Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru

Yn ôl i Chwilio

Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg

Children, Young People and Education Committee

19/03/2020

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Dawn Bowden AC
Hefin David AC
Helen Mary Jones AC Yn dirprwyo ar ran Siân Gwenllian
Substitute for Siân Gwenllian
Janet Finch-Saunders AC
Lynne Neagle AC Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Suzy Davies AC

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 AC Y Gweinidog Addysg
The Minister for Education
Rob Orford Prif Gynghorydd Gwyddonol dros Iechyd
Chief Scientific Adviser for Health
Steve Davies Cyfarwyddwr, Cyfarwyddiaeth Addysg, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director, Education Directorate, Welsh Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Lisa Salkeld Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Llinos Madeley Clerc
Clerk
Michael Dauncey 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.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:33.

The meeting began at 09:33.

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

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Children, Young People and Education Committee this morning. I've received apologies for absence from Siân Gwenllian, and I'm very pleased to welcome Helen Mary Jones, who is substituting for Siân today. Can I ask whether Members want to declare any interests, please? Can I just, then, place on record that I have got a son who was about to do A-levels, so is affected by the exam decision?

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

We'll move on, then, to our substantive item today, which is an evidence session with the Welsh Government around the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on education in Wales. I'm very pleased to welcome Kirsty Williams, Minister for Education; Steve Davies, who is director of the education directorate; Huw Morris, who is the group director, skills, higher education and lifelong learning; and Rob Orford, who is the chief scientific adviser for health. Thank you all for coming. We know that this is a really difficult and pressurised time for everyone, and we appreciate your attendance. Minister, I understand you wanted to make an opening statement today.

09:35

Yes, if that's okay, Chair. As you know, it's not usually my practice to do that, but I think it is important today.

COVID-19 coronavirus is one of the most significant issues that the Welsh Government and the people of Wales have dealt with in recent times. Dealing with the impacts of this pandemic is extremely challenging. Things are changing on an hourly basis, and we have to make decisions quickly to ensure public safety.

But I would like to assure you that our aim, and my aim, and my main concern as the education Minister is to protect all staff and pupils in our schools and other educational settings. But we also have a duty to ensure continuing and continuity of education. Public health is clearly the priority here, but that does not change our belief that no child should miss out on any education, unless absolutely necessary. So, the decision to close all schools from tomorrow for statutory education provision was not taken lightly, but I believe it was necessary, given the advice and recommendations that we had received from a public health perspective and the situation that was developing on the ground.

From next week, schools will have a new purpose. They will help support those most in need, including people involved in the immediate response to the coronavirus outbreak, and I'm working with my colleagues in the Cabinet, with Government officials and our partners in local government to develop and finalise these plans. The key areas that we're looking at are supporting and safeguarding the vulnerable and ensuring continuity of learning. This includes all of those who benefit from free school meals and children with additional learning needs.

I can confirm that all maintained schools in Wales already have access to a range of digital tools that can support distance learning through the world-class Hwb digital learning platform, including virtual classrooms and video-conferencing facilities. A guide on what tools are available and how schools can use them has been developed and is being promoted widely.

Yesterday, I announced that, whilst there are no easy choices, we have agreed that the best way forward is not to proceed with the summer exam series. Learners due to sit these exams will be awarded a fair grade to recognise their work, drawing on a range of information that is available, and I will announce further details shortly, but I felt it necessary to give early certainty to students and to staff.

I would like to put on record my thanks to everyone working in education settings for the hard work that they have put in over the last few months in dealing with the virus and ensuring that pupils have been able to continue to learn. We need to continue to do this work together, as we face the continuing challenges posed by the coronavirus. Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you very much, Minister, for that statement. We'll go to questions from Members now, and I've got some questions from Dawn Bowden.

Thank you, Chair. Can I thank you, Kirsty, for your statement and the really difficult decisions that you've been having to make? You've already indicated in your statement this morning that these decisions are not taken lightly, and we understand that that is the case across Government. So, thank you for what you've been doing.

You've outlined a little bit further there in your statement to us this morning about the new purpose. I take from what you're saying that you haven't really developed that yet in terms of exactly what that is going to look like. You've talked about the children of key workers, free school meals, additional learning needs. Is there anything else you can tell us about that at the moment and how you might staff the schools in those particular areas?

Thank you, Dawn. So, you're absolutely right, our priority now is to operationalise, with colleagues in local government and schools, a practical response. And I have to say, we're working to timescales that I would have hoped to have avoided, but given the fact that we're having to make these decisions quite quickly, I hope that you will understand that perhaps where we start on Monday might change when we have more time and more opportunities to develop programmes going forward.

Steve will be able to give you more details of the practical work that has already been going on, but our expectation will be that schools will be playing an important part in providing safe and secure places for children of those on the front-line response to dealing with the coronavirus to attend, and work is already under way with local authorities and individual schools on what that will look like for the emergency situation on Monday. Our other priority is indeed free school meals, and, again, where we eventually end up might be a different place to where we are on Monday. Again, we're responding to the emergency situation that there will be families that were expecting a free school meal on Monday, and, again, individual schools and local authorities are developing those plans at pace to be able to provide an emergency response as we work out a longer term plan to deal with the situation. The same thing also goes for additional learning needs, and attending to the needs of that particular group of learners.

