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World Mental Health Day: Students’ mental health should be a government priority

Today is World Mental Health Day and I am pleased that we are able to talk about mental health much more openly than ever before. However, this recognition of the need for mental health support has failed to be translated into funding for mental health services over the past decade.

It is especially important that mental health services are given the recognition and funding they need at this concerning time for people across the UK. I am especially concerned about students, in schools and universities, who have had to continue their education under stressful and unprecedented conditions with very little additional support.

Earlier this week I questioned the Minister for Health and Social Care on why schools have not been given additional mental health provisions upon returning after the COVID-19 lockdown.

In a survey of over 200 students in Erith and Thamesmead, 19% said they felt like their mental health had been negatively impacted as a direct result of COVID-19.

Schools returned in September but social distancing measures remain in place and children over the age of 12 are required to wear masks. These new measures will undoubtedly be a cause of worry for young people and schools should have been prepared with additional mental health provisions to help students deal with the added pressures of COVID-19 restrictions.

I first raised concerns about the impacts of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health in April after the majority of in person mental health services were stopped. Analysis by Young Minds reported that 80% of young people with existing mental health needs found that the pandemic had made their mental health worse.

Health Minister, Nadine Dorries MP, said on Tuesday that the Conservative’s Government mental health support investment “translates to 345,000 children and young people who will be able to access mental health support via NHS funded mental health services”.

We were already facing a mental health crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, with around 60% of people referred to mental health services receiving no treatment at all.

One in eight (12.8%) 5 to 19 year olds had at least one mental disorder when assessed in 2017, according to official NHS statistics – that is roughly three children in every classroom. The Government’s own figures fall short of providing support to all children and young people with mental health illnesses, leaving around 700,000 children who need it with no access to support.

The longer the Government ignores the need for more funding and better access to mental health services, the worse the crisis will go. I will be continuing to push the Department of Health and Social Care to act on this until everyone can access the support they need.

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Government refuses Labour’s calls to publish documents relating to the exams fiasco

On Wednesday 9 September, the Labour Party had the chance to bring forward a motion on the issues surrounding students’ results. As a Party we called on the Government to publish all documents relating to the August exams fiasco so that we are able to scrutinise what led up to these events and ensure they are never repeated.

Unfortunately, despite the Chair of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) agreeing to publish all communications with the Department for Education, the Government refused to allow the documents to be published.

I have consistently raised concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s education, but the Government ignored warnings from MPs, teachers and young people themselves.

Following the exams fiasco, I have met with students who have been affected, to listen to their experiences and offer my full support.

One young person who had their predicted results lowered by two full grades and both university offers rescinded said:

“I am writing this email to you to express my anger, disappointment and frustration at my future being snatched away from me.”

Despite being aware of issues with the algorithm prior to results day it took four days for the Department for Education to U-turn and award students with their Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs).

But, far from fixing the fiasco with their U-turn the Government’s move to CAGs left many more students feeling cheated. As predicted, students’ CAGs demonstrated unconscious bias in the education system against working class, disabled and BAME young people.

One student whose guardian contacted me in disbelief was predicted AAB for their UCAS application, achieved A*BB in their mock exams yet his CAG was set at CCC.

Their guardian wrote to me:

“this is completely heart-breaking. The upset, stress and anxiety is damaging his health and he cannot relax now for a minute.”

Whilst Government Ministers were feeding different information to the public through the media, concerned about protecting their own jobs, young people have been suffering from high stress and mental health issues following the exams fiasco.

Another group of students re-sitting their A-Level exams contacted me after being denied the allocation of any results at all.

One student said:

“This year I have committed myself entirely to achieving the grades I need to meet my university offers to become a lawyer. My school has refused to give me grades, which will result in me missing out on my university offers. My years’ worth of hard work will go to waste.”

The Government must not underestimate the damage done to students in Erith and Thamesmead and across the country. Students are rightfully outraged, the following quote from one of my constituents sums up the countries feelings towards this fiasco:

“We are the cohort of students who have been left behind and failed by the government that promised us a fair process.”

