A happy new year, Mr Speaker. May I begin by paying tribute to the deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, Gareth Young, who tragically died shortly before Christmas? I am sure the House will join me in sending condolences to his loved ones and to his friends and colleagues in the union.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but it is disappointing that he did not make a new year’s resolution to avoid U-turns or chronic incompetence. Once again, where the Secretary of State goes, chaos and confusion follow, and it is children, families, and education staff across the country who pay the price for his incompetence. I can suggest a new year’s resolution for the Secretary of State: that he at least start answering my questions.
Every pupil who is not in school must be able to access education. We must do everything we can to safeguard learning throughout this lockdown. I pay tribute to everyone who has made it possible to keep pupils learning online—the incredible leaders, teachers and support staff in schools and colleges, and those such as Oak and the BBC who are doing a huge amount to make learning accessible.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment on digital devices, and I am glad he has listened to Labour and to the charities across the country that called for zero rating of educational sites, but Ofqual estimates that up to 1.78 million children do not have access to a device. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that, under his plans, every child who needs a device will have one as soon as possible and that every one of those children will be able to learn remotely? May I also repeat the question the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister earlier: will the welcome data deal done with mobile providers take effect immediately?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on free school meals, and I hope he can guarantee that every child eligible for this support is already receiving it. If not, can he assure me that they will do so within days?
Months ago, the Education Secretary gave a cast-iron commitment that exams would go ahead. At that moment, we should have known they were doomed to be cancelled. I wanted exams to go ahead fairly, but I was always clear that there must be a plan B if that was not possible. For months, there was no sign of any such plan, although the risk that exams could not happen has always been entirely predictable. The Secretary of State says he will be providing support to teachers to award grades. Can he tell me when they will receive that support and what form it will take, and can he confirm that it will be available in all schools? Can he tell me exactly what will be done to ensure that all grades are fair and consistent and support pupils to move on in their education or employment?
I heard what the Secretary of State said about technical and vocational exams, but frankly he is failing to show leadership on the exams taking place in January, and he is simply leaving it to schools and colleges to decide what they should do in these difficult circumstances. Will he now do the right thing and cancel this week’s BTEC exams, as parents, colleges and the Association of Colleges are calling for?
Staff in every part of our education system have faced a hugely challenging job and done extraordinary things to keep children safe and educated throughout the pandemic. Too often, though, the Secretary of State has refused to listen to their concerns or engage meaningfully with the expertise of professionals on the frontline. He can start to make it up to them today. Is the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation working on a strategy to vaccinate all education staff to keep them safe and get children back in the classroom? Does he believe that they should be prioritised for vaccination to keep them safe and to allow schools and colleges to reopen?
Early years settings remain open to all children, but the Secretary of State has failed to explain how this will be safe for staff and families, so can he tell us what scientific advice he has received that made him think that they will be safe, and can he honestly say that he is following the science? Whether providers are open or closed, will he finally reconsider the unjustifiable decision to move early years funding in line with current occupancy, which will push tens of thousands of providers to the brink of collapse?
Finally, I turn to the return of schools in the months ahead. The decision to close them is not one taken easily or lightly, and although it is the right thing to do to control the virus and save lives, it has huge consequences for children’s learning and development. That is why Labour has always said that schools should be the last thing to close and the first to reopen. Yesterday, the Prime Minister could not guarantee that children would be back in school before the summer. Can the Secretary of State tell us when he expects children to be safely back in the classroom?
At every stage of the pandemic, young people have been an afterthought for the Government, and now we are back where we were nine months ago, with schools closed and exams cancelled. There is time to act, but the Secretary of State must act now to ensure that all pupils can learn remotely, that families are supported and that the most vulnerable are safeguarded.