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Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg

Children, Young People and Education Committee

28/04/2020

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Dawn Bowden AM
Hefin David AM
Janet Finch-Saunders AM
Lynne Neagle AM Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Sian Gwenllian AM
Suzy Davies AM

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Huw Morris Cyfarwyddwr Grŵp, Sgiliau, Addysg Uwch a Dysgu Gydol Oes, Llywodraeth Cymru
Group Director, Skills, Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, Welsh Government
Kirsty Williams AM Y Gweinidog Addysg
Minister for Education
Steve Davies Cyfarwyddwr, Cyfarwyddiaeth Addysg, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director, Education Directorate, Welsh Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Llinos Madeley Clerc
Clerk
Tanwen Summers Ail Glerc
Second Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 13:00.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 13:00. 

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the first virtual meeting of the Children, Young People and Education Committee. In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I determine that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting, in order to protect public health. In accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this decision was included in the agenda for this meeting, which was published last Friday. This meeting is, however, being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video conference. A record of the proceedings will be published as usual. Aside from the procedural adaptation relating to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place.

The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. Can I remind all participants that the microphones will be controlled centrally, so there's no need to turn them on and off individually? Can I ask whether there are any declarations of interest, please? No. Okay. Thank you. Can I just then, again, note for the record that, if, for any reason, I drop out of the meeting, the committee has agreed that Dawn Bowden AM will temporarily chair while I try to rejoin?

2. COVID-19: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth gyda Llywodraeth Cymru
2. COVID-19: Evidence Session with the Welsh Government

Item 2, then, this afternoon is an evidence session with the Welsh Government on the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on education in Wales. I'm very pleased to welcome Kirsty Williams AM, Minister for Education, Steve Davies, director of the education directorate, and Huw Morris, who is group director, skills, higher education and lifelong learning. Can I welcome you all and thank you for attending? Minister, I understand you'd like to make a short opening statement.

Thank you very much, Lynne. And indeed, if I could just begin by, once again, putting on the record my gratitude to everyone who is helping us get through this pandemic.

There are a vast number of people who are keeping our school hubs open, looking after vulnerable children, and the children of key workers. Because of them, and their efforts, those key workers are able to carry on their critical roles in responding to COVID-19. I am extremely proud of the way that members of the school community have gone above and beyond. They have kept their schools open out of hours, over the weekends, on bank holidays, and Easter. And it is really heartening and humbling to see the way that they have responded to this crisis. And there are teachers, teaching assistants, and many others, who are helping our children and their parents to keep learning at home. I know that home schooling isn't easy, so I want to say also thank you to parents and carers for their efforts at this time. By keeping their children at home, they are helping us to keep people safe, and reducing pressure on our education system, and on our NHS.

Be in no doubt, we are facing many challenges because of this pandemic. My primary concern is, and always will be, the health and well-being of our children, of our young people, and of all the staff in our education settings. And I am very grateful to everyone who is supporting us in these endeavours. Thank you very much—diolch yn fawr. And I'm now happy to answer questions that members of the committee may have this afternoon.

Thank you very much, Minister. I'm sure that the committee echoes the heartfelt thanks you have just given then. The first questions we've got this afternoon are from Hefin David.

Good afternoon, Minister. With regard to your five principles, which you've set out today, regarding when schools will reopen, they're very clear that they require a judgment from you. So could you outline when you think that schools might reopen?

Thank you, Hefin. I am very clear that schools will move to a new phase—because, already, schools are open in many settings; we will move to a new phase when it is safe to do so and when I have advice from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific officer that it is safe to do so. I have made very clear in my statement that that is not imminent. I know that in some cases there has been speculation that a return to normal could be with us quite shortly. I'm clear that a return to normal is not imminent, and therefore I'm not in a position to give a date as to when we will see more schools opening up to more children.

13:05

Have you been given any indication at all by the chief medical officer as to when, in the longer term, it might be?

No, I have not been given a date. What I have done today is publish the principles that will aid me in, as you said, me making a decision. So, clearly, we will be relying on the advice of our medical and scientific advisers, but the principles are very clear. Firstly, we will need to consider any decision to have more children returning to school in the context of the safety and the physical and the emotional well-being of children and young people and the staff. Obviously, I can't make a decision regarding education in isolation. It will have to be taken in the context of the wider Welsh Government response to dealing with this pandemic. 

Thirdly, it is absolutely crucial in making any decisions that we have clearly communicated that to parents and to staff, on the information that we have used to reach any decisions, to build confidence for parents and professionals, but also to give them time to plan. It will be impossible to move quickly to new ways of working. And we also have to look at—and it's been paraphrased quite a lot today—if we are looking at certain groups of children accessing more education within a school setting, which groups they should be.

