Robert Halfon: Extending the school day would help children catch up after Covid – and civil society can step in

10 Feb

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.

It is encouraging that it appears, for the Department of Education, nothing is off the table when it comes to the post-Covid schools and colleges recovery programme: the school year, examinations, curriculum are all the things that, no doubt, are being considered. Will the A.C. (After Coronavirus) period lead to radical thinking or merely some incremental change?

Extending the summer term for a couple of weeks, is just that – incremental. Two or three extra weeks of teaching, while helping pupils a little, will not fundamentally rectify the lost learning and the catch-up that is needed.

One more radical option would be to extend the school day, either before or after traditional start and finish times. This is not to say teachers must work longer hours (unless properly recompensed), but, instead, civil society organisations should be invited in, to offer pupils professional mental health support, as well as sports activities and academic catch-up tuition.

It will be a virtuous circle. From a health perspective, we know that one in three primary school age children is overweight or obese, and that children living in the most deprived areas are almost twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas. This is hugely costly: physical inactivity among today’s young people is estimated to cost £53.3 billion during their lifetimes. Boosting opportunities for children to engage in sports will be crucial if we are to embed healthy lifestyles early on.

There is also an established link between physical activity and better mental health. Children and young people who participate in in-school sports clubs are 20 per cent less likely to suffer from a mental health disorder. Girls are 25 per cent less likely to be at risk of anxiety and 11 per cent less likely to self-harm. This is critical given that a YoungMinds survey of 2,036 young people with a history of mental health needs, found that 80 per cent of those children had said the pandemic has made their mental health worse.

Moreover, in 2017, DCMS found that underachieving young people who participated in extra-curricular activities linked to sport increased their numeracy skills, on average, by 29 per cent above those who did not participate in sport.

The Education Endowment Foundation looked at the benefits of extended school hours and noted: “The evidence indicates that, on average, pupils make two additional months’ progress per year from extended school time and in particular through the targeted use of before and after school programmes. There is some evidence that disadvantaged pupils benefit more, making closer to three months’ additional progress. There are also often wider benefits for low-income students, such as increased attendance at school, improved behaviour, and better relationships with peers.”

According to a study by the Royal London Hospital (published in the British Medical Journal), the most dangerous time for under-16s is after school, between 4pm and 6pm, when they are most likely to become a victim of knife crime. Approximately half of under-16 stabbings take place during this time.

With so many young people socially isolated from their usual networks of friends, teachers and support staff in lockdown, and having lost out on their learning, extending the school day in this way would be enormously beneficial in every sense.

Of course, there will be those who immediately say that it is impossible – the unions won’t wear it. Well some schools and colleges are already doing it. Even before the pandemic, 70 to 80 per cent of independent schools operate an extended school day, usually offering a programme of extra-curricular activities. It’s also worth noting that 39 per cent of academy schools founded before 2010 also have extended school hours. Others may want to do it.

Moreover, if civil society organisations with expertise in mental health, sports and tuition step in, there is no pressure placed on teachers and support staff. Dallaglio Rugby Works is an outstanding example of an established charity that places rugby coaches in schools for excluded pupils. Coaches lead weekly small groups of eight to 10 young people and support them to develop their soft skills, increase their engagement with school, and make more informed choices about their careers. Their outcomes cannot be ignored: 82 per cent of their young people are in education, employment or training 12 months after leaving school.

Extending the school day could be piloted in certain areas – perhaps starting in places with significant levels of disadvantage – to see if the extra hours help make a difference to pupils’ health and wellbeing, their engagement in the classroom during normal school hours and their academic attainment. If we want to really make a difference, to repair the damage of the last year, there is no time to waste.

We need to be much more ambitious for our children’s learning. The language of catch-up shouldn’t stigmatise children and we must be careful not to tar them with the brush of “left-behind children” during the pandemic. Instead, our language should be positive, framed in terms of “moving forward”. Catch-up alone shouldn’t just be our ambition. Let’s hope the Government uses this opportunity to set out a real long-term plan for education and change what is necessary in order to conserve what is best.

Robert Halfon: I’m not a lockdown sceptic. But I am a “school-down” sceptic – and fear for the impact of these closures.

27 Jan

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.

