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Y Pwyllgor Cyfrifon Cyhoeddus

Public Accounts Committee

03/08/2020

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Delyth Jewell MS
Gareth Bennett MS
Jenny Rathbone MS
Nick Ramsay MS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Rhianon Passmore MS
Vikki Howells MS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Adrian Crompton Archwilydd Cyffredinol Cymru
Auditor General for Wales
Chris Jones Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr, Is-adran Cymorth i Ddysgwyr, Llywodraeth Cymru
Deputy Director, Support for Learners Division, Welsh Government
Kevin Palmer Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr, Addysgeg, Arweinyddiaeth a Dysgu Proffesiynol, Llywodraeth Cymru
Deputy Director, Pedagogy, Leadership and Professional Learning, Welsh Government
Matthew Mortlock Archwilio Cymru
Audit Wales
Nicola Edwards Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr, Is-adran Gofal Plant, Chwarae a'r Blynyddoedd Cynnar, Llywodraeth Cymru
Deputy Director, Childcare, Play and Early Years Division, Welsh Government
Ruth Conway Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr, Gweithrediad Ysgolion, Llywodraeth Cymru
Deputy Director, Operation of Schools, Welsh Government
Tracey Burke Cyfarwyddwr Cyffredinol, Grŵp Addysg a Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director General, Education and Public Services Group, Welsh Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Claire Griffiths Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Fay Bowen Clerc
Clerk
Joanne McCarthy Ymchwilydd
Researcher

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 13:32.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 13:32. 

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Can I welcome members of the committee to this afternoon's August meeting of the Public Accounts Committee? We've received no apologies and no substitutions. Do Members have any declarations of interest that they'd like to make at the start of the meeting? No. Okay. We've just sorted out the interpretation and I'm sure everyone understands that if they wish to speak, just to indicate in some way and I'll call you in as and when.

2. Papurau i'w nodi
2. Papers to note

Item 2, then, and papers to note. COVID-19—a letter from the Welsh Government with additional information following the public accounts meeting on 22 June this year. Tracey Burke, who's with us today, Welsh Government, has written with additional information following the evidence session held on 22 June. Are Members happy to note that letter? Good. Thank you.

3. Ymchwiliad i COVID-19 a'i effaith ar faterion sy'n ymwneud â chylch gwaith y Pwyllgor Cyfrifon Cyhoeddus: Sesiwn dystiolaeth gyda Llywodraeth Cymru
3. Inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to the Public Accounts Committee’s remit: Evidence session with the Welsh Government

Okay, then. Item 3 is our evidence session on COVID-19 with the Welsh Government to consider education services. Can I thank Tracey Burke and our other witnesses for being with us today? I appreciate it's an odd time of year to have a public accounts meeting, so thanks for making the time. Would you like to give your names and positions for the Record of Proceedings, starting with Tracey?

Thank you, Chair. I'm Tracey Burke. I'm the director general for education and public services and I'm joined by my colleagues, who will introduce themselves in turn. So, I'm joined by Ruth, Kevin, Chris and Nicola.

Great. Okay, as you'd expect, we have a large volume of questions, so I'll request that both Members and witnesses are succinct so that we can get through as many questions in as short a time as possible. I've got the first question, and that's on communication. How effective do you think that the Welsh Government has been in engaging with and managing the expectations of the public and schools in respect of education?

Well, Chair, I'll start with that. I think we've had a huge communication effort right from the very start to try to inform and engage people in a clear and consistent way, and in doing so we've used a wide range of different methods—channels, our communication colleagues would call it. But we've engaged with the profession themselves, parents, pupils, and we've done that through social listening and through surveys and working with Parentkind and the children's commissioner, and obviously a lot of guidance.

We've certainly seen a big take-up in our social media hits—a massive, massive increase in people engaging with our communications—but it hasn't been without its challenges. I think especially in the early days, at the very, very start, there were problems or difficulties in us getting across what was happening in Wales versus what was happening elsewhere, and I think early media coverage didn't really help that. But we worked with journalists at the time to educate them—if you'll excuse the pun—on the different policies, and I think we'd all agree now that the coverage is a lot clearer about what's the devolved position on things and what is the UK or England position on things.

So, I think that was a challenge at the start. Obviously, the second challenge, I think, was really engaging with parents. As a Government, we hadn't had a lot of direct engagement with parents; parents normally prefer to receive information directly from their school—that's where they've got the relationship. So, we've had to strengthen our direct engagement, and we've done that, as I said, through a number of different ways, including surveys and things like that. So, areas I think that have been testing in communicating with parents have been around home learning, and we ended up doing a parents survey to really understand what they wanted to support them as parents during that home-learning phase. And also the 'check in and catch up' in June—there was a strong push to communicate with parents there. And we did see a change in attitude; much more positive feedback from parents during that phase. So, I think an awful lot of activity, but not without its challenges.

13:35

Do you think part of the issue hasn't just been communication itself, but when for whatever reason the Welsh Government might have quite late in the day changed its view on whether a particular policy or something should happen or not, that the communication then has had to change very quickly and it's understandable that hasn't been able to keep up?

Yes, and I think it's reach as well; that when we've had to change things quite quickly, although we've made an announcement, not everybody is watching the broadcasts that we make, and not everybody—although we've seen a massive rise in our own communications—not everybody is finding our communications as their first source of information about changes. So, there tends to be bit of a ripple effect. So, I think, yes when changes—. The more we can repeat a message, the more it's landed, but when things move quickly, yes, I do think it's more of a challenge.

Okay. Thanks. I'm going to bring in the other members now. Jenny Rathbone.