And, finally, how do we operationalise that? How do we make those settings as safe as they possibly can be, and how do we tackle some of the difficult challenges of everything from ensuring that we have adequate numbers of workforce available, to the very real questions about how you would do social distancing in the context of education, school transport issues, how you would avoid people gathering at the school gate, for instance? So, there are very practical issues that would need to be considered and thought through very, very carefully before we could return, before what we could see is a move from where we are now to the next phase of education, and new approaches to what schooling may look like. But, again, I must be absolutely clear to you, members of the committee, and to people watching: it is not feasible, in this sense, that we would move from where we are now to what all of us would regard as normal education and what the operation of schools looked like before the start of this pandemic. 

So, what is clear from what you've said is that it's going to be phased return. I would assume that would be the most vulnerable—perhaps additional learning needs pupils would return first. Just reading some of the things that you've said today, can you answer that question? And can I also ask: you said that guiding principle No. 3 will be having the confidence of parents, staff and students, based on evidence and information, so they can plan ahead. What will that evidence and information be, and how will you know that you've got the confidence of parents to return?

Well, as I said, primarily, we will need to take a lead from our scientific and medical advisers. I want to also say that we are obviously working on a four-nation basis and keeping in very close contact with my counterparts in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. But we're also looking beyond the United Kingdom to approaches to education in the face of this pandemic. Members are aware that we as a nation are a member of the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory. So, recently I was able to talk to educationalists and Ministers in Iceland, other parts of Europe, North America, South America and Australia. So, we're also looking at best international evidence in this regard. And, clearly, we will need to be very clear, as today is an attempt to be very clear with parents and our teaching professionals, and the unions that represent them, about the basis of that evidence. 

And could I just ask, with regard to the principles, do they then apply to further education and universities? 

13:10

Well, of course, when we are discussing these challenges, we are doing that with our colleagues in both the school sector but also our colleagues in the FE sector, and we're in close contact with colleagues in higher education to share thinking on these matters. 

But these principles don't apply in those circumstances; these are principles for schools only. 

These principles are applying to both, and our work in this area is applying to both schools and FE colleges. Clearly, universities, as independent institutions, we wouldn't be able to dictate to. But I want to be absolutely clear: we are working with representatives of the HE sector to include them in this work. And I have received, not assurances, but from discussions that I've had with Universities Wales and vice-chancellors, they are very keen to be kept apprised of these approaches, because they may well wish to implement something similar within their own institutions. 

Okay. I've got a couple of supplementaries now; firstly, from Suzy Davies, and then I'm going to go to Siân Gwenllian. Suzy. No, we can't hear Suzy. Suzy? No. I'll go to Siân, then, and then I'll come back to Suzy. Siân. 

Iawn. Gwnaf ofyn fy nghwestiwn, felly, i Kirsty Williams. Mae'n amlwg bod unrhyw benderfyniadau sydd angen eu gwneud ynglŷn ag ailagor ysgolion yn gorfod cael eu gwneud yng nghyd-destun y pethau eraill mae Llywodraeth Cymru yn gorfod meddwl amdanyn nhw. Ac mae'n hollol glir nad ydy dulliau profi'r Llywodraeth wedi cael eu datblygu'n ddigonol inni fod hyd yn oed yn dechrau meddwl am godi cyfyngiadau. Felly, onid ydy o'n beth peryglus, mewn gwirionedd, i ddechrau trafod agor ysgolion pan nad ydym ni wedi cael y profi yn iawn drwy drwch y boblogaeth? Ac onid ydy o'n rhoi neges gymysg ein bod ni'n dechrau slacio rhai o'r cyfyngiadau yma, lle, mewn gwirionedd, mae'r cyfyngiadau yn dal yna ac yn dal angen bod yna'n gadarn?  

Okay. I'll move on to my question to Kirsty Williams. Now, it is clear that any decisions that need to be taken on reopening schools would have to be made in the context of all of the other issues that the Welsh Government has to take into account. And it is entirely clear that the approach of Government towards testing hasn't been sufficiently developed for us to even start to think about removing restrictions. So, wouldn't it be dangerous, if truth be told, to start to discuss reopening schools when we haven't had the necessary testing in place for the majority of the population? And doesn't it convey a mixed message that we're starting to relax some of these restrictions when, in reality, the restrictions are still in place and still need to be in place robustly?

First of all, thank you very much, Siân, for that important question. Can I be absolutely clear, and I thought I had been pretty clear in answering Hefin David, that we are not relaxing any of the restrictions with regard to education? As I said to Hefin, it is not imminent that we would see a further phase in the next stage of education here in Wales.

What I have done today is to provide clarity on the nature of the principles that I would use when coming to any discussion. It is the responsibility of me, as the Minister, and indeed of the wider Government, to begin to think about planning for the future. But I have been absolutely clear: we are not moving to an imminent change in how education is operating at the moment. And I'm also very, very clear that should we be given the opportunity to see more children in our schools, I will only do that when it is safe for me to do so, when I've been advised by the CMO that I am able to do that, and we have given sufficient time and planning to the sector to respond. It is not going to be easy, and we will need to give them, as a sector, time to be able to address. But if I have not been clear enough, let me say it again: we are not relaxing any issues around schools at present, nor is that imminent.

