Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:44 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 9:44 pm, 18th January 2021

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Christian Matheson in what has been a heavily over-subscribed debate. I regret the fact that we will not be able to deal with every single speech individually.

In closing the debate, let me return us to some fundamentals. First and foremost, this place matters, resolutions of this House matter and this vote matters. It is about whether families receive the money they need to make sure that no child goes hungry. It is about whether we trust parents to spend that money, or whether we prefer to see it top-sliced and going into the pockets of others. It is about getting every child online, making sure that no child learning from home is excluded from education. Frankly, for all the complaints about politics, which always strike me as ironic in the House of Commons, this motion would not be necessary if the Government had simply been doing their job.

The second fundamental is that it is our responsibility—the responsibility of all Members of the House, whether on the Opposition Benches, the Government Benches or the Government Back Benches—to expect high standards from Ministers and to hold them to those high standards on behalf of our constituents. We all recognise that the Government have a difficult job in these most extraordinary circumstances. That is why we sought to be a constructive Opposition, facilitating the passage of Government business, often with little debate and insufficient scrutiny. It is why we supported a range of measures brought forward to help our country through the pandemic.

However, we should not and will not be bystanders to the level of failure we have seen from the Department for Education: the free school meals rows, with Ministers not once, not twice, but three times having to be dragged to do the right thing; the nine months it has taken to deliver 700,000 laptops and 50,000 dongles, which still falls so far short of what is needed; the exams debacle last year that saw the futures of young people plunged into chaos—and worse still, no plan for this year either; the way in which the Department for Education has short-changed schools, leaving headteachers worried about how they will balance the books by the end of the year and whether they have put enough funding into their safety measures; the fact that the Government failed to listen on testing, and rushed out a plan on the last day of term, only to change those plans again and again and again. They announced a plan for the January reopening during the school holidays and then changed it again and again and again—on one occasion changing the helpful infographic on the Department for Education’s social media channels three times within a matter of hours, such was the confusion and chaos—allowing millions of children to return on the first day of term, only to close schools the very same day, having told those headteachers, parents and children that that absolutely would not happen.

We cannot praise staff in schools and school leaders in one breath and then in the other defend the leadership they have been subjected to under this Secretary of State for Education. If the Prime Minister had any judgment, he would have sacked the Secretary of State, and if the Secretary of State had any shame, he would have resigned. That is the problem I have with the speeches we heard from Government Members this evening: the tyranny of low expectations—expectations for other people’s children that they would never accept for their own. On free school meals, it is not only that the poor quality delivered by providers was so obviously abysmal but the fact that it only barely fell short of the standards that the Department set for those providers, in collusion with those providers, with maybe a couple of tins of meat, a tin of sweetcorn or a couple of tomatoes missing. That is absolutely not the sort of lunch any Member of this House would expect for their children.

I mentioned the delay on getting the laptops and dongles out, but here is the real crux of it: even if the Government deliver the 1.3 million laptops they promised —they still have not told us when those laptops will arrive—that still falls well short of the demand that we know exists, with 1.8 million children not having access to a device at home, and ignores the reality confronting many parents. As we heard from one of our own this evening, even if there is a laptop at home, and maybe an iPad too, it does not mean that a parent with more than one child—maybe two or three—has devices for them all.

We heard a rosy picture painted by Christian Wakeford, who told us that there is no problem in Bury—everyone is fine. That was curious, because the cabinet member for children’s services there tells me this evening that, in fact, the laptops are on order, and if those laptops arrive, perhaps then there will be fewer children in overcrowded classrooms. Right now, they are in school because the Government did not get them a device. As we heard so powerfully from my hon. Friend Feryal Clark, there is example after example, school after school, where we have not seen sufficient provision of laptops.

But the most fundamental failure of all is that we went into this pandemic with a digital divide. We went into this pandemic with a widening attainment gap. We went into this pandemic with rising child poverty. It is no good Government Members talking about social policy as if it had just been invented; the last Labour Government lifted nearly 1 million children out of poverty. If they want our help, we will help them to end child poverty; the problem is the poverty of ambition from the Government.

We cannot surrender to the idea that any of this is good enough. We cannot give in to the inevitability of higher poverty, lower standards in education and a wider gap in attainment because of a pandemic. Nor should any Member of the House give in to the idea that this House does not matter, that the Government should ignore the will of the House or that Members should sit on their hands when something as fundamental as keeping every child learning and fed is up for debate and decision.

On the Opposition side of the House, we are ambitious for our country. We are ambitious for every child. We are ambitious that beyond this difficult and dark period of our national story, there is a better and brighter future to be built. We are willing to work on a cross-party basis if the mission is there to end child poverty. We are willing to work on a cross-party basis to get every child learning. We are willing to work on a cross-party basis to get children back to school as quickly as possible. The problem is not a willingness to co-operate, the problem is not politics; the problem is leadership, a lack of ambition from this Government and the grotesque display of incompetence we have seen from Ministers in the Department for Education throughout this pandemic.