would fund home educated pupils who wish to complete GCSEs, A-Levels and other relevant qualifications.

Finally, it is worth noting data from the former Children’s Commissioner, suggesting that five per cent of schools were responsible for 40 per cent of children being withdrawn to home education in 2017-18. The Commissioner could not say whether these high numbers reflected parental dissatisfaction or were the result of pressure or influence from the school to withdraw a child.

During the 2018-19 school year, before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ofsted was investigating around one hundred schools for high levels of pupil movement, potentially linked to off-rolling. Of course, permanent exclusions for serious misbehaviour will still be necessary, but there should be a requirement for schools to publish data on their websites about the number of permanent and fixed-term exclusions alongside the number of children taken off the school roll.

With all that being said, there will be many examples of where home education has proven to be successful. However, some families may be struggling. It does not follow that every home educating family has access to the networks and resources they need to provide a “suitable” education.

Neither is it wrong to suggest that home educated children need to have a basic knowledge of literacy and numeracy. After all, pupils in schools are required to take SATS and other examinations. Moreover, by having a register, we can ensure that assistance and resources can be directed to home educated families who are having difficulties.

Robert Halfon: We need more groups like Us for Them, one of the few campaigners for pupils’ rights during lockdown

14 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

If there were an Oscar for campaigning I would, without hesitation, give it to the pressure group Us for Them. Set up in the height of the pandemic, by a group of families worried about school closures and the damage to children, these parents – with minimal funding – have fought night and day on behalf of pupils.

Maligned in some left-wing quarters as “right-wing extremists”, “anti-vaxxers” and “Covid deniers” (all untrue), Us for Them has worked tirelessly to get children back into school. Especially when it was unfashionable to do so. Its representatives have taken on the might of the education unions, the sleepy establishment and sections of the Labour Party. They have presented their case cogently and coherently in newspapers and on television. All whilst keeping up a relentless social media presence.

Sadly, as parents, they know first hand of the horrific impact that the “schooldown” has had upon pupils. Falling educational attainment, a mental health epidemic, safeguarding hazards and future loss of lifetime earnings. Us for Them speaks with passion and real emotion because some representatives’ own children have been affected, especially in terms of their mental health. Us for Them puts significant pressure on the Government to get our children back into school and learning again.

You do not have to agree with everything members say, but their fundamentals should be cast in stone: the last year has been a national disaster for our young people. Never again should we shut our schools – except in extreme circumstances. Moreover, everything possible should be done to repair the damage over the coming years and months.

Parents and children have been lucky to have a trade union like Us for Them working hard in their interests. Unlike some of the education unions, Us for Them’s campaign was not about opportunistic politics and challenging the Government, it was just focused on the children. If you listen to one podcast this week, turn on the latest Telegraph Planet Normal.  In this episode, Us for Them parents set out why they formed, what they have done and all that they have achieved. I am glad to have met some of these remarkable individuals.

Groups, such as Us for Them, that champion the rights of parents and children are needed more than ever. Last Friday, in my constituency surgery, I met a parent who told me that her child of five, having heard the “wash your hands” mantra, now has a new compulsive obsessive disorder in that she keeps cleaning her hands. So much so that they are sore and bleeding.

My constituent’s other child has also developed significant anxieties. Both had been perfectly healthy and happy children before school closures. I regularly visit schools, and every time I speak to pupils many of them tell me that their mental health suffered significantly during the lockdowns.

Even before Coronavirus, there was a significant rise in the number of young people experiencing mental health difficulties. Social media likely played a large part in causing this increase. Unless remedial action is taken, this has the potential to become a national emergency post-Covid. It is good that the Government has ploughed more funds into mental health and guaranteed an extra £17 million for schools.

However, more needs to be done, including a nationwide assessment of children, not just in terms of their lost academic attainment but also the impact on their mental health. That way, the Department for Education would know the true extent of the problem and have the ability to develop policies accordingly. Although there are now more mental health professionals in schools, they need to be placed in every educational establishment to help pupils, parents, teachers and support staff. We cannot afford to sweep these problems under the carpet any longer.

The fallout from school closures has created other problems too. Research from the respected Centre for Social Justice, shows that 93,500 children have not returned to school (or are in school less than 50 per cent of the time) since full reopening in March. I call these pupils “the ghost children” because they are lost to education.

The welcome £3 billion catch-up programme will not help these children. They are not in school to benefit from the investment. The Government needs to look at parental engagement programmes, like that of the Feltham Reach Academy, to try and get these pupils back into school. The Government should also see whether the Troubled Families Programme could expand its reach to cover absent school children.

