One of the greatest tragedies of this pandemic is its impact on our children. Millions of young people have lost months of face-to-face schooling, missing out on their education and denied the social interaction that is so crucial to their development and wellbeing. Virtual schooling can never replace face-to-face learning, but while school buildings remain closed to most children, access to online education is vital. For some children, one of the barriers to online learning is a lack of equipment, which is why the Government are providing 1.3 million devices to schools across the country. This drive to purchase such an enormous quantity of laptops and tablets has involved co-ordinating multiple manufacturers, dedicated factory runs, and prioritising shipping. Against a backdrop of soaring global demand, the Department for Education has become one of the largest buyers of IT in the world. We must continue to deliver these devices at pace.
I commend Ministers and officials for their extraordinary efforts, but online learning also depends on schools’ ability to deliver virtual lessons. A year ago, teaching the entire curriculum remotely would have been unthinkable, but now teachers up and down the country are logging on to Zoom or Google Classroom, greeting their classes face to face and using innovative resources to teach lessons.
Having been in contact with local headteachers throughout the pandemic, I know that schools in Penistone, Stocksbridge, Ecclesfield, Chapeltown and Dodworth have made sustained efforts to create and refine their remote learning provision. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor helped to deliver a virtual maths lesson to year 6 at Oughtibridge Primary School in my constituency. He saw for himself just what is possible with interactive remote learning. I am pleased to report that the Chancellor’s maths is of a very high standard.
Our schools have transformed the way that they work while working to strict new public health guidance, operating test and trace and delivering catch-up schemes. On behalf of children and parents across my constituency, I want to say a huge thank you.
On free school meals, we need to differentiate between lunches provided by schools during term-time and wider welfare support offered to struggling families. The continuation of free school meals has never been in doubt. During lockdowns, the Government have offered the choice of food parcels or supermarket vouchers to support children and learning from home. In terms of wider help, the pandemic has caused real hardship to many families. I welcome the covid winter support grant, providing £170 million to local councils to tackle food poverty this winter, including during school holidays. I support the measures that the Government have taken to help families over the past year, but what our children need now is a rapid return to the classroom, and I wholeheartedly support the Secretary of State in his determination to make that happen.