So, those conversations began a few days ago. I had the opportunity to meet with the First Minister and Andrew Morgan, the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, yesterday to talk about what local government could do, and what they were already doing. Those plans in some places are already quite developed, and are now working at pace, but I hope you will understand that where we start on Monday is the emergency response, and that work will develop as we go forward. But, Steve, perhaps you could—? Because Steve was the one making all those phone calls and doing the practical operational stuff, rather than me. Steve.

09:40

In short, the new purpose is to meet the needs of particular groups of children and young people. In some cases, some of the response to supporting free school meals, in the short term in particular, we may use the schools as part of that, and I'm certain that will happen in some cases.

The second area is looking at how we support the children of key workers. Now, there is still work to be done on identifying exactly the categories of key workers, but I think it's really encouraging that in my discussions yesterday—I spoke with all 22 directors of education, and the examples we're picking up in their work with schools is they're already ahead of the curve in working with schools. So, schools have identified the number of children with health workers. It will grow, and we will need to look at that range.

Then, the third area is vulnerable children. They're vulnerable sometimes in terms of education other than at school, vulnerable in terms of mental health, and for those children, as well as having an experience that we want to be planned, some have compared it to a snow day, particularly on Monday, when you're putting something together in the short term, but it will not be a formal curriculum that those children would normally go through. So, the range of activities—some will be focused on educational activities, some will be cultural, some will be sporting, and that plan will be developed on the basis of the age range of children, which in some cases may go from extremely young children up to those at the age of 16 in our all-through schools, but there will be a planned set of activities to cater for those children.

What we are doing currently—I have staff back at Cathays Park who are in touch and working with directors of education to ensure that schools over the next two days will have been able to identify, at least at the earlier stage, in terms of health workers, the type and numbers of people. There are already schools who have informed us, and local authorities, of their plans for these activities to be starting next week, which is quite amazing, actually, given where we are. But we are expecting, and we're writing to schools today, that during the course of next week, headteachers to be in schools, and with their staff, taking into consideration the health guidance as to which staff should or should not be in, and in that period from next Monday through the two-week period, to Easter, we expect staff to be both planning for delivery post Easter, but also, as I said, building on and reflecting the good practice that's already in place for schools that have engaged in activities, and I'm sure a number of them will be inviting and enabling those children to come in on Monday.

So, Monday will be a challenge for some, and not all will be delivering it, but we will be working so that we can get as much as possible delivered for those groups over the next two weeks, and particularly to have resilient programmes post Easter for the groups of children in those three categories that I said.

Those that have been identified. Can I just clarify one thing? One of the identified vulnerable groups would clearly be children on the at-risk register. They would be included.

Yes, definitely. Vulnerable children, yes.

In our discussions, we have asked local government to be working with the social services departments and individual schools to identify those children who may be in that situation. We know that, for some children, being at school is part of their safeguarding arrangements, and obviously we will need to be able to respond to those needs. 

09:45

I wrote specifically yesterday to all directors of education to be assured that, for those children, the register is up to date and the plans are in place. I'm working with Albert Heaney my colleague, the director for social services, who is meeting with the 22 directors of social services today to look to ensure that we are joined up in ensuring none of these children fall through the gap. 

A very quick and simple question: how are you going to communicate this to parents? There's a bigger picture and it's changing all the time, as you said. The Welsh Government have a route to communication. The most helpful thing I've seen is that Public Health Wales have a single website with information regarding the wider issue of the virus. How will this then be cascaded to schools, because there's obviously a time lag? So, have you considered how this is going to be communicated directly to parents?

We're using all of our platforms of communication to get these messages across. So, we're using the more informal methods of communication, but are relying on a systematic approach via individual directors and through to individual schools. Welsh Government already has a dedicated website page with all of the relevant information about coronavirus. We're looking, as quickly as we can, to have a frequently asked education questions page that we can update. Understandably, people are communicating to us on Twitter asking questions. It is impossible for the communications team here to be able to respond individually to every single person that is sending Facebook messages and sending tweets, so the best way we can do that is to collate the types of questions people are asking and then to be able to have a frequently updated question and answer page to try to respond to that. 

With regard to parents, for instance, we're aware of schools that have already sent a questionnaire out last night to parents saying, 'Do you consider yourself to be a key worker? Do you work in the NHS? Please let us know by tomorrow so we can put arrangements in place for your children.' So, schools are already taking the initiative and having those conversations with parents about what their needs will be. And, as I said, Hefin, will it be perfect on Monday? No. It won't be perfect by Monday, because we're working to such constrained timescales. But we will continue to build that resilience. 

We also have to think about systems that look at what might the epidemic do and have systems of resilience that may work next week, given the situation we find ourselves in with public health advice at the moment. But that public health advice may change. Therefore, have we got a system that will be resilient in those circumstances? These are some of the challenges that we're having to grapple with. So, as I said, what happens on Monday might look very different to where we are if schools are still off in May. So, I hope people will understand that we are working in those kinds of scenarios. 