Thank you. Suzy, I think we can try going to you again now. 

Thank you. Minister, in your consideration of introducing a phased return to school, in due course, have you taken into consideration how things like school absences are going to be managed? Because, regardless of the amount of good work you do on messaging, there will still be some families that don't realise that going back to school is for their particular family. Will there be a relaxation of, effectively, what we would call truancy rules? Or is that something that schools will be getting guidance on much up-front? 

13:15

Thank you, Suzy. As I said in my statement earlier today, returning to school will not be a return to normal, and in recognition of this, I've already made it clear that I will seek, in all opportunities, to reduce the burdens on school. That includes various data collection, the suspension of performance measures and removing the requirement to undertake literacy and numeracy testing, and, clearly, school attendance will want to be an important factor of that.

Okay. Thank you. I'm keen to go on now to talk about the current situation as being faced by our children and young people in schools with some questions from Siân Gwenllian. Siân.

Ers ddoe, mae Llywodraeth Cymru wedi dechrau cyhoeddi data ynglŷn â nifer yr ysgol sydd ar agor, nifer y plant sydd yn mynychu'r ysgolion, a'r staff, ac wedi bod yn cyflwyno'r wybodaeth yma fel canran o'r boblogaeth. Dwi'n credu mai, ar gyfartaledd, tua 1 y cant o blant Cymru sydd yn mynychu'r lleoliadau, a tua 5 y cant o'r staff. Fedrwch chi ddadansoddi'r ffigurau yna ymhellach? Fedrwch chi ddweud wrthym ni faint o blant, yn y data yma, sydd yn blant i weithwyr allweddol, a faint sydd yn blant agored i niwed?

Since yesterday, the Welsh Government has started publishing data on the number of schools that are open, the number of children attending those schools, and the number of staff involved, and they have been making this information available as per capita of the population. On average, I think it's 1 per cent of the children of Wales that actually attend these locations, and some 5 per cent of the staff. So, can you analyse those figures a little further? Can you tell us how many children, according to this data, are children of key workers, and how many are vulnerable children?

Thank you very much, Siân. As you quite rightly say, on average, we have 518 school hubs open each day, with up to 4,200 children attending. We have seen an increase in the number of attendances since the start of what would have been the traditional summer term. We have approximately 5.6 per cent of the teaching population working in those hubs, and at present, 85 per cent of the children who are attending are the children of key workers, the remainder being vulnerable children. So, we are now averaging 600 vulnerable children per day. These are small numbers, but we have seen an increase in those numbers since the start of what would have been the traditional summer term.

Iawn. Dwi'n siŵr y byddwn ni'n dod yn ôl at y pwynt yna mewn ychydig. Faint, felly, o hyder sydd gennych chi bod y trefniadau yn effeithiol o ran diogelwch y staff a'r plant yn y lleoliadau hyn?

Okay. I'm sure we'll return to that point a little later on. How much confidence do you therefore have that the arrangements are effective in terms of the safety of staff and children at these locations?

Thank you once again for that. The smooth operation of the hubs, with regard to health and safety, is, of course, of paramount importance. What we have seen since schools closed for traditional statutory purposes and moving to their repurposed function—we have seen a change of pattern over time. So, following my announcement on, I believe, 18 March, the week after, we saw a large number of settings open and operating. As local authorities have been able to understand the demand for those places—from critical workers and vulnerable children—we have seen more local authorities move to a hub model, and we have been able to publish guidance to local authorities on how issues around safe working in those hubs should be followed, and we've been able to give guidance in that regard. Local authorities are asked by us to report any incidents where they are concerned about operation issues on the ground.

Fel roeddwn i'n sôn yn gynharach, mae profi yn allweddol gyda delio hefo'r argyfwng yma. Faint o staff ysgol sydd wedi cael profion ar gyfer COVID honedig oherwydd eu bod nhw wedi cael symptomau ac yn y blaen? A faint o'r rheini sydd wedi profi'n bositif?

As I mentioned earlier, testing is crucially important in dealing with this crisis. So, how many school staff have been tested for COVID because they may have experienced symptoms and so on? And how many of those have tested positive?

My understanding from Public Health Wales is that 15 teachers have been tested for COVID-19, and I believe two of those results have come back as positive. Can I make it absolutely clear, the week before last, Welsh Government issued new guidance around who should be tested? I want to make it absolutely clear to those professionals working in our hubs, if they or a member of their family are exhibiting any of the symptoms, however mild, of COVID-19, they can and they should be tested.

13:20

Iawn. A'r cwestiwn olaf gen i, felly, ar hyn ydy: pa mor bwysig ydy'r profi'n mynd i fod rŵan yn y cyfnod nesaf, wrth i chi ddechrau meddwl am lacio'r cyfyngiadau?

Okay. And the final question from me on this: how important is testing going to be in this next phase, as you start to think about relaxing restrictions? 