The list of problems left unresolved goes on and on.

BTEC students and those who sat private exams such as International Baccalaureate (IB) students are still awaiting clarification on how their awarded grades have been decided. One IB student awarded low grades, despite high predictions, told me that:

“the IB is getting away with robbing me of my future, one that I have spent at least two years working towards, and they are facing no repercussions for their mistakes.”

It is clear that the problems created for thousands of students on Results Day are far from being resolved. The Secretary of State for Education and the Prime Minister are directly responsible for the exams fiasco and must take responsibility.

Students do not want excuses or more empty promises they want action.

Parents and teachers want answers about how this was allowed to happen and assurances that young people’s years of hard work has not gone to waste.

And, as the MP for Erith and Thamesmead, I want the Government to take responsibility and ensure full transparency of the decisions that led to this disaster.

You can watch the full debate here.

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Get Ready For September – Thanks for taking part

The Get Ready For September summer programme has come to an end after a successful month of online events and discussions.

Earlier this year, I reached out to students, parents and teachers to ask your views on the impact COVID-19 was having on education. I received hundreds of responses in which the majority of students said they felt their education had been negatively affected. Over half of you also said you felt unprepared for upcoming exams and almost 20% said they felt their mental health had suffered.

I followed this up with a letter to the Education Minister Gavin Williamson MP, outlining concerns and suggestions. Unfortunately, it became clear the Government was not taking the impacts on young people’s education seriously. Whilst some students continued to struggle to access educational materials the Government oversaw the devastating A-Level results day scandal.

Where the Conservative Government has failed to step up, I’m pleased that the community of Erith and Thamesmead were willing to offer their support. Throughout August I partnered with dozens of local service providers to offer a series of online educational events to students and families in Erith and Thamesmead.

FlavRcise, a family friendly dance fitness class, offered free online lessons every Saturday throughout August to help get young people get active in their own homes. Paola Scandurra, from ScandurraConsulting delivered an excellent course on self-care and boosting your mental wellbeing. Funk Butcher, Tamara Hunter and Active Horizons joined us for an interesting discussion about Black Lives Matter and what it means for students.

Martha Mingay, a student and University teacher, stepped up to offer much needed support on results day with advice about applying through Clearing and what to expect at University. With future prospects in mind Cllr Anthony Okereke and Sochima Ikpa offered a group careers advice session and extra one to one support opportunities.

The programme, aimed at engaging students and families in educational events and discussions, was also targeted at students who have faced barriers in accessing education. Greenwich Council joined the programme to offer 1000 free printed worksheets to students facing barriers with technology.

The Get Ready For September summer programme truly echoed the community spirit we have seen rise during the past few months. As the Member of Parliament for Erith and Thamesmead I am pleased to have been able to harness the amazing talent and compassion in the constituency to provide students with access to spaces for learning and discussion.

Thank you to all students, parents, teachers and service providers who made this programme possible, enjoyable and informative. Best of luck to all students on your return to school!

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“Too little, too late” – my response to Government u-turn on exam results

The Conservative Government finally announced yesterday that students would now be awarded their Centre Assessed Grades (CAG) in response to the backlash over the Ofqual algorithm which saw some students’ results downgraded by more than two levels.

The Government’s u-turn on this is too little, too late, especially for those students who have already been rejected by universities. It is also clear the Conservative Government has not learned their lesson and is simply responding to backlash, as BTEC students are left out of the u-turn and remain in limbo.

I’ve been contacted by several students who have been absolutely devastated by this fiasco and have struggled to find support or answers about appealing these decisions.

The algorithm clearly discriminated against students from disadvantaged areas leaving many students feeling undermined. Moving to CAG’s will benefit thousands of people but working class, BAME, disabled and special educational needs students are still likely to be negatively impacted.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission warned in April that using predicted grades could deepen the existing inequalities in education. Unconscious bias is evident in schools and even when using teachers’ predicted grades lots of students will be forced to accept grades that aren’t truly representative of their abilities.