Media speculation in recent days has suggested that pupils may not be back into the classroom until after Easter. This is despite the previous indication that schools and colleges would reopen after the February half-term, when Lockdown III was announced on January 4.

To be clear, I am not a lockdown sceptic. In fact, I voted for all the Government measures to control the virus. However, I am a “school-down” sceptic. I worry enormously about the impact that prolonged school closures will have on the mental health, social development, academic attainment and safeguarding of children.

The Times this week published a letter from leading clinicians and paediatricians, warning that: “Anxiety, depression and self-harm are all at frightening levels” among our young people, and that: “Parents are showing signs of psychological stress and even breakdown as a result of the pressures of trying to home-school their children and sustain their jobs and businesses”.

At the end of December, Dr Karen Street, an Officer for Mental Health at the RSPCH, wrote about the harrowing 400 per cent increase in eating disorders among young people, in part due to school closures and social isolation.

Mental health is inextricably linked to children’s ability to learn and their attainment outcomes. The Department for Education’s own pre-pandemic study found that pupils’ wellbeing also predicted their later academic progression. For example, children with better wellbeing at age seven had a value-added key stage two score 2.46 points higher (equivalent to more than one term’s progress) than pupils with poorer wellbeing.

We know that education inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The IFS’s New Year Message report stated that “a long-term consequence of the pandemic will be to halt, or even reverse” the closing of the attainment gap.

So now, more than ever, children need to be in the right headspace to learn.

The Department for Education’s roll-out of more than one million devices for children on the wrong side of the digital divide will undoubtedly make a difference. But for all the laptops in the world, children need to have the motivation to open them, study independently at home, and have the support from parents, which may not always be possible if the parents are struggling with work, alongside looking after their kids. Millions of laptops also doesn’t necessarily mean we deal with the huge mental health problems now faced by many pupils.

So, what is needed? A mental health practitioner available to pupils, parents and school staff, stationed in every school, both online and in person. Place2Be, for example, worked with 33,000 children and young people last year and delivered 29,869 support sessions for parents. The charity’s impact assessment states that 81 per cent of those with severe difficulties showed an improvement in their mental health.

What’s more, those pupils receiving one-to-one support were able to keep pace academically with their peers (of the same attainment and background characteristics), suggesting that the possible negative impact of their mental health difficulties on their learning were mitigated.

While the Government has invested more in mental health, after the Coronavirus, there is going to be a radical rethink as to how children are supported with mental health and counselling.

A growing source of unease for many pupils, parents and school staff is the lack of certainty or a plan for school reopenings. We need an educational route map out of Coronavirus for schools and colleges.

No one expects a specific date for reopening. Of course, decisions should be guided by the scientific evidence on community cases and transmission rates.

However, school and college staff, pupils and their parents deserve a clear explanation of the criteria and the conditions that need to be met before the Government reopens schools, so that they can prepare.

Public Health England officials concluded this week from its monitoring of infections in schools that: “There’s a strong case for primary schools to reopen” after the February half-term, “once infection rates start falling and are sufficiently low to allow easing of national lockdown measures” and that the “evidence is building to show that primaries are a safe environment.”

Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told my Education Select Committee last week that: “School children definitely can transmit infection in schools. They can transmit it in any environment. But it is not a significant driver, as yet, as far as we can see, of large-scale community infections. Rather it is the other way round, that if there is a rise in community rates, you will see a rise in children as well.”

For all these reasons, we must get schools open again and sooner rather than later. In areas of the country – or in primaries – where the science suggests it would be safe for schools to reopen, they absolutely must do so.

Regular testing of pupils and staff will be important to keep schools open safely. That is why I, alongside Miriam Cates MP, and nine other MPs, wrote to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation should also look at making teachers and support staff a priority for vaccinations – purely, on the basis it will mean schools can open sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, there is a growing coalition to get schools reopen again – not just the parent group, UsforThem, but children and young people’s charities.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has added to the calls for clarity, saying: “Children are more withdrawn, they are suffering in terms of isolation, confidence levels are falling, and some have serious issues…Families will need hope and clarity about what comes next, and that of course is what the speculation we’re hearing really feeds into, that confusion.”

