Coronavirus: Williamson faces MPs' questions on extending FSM vouchers and free laptops

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The education secretary has refused to be drawn on calls for free devices and internet access for all pupils who need them, increased Pupil Premium allocations for schools, a continuation of FSM vouchers this summer, or holiday schemes to support disadvantaged pupils.

Gavin Williamson was challenged by MPs in the House of Commons on Tuesday (June 9) after he confirmed the government’s acceptance that bringing back all primary school pupils before the summer will not be possible.

He said that the Department for Education (DfE) would support schools to bring back more children from the coronavirus lockdown before the holidays “if they are able”.

However, prime minister Boris Johnson’s ambition to have primary schools fully re-open for at least one month before the summer have been abandoned.

Primary schools were asked to re-open for children in Reception, year 1 and year 6 from June 1. Official DfE figures show that by Thursday last week (June 4), 52 per cent had done so to some extent. Mr Williamson told MPs that this figure had risen to 70 per cent as of Monday (June 8).

The DfE’s figures also show that by June 4, the number of vulnerable children attending all schools had risen to 47,000 (from 37,000 on May 21). The number of children attending with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) had almost doubled to 42,000 across the same period.

Overall, 97 per cent of schools were open on June 8, with attendance on June 4 hitting around 659,000 children – about 6.9 per cent of all pupils.

But Mr Williamson told MPs that wider re-opening before the summer break for primaries would not be possible: “While we are not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps, where we would like schools that have the capacity to bring back more children – in those smaller class sizes – to do so if they are able to before the summer holidays.”

He confirmed: “We will be working to bring all children back to school in September.”

After his statement, Mr Williamson was called upon to support summer schemes to help “re-engage children socially and emotionally”. Labour’s shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey welcomed the decision to draw back from full primary re-opening and pushed Mr Williamson for “rapid action to support summer schemes for this summer”.

Quoting England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, Ms Long-Bailey said: “The risk I am most concerned about is that of a generation of children losing over six months of formal education, socialising with friends and structured routine. I’m also concerned about a deepening education disadvantage gap that could leave millions of children without education they need to progress in life.”

She added: “In the immediate term, will the secretary of state consider issuing guidance that all children of compulsory school age should have a one-on-one meeting with a teacher from their school and parents, if appropriate, before the summer holidays start? Alongside that support, will he commit to increasing the resources available for summer schemes to help re-engage children socially and emotionally?”

Labour is also pushing for increased Pupil Premium allocations for schools in the aftermath of the coronavirus lockdown.

In addition, it wants to see a full roll-out of free devices and internet access to all pupils who need them – currently the scheme, which has been beset by delays, is only open to care-leavers, children with a social worker and disadvantaged year 10 pupils.

And Ms Long-Bailey called on Mr Williamson to extend the free school meals (FSM) vouchers over the summer holiday period. Currently, the scheme is due to stop at the end of the summer term.

Ms Long-Bailey added: “With 200,000 more children expected to be living below the poverty line by the end of the year as job losses hit family incomes, this is a deeply callous move by the government.”

In responding, Mr Williamson failed to address the issue of FSM vouchers, free devices and internet access or extending the Pupil Premium.

On summer schemes, he said it was “an important point” but added: “We need to lift our eyes higher and to be more ambitious. She is right to highlight the fact that there are real challenges that children have suffered as a consequence of this lockdown. But to put that right, we need to take a longer-term approach on how we can support children over a longer period of time.”

Robert Halfon MP, the Tory chair of the Education Select Committee, also pushed Mr Williamson on FSM, extending the Pupil Premium, and free devices and web access.

He said: “We know that about 700,000 disadvantaged children are not doing school homework and 700,000 do not have proper access to computers for the internet – so what are the government doing to help those disadvantaged children to learn again and avoid an epidemic of educational poverty? Can we have a long-term plan for a catch-up premium for education to look after those left-behind children?”

He added: “Will the secretary of state reconsider ensuring that those children get FSM over the summer, given the financial anxieties their families are facing?”

Mr Williamson responded: “We recognise that the learning loss will not be corrected over just a few weeks and that action needs to be taken over a long period of time. That is the approach we are taking.”

On the laptops scheme, he avoided addressing the question about wider roll-out, adding only that 100,000 have already been distributed and “a further 75,000 computers will be distributed to schools in the coming weeks”. He added: “We are on schedule to distribute the full 230,000 computers over the coming month.”

Mr Williamson’s drawing back from the full re-opening of primary schools before the summer has been welcomed by the education unions.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said that social distancing rules had made full re-opening before the summer “impossible” and warned that even full opening in September “cannot be taken for granted”.

She added: “The consequences of Covid-19 are going to be felt in our education system for months to come. What is needed now, is a national plan for education, along the lines being developed by the Scottish government. This should cover all possible scenarios and focus on blended learning, at home and at school; greatly increased support for disadvantaged children, including free internet access so that they can access online teaching and learning, and the requisitioning of local public spaces, such as community centres and libraries, so that pressure on school space is lessened and more children are able to return to school in safe environments. The government must also plan for a second spike.”

Her counterpart at the NASUWT, Dr Patrick Roach, added: "It has been abundantly clear for some time that the announcement by the government of arbitrary dates for the wider re-opening of schools was ill-considered, premature and unworkable. The government’s rush to seek to re-open schools as part of wider efforts to restart the economy has been in the face of deep concerns and mounting evidence that this would contribute to a second wave of infections.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The ‘ambition’ to bring back all primary year groups for a month before the end of the summer term was a case of the government over-promising something that wasn’t deliverable. It isn’t possible to do that while maintaining small class sizes and social bubbles, so we aren’t surprised that the policy has been jettisoned.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, echoed the view: “We said to government that until their guidance on safety in schools changes that there would be significant practical barriers to bringing all primary pupils back in the summer term.

“With the end of term just six weeks away, government now needs to provide urgent clarity on the anticipated constraints that schools may face in September, so that schools and parents can start to look ahead and plan with greater understanding of the possible disruption that may yet still follow”.

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