Yes, just on this question of vulnerable children, I'm just wondering how much discretion teachers are going to have in including individual children who may not be obviously under social services' care or on a risk register or whatever. Teachers know their pupils and, very sensitively, they could include people who may not be obviously in need.

We would absolutely respect the professional judgment of individual headteachers to be able to have those conversations with their directors. As you said, quite rightly, they are the individuals who know their children best and know which children, perhaps, will need this extra support. We will put no constraints on those teachers trying to do that work. 

Okay. The second part of my question is: there were going to be Easter holidays anyway, weren't there? What was going to happen about free-school-meal children during that period? Has that gone out of the window now, the normal holiday provision for children? Because that's not there normally, is it, except in separate—

We do find ourselves in a strange situation. My understanding is what we're trying to work to is that we would have ongoing provision and not to make some strange, 'You get this for two weeks, then you don't get it for two weeks, and then you're back in.' My understanding is, in England, that is what they're going to do. We're trying to create a system where it will be seamless and it will not necessarily matter that two of those weeks were formally holidays. It won't matter to those nurses and doctors who will need to be in work during those weeks. We're trying to create a system that will run uniformly. That's our policy goal at the moment.

09:50

Just briefly, building on Suzy's question, one particular group of children and young people that I hope will be eligible to be included in the potentially vulnerable category is young carers. For some of them, they may not be able to come into school because the people they're caring for may have to be excluded because of their conditions. But I think that, for other young carers, coming to school is an absolute lifeline, because they're working at home. So, I don't know if it's appropriate for you to specifically mention those in discussions with local authorities, but it's a group of young people who, again, may not be vulnerable in other ways, but because of their caring responsibilities they may need school.

And the other group—and this, I suppose, goes back to Suzy's point about teachers knowing their young people—is the children who may be living in situations where they're at risk of witnessing domestic abuse. Again, these may very well not be children who are in any formal contact with social services, but being at home may be really not a good place for them to be. So, again, I'd put in an appeal for that to be something that perhaps can be raised with schools. If a teacher is worried about what a child's circumstances are like at home, whether they can be, as you said, Kirsty, included as one of the—. They may not be formally identified, but if the teacher knows that they're at risk, or there is an instinct that they're at risk, they might be able to be included in children who are allowed to take advantage of this special provision you're making at this difficult time. 

We will certainly raise those issues. We have to do that in the context of what is deliverable, and we also have to do that in the context of the public health advice that we are receiving as well. One of the reasons why schools are closing is to help manage this disease. We know that the ability for school closures to make a contribution to that diminishes if we have significant children in school still. So, we will take these issues into consideration, but remembering this is part of an epidemic mitigation plan. Rob is the expert on that, not me. 

Yes, absolutely. This is a rapidly-evolving problem and the scale is something that we haven't seen in 100 years, and so we're having to evolve and iterate things as we go. Next week, I think, will look different to this week. So, it kind of is what it is. We've all got a role to play, and schools certainly have a significant role to play in breaking those chains of transmission. Areas that we're worried about are displacement activities. If we close the schools, then people collect at others' houses. We need to send a really clear message that you're all part of the solution, and the things that you do by distancing yourselves from your friends and your family are really important for us to get on top of this outbreak. The more that we can do that, the easier it will be when we go forward.  

I'm sure that that's true, but I'm sure that we wouldn't be wanting a child who's in a very pressured environment with perhaps a very difficult relationship between mum and dad—. It may be very important for those children to be out of that for some of the time. Hopefully, we're talking about relatively small numbers, but I just—. 

Thank you, Chair, and good morning, Minister, and your team. Can I just put on record my thanks for all that you're having to endure at this moment? I think it's fair to say you have the support of Assembly Members and, indeed, our communities. Now, the question I have: if Cylch Meithrin have to close, where will they get money from to pay their staff? Because, currently, thankfully, there's support for businesses.

Janet, we're not doing Cylch Meithrin at the moment; we are sticking with schools, as we discussed in advance. Dawn. 

Can I just get some clarity, Steve, around what you were saying in terms of next week? Because I think the practical applications of this—and I understand that you don't know all of this yet, I understand that—the practical applications are what is coming to us, obviously, with constituents saying, 'Well, what's going to happen to that?' Just so that I can be clear, are you saying that, at this stage, every headteacher will be in school on Monday, as will all their staff?

Within the scope of the guidance in terms of their health, the expectation—and this will be conveyed in letters by the Minister today, to be made clear—is that they are closing for the majority of pupils, but our expectation within the guidance is that the headteacher with their staff will be coming in; for some to start the delivery of what we just described, but that will probably be small numbers, but more importantly to plan to ensure that, after the formal Easter period, which is school holidays, the schools are geared to cater for the range of pupils that we've been discussing. 

09:55

So, would you anticipate—again, I know this is all a bit 'if and when', and it depends on the changing nature of the advice, but from what you're saying, I think we can probably anticipate that, as we go forward, there will probably be fewer schools opening and operable—that we may be moving those children on to fewer sites. Would that possibly—?