It is worth noting that not all teaching unions are opposed to educational professionals being back at school. As Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Today programme on Monday: “Without anybody jumping the queue over vulnerable people… if you’re able to give the reassurance to those people working in schools and colleges that they’re not suddenly going to disappear into self-isolation because of vaccinations, starting with the staff, that would be reassuring I think so that we can get some continuity. Similarly, if we are able to do that with children and young people, the same thing.

“But, I don’t know that we need to wait for [vaccinations to reopen schools]. I think if we’ve got a very clear idea of what the scientific principles are, which then lead to the educational principles, could we not have more young people coming into school as appropriate, rather than this revolving door we’ve got at the moment?”

I recognise that the Government is firefighting in dealing with the Coronavirus, but surely one of the most important functions of the engine of the State is to get our schools and colleges open soon. The Secretary of State for Education and the Government should form an education “coalition of the willing” to get all children learning full-time again.

Profile: Graham Brady, who played a quiet part in deposing May, and now keeps a watchful eye on Johnson

24 Sep

An adviser to Boris Johnson warned him earlier this year not to be alone with Graham Brady. Here already was a sign of prime ministerial weakness, or evasiveness, in the face of a determined upholder, not just of the rights of Conservative backbenchers, but of parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.

Nobody would describe Sir Graham Brady as evasive. He is sincere, vigilant and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considers it his duty to convey, in the manner of a polite but implacable shop steward, the views of his members to the Prime Minister.

Like a considerable number of those members, he is furious that ministers have “got into the habit of ruling by decree” during the pandemic. In May, Brady called on ministers to look at “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”, though he recognised that many voters approved of these restrictions:

“The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home.”

Last weekend, Brady went further, and told The Sunday Telegraph:

“In March, Parliament gave the Government sweeping emergency powers at a time when Parliament was about to go into recess and there was realistic concern that NHS care capacity might be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

“We now know that the NHS coped well with the challenge of the virus and Parliament has been sitting largely since April. There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes.

“It is essential that going forward all of these massively important decisions for family life, and affecting people’s jobs and businesses, should be exercised with proper supervision and control.”

In other words, Parliament must have the final say on any new measures the Government introduces to fight the pandemic. That is the amendment to the Coronavirus Act 2020 demanded by Sir Graham, which as Paul Goodman noted here on Monday, could command widespread assent on the Conservative benches:

“The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.”

Every Tory leader has to be mindful of what his or her own troops will wear. The Conservative Party is a coalition of such disparate or even contradictory elements that many people, unaware of the lesson (“never again”) learned from the disastrous split over the Corn Laws in 1846, cannot comprehend why it remains together.

Brady possesses a resolute independence of mind. “He really couldn’t stand David Cameron,” one of his colleagues remarks. Nor, one may surmise, is he particularly keen on Johnson.

For in Brady, we find a Conservative of a different stamp. He was born in Salford in 1967 and educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, an establishment to which he remains fiercely loyal, after which he read law at Durham, where he was immensely active in student politics and married Victoria Lowther, with whom he has two children.

In his twenties, he earned his living by working for public affairs companies, and also for a couple of years for the Centre for Policy Studies, before gaining selection for his home seat of Altrincham and Sale West, which in the Labour landslide of 1997 he retained by the slender margin of 1505 votes.

At the age of 29, he was the youngest Conservative MP, and in his maiden speech he declared his passionate loyalty to grammar schools:

“In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

“I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Ancram, a junior Whip, Education spokesman and in 2003 as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard.

The following year he became Shadow Europe Minister, a post he retained under Howard’s successor, David Cameron. But in 2007, when a tremendous row erupted within the party over grammar schools, Brady resigned because “in conscience” he had to be free to speak his mind, and to argue his unfashionable case:

“Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility more effectively than comprehensive areas.”

A generally sympathetic colleague says of Brady that when grammar schools are mentioned “his eye lights up with insanity”, an expression coined by Disraeli, who reported that this was what happened to General Peel on hearing the words “household suffrage”.

Cameron says in his memoirs, For The Record:

“I felt that the call to ‘bring back grammars’ was an anti-modernisation proxy, and I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

There was a class element in this row. Etonians couldn’t generally see the point of grammar schools. Conservatives from less gilded backgrounds often knew from personal experience that such schools could transform lives.

In 2010, Brady stood for the chairmanship of the ’22, just after Cameron’s brazen attempt to neuter that committee as the voice of backbenchers had been seen off, with his proposal to allow members of the Government to vote in its elections being withdrawn.