Obviously, the ability to be able to test, to trace and to quarantine will be critical to the next phase and will be a very, very important and significant building block in all aspects of the Government's work to respond to this pandemic. 

Okay. Thank you, Minister, and thank you, Siân. We've got some questions now on the impact on particular groups of children, from Dawn Bowden.

Thank you, Chair. Just following on from your answer to Siân Gwenllian earlier about the number of vulnerable children in school, what's being done specifically to facilitate more of those children coming into a school setting or hub at the moment? I'm thinking about the 600 you've talked about, and I know, in one of my local authority areas of Merthyr, which is a very small authority, we're talking about the number of children identified as vulnerable running into thousands, not hundreds, and that's just in one authority. So, this is a particularly difficult issue to address, I appreciate, but how are we going to get more of these children into the hubs? 

Okay, Dawn. The first thing to say is that the issue of vulnerable children attending settings is one that is a challenge to not just Wales, but also to my colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. I'm pleased to say that we are working across Government departments—myself, obviously, and colleagues in education—with colleagues in social services to have a cross-Government approach to these issues.

I think the first thing to say is that these are complex messages, because the overriding public health message from our Government has been to stay at home and children should be kept at home as much as possible, and to make sure that our hubs run smoothly, safely and effectively, we do need to limit the number of children who are attending those hubs. So, firstly, the fact that numbers are small is in some ways a success of our public health messages, because parents have been heeding those messages, but, of course, all of us will have concerns for some children who remain at home. So, I'm pleased to say that we have seen a doubling in the last week of the number of children. So, although numbers are small, they have doubled over the course of the last week. We're working with local authorities and they have assured us that children and young people with a social worker have been risk assessed on a multi-agency basis and are receiving support in a number of ways, and that includes having conversations about some of those children attending the hubs. They're also looking to support in other ways.

Of course, some of our children who would be classed as vulnerable—and our definition of 'vulnerable' is one that is shared between the systems in England and Wales—could be children with a statement of special educational needs. For some of those children who, perhaps, have very intense health needs, actually, staying at home is the appropriate thing for that child and that family to do, and we're looking to support families, and local authorities and local education systems are looking to support families, in a number of ways.

We also know that just because you don't have a social worker or a statement of special educational needs does not mean that a child may not be vulnerable, and schools are very aware of the needs of those children and have been carrying out regular telephone check-ins where they can—if the age of the child is appropriate—just to keep in touch with those families and those individual children. But we will continue to work across Government to encourage, where it is appropriate, children to attend settings, and, if it is not appropriate for children to be in a setting, that there is contact with those children and young people to ensure that they remain, and their families remain, supported.

13:25

Thank you, Minister. It's encouraging to hear you talk about the ongoing safeguarding of children that are at home and I assume, within that, appropriate referral mechanisms are still in place if teachers or anybody has any particular concern about a child. Similarly, with special educational needs, whereas some of those children benefit clearly from a one-to-one provision in a school, and they may not respond as well to remote working, or remote contact, with an SEN advisor, are you considering in any way any relaxation of the lockdown rule in particular for those children in terms of them being able to access the support that they need for their particular educational needs?

Well, first of all, Dawn, you're absolutely right: my expectation is that schools should remain in contact with children and continue to identify vulnerable children, and schools should continue to refer children to children's services if they have any concerns, and that would also, of course, be the case for youth workers who may be keeping in contact with children. So, there is a professional expectation on all those that are working with our children and young people that, despite the circumstances they find themselves in, they should continue to report and refer cases if they see anything or hear or are told anything that makes them concerned about a child's welfare and safety.

With regard to children with additional learning needs, I am aware that that can present a number of challenges to families and children, and perhaps Steve Davies could give some further details. We have been keen to work with local authorities to ensure specialist provision, where that is appropriate—so, if I could give you an example of my own local authority in Powys, they have two specialist centres available for children with more profound additional learning needs, and those centres are available—recognising, however, that, even with the provision of specialist hubs, it can be a challenge for some children with additional learning needs to find themselves outside of a routine. Hubs are often staffed on a rota basis and therefore children could be faced with staff that they are unfamiliar with. So, even when local authorities—and the vast, vast majority of them do—have specialist services in place, sometimes that might not be the best thing for a child's health and well-being. But perhaps Steve can give us further details of the conversations that have been taking place with directors of education to ensure that children with additional learning needs have access to the hubs and specialist support. Steve.

Yes, myself and colleague Albert Heaney—colleague-director—have been in regular touch with directors of education and directors of social services to make sure that these children and young people's needs are catered for. We are very aware of all of the special schools—profound and multiple learning difficulties, EBD schools and pupil referral units—that have been kept open in their own way, but also, in some cases, as hubs, to deliver those services for those children's needs, and we're pleased that the directors and the local authorities have responded so constructively.

