School Closures: Support for Pupils — [Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:31 am on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:31 am, 13th January 2021

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am about to come on to that point. The figures quoted in the media in the last 24 hours, about the profiteering that is taking place by some of the companies that have moved into the sector, are obscene. The claim is that the food has a value of £30, when in fact people could pick it up for £5 to £10.

The Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East echoed the call for cash payments. In research conducted by the charities, 81% said that direct payments worked better than grab bags or vouchers. When it comes to grab bags, or “hampers”, as they are now euphemistically known, there has been yet another shocking revelation about the company Chartwells, which has been providing food bags for £30, when the content would barely register a fiver or a tenner at the till, and the association of some people with that business and BlackRock.

Speaking to local schools, families are desperate and the schools are angry that the Government have not acted faster. As one headteacher put it to me:

“The Government communications have been poor. They knew schools were shutting, so why have plans not been made for free school meals?”

He was on a call with 20 other headteachers across the region and they were all of the same view. Certainly, some believe that the Edenred scheme worked fairly satisfactorily by comparison.

I would love to spend more time on the exam situation, but the position in which colleges and schools found themselves at the beginning of this term, particularly in regard to vocational subjects and BTEC exams, challenged them. They felt let down by the Department for Education. There are real concerns among students, as well as schools and teaching staff across the board, about the plans for the summer exams and how they will be measured against their learning performance.

Finally, I want to look at protection for teaching staff. We talk about support for pupils, but we need support and protection for teaching staff. There is a need for vaccination and all staff in schools, including support staff, must be a much higher priority. I raised that on 3 December, and again on 30 December, with the Secretary of State.

In September, an GMB union internal survey of over 600 teaching assistants showed that 55% of them said they did not feel safe at work. Elsewhere, Unison has highlighted that the hardest hit are likely to be school support staff, as they are often agency workers, older, disproportionately black, Asian or of mixed ethnicity and come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. If there is the political will for schools to remain open—of course, we all want them to reopen as early as possible—school staff must be placed at a higher priority than they are presently.

The past year has been far from academic, Dame Angela. The support needed for pupils’ education is considerable and complex, but it is not mission impossible. I am afraid that the Government’s work through the course of the pandemic has, on occasion, been of little merit. Perhaps it could be described, in its own right, like coursework: late submission, no shows, confusion and, in the eyes of school staff and governors, a tragic failure of leadership from the Secretary of State. This generation of children must not lose out any longer. These are some of the most important days of their lives, which are precious to their development and the realisation of their potential. The Government must dig deep, and not short-change their long-term future.