Questions on Covid – What did we learn from the Education Committee’s scrutiny of Williamson?


29th April 2020

The Education Committee grilled Education Secretary Gavin Williamson today about his department’s response to Covid-19. They questioned him on a range of issues, including:

  • the government’s strategy for reopening schools
  • support for disadvantaged groups
  • support for FE and HE

CfEY listened with interest and this blog rounds up some of the key things we learned from the discussion. You can also check out our live tweets from the meeting.

1. Schools will be opened in phases

Chair of the Education Committee Robert Halfon asked Williamson whether schools would be reopened in phases, and if there was any preference for opening primary or secondary first.

Williamson said the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is exploring the best approach,  but the process will definitely involve a phased approach. Williamson referred back to his ‘five key tests’ that will inform the decision and added that he plans to give schools as much notice as possible.

The Secretary of State does not think it would be feasible to run a consultation with schools and other education providers about reopening schools.

2. How long before free laptops arrive?

Fleur Anderson, MP for Putney, said that her constitutions have had to “scrabble around” for voluntarily contributions to get online and Williamson conceded that the government’s plans to deliver 200,000 free laptops and 4G internet connections to disadvantaged families would take around another month to come to fruition. He added that the first laptops will be arriving at the end of May and will be delivered throughout June.

Headteachers are reaching the ‘kill me now’ point in attempting to access the voucher scheme the government has set up to replace free school meals Share on X

3. Trouble with EdenRed

Headteachers are reaching the ‘kill me now’ point in attempting to access the voucher scheme the government has set up to replace free school meals, reported Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead.

The service, which is being delivered by the company Edenred, has been fraught with problems and is far too slow, Mearns argued. Anderson chipped in to question why Edenred had been chosen to provide the vouchers when it does not work with popular, affordable stores such as Co-op or Lidl but does work with the more up-market retailers Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.

Williamson said demand for the vouchers has been “exceptionally high” and he acknowledged that the service has not run as smoothly as it could have. He said working with the Co-op is complicated because they are not a single entity, as stores are run by different cooperative societies, some that have approved the scheme and others that have not.

He added that Edenred was chosen because it was already an approved supplier that the government could turn to quickly, but schools do have flexibility and can be reimbursed in order to get different vouchers from other stores if they need.

4. Support for apprenticeships and skills

Mearns went on to press Williamson regarding how the department is supporting FE. The Secretary of State – for whom the FE sector is an important priority – said “increased flexibility” has been introduced to allow people to continue apprenticeships, with over 81% still being delivered as planned.

This is crucially important and our recent report on vulnerable learners and covid pressed the government and providers to explore whether vocational courses could be “re-profiled to ensure disrupted work placements do not place students at a disadvantage in the labour market, or stop them from achieving qualifications“. It’s good to see that this is now on the agenda.

The department is working with the Education and Skills Funding Agency on how to support apprenticeship providers that haven’t been able to continue delivery, Williamson said. There have been particular problems with courses that require ‘on the job’ elements to be assessed – Williamson said the government is looking at apprenticeships and BTECs which require this, with the aim of ensuring that young people on these courses will be able to complete them as soon as possible. He also referenced the government’s ‘skills toolkit’ – an online platform that had pulled together the best free digital resources that were already available. This resource bank will be grown over time, he said.

5. Support for SEND pupils

Williamson noted that moving Education Health and Care Plan assessments and SEND tribunals online has sped up the process, which is something that can be learned from the for future. He also acknowledged that specific, tailored advice will be needed for special schools when it comes to reopening.

When challenged by Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, on whether many of the online resources available were really appropriate for or tailored to pupils with SEND, Williamson said more will be done to look at how to support their learning, and added that he wants to get them back into schools as soon as safely possible.

CfEY’s suite of 12 videos on different kinds of SEND are a helpful resource for teachers who want to learn more about the best strategies for  supporting pupils with additional needs.

Moving Education Health and Care Plan assessments and #SEND tribunals online has sped up the process according to the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson #EHCP Share on X

6. Home education in the early years

Christian Wakeford, MP for Bury South, said that while the were plenty of resources available for home schooling secondary age pupils, he had found very little that was appropriate for the early years, in searching for activities to do with his own child. Williamson said that he felt it was appropriate that support for young people at exam stages had taken priority, but acknowledged that more needed to be done for the early years and said he would feed this back to the department.