COVID-19: Child Poverty
I can assure you that eradicating child poverty is an absolute priority. I proudly stood on a manifesto that pledged to continue efforts through the tax and benefits system to reduce poverty, including child poverty. I firmly believe that children should grow up in an environment with no limits to their potential and I am pleased the Government is making it a priority to put more money in the pockets of low-paid workers.
The way we measured child poverty in the past, based on median income, was deeply flawed. For example, by this measure the number of children in poverty went down significantly during the last economic recession, mainly because the incomes of the wealthiest fell furthest. That is why new measures have been introduced to focus on the root causes of poverty, chief among them being educational attainment and levels of work within a family.
I am encouraged by the Prime Minister’s clear commitment to do whatever it takes to support people during the Coronavirus crisis, and I welcome that this has included a number of measures to protect children and ensure no child goes hungry. Due to the pandemic, I know that many children and parents in our constituency faced an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer. To reflect this, additional funding was provided for a ‘Covid Summer Food Fund’ which enabled children who are eligible for free school meals to receive food vouchers covering the 6-week holiday period.
This is part of the wider support available for children and families at this challenging time. I am delighted that an additional £63 million has been distributed to local authorities in England to help those who are struggling to afford food and other essentials. In addition, Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit have been temporarily uplifted by around £1,000 a year as part of an injection of over £9.3 billion into the welfare system.
I will be keeping a close watch on this issue and will do all I can to ensure our children are protected from poverty.
Climate Change & The National Curriculum
Climate change is an important part of the national curriculum, with the foundation concepts relating to climate and environment taught at primary school before progressing to the causes and consequences at secondary school.
For instance, in primary school science, pupils are taught to observe changes across the seasons, including the weather, and they look at how environments can change, including as a result of human activities. In secondary school science, pupils are taught about biodiversity, ecosystems, the atmosphere and the carbon cycle, as well as about the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the effect this has on the climate.
Science GCSE gives pupils the opportunity to consider the evidence for additional anthropogenic causes of climate change. Furthermore, a new environmental science A Level was introduced in 2017 which will enable young people to study topics that will enhance their understanding of climate change and how it can be addressed.
The geography curriculum at Key Stages 3 and 4 includes content designed to enable pupils to understand ways in which human and physical processes interact to influence and change the climate, as well as environments and landscapes. It also includes content on the change in climate from the Ice Age to the present day. GCSE geography gives pupils an opportunity to consider the causes, consequences of and responses to extreme weather conditions and natural weather hazards.
I hope this reassures you that climate change has an appropriate place in the curriculum.
COVID-19: University Fees (2020/21 Academic Year)
As a former student myself (some time ago!), I fully understand that many students are frustrated with their experience during lockdown, and in particular paying full tuition fees when learning has been moved to remote provision. I have publicly called for universities to reduce tuition fees, and have challenged Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, on this point.
The Government has, to its credit, also called on universities that are not providing a full education to reflect any reduced offering in reduced fees. However, universities are autonomous institutions not run by Government, and so it is up to each university to choose whether they charge up to the Government-set maximum fees cap. Ministers and the Office for Students (OfS) have been explicit that whether they are delivering face-to-face, online, or blended provision, universities must continue delivering a high-quality academic experience that helps all students achieve qualifications that they and employers’ value. It is worth remembering that several universities have an existing track record of offering highly regarded online-only courses.
The OfS are taking very seriously the potential impacts on teaching and learning of moving online. They are actively monitoring universities and collecting evidence to ensure that providers maintain the quality of their provision, making all reasonable efforts to ensure online learning is accessible for all students; and that they have been clear in their communications to students about how arrangements for teaching and learning may change throughout this year. If the OfS have any concerns, they will investigate further.
The following principles should apply to online-only provision:
• there is no reason why students should expect to see reduced contact time as a result of a shift to online provision;
• students should receive regular updates from their provider, with clear, timely information on what is happening to their classes and lectures; and
• all students need to be supported to access online provision, noting that the Government has made available £256 million for this academic year towards student hardship funds, including the purchase of IT equipment.
Where a student believes their provider has failed to deliver a high-quality academic experience you are entitled to complain, in the first instance to the university and then to the OfS.
Young People's Well-Being
It must be a matter of priority for all of us that we do everything in our power to ensure our children are happy and healthy. I know Ministers share this view and I am reassured that many steps are already being taken towards this goal. I unfortunately cannot attend the Wellbeing Week event due to other pressing Parliamentary duties I must attend to that day, but please know that I am supportive of the cause.
While the coronavirus pandemic poses clear challenges for children and young people's mental health, it is somewhat encouraging that the second annual State of the Nation report found that children and young people aged five to 24 generally responded with resilience to changes in their lives between March and September 2020. Despite indications of challenges to their mental wellbeing they report stable levels of happiness and only slight reduction in satisfaction with their lives. However, the Government has been working hard to ensure the pandemic has a limited impact on the wellbeing of young people in the long run.
An £8 million training programme run by mental health experts was launched in the autumn to help improve how schools and colleges respond to the emotional impact of the coronavirus pandemic on both students and staff, by giving them the knowledge and access to resources they need to support children, young people, teachers and parents affected by the pandemic.
The introduction of the new compulsory Relationships, Sex and Health Education curriculum will be another important step in improving our children’s overall wellbeing. The curriculum is designed to equip children early-on with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their wellbeing, health and relationships, as well as preparing them for adult life in a changing world.
I am also pleased that Mental Health Support Teams will be rolled out to schools and colleges. These teams will employ new staff who are being recruited and trained specifically for the programme. The National Health Service is on track to deliver the roll-out of mental health support teams in schools and colleges across 20-25 per cent of areas in England by 2023/24.
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