Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:48 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage 8:48 pm, 18th January 2021

I put on record my thanks to all the staff at the schools in Wantage and Didcot who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic to make sure that children and young people get at least some education. I do not think that there is a Member of this House who does not want to see all children get high-quality, nutritious food, and have laptops and high-quality internet access. It is right that the Government have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on providing this.

However, when it comes to remote education, I am afraid that nothing we do could ever be a substitute for being in the classroom. If the Government were to provide a laptop to every home, along with the best internet connection in the land, I do not think that would solve the disadvantage gap or deal with the huge mental health crisis that is coming for children and young people. I am not even sure that it would lead to every child getting a full timetable of remote learning.

We saw a huge gulf in the remote learning that pupils received last year. There were many reasons for that, but one reason that the Labour party does not like to mention is that when we went into the first lockdown, the largest education union, the National Education Union, put out a statement saying that teachers should not be teaching a full timetable or routinely marking work. It said that we cannot educate children and young people remotely. Whereas the Labour party would suggest that the only barrier to remote education is whether the Government have provided laptops fast enough, I would say that the leadership of that union took a clear stance—personally, I do not think that it reflected the views of teachers—that inhibited the remote learning that pupils received last year.

Similarly, the shadow Secretary of State for Education says that she wants to see schools open—I am completely with her on that, because I think that is how we will tackle these issues—but when we wanted to reopen schools, I did not hear her criticise the 180-point checklist produced by the same union, on safety grounds, as though teaching children was like working with radioactive material. Similarly, I did not hear her criticise the constant drumbeat of stories suggesting that schools were unsafe and needed to be closed again.

We need to work to get all children back to school as soon as possible. Labour’s motion could have been about that, but it is not. I hope that when we come to reopen schools, Labour will call out anybody who stands in the way, because as much as children and young people need laptops, most of all they need to be in the classroom.