Thank you very much. Tracey, when we met on 22 June, you acknowledged that the experience of pupils during lockdown had been quite variable, and Estyn has been brought in to share good practice, so I just wondered if you could tell us what has been done to ensure that all schools are aspiring to the best. 

Thank you. Yes, I did say there'd been a variable experience, and I still think that for a wide range of reasons: parental support and variation in the school system—there's been more of that than we'd have liked—and children's home circumstances, of course, have been quite different and they can affect their experience. And I think that's why the 'check in' time was really important for us to understand what was happening at home for children and what they needed, really, and support for the next stage. But yes, you're right; we've taken that good practice work forward, so a raft of case studies has been made available now from our Hwb platform, which is our education platform, and they cover a range of things around reopening, but also supporting learner progression—those sorts of issues. And it's a really rich catalogue, I suppose, of things. And then the Estyn work is about to start now, which will be engaging with local authorities to understand what's been done and where that best practice has been. But additionally, through our continuity of learning, we've been sharing good practice. Estyn and the four regions, I think it was, have just put out models of blended learning, which have got lots of different areas in there around teaching and learning. So, I think a wealth of good practice has now been prepared and shared; I suppose it's just now getting the schools to actually take that up.

13:40

Before I come on to the details of the equity issue, I just want to highlight the research undertaken by Professor Green of University College London, which indicated that less than 2 per cent of Welsh pupils had four or more daily online lessons. I know this is something that's been raised by parents in my constituency when they compare themselves with people they know and their children's experience. So, I just wondered if you could tell us how we are ensuring that all schools know how to deliver lessons online—and obviously a series of lessons, not just once a day.

Indeed. I saw that report—in fact, we all saw that figure, which was really, really disappointing to read. I don't want to sound at all defensive about that report, but I think we did struggle to take a lot concrete from it because we were coming from a very strong platform—our Hwb platform has continued to grow. We've provided additional kit and connectivity; we've done a lot in the digital space. But also, with Professor Green's research, it didn't give us an idea about how many people they'd surveyed in Wales. I think it was 4,500 across the whole of the UK. It was just around the time of the Easter holidays, and it wasn't a single survey, it was a combination. I had a really, really good look at it and I think it certainly was very good food for thought for us, I will say that, and it has definitely made us take a very good look at things. But we weren't—we had some questions, I suppose, about that particular piece of research. But we've been doing our own research, so we'll supplement Professor Green's UCL report with the work that we're doing ourselves, and we've got a series of research studies under way with Welsh universities now to try to understand things better.

Okay. I think Kevin Palmer wants to come in; hopefully you've got some decent information on how Professor Green's information didn't capture the true situation.

Yes, that's the contribution I'd like to make, if I may. I think, essentially, what's highlighted in the question is the one metric of the number of online video lessons a day, and the single metric was four or more. Welsh schools had obviously not been in the same place as some schools in other parts of the country. But setting aside the validity of the data set and all of those other questions, it's really important to learn from what we hear from other parts of the country. And now what we're focusing on is this whole blended learning piece and the range of metrics that we should be measuring, even as we go back into school, actually. But if we go back into school and then we have further periods of disruption, we'll want to measure a great deal more than the number of online lessons, such as the quality of resources being made available to pupils, the kinds of interactions that pupils and teachers have, and, particularly, the relationships between teachers, parents and children if we are in another disrupted situation.

Okay. All right. We're short of time, so I just want to talk about your assessment of pupils' access to broadband and internet-connected devices, because obviously this wonderful blended learning will only be accessible to those who've got the connections. I know the Government's done a lot to distribute iPads and laptops where required, but obviously there's more to it than that, so I wonder if you could just say how is everybody going to—you know, how are all pupils going to be not digitally excluded.

We've tried to address the digital exclusion in terms of connectivity and kit, and I think we moved really quickly there really to address that, both through repurposing existing devices and through providing MiFis and licences, and I think we put about £3 million towards that. Local authorities worked with us to identify those children who they felt might be digitally excluded, and based on that local authority feedback, we understand that provision for digitally excluded learners is now in place in terms of their kit. I'm not going to say every single child has it, but the feedback that we've had from local authorities is that that provision has satisfied that digital exclusion on the basis of kit need. Of course, it's a different issue about children's active use of that kit and the learning that they're taking from it, but certainly from a hardware and connectivity point of view—

13:45

Just sticking with the kit a moment, I know that the Deputy Minister Jane Hutt has made available—I think it's £3 million for local authorities to bid for if they need to connect Traveller sites. I'm not aware that that money has been taken up effectively. Can you convince me that all Traveller sites are now digitally connected—obviously, the permanent ones, rather than the ones that pop up on the roadside?

I can't convince you that all Traveller sites are digitally connected, but I will take from this and find out what the latest take-up has been and drop that back, if that's okay, in a note.

Jenny, just before you go on, I think Rhianon Passmore has got a supplementary on this.

Thank you. In regard to Estyn, you've mentioned previously their role, can you briefly and succinctly give me some information in regard to the role of the consortia in supporting schools and the roll-out of the digital expenditure in regard to our pupils, and also in regard to how that is funded in terms of extra additional resources?

Yes, fine. So, to my knowledge, and colleagues will correct me if I'm wrong, we made £3 million available, but that was working directly with local authorities. Please, colleagues, correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm not sure that the consortia were directly involved in deciding where that funding went. I think that was direct between Welsh Government and the local authorities. Is that correct? Is anybody able to confirm that for me?

Just on the role of the local authorities—sorry, the role of the regions. It isn't to do with the distribution of technology; it's to do with the professional learning and the resources that need to be provided to teachers and leaders to ensure the proper use of those technologies by schools, teachers and families. I think you'll be interested to know that I've recently seen the models and the professional learning resources that the regions have made available to schools, and they actually are really quite impressive. There's a bulk of expertise now developing in the regions that will enable our teachers and leaders to make more effective use of the technology and the resources that are in Hwb as we go forward.