Problems with the Ofqual algorithm were made instantly clear as almost 40% of students had their predicted grades downgraded on A-level results day, resulting in thousands of students missing out on university places. I wrote to Education Minister Gavin Williamson MP to highlight how students had been impacted in Erith and Thamesmead.

One student contacted me for help after receiving a U in their results despite achieving a B in a previous mock exam. Another student who was predicted ABC results was awarded ADE on results day last week, meaning their university offer was automatically withdrawn.

Issues with CAG’s have also been raised and have played a part in the lowering of student grades according to many students and parents who have contacted me.

One parent explained how their daughter was told by teachers they were on track to achieve three B’s in their exams and secured university offers based on this but their CAG’s were then changed to BBC when shared with Ofqual.

Another student was predicted AAB for their UCAS application despite achieving an A*AB in mock exam papers. The student’s family member contacted me to raise concerns about the Government u-turn, they said:

“And now a u turn is being leaked – ‘we can have the useless CAG results’ – not his actual measured, tested and proven grade capability.

Not forgetting the CAG and class rank nonsense was designed to fit a fatally flawed algorithm and is equally not fit for purpose!

Students are individuals, tested and measured by a national exam process. Not ranked against peers at the whim of favouritism and ingrained biases of teachers.”

In the letter to the Education Minister, I’ve called on the Department for Education to reach out to universities and ask that failings in the grading system be taken into account when finalising university offers.

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Parents and students give their views on schools re-opening in Erith and Thamesmead

Following the announcement that Primary Schools would be expected to re-open to some students on June 1st, I reached out to parents and students to ask for their views.

Greenwich and Bexley NEU had previously expressed their concerns that “it is not safe to begin a wider reopening of schools on June 1st”. I also met teachers from schools across Greenwich and Bexley to discuss concerns about lack of additional resources in the case of illness, lack of space to implement social distancing and a lack of clarity about safety guidelines.

The debate around schools re-opening attempts to weigh up the concerns around the safety of students gathering in close proximity with the overall effects on young people’s education. As we near the three month mark of schools being closed, there are concerns that the already large attainment gap between students from different backgrounds is widening.

I am aware that there are lots of safety concerns regarding schools re-opening but I feel those affected by the decision are best placed to offer advice on how to proceed. I’ve been able to talk to unions and teachers and thought it was equally as important to hear from parents and guardians and local school students about their thoughts.

Almost 600 people took the chance to express their views in the online surveys, with a majority raising concerns about schools re-opening. Of the 305 parent/guardian survey responders, 65% said they did “not think it was safe for children to be back at school” or needed more “reassurance about safety”. Of 250 local school student responders to the survey, 50% said they were “concerned about schools opening” and only 21% said that “schools should be opening”.

The survey also asked about experiences of home schooling – 78% of parents said they had a relatively positive experience of home schooling and 65.3% of students said they were looking forward to returning to school.

I’m pleased that so many people took part in the survey and I will now be able to accurately reflect the general feeling about schools re-opening in Parliament. The survey has shed light on some issues, such as concerns about future exams, effects on mental health and a decline in the amount of time young people have spent studying.

I am pleased to see that the majority have had a positive experience with home schooling but I also know there are some who have found this experience very difficult and it will be extremely important that the Government supports teachers and families in easing students back into education.

I have since called on the Government to consider additional support for mental health needs and ensuring that a thorough assessment into the needs of vulnerable children and the attainment gap is given consideration.

It remains unclear when schools will re-open after new concerns have been raised that Secondary schools may not be ready to re-open by September.

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Monthly Newsletter – May 2020

Newsletter header

Throughout May I’ve been active in Parliament and the constituency helping represent issues that matter to you. I’ve received hundreds of emails campaigning for better Covid-19 support measures, support for businesses, issues around schools re-opening, safety measures at work and much more.