Meanwhile, in schools, we have Argentinian levels of hyperinflation in terms of lost learning. Last week, 640,000 children were sent home because of Covid-19 rules. This figure sat at 385,000 the week before. Pupils in Year 10 have been missing one in four face-to-face teaching days. If proper examinations are going to take place next year, what is the solution to ensure a level playing field for the hundreds of thousands of students who have missed lessons? Perhaps that is a question for another day. No doubt Us for Them will have some ready answers.

Robert Halfon: Covid has exacerbated educational inequalities. Schools need more autonomy to improve outcomes.

16 Jun

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

As the Treasury prepares for the Comprehensive Spending Review this autumn, there are many compelling arguments why schools and colleges should get a funding boost. But levelling up isn’t just about more money. Ministers also need to get to the root as to why progress on closing the attainment gap was stalling, even before the pandemic.

The Government has provided significant additional funding of more than £3 billion for catch-up. This money comes on top of the £220 million for the Holidays Activities and Food programme, the £63 million for local councils for help with meals and essential supplies for struggling families, and the extra £79 million to support children and young people’s mental health. The pupil premium is also being increased to more than £2.5 billion in 2021 to 2022.

The schools minister made clear that the recovery funding was only just the beginning and not the end of the road for catch-up. But it appears it is not reaching the most disadvantaged pupils. The National Audit Office reported that only 44 per cent of the 41,000 receiving tuition in February were eligible for the pupil premium. There was also significant regional disparity; the NTP reached 100 per cent of its target number of schools in the South West of England by March, but just 58.8 per cent in the North East.

If the catch-up programme is going to be the success I believe it could be, it is absolutely vital this support is directed towards the most disadvantaged.

To achieve this, it is important that we allow schools more autonomy over tuition; to permit teachers to appoint their own catch-up tutors, and not leave it solely to the “Approved Partners” already chosen by the Department for Education, but with clear criteria in terms of quality and outcomes. The teachers and support staff, who have done so much during this pandemic, are not only best placed to identify those most in need of additional support, but they can also offer the quality catch-up that these pupils require.

Despite the remarkable efforts of schools in my constituency of Harlow and across our country, we know that Covid-19 has exacerbated an existing problem. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers has grown significantly.

Pre-pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were 18 months behind their better off peers by the time they sat their GCSEs. Furthermore, we know that poorer children are less likely to attend schools with an outstanding Ofsted rating and that even in schools where there are good results, the gap between free school meals students and their peers is as wide as elsewhere.

One way to address these inequalities, would be to hold schools accountable for the progress they make in improving the academic outcomes of the most deprived students.

While highly-rated schools have better results overall, the gap between pupils entitled to free school meals and other pupils is the same in schools, whether they are judged outstanding, good, satisfactory or inadequate.

Schools live or die by their Ofsted inspections. No school should be graded outstanding unless they have shown they are improving the progress of pupils from all backgrounds in their local area.

Inspectors should only judge schools outstanding if they can demonstrate that they are making efforts to attract the poorest children in their neighbourhoods, and that they are narrowing achievement gaps between vulnerable pupils and the rest.

In order to receive an outstanding rating, schools must be working to narrow the attainment gap between vulnerable pupils and their better-off peers. Schools could act to work with neighbouring schools to raise standards. Moreover, teams of inspectors should include at least one headteacher who has led a school with high numbers of poorer pupils.

As Sir Kevan Collins pointed out, the average pupil has missed 115 days of school. Children face the four horsemen of the apocalypse: lost learning, an epidemic of poor mental health, safeguarding hazards and a potential loss of lifelong earnings per pupil of up to £40,000.

The Department for Education should also look to reform the pupil premium. Currently, the funding to schools is not ring-fenced and recently a Sutton Trust report highlighted that a third of schools are using the pupil premium to plug other gaps in their budgets, like fixing a leaky roof. Not only should the pupil premium be ring-fenced but there should be much more microtargeting of disadvantaged groups, particularly looking at those who suffer long-term disadvantage.

I have made several appeals for extending the school day to provide pupils with enrichment extracurricular activities to improve mental health and wellbeing, mixed with an academic catch-up programme, to empower our young people and help them grow in confidence. In turn, a generation will be less likely to be lost to an ever-growing attainment gap and the added burden of the pandemic over the past 16 months.

The benefits are clear. In 2017, DCMS found that underachieving young people who participated in extra-curricular sports increased their numeracy skills by 29 per cent above those who did not. And children engaged in school sports clubs are 20 per cent less likely to suffer from mental health disorders.