Thank you. If I just may, in regard to that, then, there is a very strategic role in terms of the regional consortia in terms of supporting this agenda, and they're not sitting outside looking in.

Okay, just before I hand back to the Chair, then, Tracey, in your note about the connectivity of the Traveller sites, what I think we need to know is which local authority each of these Traveller sites that are not connected is in and what the Welsh Government has done to have conversations with that local authority to ensure that it is very high on their agenda, because we may well be going back into lockdown later this year.

Okay. Are you done? Yes. Gareth Bennett, did you have some questions on additional costs?

No, Chair, I'm happy for you to move on to other areas. We can come back to this later on if it's appropriate.

Yes, okay. If there's any time left, we'll come back. Thanks for that, Gareth. Rhianon Passmore on the autumn term. You're on silent.

Thank you, Chair, in that regard. So, what has been the process for deciding when schools will reopen and what role do you have in engaging with the scientific evidence and advice and turning this into practical policy decisions?

I'll start with the process. So, the process for deciding is that the scientific medical advice is considered, and then that is part of the 21-day review process that Ministers undertake, and that's where they determine where and whether easements can be made. That advice comes generally from the Welsh technical advisory group. So, in the case for us deciding schools' reopening, that was based on a report by the technical advisory group that recommended that schools plan to open in September with 100 per cent of their pupils. And that report—I'm sure you'll have seen it—is in the public domain. So, we engage with the technical advisory group through a sub-group on children and young people, and Ruth, my colleague who's in the meeting now, is on that group. Ruth, would you be able to just say a little bit about that?

13:50

Ruth, could you just give your position as well? Because I know we didn't get that at the start, so just before you give your answer.

Ruth Conway, and I'm deputy director working on the operation of schools. So, as Tracey mentioned, I'm a member of the technical advisory group, the sub-group that specifically looks, as Tracey mentioned, at children and education. It's chaired by Dr Heather Payne, who's the senior children's health adviser to the CMO, and we meet on a weekly basis. Most of the discussion is around the latest scientific evidence, what key questions we've got in terms of researching evidence that we need to support the policy decisions. There's a number of papers then—Tracey referred to a paper that was produced in support of the last announcement around the operation of schools for the autumn. So, the work of that group, as well, connects to the main technical advisory group. So, whatever key questions we've got then, we pose those to the group and we get the feedback in terms of papers.

So, would you be actively forming policy decisions directly as a conduit? Because, obviously, now, in terms of where we sit in terms of the under-11s announcement in regard to no longer working in clusters, is this going to have a key importance to how we both move forward and also in regard to how schools are managed and also, then, in regard to their budgets? Can you explain how you feel that is going to impact as we move forward in terms of expenditure within schools?

In terms of expenditure, did you say? So, the first thing I'll say is I think it's sort of a little bit of a two-way street. I mean, sometimes we'll have the policies and we will be, as Ruth said, asking questions or testing what the scientific advice would be on a certain issue if we wanted to pursue that and take that forward. But at other times, the scientific advice has sort of helped us to rethink our policy. So, as I say, it kind of goes both ways, I suppose, in that sense.

And in terms of the under-11s, I mean, that really should help in terms of expenditure because it will mean that contact group sizes can be larger and not smaller, because there doesn't have to be the social distancing that there would have been. So, it will make it much easier for primary schools is our view, and, of course, childcare settings.

Thank you. I don't know if, Jenny, you wanted to come in on that particular subject, Chair.

Yes. Can I come in now? So, a very important decision made last week that children [correction: children up to the age of 11] no longer need to socially isolate from either children or adults. So, for what reason would primary schools not be able to come back as normal as if, you know, the same time last year?

So, primary schools will be able to come back as normal under the new lifting of the restrictions. There will still be hygiene measures and other things, but in terms of the social distancing, children will not have to social distance in the same way. But, obviously, there will still be additional measures that we'll be asking schools to undertake in terms of hygiene and unnecessary contacts, I suppose.

Okay. But unless the child is in a shielded household where somebody is particularly at risk, you will expect all primary schoolchildren to be back in school five days a week for the full 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.—

We expect children to be back in school from September. We anticipate that the first two weeks of September may not be fully operational because schools have got a couple of INSET days for planning, and, obviously, I think some of them are planning to build up in those first couple of weeks. But after that, our expectation is that pupils will be fully back to school.

13:55

Well, that's good. That normally happens every September, anyway. Could you just now describe for us what plans the Government is making to ensure that the maximum number of secondary school pupils are also back in school full time?

Okay. I think I'll probably hand over to my colleague Ruth here, who's been leading on the detailed guidance. But, again, our plan is that all children will be back in school in September, and the guidance has outlined the measures and interventions that need to take place from there. Ruth, would you like to say a bit more on that?

We've been working on it. We've been working with a group of headteachers as part of the planning for the return in September, which includes secondary heads as well. We're also working with Estyn, who are pulling together a series of plans or models from the schools that we've been working with, looking at what the options are in terms of how you would plan to go back in September. So, we are planning then to publish that over the summer, so that can be used by other heads and other schools to look at their own plans and refine them. So, this is about taking the guidance, really, and looking at the mitigating measures and understanding what that might mean in terms of your school and your setting.

I think that what we've tried to do is recognise as well that it's not a one-size-fits-all in terms of the guidance. So, I think that's been key. Where we can, we're drawing on where schools have already done their planning, looking to share that, but also recognising that it doesn't necessarily replicate across all schools, and then we'll be looking at that again in September when schools go back to see how schools have actually been able to implement their plans and then look at where they've made refinements and share that more widely, as well.

