What does it mean that “vulnerable children” are exempt from the “school closure”?

Gavin Williamson announced yesterday in the Commons that schools will be closing on Friday 20 March and only re-opening on Monday to children of key workers and “vulnerable children”.

Crucially, he said that schools would remain open for these children during the Easter holidays.

Below I’ve pulled out from the parliamentary record what was said specifically about “vulnerable children”.

Here’s a quick summary for those short of time: lots of MPs asked whether schools could use their discretion to designate who the “vulnerable children” are. In response, Williamson was non-committal but said he would look into it. The question of additional funding to cover school transport during the Easter holidays was not addressed.

For which children will schools remain open?

Williamson said: “That will be for all children except those of key workers and the children who are most vulnerable. The scientific advice shows that these settings are safe for this small number of children to continue attending, but asking others to stay away will help us to slow the spread of this virus. Examples of key workers include NHS staff, police and delivery drivers who need to be able to go to work.”

He added that a full list of key workers would be published on Thursday, and that they are working with the Treasury to get the financial support required to implement this plan.

What is the definition of a “vulnerable child”?

The Secretary of State’s speech said, “Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker and those with education, health and care plans.”

Several MPs requested clarifications.

When former Education Secretary Damian Hinds asked for schools to have “flexibility, where necessary, to add to the designations of vulnerable children, as schools know their families best,” Williamson replied that he would “work with headteachers and all of our organisations to make sure that we get this right”.

The Conservative MP for Telford, Lucy Allan, pointed out that “teachers will be concerned about some children who do not have a social worker or an EHC plan,” and asked whether teachers could be involved in the decision-making process.

The Education Secretary’s response here appears to sum up the government’s current position on this question: “I note that a number of Members have raised the issue of there being an element of flexibility, so that teachers and school leaders are able to show an element of discretion. We must not forget that the reason why we are taking this action is to limit the spread of the virus. The scientific and medical advice is that taking this action and reducing the number of children in education settings will have an impact in terms of reducing the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, I have heard what the House has said about looking into providing an element of flexibility, and I will certainly take that away.”

Will school transport still be provided?

Williamson didn’t have anything concrete to say on school transport, except to say, “we are certainly very much hoping that the school transport system will be there, although that is dependent on other strains within the transport network”.

No questions were asked about additional funding over the holidays for transport for children who require taxis.

What if schools don’t have enough staff?

Williamson said he would be removing the pupil-teacher ratios that present some of the challenges to schools. He also admitted that there may come a time when some schools have to close and children may have to attend “different schools, hopefully in close proximity to their home”.

What are school expected to do over the holidays?

When asked what sort of service schools would be expected to provide over the holidays, and what additional help they will be given, Williamson replied, “We realise that while we cannot ask schools and education settings to provide a normal school curriculum, it is important to provide activities that engage and encourage young people to attend. […]  there are no better people than teachers to really understand what engages children and keeps them motivated.”

Will schools be funded to provide school meals over the holidays?

The Secretary of State sounded unequivocal on this question, saying: “I can absolutely guarantee that schools will be fully reimbursed for the costs they incur as a result of providing those meals.” He was referring to a question about the costs of providing “free school meals for children once schools have closed”.

How will schools pay for support staff over the holidays?

Labour MP Lilian Greenwood asked an important question: “The Secretary of State knows that many school support staff are only paid for term-time working. Although I know that those dedicated staff will do all they can to help in a national crisis, I am sure he does not expect them to work for free, so will schools be supported to meet those extra staffing costs?”

The Education Secretary’s response was clear, saying, “yes, they will be”.

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