I thank the Secretary of State for his statement this afternoon, but, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am afraid I must complain that I did not receive advance sight of it until 4.36 pm. You will know that, under the ministerial code, I should have had it much, much sooner.
I welcome the Secretary of State back to his place after a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion that has caused enormous stress to children, young people, their families and their teachers. Ministers must now learn from their mistakes and ensure that keeping schools open and pupils learning is a national priority. Labour is absolutely clear: we want children back in school and we want them to stay there. I will always work constructively with the Secretary of State to achieve that and I hope he will hear my questions this afternoon in that constructive spirit, because while I am delighted that the vast majority of schools will reopen fully in the next few days, there remain many issues of concern.
Let me start with the ongoing situation regarding this summer’s exam results. After days of confusion following A-level results day, the Secretary of State finally heeded calls from young people and from the Labour party and accepted the centre-assessed grades—the CAGs. While that was the right thing to do, it leaves many of the problems created by his previous flawed standardisation model unresolved.
The Secretary of State should have known of the risks. It has been reported that a former senior official of the Department raised serious concerns, so can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when he first knew of the potential problems with his approach and what he did about them? What advice was he given specifically about BTEC students, who faced more uncertainty and delay? Can he now assure us that all BTEC students have received their results?
The Secretary of State alluded to external candidates, who do not have a CAG and who remain in a difficult situation. I do not think they will find the offer of resits sufficiently reassuring, but perhaps he can tell us what support they will receive as they undertake those exams.
There are also significant consequences for higher education, as the Secretary of State rightly noted. Can he tell the House how many young people who missed their first-choice university because of his now discredited approach to awarding grades have now been granted those places? What assessment has he made of the impact on universities that will lose students because they can now take up their original choice? What discussions has he had with the Treasury about providing those institutions with additional financial support?
With the reopening of schools, we are all pleased to see children returning to class. School is the best place for them to be, not only for their learning but for their emotional and social wellbeing, and I pay tribute to the school staff who have worked through the holidays to welcome them back safely. The test now for the Secretary of State is whether pupils continue to receive a full education throughout the year and catch up on the learning they have lost. When will pupils begin to receive support through both the catch-up premium and the national tutoring fund? Why are early years and post-16 providers ineligible for the catch-up premium? Why is the funding available for just a single year, when the impact of any further disruption to education is so significant? Can he guarantee that every child will have full access to learning in the event of a local lockdown?
Parents’ top priority as schools return is the wellbeing of their children. What plans does the Secretary of State have to provide additional pastoral support? What extra support will be available for children with special educational needs and disabilities? Parents will not be able to return to work without childcare and wraparound care. What plans does he have in place to ensure that every parent can access the care they need? Can he tell us a little more about how he will ensure that all children travel safely to school, including respecting social distancing on public transport? Finally, what additional financial support, if any, will schools receive to cover any additional covid-related costs this term?
Looking at the year ahead, I was glad to read this morning that the Secretary of State has apparently once again listened to Labour and will delay exams in summer 2021. Pupils entering year 11 and year 13 have already experienced significant disruption to their learning, and the assessment process must recognise that, but schools, colleges and universities need time to plan. What discussions is he having with the sector and UCAS to ensure that workable arrangements are in place? Can he guarantee that a contingency plan will be put in place this month in case exams are disrupted again?
Children and their families should have been the Government’s top priority, but for weeks their interests have taken a back seat while the Secretary of State U-turned on everything from CAGs to face masks and left officials to take the blame. He must now take responsibility for ensuring that a summer of incompetence does not descend further into an autumn of disaster and dismay. I implore him to listen to the concerns of parents, of teachers and of the Labour party. He must now make the education of our children and young people a national, and his personal, priority.