Earlier this summer the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published its report ‘COVID-19: Support for Children’s Education’. This inquiry focused on how well England’s Department for Education managed its overall response during the first lockdown (23 March – 23 June 2020).
The PAC reflected our concerns about school attendance and accessibility, including in relation to disadvantaged children. We were glad to read that the PAC challenged the Department for Education on whether schools generally understood and felt empowered to apply an important third category of the definition of ‘vulnerable children’ which was those children whom schools considered ‘vulnerable’ in other regards (beyond those with a social worker or EHC plan). In our report we highlighted additional groups who were experiencing an increasing attainment gap, including disadvantaged pupils, Gypsy/Roma pupils, young carers and asylum seekers.
In relation to provision for disabled children, the PAC report reiterated many of the issues in our evidence, including the impact of the downgrading of duties in relation to education, health and care (EHC) plans and also the inadequate provision by local authorities of online or other Special Educational Needs and Disability provision for disabled students.
The digital divide and the inadequate delivery of IT equipment to facilitate the switch to online learning was another issue that the PAC report raised. While our evidence looked at this issue in relation specifically to asylum seekers, we recognise that the report did touch upon the unequal impact on disadvantaged children.
Finally, it was encouraging to see the PAC report make the link between education and health, particularly mental health. Although not framed by the report in rights-based language, it is important that the Committee recognises the interlinkages between rights.
Overall, we were however disappointed that the Committee did not produce a report framed around the rights of children as we believe this would have greatly strengthened the report and created an effective system for accountability in which the rights of children could be better respected, protected and realised. The Department for Education is a duty-bearer, with legal obligations under international human rights law to ensure all children enjoy and exercise their right to education, and interconnected economic, social and cultural rights, equally and without discrimination.