It was a delight to meet our local school and college leaders last week. Ensuring our schools and colleges have the resources, information and support they need to deliver the best education is essential, and it is an absolute priority of mine to deliver this.
Our discussions ranged from the return to school this autumn following the removal of restrictions, the current situation regarding covid, and winter planning, covid support schemes, accessibility and school transport, SEN provision, support for Afghan refugee families locally, the impact of the Health and Social Care Levy on school finance and changes to vocational qualifications.
Response to covid
It was fantastic to hear how positive staff and children have been about the return to whole school learning and the removal of mandatory restrictions. I believe it is right that schools themselves determine the best measures to manage and mitigate risks from covid, with robust help and support from the Local Education Authority, Department for Education and Public Health England as required. Each school and college is unique, so one size fits all measures are unlikely to achieve the best results. However at the same time our school leaders are not public health experts and are therefore to err towards being risk averse without strong guidance, with clear and consistent recommendations for actions where needed.
Following a range of feedback from schools I am writing to Ruth Hutchison Director of Public Health in Surrey to request further information on the advice and support for schools, how this is provided and what schools can expect.
Covid support schemes
Covid support schemes have been operating in various forms throughout the summer, from one to one mentoring, summer classes and breakfast catch up clubs, are schools and colleges are again delivering this support tailored to the needs of their students. Our children adapted amazingly to the disruption of the last two academic years, but it has had an impact, especially on core skills, such as English and maths and social and emotional development. One issue some schools highlighted is a reluctance of some students to attend catch up classes where funding allows mentoring of individuals, but those students don’t want to miss out on time with their friends. Flexibility of approach to ensure support reaches as many students as possible is really important. I am therefore raising this with Ministerial colleagues at the Department for Education.
Another consequence of the pandemic is the impact it has had on access to education. Government, the LEA and our schools worked tirelessly to try and address this throughout the pandemic, providing internet and IT equipment to those who were struggling to access online. But there still remain challenges. For example, if a parent has covid and cannot take their children to school due to the need to isolate, should that child have to miss out on education? I believe every child should be able to access education, and therefore there should be a mechanism to support families in this situation and ensure children do not miss out. I have written to the LEA regarding this, asking what support is currently in place and what more we can do to support schools and families in this way.
Special Education Needs provision is one of the issues schools raise with me most frequently. It is clear that demand for services has increased significantly in recent years, and the budget and service provided has not always been able to adequately meet this increased need. Surrey County Council, as the LEA, have been working to address this and there have been real improvements, but more still needs to be done. Nationally, the Government are undertaking a review into SEN provision, and I am meeting with Will Quince MP who is leading on this work to reflect the experiences of schools across Runnymede and Weybridge.
Locally, the three biggest issues I see are a lack of consistency in available support, the need for more co-ordinated working, and long waiting times for those who need support. I have been in frequent contact with the cabinet member for Education at Surrey and plan to host a meeting between the LEA, schools, NHS and other support organisations to see how we can address these issues.
One of the most uplifting moments of our discussions was when a school asked about how best to support children who have moved to the area as part of the Afghan refugee resettlement programme. I am delighted that our local authorities are supporting the resettlement of Afghan refugees, however this does present practical challenges for schools, such as whether additional support is needed for language skills.
In this instance the questions raised really highlighted the compassion and empathy of our school leaders, as the focus was solely on what they could do to support the children’s emotional and social development, bearing in mind we do not know what they may have been through or witnessed. I have therefore contacted the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, as well as colleagues within the Department for Education, to ensure schools and staff receive the support and training they need to provide the best new start to these children.
Impact of the Health and Social Care levy
Following the announcement of the introduction of a new Health and Social Care Levy I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education highlighting the potential impact of this decision on school and college budgets. I am pleased to have received a response confirming that that the impact will be mitigated, however as schools plan ahead, it is important they have the detail of how this mitigation will be delivered. I have written again to Ministerial colleagues requesting that details be provided to schools as soon as possible so they have the certainty and confidence to plan for the future.
The Government recently announced a change in approach to vocational education, aiming to place vocational education on an equal standing with academic qualifications by prioritising both A-Levels and T-levels. Local schools and colleges had a number of questions regarding this change, including what options would be available to those students who would have previously studied lower level vocational qualifications, such as BTEC level 1 and 2, the range of T-Level subjects that will be available, how the transition will be managed, and the impact on education pathways.
I fully support high quality technical and vocational education, but agree that any significant change to curriculum must be carefully managed so that students retain the same breadth of options and know where their qualifications and the choices they make can take them. I will be raising these important points with the Department for Education on behalf of our schools, colleges and their students and will be discussing this in detail with local schools as more detail becomes available.