That is a potential. So, we already know that one of our local authorities already has identified a strategic pattern of schools that they will want to operate in this way. That local authority has already chosen those locations, and is already having communications with how they will then staff those centres. So, that could well—. That, I expect, in the longer term, will be the nature of the provision that we will get to. But that's not for us to dictate. The local authorities are best placed to understand what is the best, pragmatic use of the resources that they have available; and of course those resources, primarily, are human beings.

So, we've talked a lot this morning in the context of teaching staff, teaching assistants, but we're also having discussions with local authorities, and I met with the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services this week, to look at deploying youth workers, to look to be deploying other staff that the local authority may employ, like sports development officers. There may be cultural officers that can have something to offer. Welsh Government will be talking with a range of our partners who perhaps their normal activities can't continue at the moment, but actually have personnel who want to add to this effort, who want to be able to be part of a provision going forward in the longer term, to be able to provide a great place for children to be.

We want to give parents, who we are asking—. Let's think about it, in these worst of times, we're asking parents to leave their children so that they can go and do essential work, and some of that essential work is putting themselves at risk, potentially. And we want to give those parents confidence that, when they leave their child with us, that child will receive something really worthwhile, and they can direct all of their attention to doing their job.

Just before you—. Janet, have you got a supplementary on schools now, not on early years settings?

I lost the signal before, so it's a little bit confusing at this end, so bear with me.

Just in terms of the closure of schools, I have been asked by teachers what does new purpose—you may have covered it, but bear in mind [Inaudible.]—mean in practice. And also, they're already asking what will next—? I know you said earlier that next week could look and probably will look significantly different than this week, but what can they expect to be happening next week in terms of this new purpose work?

First of all, Janet, I just want to say thank you very much for your kind comments. That's really, really kind of you. We will be sending a letter today to clarify those positions. So, each school will receive letters today about the expectations of schools next week.

I think you're having trouble hearing us, aren't you, so I think—?

But I think you missed the earlier comments, when we went into some detail on the new purpose of schools. So, I'm sorry about that; we are having some problems with the connection.

Just in relation to special schools and how they will fit into this new purpose arrangement.

Yes, they're absolutely central to that planning. We know, again, that some of these children are our most vulnerable and they are some of our most pressurised families. Therefore, the same situation that we've just described for maintained schools also applies to special schools. We'll be having discussions about what arrangements can be made for those children within their own usual settings. In some cases, that may not be possible. So, again, already local authorities are making different provision. Can I give a shout out to the work of Rhondda Cynon Taf in this regard, who are already doing some excellent work with regard to how they can keep in touch with their children who usually would attend their special schools. But, again, Steve can give more detail.

I think special schools have already been hit by this challenge, because a significant proportion of their children, because of their conditions, have not been coming to school, they've been isolated. But the principle we've used there is, actually, even if it's a minority of children who go to those schools and are vulnerable, they deserve and need that support through the school. So, we would expect that to function with the focus on vulnerable children. But similarly, even in special schools, there will be children whose parents will be key workers, so we would expect them to apply that same principle.

Just quickly in response to the earlier question, while we may bring some groups of children into separate schools, we’ll have to continue with the principle of keeping social distance and any provision for a child in a special school in a different setting would be unlikely, given the nature of the special school, so we would look to cater for that within the original school.

10:00

Just a couple more questions from me. It’s likely, because I know it has already happened, that some schools might actually close before Monday. Some schools have already partially closed. Are you quite happy that headteachers still have the discretion to do that, if they feel that’s the right thing to do?

In this situation, the discretion of the head still remains. As I said, we will be communicating with all schools today about our expectations, if at all possible, to have schools open for staff to do some of this planning and to be able to respond to these priority needs that we've just talked about. 

The rationale of headteachers for closing schools up to now has been that they can't cope with the safety of the children. I think, moving forward, it's unlikely that that would be a rationale that headteachers would want to use for not engaging and planning for the future.

We're only talking about one more day, now, anyway, aren't we? So, just in terms of confirmed cases in schools, is your view at this stage that, if there is a confirmed case in a school, once that school has been deep-cleaned, it can reopen again?

If we had a confirmed case in a school, then all the usual mechanisms arranged by Public Health Wales would kick in at that point.

Okay. And my final question is in relation to the position of early years and childcare settings. I know that kind of crosses over into somebody else's portfolio as well, but I think we know that. Certainly what I've seen, and I'm sure this is true elsewhere as well, we've seen nurseries closing down because the parents are actually taking the children out of those nurseries. I've got one in particular, there are kids from the ages of 6 to 12 years in there, and the parents are taking them out. They've got 30 staff there, catering for 200 children and no children to care for and the organisation, at this stage, is unable to claim on their insurance for the ongoing payment of those staff wages. Is there any advice that we can give to people in that situation at this stage?

Sure. As you say, many of these settings are businesses—people's businesses and they play a hugely important role and it's a very worrying time for them. We have said that we will continue to pay for childcare, delivered under the childcare offer even when a child is unable, or a parent is unwilling, to take up that place. So, if that setting is receiving a childcare payment from the Welsh Government as part of our childcare offer, that will be paid, regardless of whether that child attends or not. And I know that we're also working with local authorities to ensure a similar position on Flying Start childcare and early education. So, that payment will be made, regardless of whether a child is attending. 

