I do not want to see children out of school but sadly the situation with the virus means schools must be closed to all but the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils.
Every pupil therefore not in school must be able to access education and everything possible must be done to safeguard learning during this lockdown. The impact on children’s education and future opportunities is too great to fail on delivering this.
I pay tribute to everyone in the constituency who has made it possible for children to continue learning, teachers and school leaders have done a brilliant job in the face of changing decisions and uncertainty.
Indeed, I am aware that in Lewisham schools have had to work on planning for the fourth different scenario in the past week alone, thanks to the repeated changes the Government has inflicted on them.
I am deeply concerned that children and families across the country are paying the price for the Government’s incompetence and inability to get a grip on the situation. This is in part because the Government has failed to engage with unions, schools and professionals. This can no longer be the case and they must now work with these groups to get this right.
Firstly, everything must be done to close the digital divide and ensure that every child who needs it has access to a device and internet connection so they can learn remotely. Ofqual estimates that up to 1.78 million children do not have access to a device. The Government’s current efforts go some way in addressing this, but it is not enough.
Labour has been calling on the Government to urgently provide these and to work to remove data charges by “zero-rating” educational websites and where possible ensure school digital delivery is exempted from mobile and other data packages, to prevent pricing disadvantaged families out of education.
Secondly, everything should be done to develop a strategy to vaccinate all education staff to keep them safe and get children back in the classroom. This should be a priority and I am pleased our Shadow Education Secretary challenged the Education Secretary on this today asking whether he believes teachers should be prioritised.
Thirdly, the impact of extended school closures on children’s well-being and working families cannot be overstated. Working parents must have the support they need to balance work, childcare, and their children’s education and the Government must immediately set out clear plans for every child to return safely to school as soon as possible and be honest with parents about the timetable for this. The fact the Prime Minister is now suggesting this situation could go on until summer is shocking.
Finally, on exams this year Labour wanted these to go ahead fairly but with a plan B in place if that was not possible. For months there has been no such sign of a plan despite the risk of exams having to be cancelled.
Today the Education Secretary announced that GCSE’s and A levels will be cancelled this year. I believe this was the right thing to do given the amount of education that has and will be lost out on. But we cannot have a repeat of the chaos of last Summer's cancelled exam season and it is imperative that all grades this year must be fair, consistent and support pupils to move on in their education and employment.
Today’s vague statement from the Education Secretary of how exams will be graded is deeply disappointing as Ministers should already have a system ready in place and a plan B as we have been calling for. Furthermore, the Government should cancel the BTEC exams due to go ahead this week to prevent unfair grades.
At every stage of this pandemic young people have been an afterthought and now we are back to where we were nine months ago with schools closed and exams cancelled. The Government must finally get a grip and act now to ensure that all pupils can learn remotely, that vulnerable children are identified and supported to attend school, that there is a strategy to reopen schools safely and deliver vaccines to teachers, that families are supported and that the exams replacement system is fair.