I do not intend to detain the House for too long with my remarks, given what, as you have just reminded us, Mr Deputy Speaker, is happening not long after this debate.
I thank the House for agreeing to this debate on the estimates in relation to the Department for Education’s recovery package. It is right that Members should consider the amount and distribution of funding allocated to lost learning. I want to talk about the damage to our children and young people’s education and progress, and about how Department for Education funding can be put to its most effective use to mitigate this damage, to encourage innovative methods to recover the learning lost as a result of this dreadful pandemic and to enrich the lives of those truly disadvantaged in this country.
Of course, we should all recognise that schools remained open to disadvantaged and key worker children even when closed to other pupils. For that, we pay tribute to the school leaders, teachers and, of course, all the school support staff, who are often forgotten, but who actually make the running of schools possible.
We are all aware that pupils at all stages of their education experienced lost learning as a result of national lockdowns, school closures and the need for individuals, classes and whole year groups to self-isolate. The impact of each of these periods of absence from school continues to be a significant and ongoing issue. Research commissioned by the Department in May 2021 found that all year groups experienced a learning loss of between two and three months in reading and mathematics. We also know that there are regional disparities in the level of learning loss in reading, with pupils in the north-east and in Yorkshire and the Humber seeing the greatest losses.
Even more alarmingly, while the pandemic has impacted on children and young people differently—for example, remote learning was especially difficult for children with special educational needs and disabilities—disadvantaged pupils have, overall, experienced greater learning losses of as much as seven months in both reading and maths.
A further wretched outcome of this pandemic is that school closures have reversed some of the progress we have been making in reducing the attainment gap. It was already stalling before coronavirus came upon us, but it has made reducing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children over the past decade much worse. Lost learning has structural consequences for these pupils that could result in lost earnings of as much as 3.4% in their lifetimes. That translates to a loss of between £26,500 and £52,300 in their earning potential, which is a tragedy on an individual and societal basis. Sir Kevan Collins, who came to the Education Committee this morning, said that he had worked with the DFE and that the overall loss to the country could be up to £100 billion.
Alarmingly, this week the Centre for Social Justice published findings that, at the end of 2020, almost 100,000 pupils—some as young as primary age—were still absent from school. No amount of proposed covid catch-up funding can help those children if they are not attending school. I worry that we are creating a generation of ghosted children, lost to an education system that does not know where they are, which is damaging their life chances and denying them a chance to climb the education ladder of opportunity. I urge the Minister, who I know cares deeply about these things, to implement rigorous methods of tracking where these children are and assessing what educational standard of learning they are receiving.
Over the past few days we have learned that a few hundred thousand children are being sent home from school because of covid bubbles. That has got to stop. Our children must be in school and learning, because every day they are out of school we are destroying their life chances. Every day they are out of school we are stopping them climbing to the top of the ladder that is supposed to bring jobs, prosperity and security for themselves and their families. I urge radical action not just in tracking the 100,000 ghosted children currently lost to the education system but in ensuring that whole bubbles of children are no longer sent home. Whether it is mobile vans, like blood donor vans, sent up and down the country to test pupils, setting up special test hubs inside or outside school or whatever it may be, we have to keep our children in school.
The hon. Gentleman, whom I regard as a friend, gets it exactly right. People often focus just on the loss of academic attainment, but there are also the mental health problems facing children during the pandemic. We know that eating disorders have gone up by 400% among young people, which is a pretty horrific figure. We also know that one in six children has mental health difficulties when it used to be one in nine. The Minister is putting a lot more money—many millions of pounds—into mental health, and I welcome that, but I would like to see a mental health practitioner or counsellor in every school in the land, with proper time not just for the kids but for the parents and teachers as well. We have almost a mental health epidemic sweeping through the younger generation because of covid and many other factors that are much more complex.
To go back to the ghosted children, we must implement rigorous methods for tracking where each of these children is and assessing what educational standard of learning they are receiving. I applaud the investment that Ministers and the Government have made so far to address lost learning. The £3 billion of additional support for children to make further progress in the curriculum after a significant amount of time away from school during the pandemic is a genuine commitment to this generation—it is a significant amount of money that should not be sniffed at—but we need to ensure that there is further funding down the track. Let me tell hon. Members about two wonderful schools in my constituency to showcase how that funding can translate to on-the-ground catch-up offers in schools. Abbotsweld Primary Academy has allocated the additional funding to allow for four days of 8 am starts for year 5 and 6 pupils. The start of the day includes a free breakfast alongside physical education lessons, and there is additional time for English and mathematics during the school day. Burnt Mill Academy is using £5,000 of its catch-up funding to offer summer schools to support students’ literacy and numeracy skills, ensuring that the gaps in learning are closed through enrichment activities. Our teachers and support staff all around the country are working hard to put the money to good use so that it has the most significant impact possible, and we give them our thanks.
Let me remind the House that the objectives of the measures to support education recovery are to recover the missed learning caused by coronavirus and to reduce the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. As I have said, I commend the Department for the money that has been put in—the £3 billion and the increase in pupil premium funding to £2.5 billion for 2021-22. However, will the Minister confirm whether changing the date of the school census in 2020 from October to January has meant a loss of £90 million to schools, as 62,216 children became eligible but did not attract pupil premium in 2021-22? I also ask him whether the catch-up funding proposed by the Government is not new money, but funds repurposed from existing budgets, which are now being shared out among all students instead of focused on those who suffer the most disadvantage and are at the most threat of lost learning. Will he confirm that this is really new money for catch-up and recovery?