It's also important that childcare settings will be able to apply for the various packages of support that are being made available by my colleague, Ken Skates.

Yes, I'd just like to turn that around from the parents' point of view. With schools closing, there are a lot of parents then losing 10 hours of free childcare, but from a settings point of view, they'll continue to be able to receive, for the time being, the nursery care.

Yes, so the decision that has been taken by my colleague, Julie Morgan, is that settings should stay open at the moment unless public health changes. That's being kept under constant review on public health. Again, the issue is that we know that that childcare is vital to many families, especially—and we're particularly concerned about those individuals who are trying to help us overcome and solve these problems. If you have any specific questions about that, we'll be happy to take them back to Julie Morgan.

Sorry, thank you. Yes, just basically, Cylch Meithrin, there are concerns—[Interruption.]

10:05

I think if the issue is about funding for Cylch Meithrin, these are not normal circumstances. As a Welsh Government, we will take every step to provide continuity of funding, if at all possible. We will overcome this, and when we overcome this situation we find ourselves in, we will need those childcare settings, we will need those private businesses and we will need our Cylch Meithrin to be there to respond and to be able to go on doing the job that they usually do for us. And if there is any way that we can, as a Government, ensure that that happens by carrying on funding things, even if they are not able to run, all usual—[Inaudible.]— around service-level agreements are off. I'm not setting the precedent—let me make that absolutely clear. [Laughter.] But, you know, we will not undermine businesses and voluntary provision like Cylch by withdrawing Welsh Government funding. I hope I've been clear.

If we can move on to talk about exams, obviously you made the announcement yesterday. I completely understand that everything is a very fast-moving situation, but, as you know, there are a lot of questions that people have about young people who've put a lot of work in. Are you able to tell us any more today? In particular, have you got any idea about timescales now for setting out what the approach will be to handling the lack of summer exams?

Yes, it is a devastating decision to have to have been taken, but I have done so on the very, very clear and unambiguous advice from Qualifications Wales. I met with Qualifications Wales and the WJEC yesterday. What was most important to them was that I made an early decision and I did not equivocate on what would happen for the exams. I was able to make an informal decision at that meeting, and then, of course, there is a formal process that we have to go through. That, now, allows Qualifications Wales and the exam board to operationalise that decision, and they will be communicating with schools as quickly as possible about what schools will need to do to ensure that the systems that they will now put in place can work.

We are trying, as far as we can, as I understand it, to be able to mirror as closely as possible the usual results day, for instance. It might not be possible, because, of course, we're dealing with a situation that requires human beings to be involved in it, and those human beings could find themselves unwell. So, our best attempts will be to maintain the normal rhythm of an exams day in August, but that has to be caveated by the fact that we're dealing with difficult circumstances. But, the WJEC and Qualifications Wales will be making urgent communications to exam centres to explain what will need to happen next. 

Yes, I think I raised it yesterday, Kirsty, but you were receiving loads of questions. I'd just ask for some further clarification about coursework, because only 30 per cent of that is done. Years 11 and 13, typically, in my case they're what's been raised with me—do you have any advice for them?

Okay, so, all exams are cancelled, but year 11 and year 13 will be given a grade—I think that's a distinction that people need to be aware of. That is because those years and those grades are gateway qualifications, and they are points of movement in the education system. So, it's really important for those students that they are not disadvantaged in any way by not being able to receive a grade that helps them to make a decision as a qualifying step into what they will do next, whether that be university, whether that be a degree apprenticeship or whether that be going into sixth form, into a college, into an apprenticeship or into some work-based learning opportunities. That's why we have to focus on those children, because for them, it is absolutely critical that we do.

We are at an advantage in Wales, can I say? Because of the nature of our examination system, those students already have a lot of externally assessed work that we can use as a basis to move forward on. Because we've kept our AS-levels, we have got that data. Because we have a GCSE system—. Our year 11s, if they're doing triple science, they've already done 40 per cent of their paper, so we're very fortunate. Because of the structures that we have got in our qualification system, there is already lots and lots of externally-verified work that we can use, alongside, potentially, teacher evaluation of students as well. And I think that's really important. We’re starting from a better base than simply having none of that externally-verified data.

What will also be important is that these children have confidence in those qualifications, and so we will be looking at a modulated arrangement within Wales, and I know that Qualifications Wales are discussing with their counterparts across the UK a modulated system across the UK. So, actually, we can make sure that our standards are maintained by actually having that modulation across the UK. So, we know that those children never have to worry about the rigour that has gone into determining that grade. So, they can have real confidence.

10:10

Thank you. A supplementary question that might feed into that moderation. You'll know that the National Union of Students has suggested that black and minority ethnic children and children from the working class, on the whole, don't do as well, in terms of their assessment by their own teachers. I don't know what their evidence is for that. We also know, of course, that boys tend to do better in exams, and girls tend to do better at coursework, for whatever reason that is. So, just to ask you at this early stage to build in those considerations around potential unconscious bias into that overall system that you're talking about. And, of course, you are right to say that, because we have got some elements of external moderation here, those factors may be less for us in Wales than they might for colleagues in England.