Brady’s resignation three years earlier had proved his independence, and he had indicated, after the 2010 election, that he and other Tory MPs would have preferred a minority Conservative Government – “That, I think, is generally the feeling of colleagues” – to the coalition formed by Cameron with the Liberal Democrats.

In a piece for ConHome he explained why he was standing:

“Coalition government has been hailed as a part of a ‘new politics’. I believe that enhancing the role of Parliament and the status of MPs as the elected champions of our constituents is just as important. For too many years the Executive has eroded the power of Parliament and back benchers have increasingly been marginalised, I want to play a part in reversing that process.”

Brady defeated the other candidate, Richard Ottaway, who was thought to be favoured by Cameron, by 126 votes to 85.

If one wants to see how deeply Brady feels about things, one has only to read the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture which he delivered under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2014. He began by quoting with approval Margaret Thatcher when she gave the same lecture in 1996:

“In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in the unswerving belief that you have to be right.”

Brady went on to say:

“Political parties have become over-reliant on focus groups and opinion research to identify the key target voters in the key ‘swing’ seats. The message is too often crafted to appeal – not to be right, and the biggest focus group of all – the British electorate – grows ever more disenchanted.”

Conservative backbenchers have not grown disenchanted with Brady. Sir Charles Walker, who became Vice-Chairman of the ’22 in 2010, the same year as Brady became Chairman, told ConHome:

“He’s a man who believes in Parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly. Graham is straight as a die. He’s straight in his dealings with people. So it’s no surprise he’s moving this Amendment. The Chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend. The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

The most difficult period in Brady’s chairmanship came during the last two years of Theresa May’s prime ministership. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year honours, the investiture taking place in March 2018, so at this point in the story he becomes once more Sir Graham.

The ’22 was fractious and divided, and Sir Graham was the recipient of the letters from Tory MPs which, if and when the 15 per cent threshold was reached  – 48 MPs out of 317 – would mean she faced a motion of no confidence.

Nobody knew how many letters he had received, for he did not breathe a word, but nobody doubted he was showing complete integrity in his counting of them.

In December 2018 the 15 per cent threshold was crossed, but the Prime Minister survived the subsequent ballot by 200 votes to 117. This supposedly meant she could not be challenged by this method for another year.

But on 24th May 2019, after the Conservatives had performed disastrously in European elections which would not have taken place in the UK had she managed to get Brexit done, out she went.

Brady’s role in this was one of the utmost delicacy. He reckoned the game was up, but had to say so with discretion, for not all his colleagues agreed with him.

Once she realised she had to go, he wished to take soundings to see whether he could launch his own leadership bid. Since the ’22 would be running the leadership election, he stepped down.

He soon found he had no support, so he did not run. Nor, to the astonishment of more worldly figures, did he endorse any other candidate: not even his fellow Leaver, Boris Johnson, when it became evident that Johnson was going to win.

Others who rushed to join the winning side were rewarded with Cabinet posts. A minister told ConHome: “I know Graham believed he was going to be offered a job, and thought it should be a Cabinet position.

“But he had never come out for Boris, and Boris’s whole operation is based on people who are loyal to him.

“Graham was disappointed he didn’t get anything, went back to being Chairman of the ’22, and since then he’s been quite grumpy.”

This reading of events comes from a Johnson loyalist, and others will feel it was to Sir Graham’s credit that he did not sell out his long-established independence.

Sir Graham, who is still only 53 years old, is in person an affable figure, ready to be amused by things, unperturbed by journalists, and not inclined to idealise Tory MPs, of whom he remarked at the 2018 party conference, when the question of letters demanding a vote of confidence was starting to become of interest:

“The distance between what some of my colleagues say they might have done and what they actually have done can be considerable.”

On another occasion, interviewed by ConHome, he lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” shown by colleagues who declined to use the machinery set up to enable them to feed in policy proposals for consideration in the 2015 manifesto.

He is loyal, as we have seen, to an idea of truth which stands above party politics. Sir Graham is now a severe impediment to any attempt by Downing Street to go on running things without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

And if and when Johnson suffers a severe loss of confidence on his own side of the House, Sir Graham will once more find himself being asked from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, how many letters he has received.