Covid-19: Educational Settings

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:22 pm on 6th January 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education 1:22 pm, 6th January 2021

I would very much like to join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Gareth. I had the great privilege of working with Gareth during his time as deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, as well as with his colleagues there. Our thoughts and prayers are very much with his family and with his friends and colleagues.

The hon. Lady raises a number of very important points, including the roll-out of digital devices and our commitment to deliver 1 million digital devices across the country. We will be getting three quarters of a million of those devices out by the end of next week, supporting schools in delivering the full allocation of devices that they need and looking at how we can go further. It has been a great privilege to work with those brilliant teachers, those inspiring leaders, and to help fund and support them in setting up the Oak National Academy—a brilliant online school that is being viewed not just right across this country, but right across the world, for its quality of teaching. We want to see that used more and more as a vital teaching resource.

The hon. Lady is right to raise concerns about free school meals and how important this is for every one of our constituents. That is why we are putting the funding and support in place. There are many parts of the country where it will be best for schools to deliver those free school meals themselves, and they want to do that, but that will not be the case in other parts of the country where schools will want to do it as part of the national voucher scheme. That is why we will be standing up that scheme over the next few days and making sure that schools are not out of pocket and, most importantly of all, that children and families are supported at this incredibly difficult time.

The hon. Lady asks whether there will be training and guidance for teachers across the country as we move to teacher-assessed grades, and I can absolutely confirm that that will be the case. We have always been aware that there could be a situation where we would not be in a position to be able to proceed with examinations. We have always had a clear view that the best way of assessing children is through examination, so I will not apologise for being enthusiastic to ensure that we have been able to be in a position to roll out exams, but we do recognise that due to where we are as a result of this pandemic, we have to take a different course, and that is why we are taking the route that we are.

The hon. Lady mentioned technical and vocational qualifications. As she will know, it is very important that we give colleges, schools and all providers, including independent training providers, the necessary flexibility, because a lot of young people will need to complete some of their professional competency qualifications in order to take up work and job opportunities, such as those on electricians’ or gas courses where they have to do a practical assessment in order to be able to get the qualifications to take the work, the jobs and the opportunities. We want to ensure that the door is kept open for them. That is why we have taken the decision to give providers the discretion, because they will be the ones who best and most accurately understand the needs of their students and those who possibly need these qualifications to be able to progress into a job that they would not be able to do if they did not have that option.

On vaccination, the Government have already set out the important need to vaccinate those who are most likely to be hospitalised if they catch this disease, and not just hospitalised but most at risk of death. Like the hon. Lady, and like everyone in the education community, I very much want to see the vaccination of all those who are tirelessly, every single day through the week and every week, keeping schools open for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children, when schools are fully reopened again, but coupled with this is a really important step forward, the mass testing programme that we have already started rolling out in schools. The mass testing programme in schools will be one of the largest testing programmes that this country has ever seen. It is ready to go—ready to be implemented—and it will be an important plank in ensuring that we can get schools opened at the earliest possible opportunity.

It will not surprise the hon. Lady that we listen to the best scientific and public health advice in making the decision to keep early years open. We all have a clear understanding of how important early years education is for every child. As I have always said, I will do everything I can to keep every educational establishment open if that is possible and if it is the right thing to do. When we were given the health advice that we could be in a position to keep early years open, which is so important not just for those children themselves but for families, I felt that that was the right decision to take.

I do not want to see any school closed for a moment longer than it has to be. That is why, in June, we all worked so hard and fought so hard to ensure that schools opened right across the country for primary years. That is why, during June, we did so much to ensure that years 10 and 12 were able to return to school at the earliest possible opportunity. That is why, in September, we saw the opening of schools right across the country and all children being able to return to school.

I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that I will not let schools be closed for a moment longer than they need to be. I will do everything I can to ensure that every school is open, so that children are able to benefit from the brilliant teaching that goes on in so many of our primary schools, secondary schools and colleges, because I know that is the best place for children. That is what I want for my children, I know that is what Members want for their children, but most importantly, that is what we want for our nation’s children. That is why I will give everything in order to ensure that schools are the first things to be opened in every instance, because that is what is best for every one of our children.