Five key things the children's minister told the education select committee
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
Children’s minister Vicky Ford has answered questions put forward by the education select committee on the government’s response to safeguarding vulnerable children amid the coronavirus crisis.
Ford was quizzed on topics from personal protective equipment (PPE) for social workers and teachers to the closure of alternative education providers and nurseries.
Here are five key things that emerged from the first virtual meeting of the committee:
1. Chair of the committee Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow and the Villages, asked Ford if the Department for Education would be providing PPE for professionals working with children and young people.
Ford said that the department has "absolutely prioritised making sure PPE is available for those that need it most, particularly in residential settings”.
Special schools, especially residential schools, are at the top of list for PPE and testing for Covid-19, the minister said.
She added that social workers and those working in special schools with children who have high clinical needs “should be protected in the same way as someone working in a health setting”.
2. Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, asked the minister whether school attendance should be made compulsory for children classed as vulnerable by the government.
Ford said: “Children with a social worker are expected to attend school, and if they do not then social workers are expected to work with schools to keep eyes on them.”
She added that the government would not row back on plans to relax statutory duties surrounding vulnerable children, saying “safeguarding would remain a priority”.
3. The minister was unable to provide figures on how many alternative education providers (APs) had closed due to the pandemic and said “there are different numbers before and after the Easter break”.
“It's not clear what the figures are for the week after Easter break or whether the department will be able to provide the committee with 'granular figures' on AP openings,” she added.
Ford said that she believed the majority of APs had remained open and, when asked about the risk of vulnerable children who attend such provision becoming involved in issues such as youth violence and county lines drug dealing, that “these types of crimes have actually gone down” since lockdown measures were introduced.
4. In response to a question from David Johnston, MP for Wantage and Didcot, on whether school closures would widen the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier peers, the minister confirmed that the DfE is working with the Education Endowment Fund on “how schools can best use their pupil premium money to target help at children who need it the most”.
She added that the government did not have data on how many children are now eligible for free school meals but insisted that DfE was working with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure all families who are eligible are receiving either food parcels or vouchers.
Ford said: "Best practice is for schools to continue to provide these meals themselves, and that the department acknowledges that there were glitches when the national voucher system began.”
5. When asked about the financial stability of the early years sector, the minister said she was aware of the “hand-to-mouth existence and long-term sustainability issues providers have”.
However, she denied claims of a childcare “crisis” caused by lack of funding during the pandemic and said the government had set out three priorities for the sector:
Ensuring there is enough childcare for key workers
Making sure vulnerable children are safe
Keeping an eye on the long-term viability of the sector