Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:00 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education) 8:00 pm, 18th January 2021

[Inaudible] This important motion, which the SNP absolutely supports—in fact, every Member with a conscience should be supporting this motion.

In my maiden speech, I talked about the difficulties of young people learning when they were hungry or living in a challenging environment. This pandemic has made those issues even more acute. There are some basics that every child needs, such as food and warmth, but for successful learning to take place, they also need a safe place to study and access to appropriate resources. I am sure that Members will join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s ongoing commitment to free school meals, including in holiday periods. This is currently a cash-first response or vouchers for those eligible for free school meals, based on the individual family preference.

Our support for our most vulnerable children goes beyond free school meals. This year, we have introduced the game-changing Scottish child payment for eligible children under six to ensure that these youngsters have the very best start in life. Thousands of children and young people in receipt of free school meals are being supported through an additional £100 payment for every eligible child in the household. Despite the financial challenge, this shows a clear political commitment by the Scottish Government to the wellbeing of our youngsters.

We need a similar commitment from the UK Government to ensure that no child is going hungry, and that includes school holiday support. Having seen the shameful images of free school meals from last week, I ask the Government why private companies are profiteering off the back of hungry children. It should not be up to a private provider to decide what constitutes a weekly lunch offering. One thing that I know for sure is that families living in poverty know just how to make their budget stretch, so rather than arguing over who exactly is responsible, the Government should follow the example of the Scottish Government by just giving the families the money and trusting parents to feed their own children.

The Scottish Government have acted quickly to provide digital devices and support for remote learning. The Secretary of State said last week that Barnett consequentials would be delivered to the Scottish Government for additional spending on laptops and tablets. It would be useful to know when we can expect this funding. There are some very good online resources. In Scotland, we have sites such as e-Sgoil and SCHOLAR, but despite the quality of these resources, they will always be second best to a normal classroom environment. They should not be considered a substitute for high-quality classroom teaching, where there is development—for example, of investigative and collaborative skills—and where teachers can identify issues and target support.

However, until we can reopen classrooms, access to these resources must be made available to all. Without this, all the digital devices that the Secretary of State describes are little more than glorified typewriters, so it would be good to hear a better explanation than he gave this afternoon as to why he refused BT’s offer of internet access for disadvantaged learners. If he is struggling to identify these young people, he can contact the schools; they know exactly who is in need of such support. Ultimately, if the UK Government cannot deliver for Scotland at this time, they should devolve powers over broadband and borrowing to the Scottish Government, so that they can consign digital exclusion to the past.

There is not a person in this place who does not want children back in schools as soon as possible. This pandemic has highlighted the incredible job that our teachers do, so my final plea is that teachers be prioritised for vaccination, to ensure they have the confidence to return to full class teaching.