It is generous of the Opposition to call a debate on an area of policy in which the Government are leading the way. Ministers, faced with a backdrop to public policy decisions that is the most challenging possible, have worked tirelessly to deliver. Across the country most people have made huge efforts in response to covid, none more so than our teachers. I have seen the efforts made by teachers in Stoke-on-Trent, who deserve all our thanks for continuing the learning of our young people and protecting the most vulnerable. We are all struggling, and it is right that we debate how the Government’s good intentions can be delivered most effectively, especially for the most vulnerable.
The Government are not alone in having a responsibility to tackle this crisis: we all share a responsibility for our younger and future generations. Unfortunately, not everyone has recognised this. It is appalling to see some Labour-backed unions playing politics and doing everything possible to prevent the learning of our young people, even suggesting that remote learning is an invasion of privacy, when we all know that it is possible to use a filter on most remote platforms. The Government were right to try to keep schools open for as long as possible, and I know they are keen to get schools reopened as soon as they can. No matter how good remote learning is, it is a poor substitute, and I know from teachers in Stoke-on-Trent South that the last time pupils returned to school from lockdown, there was a notable performance gap, especially among the most disadvantaged pupils.
Schools being closed also has a more serious consequence. Last week, I met remotely with representatives of New Era, which provides domestic abuse services in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire—I am grateful to them for sharing their insights. It is worrying that the number of children and young people seeking support dropped nationally by 6,000, while the number of domestic violence victims has increased significantly during lockdown. I hope that issue will be investigated further. According to the Local Government Association, referrals to social care have tragically increased to a 10-year high.
Lockdown has also hit a whole range of families mentally and financially when it comes to juggling their work and childcare responsibilities. In many cases, the strain has been too hard, and the school and community support networks that families rely on are just not there now. It is therefore particularly welcome that through the Government’s covid winter grant scheme, Stoke-on-Trent City Council received over £1 million to support the hardest-hit families. As a father of a three-year-old, I am personally grateful that the Government have also kept early years education open to all, and I am glad that support bubbles, which provide vital support for families at this very difficult time, have been maintained.
As we get the virus under control thanks to everyone’s efforts, and with the increased roll-out of vaccines, there is understandably a real eagerness among parents to get children back into the classroom as soon as possible. When we do reopen, we must ensure that there is intense catch-up, so that no pupil is left behind.