As I have argued before, the Government should set out a long-term plan for education and education recovery, with a transparent funding settlement, much as we see from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Defence. If the Department of Health and Social Care can have a 10-year plan and a secure funding settlement, and the Ministry of Defence can have a strategic review and a long-term funding settlement, why can education not have a long-term plan and a secure funding settlement?
I really welcome the catch-up programme, and I campaigned for it, but my worry is that just 44% of the children who are using the tutoring programme are eligible for free school meals. The Sutton Trust also says that 34% of pupil premium funding is being used to plug gaps in school budgets—to fix leaky roofs, for example. The funding is not always used for the purpose it should be. The whole reason for today’s debate is to shine light into the darkest corners of budget allocation and highlight where we can concentrate funding in the areas that are often overlooked.
My Education Committee’s report, “The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it”, draws attention to how white British pupils eligible for free school meals already suffer from persistent and multi-generational disadvantage and disengagement from the curriculum, from early years through to higher education. That is compounded by place-based factors, including regional economics and under-investment, and family disengagement from education, all of which combine to create a perfect storm of disadvantage. Carefully allocated catch-up funding can support those pupils to weather that storm.
What Sir Kevan Collins was proposing, as he set out again to the Education Committee this morning, was more from the catch-up offer, to extend the school day, providing enrichment and sporting activities to promote soft skills such as teamwork, negotiation and problem solving, which have all fallen by the wayside during remote learning.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at everything that I have said in the House, in the Select Committee and in newspaper articles, he will see that I have made it very clear from day one—the Minister will vouch for this, because I have nagged him about it often enough—that I absolutely believe in a longer day. It should be not just for academic catch-up, but for enrichment activities, mental health support and sporting activities; I have made the case and cited statistics to show that those also increase educational attainment. The reason I said what I did to the Opposition was that Opposition Members had been in the media giving quite confusing messages about whether they supported a longer school day. If they support a longer day now with both academic and enrichment activities, I strongly welcome that.
The mental health of young people has sustained worrying damage as a result of extended social isolation during a critical stage of their development. A longer school day provides opportunities to socialise and interact with many more peers than just having lessons can offer. The Department should leave no stone unturned to find underspend in its budget and re-channel the money into catch-up to make Sir Kevan’s vision a reality.
I present a proposition to the Minister. Schools and teachers have carried out the marking and assessment that exam boards normally undertake and are paid handsomely for. Of course, exam boards spent money on exams before they were cancelled, such as on creating and printing exam papers, but substantial refunds to reflect the lack of exam marking are likely to be given to schools and colleges. Last year, OCR gave back a total of £7.9 million, while AQA—the UK’s largest provider of academic qualifications—returned £42 million to schools and colleges, a rebate of approximately 25%. It is suggested that as much as 50% will be refunded this year. There is a strong ethical argument for that rebate to be used to fund pilot schemes in secondary schools to extend the school day, which will help to make the case for funding from the Treasury. Given that the Minister and the Secretary of State have said that the Government are seriously looking at this, I hope that something will come out of the comprehensive spending review.
I have made clear my feelings that the catch-up money is a welcome starter, or possibly what the French refer to as an amuse-bouche—a small bite, or even a big bite, before the main meal—but it should not yet be considered as a nourishing main course. I urge the Department to look at the recommendations in the Education Committee’s report on white working-class children to offer tailored funding at local and neighbourhood level and, as the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities also recommends, to level up educational and extracurricular opportunities.
The Department could start by combining the catch-up funding and the pupil premium in one almighty package, an approach that Sir Kevan Collins supported at our Committee evidence session this morning. Money would be available for pupils whom schools identify as in need—such as SEND students and those who struggle with mental health problems as a result of the lockdowns, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out—but there would be money clearly ring-fenced in the estimates memo for the most disadvantaged, and it would be microtargeted to reflect regional disparities in learning loss.
Only by ensuring that the catch-up programme achieves value for money and is focused on disadvantaged pupils will the Government head off the four horsemen of the education apocalypse that are galloping towards our young people: attainment loss, mental health damage, vulnerability to safeguarding hazards through persistent school absences, and a loss of lifetime earnings. Let us get these children back on the education ladder of opportunity.
I will be very brief, given the events that are going on. There is actually a lot of unity in the House on this issue, behind the inevitable political barney. I thank all Members who spoke in the debate, particularly my fellow Committee members, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who is an expert member of our Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford).
I will just say that there must be a focus on a long-term plan for education with a secure funding settlement, on which there has been a lot of agreement across the House. I really welcome the Minister’s remarks, especially what he said about the longer school day, but I urge him to look at these 100,000 ghost children and make sure that they go back to school and we do not destroy their life chances; to focus the covid package on the most disadvantaged; to do everything he can reduce the attainment gap, and—he knows that this is where we possibly have a slight disagreement—to ensure that the curriculum prepares pupils for the world of work and does not just focus on knowledge