Yes, I think we are starting at a different base, thank goodness. So, you're quite right. As I said, students will have done unit 1 papers last year if they're GCSE students. Dare I say it, some might even have done early entry. So, we still have elements of coursework that are externally verified. So, children might well have done lots of oral exams in their English and in their Welsh language. So, we have lots of pieces of work that will have been externally verified. I certainly will ensure that these concerns are passed on. I'm sure that Qualifications Wales are thinking about it. I have every confidence that they and the WJEC will come up with a very comprehensive way of establishing those grades, but I have to say, in some ways, I have to step back now, because you would not expect me, in normal circumstances, to dictate to the WJEC how much percentage goes for that, and how much percentage is allocated for that; that would not be appropriate for a Minister. My job is to make the decision on the examinations on the basis of having confidence that what can be put in place is fair and is equitable, and I have confidence that that will be the case.

A few things from me. One is, obviously, pupils are being asked to work at home as well now, some of whom will be doing GCSE and A-level courses. So, there's just a question, generally, from me— because we're encouraging these kids to carry on working—how that will be accommodated by Qualifications Wales, I guess, in this modulation process. It may be that your at-home work will be of a higher standard or a lower standard than a teacher would be expecting.

Secondly, you mentioned the AS-levels, of course, as being of value at the moment, but we've got people in Year 12 who now won't be doing their ASs. Is there any steer at this stage about what they will be expected to do? Will they be doing two sets of exams next year, for example? Or is AS just off the table? In which case, how are the A2s going to be calculated in due course?

And then, finally from me, we do have some vocational qualifications that are up for examination as well—your BTECs, and I think it's the Association of Accounting Technicians, which is a lot of computer-based learning—which is due to be examined within three weeks. Those aren’t A-levels or GCSEs. I appreciate that you may not have the answer just at the moment, but are they off as well is the question, I guess?

With regard to AS-levels—no final decision has been made for exactly how those students will be treated. There are a range of options that could be used, but again, we will want to be thinking about student well-being, fairness and equity in that regard, and I will update Members as soon as I have received definitive advice from Qualifications Wales around that, and that hasn't happened yet.

With regard to other types of qualifications, as you will be aware, the vast majority of BTECs is a modular, continually-assessed piece of work, and we would have every expectation that BTECs will be able to be awarded, but clearly, those conversations are with awarding bodies—they tend to be UK awarding bodies, rather then necessarily our WJEC exam board—and those conversations are ongoing. But I have every expectation that those qualifications will be awarded and, of course, because of their nature there's even more evidence of continued assessment. Huw, I don't know if there's anything else that you would like to add about those types of qualifications.

10:15

No. I think you've covered most of it. I don't have a definitive answer for the ATT qualification, but we can look into that and come back to you.

Well, I've just had a constituent ask, so that would be very helpful. And homeworking—

—is that going to count towards the assessments, overall assessments?

Well, potentially, as I said. I don't know the exact elements. What will be absolutely necessary is that Qualifications Wales and the WJEC will be able to give absolute clarity and simplicity around how those grades will be arrived at, because parents, teachers and students will want to know that, and my expectation is on them to be able to clearly communicate what elements will and will not be taken into consideration when awarding those grades.

That's great. At least we covered it. Thank you, Minister—thank you, Kirsty. 

And, just before we move on, have the universities across the UK indicated that they are content with this approach going forward—content to accept students on this basis?

Certainly. There have been discussions with universities and UCAS, of course, that this also has a bearing on. One of the—. And the views of university and how university terms might be impacted is one of the ways and one of the reasons that we've factored in to making these decisions. Those discussions with universities are ongoing, aren't they, Huw?

Yes. So, we've been in regular conversation with Universities Wales and through them with Universities UK and we've received every indication that the approach that's been adopted here has been welcomed by the institutions. Those conversations will continue as we work through the practicalities of how the gradings that are awarded are going to feed through into university admissions decisions and enrolment.

Okay, thank you. Well, we've got some questions now from Suzy on the potential closures of colleges and universities. 

Okay. Well, it's a very general question, really. I appreciate you've already indicated there are lots of ongoing conversations, but my understanding is whether colleges or universities close is pretty much still at their own discretion. We're going to be asking some questions on emergency legislation shortly, which may impact on the answer you can give today, but what sort of conversations are you having with FE and HE at the moment about how they decide?

Well, you're absolutely right. As we often say in this committee, universities are autonomous institutions—a status that they guard jealously and we would never want to question. Universities have been making the decision to move as much of their learning online as they possibly can and we continue to have conversations with them. Colleges are in a similar position, looking to do as much as they can to be able to provide continuity of learning via distance learning methods, and the Bill, potentially, does give us more powers of intervention in both the FE and the HE sector. 

I might ask you about that in a minute, because I don't even know what the Bill says yet.

No—just to confirm what's been said and also to add in that independent training providers, similarly autonomous, like colleges and universities, have been moving in the same direction. We've been very impressed with the maturity and forward-planning that's been adopted by all of those institutions and their representative bodies. We've got consistency in the approach and a common desire, and investment in moving towards online support for students. 

And there's still this safety net idea. Certainly, colleges have indicated, as with schools, that, for the most vulnerable learners, they'll have something in place that might permit attendance on an individual basis. 

