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Educational Settings

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:25 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 5:25 pm, 18th March 2020

I thank the Education Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I declare an interest in that my wife is a primary school teacher in Scotland, albeit on maternity leave. I wish to put on record our thanks to all staff in the education sector for all they have done and will continue to do during this crisis to continue to provide the best service they can in the most challenging of circumstances. Pupils, parents and staff are worried, and that is understandable.

Education is devolved, but many of the decisions made here at Westminster in these critical areas have a knock-on impact on the devolved nations. Tomorrow, the Scottish Education Secretary, John Swinney, will be making a detailed statement to Holyrood, following on from the announcement made by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, regarding school closures.

There are three key areas on which I wish to question the Secretary of State. First, to build on what he said about ensuring that children of frontline public service workers and those from key industries have access to childcare during these school closures, we need these workers at their work where possible—relying on family is not an option in these times—and now education staff themselves are actually in areas of critical importance. Has there been discussion with the private nursery sector about what educational closures mean for them? We know Government-supported hours will continue to be paid, but for many that will simply not cover the shortfall and will not be sustainable. Have the Government considered how the private nursery sector might be called on to provide the emergency childcare support that will be needed? Nicola Sturgeon alluded to this in her statement. Will the UK Government follow suit?

Secondly, there are millions of families across the UK who rely on free school meals for their children. For some, it will be the only guaranteed meal they have in the day. The policy is devolved—it is more advanced in Scotland—but what discussions has the Secretary of State had with some of his Cabinet colleagues, such as the Work and Pensions Secretary, to ensure that families who rely on school meals do not incur any further hardship because schools are closed? The Secretary of State’s suggestion of a voucher scheme was a bit vague, and perhaps cash payments via the social security or tax system might be considered as well. Has he discussed these potential flexibilities with the Scottish Government to ensure that we can all approach this situation as fairly as possible?

Finally, what discussions have been had with the qualifications authorities across the UK, and with university, college and employers organisations about how pupils due to sit exams are not disadvantaged by these closures? The closures are going to cover the exam period. Have the UK Government had any discussions with the likes of Universities UK about alternative ways of scoring to exams? It goes without saying that these decisions cannot be siloed; there must be cross-Government and cross-sector co-operation. I hope the Secretary of State will agree to that approach, and that dialogue and discussions with the devolved authorities will continue.