So, we have the details of every school that's open, the pupils who are attending, and we are clear that the risk assessments that the Minister referred to for children with special needs, as well as wider vulnerable groups—they are having risk assessments to make sure that, where there is a need identified for a pupil that is not currently attending a hub, then the local authority can be working with that child and with the parents.

Thank you. Just two more questions. One is around emotional and mental health difficulties being experienced by children and young people at the moment. Now, there was a very welcome announcement of £1.25 million pounds for school counselling. How is that, in practical terms, being applied if those children are not actually in school?

13:30

You're right, Dawn: we have to consider how we can support children not only in their learning during this time, but also to recognise the very real impact that the pandemic will have on all of our mental health and well-being—recognising, of course, it is absolutely natural for all of us, including children and young people, to have fears and anxieties at this time. That's a natural reaction to the situation that we find ourselves in. But, of course, there are issues around those children that would have currently been receiving school counselling, and also being able to be in a position to respond to a potential growth in the number of children that are receiving support. So, the additional money will be made available to local authorities to be able to increase and ramp up services to support children and families. In the immediacy, of course, that will have to be done in different ways than perhaps we've traditionally delivered services in the past, because of social distancing and lockdown rules, but we want to get some of these systems in place now, rather than waiting for everything to go back to normal. We need to be able to plan to offer services in the here and now, but also be able to plan for what potentially could be an increase in the demand of those services. So, we've been in close touch with local authorities, asking them what they believe that they will need and how they can use additional financial resources, and we've been very pleased to be able to secure that for them.

So, that would include things like telephone and video support as well, I guess, then.

Yes, absolutely. So, that would include remote counselling as in a fashion that we're doing now, but also, as and when some of the restrictions are perhaps removed, looking at an enhanced family therapy, or a therapy approach. So, when we talk about counselling, I think it's important to recognise that there will be some flexibility around this money and it does not necessarily mean that local authorities have to use it on a one-to-one basis. That might not be appropriate for some children, especially our younger children and their families, and they can use that money to provide counselling or therapy—in the widest possible terms—that is the best method to support individual children and their families. But, clearly, we're having to do that in the confines of lockdown and social distancing at the moment. Some of that money can also be used to support the professional learning and the professional development of counsellors, because, of course, they may be being asked to work in a different way and we need to make sure that they have the appropriate skills and abilities to do that.

Dawn, before you ask your final question, I've got a couple of supplementaries—firstly from Suzy, and then from Hefin.

Oh, thank you. My question goes back to the comment you made earlier, Minister, about the number of children doubling—sorry, vulnerable children doubling—after the Easter break, if we can call it that. So, what I'm after is a sense of churn in these establishments. So, was that figure a recovery of a number of children that had been there before the Easter break, and are the people who are there still the same people as were there right at the beginning of the crisis and the lockdown?

Suzy, what I believe that we're seeing in our schools is new pupils coming into school. So, there has been, I know, a real effort on behalf of educationalists and social services staff to really reach out to families and to make sure that they're aware of the support that is available out there for them and their children, and to be able to give them the confidence that there are—that the hubs are available for them. So, we have seen an increase in children. Those numbers are still small and, I believe, potentially, there is an opportunity to build on that and to have further conversations with families about the support that is available for vulnerable children, whether that—. That vulnerability, of course, can cover a whole range of issues.

As I said when we last met, this is a constantly evolving situation. The initial response—local authorities and schools worked incredibly fast and incredibly quickly to set up these hubs. We've seen an evolution in the weeks since that time and I am sure that we will continue to see some evolution in approaches.

Okay, thank you. Hefin, you had a supplementary—briefly, please.

Yes, very quickly. I've been listening to the answers with regard to vulnerable children, following on from that answer. I'm at home with a vulnerable child—a child who has got additional learning needs. She's got autism; she's four. I imagine there are many, many parents in exactly the same position—I've heard from them. I haven't heard anything from the school or from the local authority. Should I have heard something or should I be proactive in pursuing it?

13:35

—but what I would say is that if parents have concerns and want to have a conversation about what support is available to them and their children, they should contact their local education authority to have a conversation as to what support is available.

Yes, my last question is really about the potential for the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers. Is that a concern for you? I'm thinking particularly in relation to those less affluent families in having access to technology and so on. What kind of concerns do you have about that and what are we looking to do to try to ensure that that doesn't actually play out?

Thank you, Dawn. All of the statistics would tell us that learning loss and the gap, potentially, will affect those more vulnerable children the most. Clearly, we will want to consider that as we think about what the new normal for education may look like, or as we develop into future phases. Depending on where that child is in their educational journey, of course, the needs and the potential for loss are slightly different.

So, for instance, when we're thinking about very young children, we could be thinking about a lack of social interaction and the development of oracy skills. Of course, that, potentially, then will have a knock-on to their ability to learn to read and then to write, for instance. For other children who are, perhaps, older and heading towards formal examinations, the challenge when they return to school will be a slightly different one.

I'm not sure, Chair, whether you want me to give some further details about our continuity-of-learning plan and how we are looking to address digital disadvantage now, or whether there are questions later.