Okay, but it's already 3 August. Time is marching on. I think that teachers are entitled to a holiday in the run-up to the new school year. Why are secondary schools not getting this guidance now?

Sorry, they've already got the guidance. This is supplementary information—

This is based on—. Schools will already have done their planning. This is just an additional bit of information to support them. So, they'll already have done their planning based on the operational guidance, and lots of schools had already done their planning before the end of term. That's the feedback that we were having through the headteacher stakeholder group that we've got—

This is just to help with refinement.

Sorry to interrupt you. What additional resources have been set aside for secondary schools who may be in a smaller premises for the number of pupils they have, or where they need to enhance the use of the outdoor areas for learning? Because I think that primary schools will be able to use their normal space, but secondary schools still have some social distancing that they must adhere to.

Obviously, we're expecting schools to have to take a range of practical steps about practice, really, but we're not anticipating that schools will have to make significant physical adaptations to the structure of their buildings, et cetera. So, we think it's hugely—not hugely. We think it's unlikely that schools will need to deliver any of their education in significantly modified premises, or in additional premises, for example. So, we anticipate that any adaptations will be extremely small, really, and more about practice than about funding physical changes to the school. Is that right, Ruth?

Yes, it is more about the organisation of the school day and about the timetabling and the planning and whether or not—for example, it might be that certain children are moving from one lesson to another at certain times. So, it's about those adjustments, and that's part of the information that we are looking to share, which I mentioned, that some schools will have done and we'll look to share.

So, one of the issues is going to be around the catering arrangements at lunch time. Is that something that the Welsh Government is looking into? Because if the children are going to be in school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or so, they're going to need to, obviously, be provided with food, and that means catering staff need to be there.

That's right. So, we're assuming that catering services will restart as normal, but perhaps with staggered meal times, and, again, some changes to practice. I think that's pretty much covered in the guidance, Ruth, isn't it?

14:00

Yes. Yes, it is.

Can I ask, in regard, then, to the peer review body recommendations, which have been, I believe, accepted in principle, and the projected £40 million around that, as well as the principle that it's not going to have an adverse effect on schools' budgets, can I have some further light shone in regard to how that is going to work financially, and who is going to be picking up the payload in that regard?

Yes, sure. So, this obviously is out for consultation at the moment—an eight-week consultation, because these are the proposals, but the overall increase in costs for the pay award largely equate to the funding that was previously estimated for this purpose. So, it was anticipated that these increased costs would be met from the funding already provided to local authorities via the budget process through the revenue support grant, and also through any provision that they can make for raising their own revenue. In fact, that was—. A significant part of the uplift or the increase in funding for RSG this year was in anticipation of the impact of teachers' pay coming into effect. But obviously—

Sorry to interrupt, but in regard to—. It's the 'largely' that always—.

Yes, indeed. Well, what I was going to say was, obviously—. I was coming on to say that, in light of the pandemic and the financial issues that this has raised, there are clearly discussions going on about the funding implications now for local authorities in light of this. So, there are further discussions with local government and further discussions with Ministers, but, in the planning for it, it was intended that these costs would be met from the uplift that we provided in the RSG, and that's really the most up-to-date picture, I think, I can give you at the moment.

Okay, thank you for that. In regard to—. We've mentioned the prospect of a potential second wave. How has Welsh Government prepared schools for that second wave of COVID-19, if it occurs, or localised lockdowns, which, obviously, as you've mentioned previously, would involve further involvement from all of our corporate local authorities and headteachers?

Yes, absolutely—local lockdowns are very much on our mind, and a potential wider second spike, seeing what's been happening in some other places, and obviously that could potentially result in further school closures, or disrupted school again here in Wales. So, the Welsh Government as a whole now has got much more surveillance information available, which will enable much earlier intelligence, I suppose, on where there's an uptick in the virus, and whereabouts in Wales that is happening. So, we're hoping that that will be able to give us early warning through that data, that surveillance data, that we now have available. But we've made it really clear that every school needs to have a plan, and needs to plan for the possibility of a further local lockdown, and it's essential that they prepare for a range of possible circumstances. So, I think everybody knows that they need to plan for this, and I do think that we're in a better place than we were initially, because, clearly, we've made a lot of investment now in technology, in professional learning, the best practice guides that I was talking about before, so we're definitely more prepared, but we have asked everybody to plan for a range of circumstances.

Yes, sorry, I came in before Tracey said something of what I was about to say, but, just to codify it, Tracey mentioned earlier on the continuity of learning plan, which has been a plan that we've had in place since about two or three weeks into the emergency, from the beginning. That continuity of learning plan calls for a lessons-learned log to be generated out of the plan, and we're in the process of finalising that lessons-learned log now. Our expectation is—confident expectation is—that it'll be ready by the beginning of September. So, when we do go back, we'll have lessons learned for ourselves, for our colleagues in the middle tier and for headteachers and the governing bodies. 

14:05

And can I ask, finally on this particular question, in regard to how headteachers are being guided and advised by Welsh Government as to how they liaise with wider organisations dealing with local lockdown, in terms of emergency planning, can you just briefly outline how that is being stipulated to headteachers, who are leaders in their communities?

Yes, I'll do the beginning of that just very quickly. So, you'll know we have a thing called the National Academy for Educational Leadership, and that's got a community of associate headteachers in it who are amongst our most effective heads and who are able to provide case studies of the sorts of things that they're doing in response to the lockdown and in response to other things like blended learning and professional learning and so on. Tracey, again, mentioned these earlier on. There are currently just over 40 case studies on the 'Our shared experience' part of the Hwb, and they contain what are called playlists, and this is like a presentation, with video and sample documentation and all sorts of things. They're a very rich resource for headteachers, and we're keeping that reservoir of shared experiences alive. We're going to be doing even more of them in August, before we go back. And that, really, in our view, is the most effective way of headteachers learning—that they learn from each other and they learn about real-life contacts and real-life solutions that have happened in schools just like theirs. So, that's the main vehicle for the sharing of experience and expertise. 