I am looking forward to getting back into the constituency but during lockdown I’ve still been keeping up to date with local issues virtually. I have met with teachers and unions to dicuss how we can safely re-open schools and it is clear parents and staff are worried about the current measures in place. If you’d like to make your voice heard on this issue you can complete the survey here. I will be calling for better support for vulnerable children and standing alongside teachers calling for risk assessments and clearer guidance. I also had the chance to meet with some great local voluntary groups including, Our Heritage UK and Greenwich Association of Disabled People.

We’ve had some major local successes this month! Thamesmead Now started their new weekly TV broadcast on Youtube which you can check out here. My office have also had some major successes in helping people return to the UK  from abroad. We have now helped everyone stranded in Australia, Bahamas, Canary Islands, Cyprus, France, India, New Zealand, Sierra Leone and Tunisia return home.

Despite Parliament operating virtually throughout May, I’ve had the chance to raise a variety of issues effecting people in Erith and Thamesmead. I represented Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh Temple by calling for a Sikh ethnic tick box on the Census 2021. I received over 40 requests from constituents to speak on the Agriculture Bill. In this speech I asked the Government to protect British farmers, animal welfare and the environment. I also spoke on the Fire Safety Bill and asked the Government to protect all victims of Domestic Abuse including those with NRPF in the Domestic Abuse Bill debate.

Belvedere Incinerator

Sadiq Khan calls for judicial review into second Belvedere incinerator
Several constituents raised concerns regarding the construction of a second incinerator in Belvedere. This would be harmful to the environment and public health which is why I joined residents in calling for a review of this project. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has asked for a judicial review to take place.

 

Abena speaking in Parliament

I raised concerns about rising care fees following Covid-19
After speaking with Inclusion London and Greenwich Association of Disabled People I raised concerns with Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about fears that care home fees are likely to rise. This would have a huge impact on many constituents and I will continue to hold the Government to account over any rise in fees.

 

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Parents asked for their views on schools re-opening in Erith and Thamesmead

Parents, teachers and unions in Erith and Thamesmead have raised concerns about plans to re-open schools to students in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, starting next week.

I’m eager to hear your views as parents and carers of school ages children which is why I have launched a survey to understand constituents’ feelings around the issue.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced plans to begin the phased re-opening of schools starting on June 1st but a poll by a leading teachers union found just 5% of teachers feel it is safe to return to school. Independent polling for ITV and the Observer also found that around 50% of parents feel it is unsafe for children to return to school in England.

In a meeting with teachers from five schools across Erith and Thamesmead this week, I discussed the concerns raised by staff and parents.

Teachers raised concerns about particularly vulnerable children, the risk to disabled students and the higher risk posed to staff and students from a Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. Some schools also raised concerns about the lack of space available to implement social distancing measures and the lack of additional teaching resources in the case of staff illness.

Whilst I have major concerns about the impact of school closures on vulnerable children and the existing attainment gap, I also have major concerns about the risk posed to medically vulnerable staff, students and parents.

I believe that those directly affected by this decision are best placed to determine whether the risks posed are too serious to begin opening schools, which is why I have been meeting with teachers and unions.

I am eager to hear the opinions of parents and guardians across Greenwich and Bexley regarding re-opening schools. The survey, open to all residents with school aged children in Erith and Thamesmead, is a chance for people to make their feelings heard.

No parent or guardian should have to fear sending their child to school, it is important that we all work together to create a safe learning environment for children.

Parents and carers of students in Erith and Thamesmead can take part in the re-opening Schools Survey here: https://tinyurl.com/yba6mrnt

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MP visits local schools

New Erith and Thamesmead MP Abena Oppong-Asare has been introducing herself to local school children in a series of visits to local schools.

During her first months as our MP, Abena has visited a number of local schools, including Discovery, Alexander McCleod, St Fidelis and Woolwich Polytechnic School for Girls. She toured the schools, met with teachers and other school staff and held Q&A events with children.

Abena said “I have had the pleasure of visiting several schools over the last month. Children in each had a chance to ask me questions and to debate important policy issues such as homelessness. It is great to see the next generation taking an active interest in society and politics.”