Well, I've got a question on that coming up, so, if it's okay, Dawn, we'll go on to that now. Before we do that, I was just going to ask how the Welsh Government is paying due regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and, obviously, the right children and young people have to an education. I was going to ask you about the risk of inequality due to varying access to digital resources, which are so important in ensuring continuity of learning. 

You're absolutely correct, Chair. Officials are very aware of our responsibilities towards children's rights in this regard and we are doing whatever we can to ensure that children have an equal opportunity and have equal access to learning at this time. We are fortunate in the regard that, because of previous decisions and investments, we have a strong base on which to build because we have our Hwb digital learning platform and because we have invested heavily in the national purchasing of Microsoft Office and Google for Education tools, which are available to all families. We have become the first, I think—we're certainly the first in the UK, and I'm not sure whether we're the first across the world, but I think we probably are—to deploy, for instance, Adobe Spark nationally.

But, obviously, access to hardware and connectivity is crucial at this time. Officials are working with local authorities to ensure that all children have access to both the hardware and the connectivity they need to be able to participate in digital learning at this particular time. 

Okay, thank you. Just a final question from me: how exactly are we communicating to parents what the expectations are of them in terms of delivering this education at home now? Are there, for example, guidelines on recommended hours of home learning per day of the week or volume of work to be completed? How are we ensuring that parents know how best to lead their children through this at the moment?

13:40

Firstly, can I recognise what a challenge this is? We've just heard from Hefin who is carrying on his day job as the Assembly Member, but is obviously trying to do that as well as care for and provide learning for his children, and I know, Chair, that you're doing the same, and I'm certainly trying to do the same, and it's a real challenge, it's not easy.

As part of our 'Stay Safe. Stay Learning' policy statement, advice is available to parents and carers on the Hwb platform as to what they best can do to support their children. I think the really important message that I've been trying to give to parents is not to be too hard on ourselves. I know that everybody is doing the best that they can in really challenging circumstances. And if they have concerns, they should be in contact with their child's school, but we do have specific advice and guidance to parents on the Hwb platform.

Thank you. We're going to move on now to some questions on examinations from Janet Finch-Saunders. Janet, we can't hear you. I tell you what, we'll—. Janet, do you want to try again? No. Okay, we'll go on then to questions on higher education and post 16, and we'll come back to examinations, if that's okay. Suzy.

Yes, thank you, Chair. Before we leave continuity of learning, do you mind if I just ask this one question?

Your comment, Minister, on working with local authorities to make sure that individuals have hardware: can you just give us a bit of detail on what working with local authorities actually means? In the process of that, is there any data gathering going on for those pupils who are being educated at home and the levels at which they're engaging? You know, are they sticking with it, or how many are dropping out? Because I think the two of those perhaps go together.

Yes, absolutely. So, I'm hoping to make an announcement tomorrow, if not later on this week, about some specific details around support for hardware and connectivity. We're working closely with local authorities to understand just that: to understand from the schools the number of schools that—and a number of them have already done this—have been lending Chromebooks, iPads and laptops to children, and also identifying children who are not perhaps engaging in the activities that have been made available. And we'll be doing two things to support local authorities.

The first is to use the stock of equipment that they already have to be able to provide hardware to students. So, we have purchased on a national basis software that, when applied to an old piece of kit, essentially turns it into an out-of-the-box Chromebook. Because, as you can imagine, just like other things during a pandemic, there has been a rush to buy new stuff on the market and then there is a scramble and nobody can get what they need. So, we're utilisng kit that is already available in schools and local authorities, and we will look to backfill that to schools at a later point out of our EdTech investment programme.

The other issue is, once a child has a Chromebook or a laptop or a device, issues around connectivity. So, we're also looking to purchase on a national level and distribute Mi-Fi connectivity, so students will be able to have access to Wi-Fi where they don't have that already. That's why we need to work closely with local authorities and schools to identify the level of that need and to make sure the stuff gets to the right children. One of the ways in which we are able to do that is to look at engagement in education. So, if a child hasn't been engaging, is that because they just don't want to and they're voting with their feet—but clearly teachers need to have a conversation about that—or is that because the child simply does not have the ability to do that, and therefore we need to get that stuff out to those children?

So, rather than just simply leaving it to local authorities to scramble around in a very crowded market to get the stuff that they will need, we're trying to do that on a national basis and deploy that to local authorities. So, our officials have been having conversations with each of our local authorities to ascertain what's already happened, and there is very good practice out there—schools have been proactive—but where there are gaps, what can we do as a national Government to be able to assist them to do that? We are repurposing some of the resources that we had previously identified for our EdTech investment, using those resources to fill this particular gap.

13:45

Okay. Thank you. We're going to go back to Janet now. I believe we've got sound again, so Janet can ask her questions on examinations. Janet. 