Just before you go on, Rhianon, Jenny, did you want to come back on that? I'll bring you back in.

I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about how you're using successful international experiences to advise schools on how to operate. For example, Denmark has been very upfront about the importance of outdoor learning, and we know that outdoor contact is relatively risk-free compared with indoors. But, obviously, in secondary schools it's slightly more challenging to be learning in the outdoors. Your guidance puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of using the new curriculum and the four learning objectives. So, I wondered how much you're confident that secondary schools are using the new curriculum as an umbrella for how we can adapt ways of learning to the new normal in secondary schools. 

We've had a range, I suppose, of international engagement, and we've certainly kept a real watching eye on what's been happening elsewhere. We've participated in the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory quite recently, which was looking at best practice during lockdown and restart and online learning, blended learning, those sorts of things, and also with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, who we've been working with quite closely. But we also get a good feed of international practice through something called the four nations group, which is a UK-wide group of education officials across the four nations. So, we've been able to see the latest information on different countries' recovery plans, I suppose, around a range of different economies and to take what we can from that. 

Turning to the curriculum, when this pandemic started, I think there were certainly lots of questions about what would the impact be on this curriculum, but actually this sort of way of learning, this sort of adaptive, flexible, responsive way of working, is very much in line with the four purposes of the new curriculum. Obviously, that is still work in progress at the moment, and a number of schools won't be working on that at the moment, but we're hoping that the changes to ways of working will certainly be very helpful to them when they come to take on the new curriculum.

Can I just clarify, then, because my question didn't really finish, in regard to how headteachers within their headteacher fora—? I accept that that's very well defined, but, in regard to local lockdown and local spikes moving forward, headteachers are key leaders in their communities. So, do they, for instance, sit—and is there capacity and planning around them sitting—on local emergency planning boards, alongside inspectors and alongside the rest of our agencies, because they are a key player within that?

14:10

So, the liaison has mostly been through the local authority and through the directors of education with the local authority, as it's the local authority that would tend to engage with those strategic command groups or recovery command groups, as some of them are now changing to, not individual headteachers, but there should be a very good cascade from there. But if it would be helpful, I can certainly ask colleagues and get a much clearer note on that for you. 

Diolch, Cadeirydd. I'm just checking that you can all hear me properly, because I've joined you late. Yes, you can hear me. Good. I've got some questions on wraparound care. We know that teachers are going to be very busy—there are going to be lots of demands on their time come September—so, to what extent do you think that some of the wraparound services that are so often available from schools will be available, like breakfast clubs and after-school clubs? How impacted do you think that they'll be by any demands on that structured time? 

Yes, thank you. I think this has been on many, many people's minds, and particularly on ours, because we know just how important it is for many parents, who really rely on that wraparound and out-of-school care or activities at either end of the school day in order to allow them to do their work, to do their own jobs. So, we've been working really hard with local authorities, with schools, with childcare settings to try and have as much open as possible. And we've been very clear in our guidance that local authorities should try to resume breakfast and after-school provision where possible, but it is hard to say. My guess is that it will build up in the first couple of weeks; that is my guess. Nicola, who's here joining us at the meeting, who will introduce herself now—this is around her area of work, so, Nic, perhaps you could say a little bit more about that.  

Yes, thanks, Tracey. So, I'm Nicola Edwards. I'm the deputy director for childcare, play and early years in the Welsh Government. You mentioned wraparound provided by schools and talked about staff time; you're presumably talking about the clubs and provision that are run by school staff after school or before school. But there's also a range of wraparound provision provided by private childcare providers as well, and some of that is on school sites, some of it is off school sites and involves drop-offs and collections by childcare providers. So, we've been working quite closely with local authorities, with schools—and I think Ruth mentioned the headteachers group that we've been speaking to as well about some of this—and also with the childcare sector to try and get a feel for what that's going to look like. 

Understandably, some of these clubs are the ones that have maybe been closed for the longest because they didn't necessarily reopen for the three weeks or four weeks that schools were back in, because of the way that the days were staggered. Their planning arrangements for September, some of that is linked very much to what they think demand is going to be like from parents, and I know that there are a number of parents that are very keen to have these clubs back up and running, and there are others that are still a bit uncomfortable about their children being in lots of different places.

So, we're seeing a bit of a mixed bag and a bit of a mixed economy, and there will be variations in provision in different schools within a local authority as well as across local authorities across Wales. But we're very much working with the sector to get as much of it open as possible, and those clubs are very keen to come back where they can, and to provide that support and service where they can as well. 

Okay, thank you for that. Thank you. The childcare coronavirus assistance scheme was set up with the aim of helping some of the parents in greatest need, or some of the children in greatest need. To what extent do you think that has worked, and can I ask why the eligibility wasn't linked to eligibility for free school meals?  

So, I'll start on that and then, Nic, if there's something that you can add, please do come in. So, our initial thinking was that we needed to support the essential workers, key workers, I suppose, and at the time the instruction was we should stay at home. You were only able to go out for limited reasons, but our key workers, our essential workers, needed to go to work. So, our priority, really, was to ensure that there was childcare for those workers, so that childcare wasn't a barrier to them carrying out some of the essential services that need to be carried out in the midst of an emergency. 

