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

I strongly agree, and it was desperately unfair on students. I think we all remember the stress of exams, however long ago they were. I cannot imagine what those students—who, on the eve of an exam for which they were preparing, were not even sure whether it would take place—have been through. It seemed that BTEC students were a total afterthought, but frankly so were all other students across the country. We said to the Government, clearly, “You need a plan A for exams to go ahead, and to go ahead fairly, but it may be, through circumstances beyond your control and the spread of the virus, that they can’t happen, so you need a plan B.”

What we see now, after the Prime Minister cancelled exams, is that not only was plan A deficient, but there was no plan B in existence. Only now are the Government scrambling to make it right. We had a hasty announcement from the Secretary of State before Christmas that there would be a working group to look at the inequalities and the challenges presented for sitting exams. That work has probably been overtaken somewhat by subsequent announcements. The fact is that we never saw the working group, never saw the membership and never saw the terms of reference. I am not sure it met. I am not sure whether it still exists or whether it is due to report. The point is that the Secretary of State should have been announcing the results, the recommendations and the actions from such a working group before Christmas, not simply announcing that he was setting one up.

Free school meals have also been an afterthought for the Government throughout the pandemic. They had to be shamed into action not just by Opposition politicians and, indeed, politicians on the Government side, but by Marcus Rashford and food poverty campaigners, yet we see just this week a repeat of the exact same debacle that we saw last March, so it is not just the case that the Government are making mistakes and oversights and are not on top of support for some of the most vulnerable children. They do not even learn from their mistakes; they just go on repeating them.

As for school closures—goodness me, Dame Angela. We have all accepted how important it is to keep schools open and to have a plan in place to achieve that. Let us just rattle through the timeline. In the final week of term, the Government were threatening to sue local authorities that were warning us that the virus was out of control and they needed support. The Secretary of State could have just picked up the phone. The Prime Minister said on 21 December that he wanted to keep schools open and they would reopen at the start of January. A plan—if we can call it a plan—was released on the last day of term for the roll-out of mass testing. Then, on 30 December, there was an announcement that primary schools in some areas would not reopen as planned. On 31 December, the Education Secretary was saying that he was “absolutely confident” that there would be no further delays in reopening, which should have been a clue that there absolutely would be. The very next day, the Secretary of State announced that all London primary schools, not just those in certain parts of the city, would remain shut to most pupils at the start of term.

On 3 January, parents were told to send primary school age children back to schools, which remained open despite growing calls to close them. Then the very next day, it was announced that they were closed, which I can tell the Minister was an absolute pain in the backside for parents who often get grandparents involved in supporting their caring responsibilities, as many grandparents said, “I’m really sorry. I would love to help, but I can’t—they’ve been back at school for a day.”

It is a total and utter shambles—the lack of forward planning, the lack of thinking ahead and the lack of any consideration about the impact that Ministers’ decisions have on the schools, the parents and the pupils, the children and young people, who have been victims of those decisions. There has been no consideration whatever.

I want to conclude by saying that, very self-evidently, this is not good enough. We have to ask serious questions about how it is, after this litany of failure, the Secretary of State is still in his office. It does not reflect well on the Prime Minister, who seems to cling to incompetence rather than challenging and tackling it. We have to be more ambitious. It should not just be the Government being ambitious for themselves and their own prospects; they should be more ambitious for our country. If we are not ambitious about the futures of children and young people, if we are not ambitious about getting every child online, and if we are not ambitious about having a national education recovery that seeks to repair the damage of more than a year of disruption to education, we really have to ask ourselves what on earth we are here for.

As the right hon. Member for Tatton said so powerfully in her speech, in so many ways throughout our history this country has led the world in the provision of education. We still have a great international reputation for the quality of our education, but there is a real risk that under the present leadership, without a serious change of course and a change in personnel, we will not see this country build on that proud history a brighter future for children and young people across the country. After the year of misery that they have had, I think we would all agree that they deserve so much better.