Thank you. I thought it was something at this end; I'm glad to hear it wasn't. When will vocational learners know what is happening with their assessments, and how will those who have no choice but to wait for a vocational assessment be supported?

Okay. That's a very good question, Janet, because I know that there has been some concern and anxiety around vocational qualification students and how quickly we've been able to provide certainty for them. You'll be aware that Qualifications Wales have been able, in the last week, to be able to give that greater clarity. So, they have announced that learners due to complete their Essential Skills Wales qualifications will receive results. They have also published their approach to how health and social care qualifications will be managed, because, of course, those are part of the first set of reformed quals that we have done on a Wales basis.

You are right, there are a group of students who fall into the category where there are technical qualifications that require a certificate of competency to be industry ready—I hope I've explained that correctly—and, therefore, we are working to understand how we can accommodate those students in these particular circumstances. But, at this stage, there may be some delay for that element of their qualification being delayed to a further date.

Yes. What are your expectations for how A-level and GCSE qualifications will be awarded this summer, following the ministerial direction that you have issued to Qualifications Wales? For example, how is an appropriate balance being taken between recognising the progress of pupils in their coursework, mock examinations, and other work to date, and also, the potential of pupils who might have performed particularly well in their examinations this summer?

Well, Janet, I understand—and today is a day where some students would have been undertaking practical examinations—I understand how devastating it has been to both students and teachers alike for the decision I had to take to cancel this summer's exam series. But I'm absolutely clear that was the only decision that could have been reached.

Qualifications Wales has made it very clear—and for people who would like more information, I would urge them to look at Qualifications Wales's website—how they will go about giving, allocating, and awarding a grade to our A-level and GCSE students. Firstly, teachers will be asked to submit a grade they believe that student would have obtained, should they have taken an exam. And, of course, teachers will have a range of data and their own professional judgment that they will use in awarding that grade. Teachers will also be asked to rank students in order. Once that information has been submitted to Qualifications Wales, there will be a process by which that data will be moderated; moderated from centre to centre and across the nation, thus giving us the chance to award a student a fair grade whilst being, and remaining, true to ensuring that we have a robust qualifications system, and allowing those students who find themselves at a critical stage of their education, where they are looking to move on to the next stages—that they will have the grades that will allow them to make decisions about their future.

13:50

Thank you, Janet. We're going to go on now, then, to the questions on higher and further education from Suzy Davies. Suzy.

Thank you, Chair. I suppose my first question just goes back to the 16-year-olds at the moment and those who are looking forward to either going to college, the older ones going to university, there'll be apprenticeships, all kinds of future pathways for post 16. What's happening at school level, or even at college level, to get those students ready for the next steps, because, obviously, they're not in their usual environments and getting their usual programme of teaching? 

No, that's quite right, Suzy, and I should have said in answer to Janet's question, as well—I'm sure people already know, but just to get the point across—that A-level results day and GCSE day will run as normal across not just Wales, but England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which is really important.

You're right, Suzy—for those people that are coming to the end of one part of their education this is a particularly challenging time. You'll be aware that, last week, on Hwb, we were able to launch a programme for year 13 students to help them get ready for university. I'm very grateful to the HE sector in Wales, who've worked really hard with us on that. So, for instance, if you were a year 13 student or even a year 12 student that was thinking about or interested in areas around social policy, you could have tuned into a social policy lecturer at Swansea University. If you go to the Hwb website, you will be able to see that there are subject listings, everything from animal science through to law, politics, history and science, with links through to higher education and further education courses that students can avail themselves of.

There's also a section on preparation for essential study skills, whether that is report writing or academic writing. So, there is a range of activities and courses available for year 13, so that children—'children'; they're all children to me—young people can get themselves—. They don't have to stop learning, and they can get themselves ready for the next stage of their education.

Again, for those children, perhaps, who are coming to the end of their GCSEs, there is a range of information, either within their own schools or within their local colleges about things that can keep them learning. So, for instance, I'm aware of one school where you can go onto the website and there are recommendations of, for instance, what you could be reading over the summer if you're interested in doing this particular A-level in September.

I know that there are also moves in schools and in colleges to be able to make sure that those children don't miss out on really important careers advice at this time, as well, and information, so they can make informed decisions. I know that people are working hard to link up children to advice services that are available so that they can make those really important future decisions with the advice of either a teacher or other professional so that they've got those options. So, there is material out there and it's growing all the time.

This week, we were able to launch our virtual Seren network. You'll be aware that, for the last couple of years, we've been able to send Welsh children to the Yale global summer school. Clearly, that can't happen this year. That's devastating for those year 12s who had worked so hard and had won a place on that programme. They will now be able to attend the Yale global scholars programme virtually and remotely, because Yale have moved that programme online. So, we're developing materials and resources all of the time. 

Thank you for that answer. Before I move on to my next question, can you give me some sort of sense of how that Hwb domain is being populated? Where is all this information being sourced from? Presumably, they'll be working with partners, but what does that look like?