That's my understanding, yes, and, again, we've been in regular conversation with them about that. My understanding is that they're going to spend the next week working through the detail of how that will work for the institutions. 

That's fair enough. And, presumably, education maintenance allowance will still be paid.

Yes. Arrangements have been made to ensure that EMA continues to be paid to all students who are entitled. 

That's right. You indicated that any Welsh Government support's going to stay, whatever the circumstances are—in your portfolio.

Yes. I'm doing my best, but it's an absolute yes on the EMA. There will be no disruption to EMA.

Yes. We've got some further questions, indeed, from Helen Mary and then Hefin.

Just further to EMA, of course, at the moment, that has an attendance qualification, doesn't it? And you don't get your EMA if you don't turn up. Should we take from your last answer that that attendance qualification doesn't apply anymore?

Yes. They can't turn up if the institution is not open, and that's not their fault.

10:20

No, but that is something that's been a worry, so that's really encouraging to hear. Thinking about students in higher education, can you give an assurance that student maintenance payments will continue as normal? Is that the intention?

That's really good to hear. And have you given any special ministerial instruction to Student Finance Wales on processing applications for support or changes of circumstances, or is that something that's kind of ongoing at the moment?

Those conversations are ongoing with the Student Loans Company. As I said, we anticipate no disruption to—. We don't anticipate any change in the approach to students as a result of this. Individual student circumstances could well change and our expectation would be that the Student Loans Company would respond to that. All I would say is, just to remind people: people who work for the Student Loans Company are no more able to resist this disease than anybody else. There will undoubtedly in some cases be really practical challenges to service delivery, simply because organisations could be losing staff because of illness or the need to self-isolate or because they are reacting to social-distancing messages from the Government. So, I think we just need to bear that in mind: that these organisations are doing their best, but, if they are badly affected by staff numbers being off because of the virus, then I hope people will give them due consideration.

Yes, that makes sense, of course, because we've been told that universities won't be able to entirely close, because there will be students who can't go home—

—overseas students, for example. What discussions have you been having with the sector to make sure that those students' basic needs are met, that there's still food, shelter, whatever they need?

Well, obviously, universities have a duty of care to those students that find themselves in those circumstances, and every conversation that Huw's been having would suggest that universities are well aware of their need to do that.

We instituted a monitoring process very early on in the onset of the disease, not least because a number of institutions have campuses and activities in China and other parts of south-east Asia. And so, as the disease has progressed, we've seen lessons being learned from the support for students who are in isolation coming from there to the UK, and I am assured that the universities here in Wales have got processes in place that support those learners.

That's really helpful. And on this specifically—last question from me— have you considered whether students might need to be refunded some of their tuition fees, should the academic year not be completed?

So, as the institutions move more and more of their material and some of their assessment online, clearly, there are lessons that will need to be taken on board. There are established quality assurance and enhancement procedures in institutions to enable the tutors and other supporters to make sure that that material meets their needs. The intention in all of these institutions is that they will complete their course of study. There are appeals mechanisms and feedback mechanisms through the students union and through course committees and other things within institutions to make sure that any concerns or incomplete work are addressed. Failing those institutional mechanisms, there is a UK-wide system through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for students to take forward any concerns that they have. So, we're confident that that system will be robust and will make sure that the students are getting a course of learning that meets their needs.

Okay. We've got a couple more questions now on vulnerable learners. I've got Helen Mary, then Hefin.

I think, Chair, the Minister has already answered what the—. But thinking just a little bit more broadly about the mental health and well-being of staff and learners across a range of educational settings, or, indeed, young people who can't access educational settings, what considerations are you giving to how that mental health and well-being might be supported through what is an incredibly difficult time for everyone?

Yes, that is correct. So, our expectation would be that during a prolonged period of closure—which I think, if we're honest, we have to acknowledge is what we're looking at—we would expect school staff—well-being staff, for instance in school—to be doing check-ins—phone check-ins, potentially, or FaceTime check-ins, with students, just to keep in touch with them as we go forward. We'll be looking to promote amongst young people a range of online facilities that are available—so, for instance, Meic website—so, looking to use a variety of platforms. We do, of course, have the formal NHS counselling services. I'm concerned, of course, that for some children their access to their counsellor is via their school. We know that, and we're just double checking the capacity of online counselling that already exists—online counselling tools that children already use because they don't want to go to the counsellor in the school and be seen in the school corridor going to the counsellor. They're already using those online methods and we expect to be able to continue, as far as possible, those kinds of mechanisms where children can have their mental health needs and their questions answered, and their worries.

I think we have to remember that this is a really worrying time for children and young people. One of the reasons, again, that we wanted to keep schools going as long as possible—and teachers have been working so hard to do that—is because that routine of going into school and that normality is one that we've needed and wanted to maintain. Children will have worries about their own health; they'll have worries about the health of their parents and their grandparents; they will be consuming potentially media and news stories that have empty supermarket shelves. So, we need to understand, and I think we will also have to recognise, that this support will have to be ongoing once we're back to normal, and we will have to continue to look to support children in the longer term who will have lived through this experience. They are incredibly resilient, and they have been the champions of some of our public health messages. They are so much better and so much more compliant on the whole 'washing your hands' and things like that than even adults have been. So, they are incredibly resilient, but we also have to recognise that it can be a really worrying time for them.