Sheffield Hallam University reports community sport and physical activity has generated social and economic return on investment for children and young people, including £4.5 million from improved educational attainment and a further £38.6 million from fewer crime incidents among males aged 10-24 years.

According to the Education Endowment Foundation, pupils can make two months’ additional progress per year, with disadvantaged pupils benefiting from closer to three months’ progress. It’s worth noting that 39 per cent of academies founded before 2010 have lengthened their school day and I’ve seen schools in my own constituency of Harlow that do so very successfully.

But credit where credit’s due. This £3 billion commitment to education, alongside the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, the Chancellor’s Kickstart scheme, as well as incentive funding for employers taking on apprentices, shows the real direction of travel.

This was a hefty starter. The main course will be a serious long-term plan for education with a secure funding settlement. My hope is that the Government reaches this point by the Comprehensive Spending Review later this year.

James Frayne: What voters and parents think about last week’s Covid education row

8 Jun

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The Government has pledged over £3 billion to help pupils recover from their disrupted education, including £1.4 billion announced last week. But this wasn’t enough for the Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins who resigned claiming far more was needed.

Some others have said the same. How will this affect the Government politically? What do parents want? What do voters want? How will this row play out in public?

My agency Public First has just conducted an opinion research project into all this for the Centre for Policy Studies. The research comprised a poll of parents and another of the general public, as well as a series of focus groups of parents across the country. In the research, we found the following:

  • Parents definitely are worried about their children’s academic progress: 48 per cent of parents overall said they worried their children had fallen behind, with working class parents particularly concerned (54 per cent of parents from a C2 background expressed this concern). In the focus groups, while parents were often likely to raise concerns about their children’s mental health/ happiness first, they tended to dwell more on academic issues.
  • Given a range of options – offering parents the chance to air concerns about both the both the academic and social effects the pandemic had had on their children – parents were much more concerned about the academic effects. 62 per cent of parents said their child had fallen behind in maths (the top answer). While “social skills” came joint second with science subjects, academic concerns were higher across this question than social concerns.
    44 per cent of parents said they worried their children’s prospects have been negatively affected.
  • Most parents thought it would take up to two years for their children to catch up. The focus groups revealed parents with less money and lower education levels were less confident about their roles in helping their children catch up.
  • Asked who is to “blame” for children falling behind, most parents blame “the pandemic” rather than the Government. (This is in line with attitudes towards the pandemic generally and has been since last March).
  • In focus groups, while parents were sympathetic to the idea that the least-affluent children should receive particular support in a catch-up period, they were hostile to the idea their own children should receive no support; parents wanted a general national catch-up plan.
  • Given a range of policy options the Government might take to help children catch up, free hours with a private tutor is the most popular; interestingly, longer school holidays to give children more fun in the summer was opposed by parents and the public.
  • Given a range of policy areas the public might accept higher personal taxes to fund, helping schools help children catch up was the most popular option.

You can read the full tables here.

What does all this mean politically? We need to consider two points to help us evaluate this properly. First, most opinion research suggests the public are primarily concerned about the economy and the NHS; education is at least somewhat less important to most people. There is a danger in very focused, sector-based polling that you obsess about what’s directly in front of you; we need to be clear that education is important – vitally so to many parents – but it’s not jobs and hospitals.

Second, the public are fearful about the future state of the economy and currently oppose tax rises, preferring to see the Government rely on borrowing.

Collins’ resignation amid demands for many billions more in funding therefore shouldn’t immediately cause the Government massive political problems with most of the public. However, it has unquestionably raised the medium-term political stakes for the Government. The resignation has ensured that a light will be shone on every aspect of the Government’s planning and execution of the catch-up programme. In other words, there will be no hiding place for the Government; it has to deliver.

Just because education doesn’t worry most people in a pandemic as much as the economy and healthcare, it doesn’t mean it’s not a vitally important policy area. We know that it is viewed as vital – and we also know from our research that the public are very clear how and why their children have fallen behind and where they’d like to see the Government focus their attention during catch-up. The public ultimately want the Government to help children recover academically – in the most serious subjects. This could not have been clearer.

The Government has clearly decided it hasn’t got the money for a longer school day – or at least, that it wouldn’t deliver the benefits that it would cost; against those other spending pressures like the NHS it is probably right. Everything therefore hinges now on the effective delivery – and probably significant expansion – of a proper tutoring programme. And the Government needs to start getting some credit for it; when we did focus groups, only one person even knew tutoring was happening and no one knew the Government was pouring billions into making it happen. It should be shouting about this from the rooftops, and make sure that parents know what their child is entitled to.