So, key workers' children and, of course, vulnerable children were, I suppose, our key priority needs. Around that free-school-meals question, I think free school meals isn't linked to childcare—Nic will confirm that now for me. But, around a broader affordability issue, I think our primary aim was to make sure that there was access to childcare for key workers. Most providers had shut, so even if key workers were able to fund a childcare place, they may not have been able to access it from their usual provider. So, for continuity of essential services, that's why we took the approach that we did. Nic, on the free school meals, that doesn't apply, does it, to childcare?

14:15

No, it doesn't, and it wouldn't have applied in respect of this particular cohort of children. So, the coronavirus childcare assistance scheme was for pre-school-aged children, so it sat alongside the provision that was in the school hubs for the school-aged children. So, you don't tend to get assessed for eligibility for free school meals until you're in school. And even if a child has got siblings that are in school, they're not eligible for a free school meal in effect at childcare if they're in childcare. So, rather than trying to go through the process of identifying those children, and the administrative burden that that would have added on to local authorities on top of trying to make sure that they had sufficient childcare available in the area in the first place and working with providers to keep those services open, we just made it available to all children of critical workers and vulnerable children, to make sure that we had that service and that provision in place.

I think, if we were going to do it again, we might do things differently—you always learn lessons from doing these things—but I think that approach meant that those people who needed to access childcare could find childcare and could access it when they needed to. We had a mix of people who had never used childcare at all before and had previously been reliant on family members that were unable to provide that service, so didn't even know how to go about finding childcare—much less had the money to pay for it—to people who perhaps had previously been using childcare, but their regular setting had closed, and they were having to use much more of it than they would have done previously, and so were facing some increased costs around that as well. It seemed sensible to provide them with a service that enabled those people that needed to be in work—to provide the response—to be able to do that.

Thank you for that. On that point, you said that, 'Obviously, we live, we learn, and if we were to run the scheme again maybe we'd do things differently.' I know that an evaluation and an assessment of the scheme has been under way. Has that finished yet, and if it has, could you tell us then of the initial findings that you've had? Is that one of the findings? Is that something that you would reconsider, in terms of the eligibility?

I don't know if Jenny wants to ask a question before—? Do you want them to answer first and then you come in?

I've got something in relation to this question. Let's hear first of all from Tracey or somebody else.

So, Nic, do you want to come in on the evaluation point?

I'll take that one, yes. So, what we've done with the evaluation is we have an independent evaluation for the childcare offer for Wales that we've been running on an annual basis over the last few years. Because the offer was effectively suspended from 1 April, what we've done is expand that evaluation to take in the C-CAS as well, so that the two schemes can be considered in parallel, and we can have a think about what that means and what that can tell us more generally in terms of childcare services.

The evaluation for the offer over the last few years has tended to report in around the December period. It might be that it's a little bit later this year because it's taking into account the second scheme, and also we know that there's been some issues in terms of needing to get hold of some providers. So, it might be that it's more December/January time. But that evaluation of the C-CAS will form a part of that.

We have had some conversations with local authorities and with representatives of the childcare sector as part of a broader lessons-learned exercise, which we're doing at the moment, that will feed into our considerations going forward as well. So, all of that will be taken into account as part of that process.

Thank you. I know that—. Forgive me, Chair—I know that Jenny wanted to come in. I have one other question.

On this evaluation of this childcare during lockdown, I'm hoping there are some key messages about the service we would need to put in place for vulnerable children going forward if we have a further lockdown, because, obviously, vulnerable children were not well served by the hub model, and that was one of the core reasons why all schools came back on 29 June. So, I wonder if you could tell us what the learning is from this evaluation about how we are going to support vulnerable children in the event of a second lockdown.

Ruth will probably want to come back on the point about vulnerable children and schools, but in terms of the consideration about vulnerable children and childcare going forward, that is something that we've been thinking about very carefully and I've been working very closely with colleagues who work on our Flying Start programme, for example, which is designed to support families that require additional support and assistance, and we're having to think about what we might want to do more generally.

The C-CAS was quite unique in its own way because it provided support for vulnerable children aged nought to four, pre-school-aged children. It was something that wasn't done in the other parts of the UK; it's something that we've never really done before on that basis. So, there's a lot that we can take from that in terms of our thinking about what we might want to do with childcare and childcare provision going forward. I know that Ministers are very interested in some of the thinking around that and the way that we go forward with that work. It's part of the work around early childhood education and care, which is about trying to find that holistic balance and support for pre-school-aged children anyway.

I don't know, Ruth, if you wanted to come in on the point around vulnerable children in hubs, but I think we had the increase in vulnerable children in attendance over the period of time. It was something, as people became more aware of the support that was available, that became something that was more broadly used. 

14:20

From a very low base of something like 5 per cent, so—.

Yes, and I think that we did take a lesson from that in terms of how we communicated it. I think, perhaps, describing it as 'vulnerable children' is not necessarily very helpful in the context of some of these families—they don't necessarily like to be seen in that light. So, we need to think about how we communicate some of that and share that information and get it more generally across, I think.

Well, except that they went up to 50 per cent once their own school reopened—well, in the case I know about. 

I wish I could remember who it was that said that someone in a meeting had said recently, when they were reflecting on a similar scheme, that the school had decided, instead of referring to children as 'vulnerable'—had instead said that they were 'valuable', and then that gives something for the child to feel proud of, and said, 'I'm valuable'. So, maybe that's something that—. That may not even have been a Welsh Government official who had said—

The final question I had: the committee heard from an official in June that they were hoping that the Welsh Government would have a better idea within a few weeks of that date of what proportion of childcare settings were going to be able to reopen. So, I'd like an update on that, please. And also, I think the official had said that there was consideration being given to a package of support being made available for childcare settings that hadn't been eligible for support up to that point. So, if you could give an update for the committee on those two points, please. 