10:25

Can I just—? Just a supplementary to that—you've mentioned already, Kirsty, the importance of youth services, and, particularly thinking voluntarily youth services, you've given the commitment, when were talking about Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin earlier, that services that are part-funded by grants through the Welsh Government, for example, thinking of the national youth voluntary service—will those be able to be maintained even if settings have had to be shut as well? Obviously, local authorities will have to make their own decisions about whether youth settings are kept open, but, in terms of the direct support from Welsh Government, can organisations that receive it rely on that through this time? 

No formal decision has been made, but if people are in receipt of a Government grant from my department to run a service and that service can no longer run because of the public—

—because it's not safe to do so, I do not foresee that we will be turning around and saying, 'We'll have our money back, thank you very much.'

As I said, we are facing unprecedented circumstances. The normal rules of engagement have to change and, those organisations, we'll need them to be providing youth services for children when we are back to normal, and we wouldn't want to do anything that would undermine their ability to do that. Our call to the youth service is a call to arms, though. When we're trying to maintain services for vulnerable children and for front-line staff children, they have a valuable role to play and I know that local government and the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services are already in discussion about how youth services—. Many of our youth services work on an outreach basis. Those traditional youth clubs, because of austerity, are not necessarily there anymore, so they are well used to being out and about and doing outreach work, and they will have an important part to play in the services that we talked about earlier. 

Okay, thank you. Hefin, briefly, and then we're going to take one final question from Suzy on emergency legislation. 

All right. I'll declare an interest as a parent of a child with additional learning needs, although the question I'm about to ask doesn't reflect her interests. Additional learning needs pupils who are waiting outcomes of referrals—if they're currently waiting an outcome of a referral, will that process will be suspended or will it continue as normal? And, if it is suspended, will it pick up where it left off from this point? 

I think we have to recognise that the ability to deliver business as usual has been massively compromised. I'm sure people will try and continue to do their normal activities and their normal jobs, but that might not be possible. I will have to check that, Hefin, to be honest. I don't want to give you any false assurance if, actually, the intelligence on the ground is that that simply will not be able to happen. But we don't—

10:30

We don't want to jeopardise anybody, but as I said, some of the normal services are simply not available as everybody turns their attention to trying to respond to the pandemic.

Okay, thank you. Final question—because I know that the Minister's got a lot of things that she needs to get on with—from Suzy on emergency legislation.

I'm not going to ask you if you'll use any powers you get under the emergency legislation, but are you able to give us some indication of what they might be?

Sure. For instance, the Bill will provide Welsh Ministers with powers to temporarily close schools or other educational institutions, childcare premises; powers to give temporary continuity direction—so, actually, the other way around, force things to be open—and to be able to direct resources. So, that includes, as I said, I could direct something to stay open if that institution was trying to close down.

The powers also give flexibility to maybe be able to direct staff to other institutions that they would not normally work in, if that was part of our resilience needs. We'd also be looking at, for instance, relaxing requirements around ratios in childcare settings, or we might be wanting to do things around food. So, obviously, we have rules around the level of nutrition that schools should be giving their children. If there is a continuing role for schools in providing food, we might have to be a bit more flexible about what that might look like. So, those kinds of flexibilities—to be able to suspend things, direct things—that we would not normally have in normal circumstances.

Okay. And just to finish this one off—you may not be able to answer this one, in all fairness—in those situations where it's the Government who says 'no' to various things, does that then help people in the situation of Dawn's nursery, and insurance claims suddenly become more likely?

I'm not an expert on insurance, and I don't know if anybody here can help me. But what my understanding is, is that even where Government has given a direction that does not necessarily mean that you will be covered by your insurance. What we're finding in the private sector is that insurance companies are not paying out, because even when a Government has directed it, they do not regard this as a disruption to business. So, the insurance industry is not my area of expertise.

It's not my area of expertise, but from what I understand from discussions around the Cabinet table, this is particularly problematic. Let me give you an example about how we've been trying to overcome some of this—it feels like an awfully long time ago now— you'll be aware that we gave directions earlier around cancellation of school trips abroad. Trying to make sure that that direction came from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, rather than the Department for Education was a real battle, because again there were fears that, unless that advice came from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, insurance would not kick in, and that was a two-day discussion.

So, these are the kinds of things that we're grappling with. But, as I said, thinking about it, that was only last week, but it feels like an aeon ago.

I'm not holding you to that, but it helps us manage the questions we get asked.

Okay. Well, we've come to the end of our time. Can I thank you for attending this morning, and your officials? We do recognise what an incredibly challenging time this is, and we'd like to place on record our thanks to all of you for the work that you're doing to try and see us through this crisis. As usual, you'll be sent a transcript to check for accuracy following the meeting. Thank you again, all of you, for your attendance.

4. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod
4. 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, is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public for the remainder of the meeting. Are Members content? Thank you.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:34.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 10:34.

Dysgu am Senedd Cymru