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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:25 am on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 10:25 am, 13th January 2021

Well, that really does bring me on to the final section of my speech, which is about the performance of the Education Secretary and his leadership. I thought it was appalling, actually, to announce on the Floor of the House to parents across the land that if they were dissatisfied they should pick up the phone and ring Ofsted, without even speaking to Ofsted first. Its inboxes have been absolutely flooded, and no doubt its phones are ringing off the hook—interestingly, not so much with people ringing to complain, but with parents horrified at the heavy-handed treatment of the Government ringing to say, “I want to say thank you for the work that my school and the teachers are doing.”

There has to be a focus on standards. I strongly agree with what Esther McVey said about the importance of education, and of consistently high-quality education. I have heard from young people themselves examples of where the standard has fallen well short of what is provided by other schools. We should make no bones about challenging that, but the Government have to support schools to provide that high-quality education.

The truth is that, while schools have bust a gut for their pupils throughout this crisis, the Secretary of State for Education has either been missing in action or actively harmful to the work that schools have been doing. He was too slow to act on funding and support, so headteachers in particular had difficult decisions to make about the funding of safety measures versus the funding of ongoing learning and teaching, particularly in the context of rising staff costs because of regular staff having to self-isolate and the need to recruit more expensive supply cover.

It is also about the lack of planning and preparation. The Opposition recognise, and have always recognised, that lots of challenges are thrown up by this pandemic that make Ministers’ lives really difficult, but when someone is a Secretary of State, particularly in a crisis like this, when they have all sorts of things coming at them and their Department, it is their job to sit around the Cabinet table, listen to what is going on, understand the spread of the virus and the challenges it poses for their Department, and look ahead, forward plan, scan the horizon, and think: “What do I need to do now to make sure that the interests governed by my Department aren’t harmed further than they need to be? What action can I take to mitigate?”

The truth is that too often the Secretary of State has not had a plan A, let alone a plan B. That was clear in the case of exams. Right now, children and young people need to know what they are working towards and they still do not. Even with the letter published this morning to Ofqual and the evidence that the Secretary of State has given to the Select Committee on Education, they still do not know quite what they are working towards.

This is a Secretary of State who announced—in fact, I think the Prime Minister gazumped him; I am not even sure that the Secretary of State knew what was going on—that exams were to be cancelled in the week when pupils were sitting BTEC exams. It is almost as if the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister had never heard of BTECs, but pupils and students were going off to sit their BTECs, wondering on one evening whether they would be invited to turn up at school or college the next day.

It seemed to me that it was only when the Government were reminded that BTECs existed that they thought to say something about it. Even then it was not a clear direction; it was up to schools and colleges. What chaos! We said to the Government long before Christmas, “You need a plan A for exams to go ahead, and they need to go ahead fairly. We know it’s difficult, but you need to try to mitigate the amount of lost learning.”