Yes. So, I'm sure Nic will provide a more detailed answer than me on this. But, sorry, on that term 'valuable children', I think it was the Minister for Education who said that—she'd heard it. 

It is, yes. And they are, actually, valuable children. 

Yes. And it's something that obviously meant—'vulnerable' isn't meant in a negative way, but it's just such a lovely way of encouraging the child not to feel a stigma—. Well, it's wraparound, isn't it?

Yes, it was terrific. But anyway, back to the sector. So, I think I said at the last time we met just last month that about over half the sector had formally advised of their intention to close temporarily, and I think about half of those have now reopened, so, roughly, that says to me that there's about 25 to 30 per cent still closed. Is that about right, Nic?

Yes, that is about right. So, at the last count, it was just under 1,000 settings still closed; that's just under a third of the sector. A number of those—it's just important to keep in mind—would be ones that wouldn't run in the summer anyway. They might only be registered to do the wraparound childcare around the school day. So, they don't necessarily run in the school holidays, so they'd be prepping to open from September in any case. So, it's a slightly misleading figure at the moment and we'll need to have a look at it again as we get into September, but we are definitely seeing more of them opening.

Okay. We are moving into the last 15 minutes or so of this session and I know that Vikki Howells has got some important questions. So, Vikki.

Thank you, Chair. We've touched on free school meals briefly already, but that was an area that I really wanted to focus on. I'm just wondering, really, whether any data has been collected yet about how the provision of free school meals is being delivered by local authorities across Wales. Obviously, there's been some room for manoeuvre and some difference in the way that local authorities have done that, and I can understand the pros and cons of the different approaches that have been taken, particularly in areas where families who are struggling might have difficulty accessing supermarkets, that the supermarket voucher may not be applicable. But from a public accounts perspective, which is obviously the perspective that we need to focus on here as a committee, how can we gain some assurance that this public money is being used, firstly, to actually fund food, and, secondly, to fund food that has a high nutritional value?

14:25

Right. Those are really, really big and important questions there. So, as far as the information goes, obviously, all 22 local authorities put in place some provision immediately, and I think for a number of them, it was initially a food collection scheme, but I think that's mostly been discontinued now, except for some extreme or most vulnerable cases. Largely, some of that was around the need for social contact and just the logistics of it, and instead has been replaced with some food delivery options, and then provision of vouchers, and then direct payments.

Now, the vast majority of local authorities are providing direct payments to families eligible for free school meals. I think it's only about two who are providing food parcels, and I think three who are are providing vouchers; Chris will correct me now in a minute, I think, if I'm wrong. But obviously, when the school or the local authority is in control of the food parcels vouchers, it's much easier for them to have an overview of the nutritional content, I suppose, of what's being offered. With vouchers, it is more difficult, because whilst the guidance is very clear that the vouchers need to be used for food, it's not always the case that that's what happens when people go to the supermarket or to the retailer. And obviously, with the direct payments, our oversight or our knowledge of whether the money is being spent on food and nutritional food is even less—we're less aware, I suppose, of that. Chris, can you add to that?

Yes, just to add a few things. First of all, the Welsh Local Government Association has distributed to all local authorities who are making direct payment—they've distributed to local authorities some advice to parents to give them some recipes, some advice on good nutrition and good food. I understand that several local authorities have used that and sent it out to parents with the direct payment, so there is information out there. Data collection as a whole improved once lockdown started, so we now know that of the 22, 17 actually are paying direct payments; three, vouchers; and two, deliveries. But their numbers have changed drastically: 66,000 children were receiving free school meals prior to lockdown; that's now increased to 91,700, which is a remarkable increase. And much of that's been down to local authorities encouraging parents to apply and provide their details to them—something that we've been trying to do for some time, so it's actually one of the success stories of the last few months.

Thank you, both. And I'm just wondering, in the event of a possible second lockdown, if there are any lessons that you think that we can learn from what's happened during this first phase, in respect of how best to roll out the free-school-meal provision next time round.

That's actually something that Chris and I were talking about this morning, because, obviously, our great hope is that children will be in school and will be having their meals in school, where, as I say, the nutritional content is more controlled and more controllable. But we were just talking today about what happens in the autumn, and whether there'll be a need to continue some kind of provision by voucher, and what we can do about that in terms of nutritional content, which you raised. Chris, would you like to say a little bit more about that?

Yes. The biggest bonus point—well, the biggest plus for us now is, if we went into lockdown, all the systems are set up to actually operate. Whereas previously we had to start with grab-and-go bags, we've now moved on from that, so I think we would be able to react far quicker than we originally did. Local authorities have got schemes that have been operating for some time and are successful. I think there are also now, for those schools who have decided not to go down the direct payment route, systems set up that they can learn from. So, I think, as far as lessons learnt are concerned, we've now got something that we know we can operate and we can start up really, really quickly should we need to.

14:30

Thank you. Your letter to this committee acknowledged the fact that continued free school meals provision wouldn't address pupils' broader needs such as socialising with peers, and you stated you would explore whether there were opportunities to set up holiday schemes through the summer. Now, obviously, the Welsh Government has done this before, so I'm just wondering if you could give us an update, really, on the work that has been done on this to date. 

That was something I wasn't able to say too much about the last time I was at committee, because Ministers were considering options then about what we might provide. But, since then, we've announced funding—I think it was £2.6 million—which has now been made available to local authorities to provide a range of different things. So, I think £1.6 million was around childcare and play opportunities, and then the other £1 million was activities to help children and young people from economically deprived areas to re-engage, I suppose, with education provision. I think the discussion at committee last time was around the school holiday enrichment programme. These activities will not be able to adhere to exactly the SHEP model. They'll be what we might describe as being like SHEP, but not exactly like SHEP. But it is definitely our intention to support the delivery of SHEP again next summer, and we're really clear about that.