Yes, we're working very hard. So, everything from our work with the BBC, for instance, and BBC Bitesize through to our FE colleges and our HE institutions, as well as other organisations in the third sector who are looking to provide those opportunities. Can I just say that, last week, we were looking at, every day, in the region of well over 150,000 logins a day into Hwb?

13:55

Well, that's great. So there's proactive populating of Hwb. That's what I was after. That's great.

Just going back to some of Janet's questions and the assessed grades, I want to talk to you about the unconditional offers and where we are with that at the moment for entry to universities, because there's going to be a scramble now of the available students for further education, but primarily higher education institutions, across the UK. Is the moratorium on unconditional offers still standing? Are there conversations going on to extend that moratorium? Otherwise, this scramble is going to potentially negatively affect our universities quite considerably.

Yes, you'll be aware that a moratorium does exist. It exists in this current context to 1 May. We continue to keep in close touch with colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland and in the Westminster Government around these issues. Officials are also in touch with UCAS, and in the last couple of days I've had at least three meetings with representatives of the Welsh higher education sector to discuss these matters.

I just want to ask you now about students and their maintenance loan grants. I think they're getting, around now, the money going into their bank account that they would normally have expected at this time of year. That's right, yes?

What's happening to those students who would normally be living in digs somewhere but are now living at home? Are they likely to be asked to reimburse part of the cost, because obviously it's not as expensive to live at home as away, and what's likely to be happening with the maintenance loans over the summer holiday period, potentially? Because we've had a period now where students can't top up their maintenance loans by going out and working on weekends or working in the evenings, or whatever, so their income has been impacted. Just in the round, what kind of conversations are happening around that? Again, it's probably a four-nation approach, I would imagine.

Thank you, Suzy. You are correct to say that our student support regime does allow for a lower payment to be made to those students that stay at home during their studies, but I want to reassure students that there will be no change to their student support payments just because they have left their universities and have decided to go home. There should be no change. Also, we are continuing, it should be important to say, to pay education maintenance allowance at this time for our FE students that are eligible for that, even though, obviously, for EMA there is an attendance requirement, but clearly that is not appropriate to enforce at the moment.

You are correct—this is a worrying time for many students in higher education, especially for those who are looking to graduate at this time and are going out into an economy that has been tremendously badly hit by the pandemic. At this time, we continue to have conversations with NUS Wales about what can be done within a Welsh context, but, as you quite rightly say, also within a UK context, to support students who may have been affected. We are continuing—on our webpage we have a frequently asked questions section that advises students in the first instance, especially when it comes, for instance, to the cost of accommodation—to have those discussions, and I'm very grateful that, in some cases, some of our institutions have been able to waive or partially waive accommodation fees where students have vacated their accommodation and have returned to their usual home address. But we will continue to have dialogue with NUS Wales and with our counterparts across the country to look to see what more we can do to support students at this time.

Thank you for that answer, and, yes, I was pleased to see that announcement through the NUS as well, so well done to those accommodation providers who have a heart. I think we'll all have seen the Universities UK document that explains some of the difficulties that they're going to be running into if this proceeds much further. My understanding is that the main emphasis at the moment is to try and get all the universities across the UK through this initial period of difficulty by releasing as much money as possible. I can see that your figure to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales was a little bit down on last year's letter—not that there's been a remit letter yet, but an indication. Are you releasing that money earlier so that they can use it more swiftly, or does that not matter?

14:00

Before you come in, Minister, that is going to have to be the last question, just to make you aware of that, because we are coming up to the end of our time. 

Of course, Suzy, we are working closely with Universities Wales and have a lot of sympathy for the proposals that have come forward from Universities UK, which Wales's universities have been a part of forming. Stability in the first instance is really important to us, which is why we've been able to give an indication to HEFCW about resources that are available, and we've been very clear to HEFCW that we want to be as flexible as possible in how they use those resources to support institutions. That potentially would mean reprofiling the way in which money gets out to institutions, but clearly we will need to have an ongoing discussion about how we respond to the immediacy of the issues facing HE, how we can get stability for the next academic year, and how we then can support the sector through what is a really challenging time for them. We will do that in a Welsh context and we will continue to do that also in a UK context, because you will have seen the scale of some of the figures that have been talked about in terms of the impact on the HE sector at this time. Clearly, a four-nation approach to that will be crucial.  

Okay. Thank you. Well, we have come to the end of our time, and, as to anything that we didn't ask, we will have to write to the Minister. Can I just thank the Minister and her officials for your attendance today? We know how busy you are dealing with the pandemic and we very much welcome this opportunity to have this discussion with you. So, thank you, Minister and officials for your time. As usual, you will be sent a transcript to check for accuracy following the meeting. Diolch yn fawr. 

3. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod
3. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Remainder of the Meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

Item 3, then. Can I propose, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42, that the committee resolves to meet in private for the remainder of the meeting? Are Members content? Okay. I see that Members are content, so we will now proceed to meet in private. 

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 14:02.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 14:02.

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