Great. Thanks, Vikki. We've still got a little time left, so, Gareth, did you want to go back to some of your earlier questions on costs?

Yes. Thanks, Chair. Obviously some of the answers and questions have touched on the costs, so I think we need to try and avoid repetition. So, I apologise if some of the questions raise things that we've already covered. But, to start us off, in what different ways have you tried to understand the cost pressures on schools during the crisis, and how frequently has the Government been able to update its modelling to ensure that the funding is adequate and is actually being used?

We've had really close engagement with local government, particularly with local government finance teams. I mean, we've absolutely had to have an almost hand-in-glove kind of engagement given the pace and scale of what we've been working with. So, we've attended the local government—what they call the Society of Welsh Treasurers; the finance directors, really, of the local authorities. We were attending that daily, and I think it's now twice weekly that we're still attending or in contact with them on that. So, we've had really, really, really close engagement with them, and other stakeholders right across the education sector with the local authority directors of education et cetera. I was just sort of mulling on your question around modelling. We've been operating a claims-based system rather than a model as such, because each school, each setting has got a different requirement, and we felt that a claims-based approach was a better approach, really, just much more appropriate than having a formula approach, which might meet the needs of some but not others.

So, really, it's more to do with responding to the needs, rather than you having some prescriptive programme of your own, or model of your own.

Yes. We had a couple of choices about how we did this, and we could have used a distribution model across the 22 local authorities to make estimates, really, but we just felt that it was easier and more accurate, really, to respond to the claims coming in, rather than trying to model it in advance.

I suppose one question arising from that, which you may not be able to answer yet, is how well has that claims system worked. There are going to be pros and cons with whatever system you bring in, so what's your understanding so far of how well that's worked?

I think it's worked quite well, because we've been able to assess the accuracy of the claims coming in. So, we've been able to see exactly what is being claimed for and whether it's appropriate or allowable, and it's also enabled us to see consistency across different local authorities, where one local authority has put in a claim for a certain type of thing that nobody else has. So, we've been able to sort of say, 'Well, hang on a minute, why do you need to claim for this? Because others are funding this differently'. So, I think it's served us quite well, actually. And from a public accounts point of view, we are definitely, through claims-based, only funding the things that are being claimed for. 

14:35

Okay. On one specific point, when you appeared before the committee on 22 June, at that time, there was an assessment about cleaning costs going on with the Welsh Government over a six-month period. Do you have any update now on that that you're able to give us?

Yes, that's right, cleaning costs have been a critical cost that we've been looking at, because it's additional to what schools would have to be doing in ordinary circumstances. We're sort of rethinking our approach here a little. Our thinking now is that we probably will stick with the claims-based approach going forward. But, as I say, we're just really thinking this through. We've set up an education cleaning group that has got local authorities and further education institutions on it, and Welsh Government colleagues. At the moment, the initial thing we've done is to provide for some advance purchase for cleaning materials. All local authorities and FEIs have been allocated their cleaning material allocation so that they can overstock the materials for the autumn, really. But, it's really very much work in progress. I think I probably was only with you maybe three or four weeks ago or something, so this is really ongoing at the moment.

Okay, thanks. There's one last question that covers a couple of different things: can you explain the reasons for the overspend against the budget for general areas within the local authority hardship fund, will the Welsh Government meet the additional costs borne by schools, has additional funding been approved, and if so, where will the funding come from?

Let me think. I'll maybe start with the budget and—. So, the first part of that was overspend on the general areas, is that right? Sorry. 

So, the general areas budget line in the table is, I think—. I've got the letter, actually. Sorry, that's what I was just looking for. I think I wrote to the committee, actually, with that table in there. So, I have it here. The hardship fund is broken down into a number of categories around free school meals, homelessness et cetera. I've got the letter here. And then the last of those is the general areas fund.

I think when I wrote to you I was covering April and May's data, and I think our estimates there were—yes, actually, what you've said here. The budget I think we had was £13 million and the costs to the end of May were £15.5 million. But the latest costs I've had—. So, we've been through that assessment exercise, just what we were talking about, actually, about looking at the claims, and some of those things have been disallowed. I think the latest figure is £13.6 million against that, so pretty well balanced. But, I should say that that budget level of £13 million is, in a sense, almost like a balancing figure against the others. It was always going to be very hard to forecast that, but as it is, that's sort of coming more into line. 

So, I think the next part of your question was will there be additional funding. Was that—

Again, that is under discussion at the moment with local government and with Ministers as to what happens going forward here. So, there are, as I say, very, very regular discussions on this, which are continuing to go on. Again, I don't think I can say too much more about that at the moment, because those discussions are continuing. But, the additional costs, certainly from the schools' point of view, from running the hubs, school cleaning et cetera, have been met by the hardship fund.

14:40

Okay. That brings us neatly up to 14:40, which is our allocated time. So, can I thank our witnesses for being with us today—Tracey Burke and your colleagues? We'll send you a transcript of today's meeting to check before it's finalised, but thank you for being with us today and helping us with our look at this whole situation with the COVID-19 educational situation.

Okay. Thank you very much, Chair, and on behalf of my colleagues. And if there are any additional things you want to know, please do write to us and we'll respond. Thank you.

4. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o’r cyfarfod
4. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting

Cynnig:

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

Motion:

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

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

I move Standing Order 17.42 to meet in private for items 5, 6 and 7 of today's meeting.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 14:40.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 14:40.

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