@KateGreenSU, Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, responding to the Education Secretary’s statement on the closure of schools, said:
“May I begin by paying tribute to Deputy General Secretary of NASUWT Gareth Young, who died shortly before Christmas. I am sure the House will join me in sending condolences to his loved ones and to his friends and colleagues in the union.
“Mr Speaker, I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but it is disappointing that he did not make a new year’s resolution to avoid u-turns or chronic incompetence. Once again where the Secretary of State goes chaos and confusion follows, and it is children, families, and education staff across the country who are paying the price for his incompetence.
“But, Mr Speaker, I can suggest a new year’s resolution for the Secretary of State: that he at least resolve to start answering my questions.
“Every pupil who is not in school must be able to access education. We must do everything we can to safeguard learning throughout this lockdown.
“I pay tribute to everyone who has made it possible to keep pupils learning online – the incredible leaders, teachers, and support staff in schools and colleges, and those, like Oak and the BBC, who are doing a huge amount to make learning accessible.
“I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment on digital devices, and I am glad he has listened to Labour and to the charities across the country who called for zero rating of educational sites.
“But Ofqual estimate that up to 1.78 million children do not have access to a device - can he guarantee that under his plans every child who needs a device will have one as soon as possible, and that every one of those children will all be able to learn remotely?
“And may I repeat the question the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister earlier – will the data deal done with mobile providers take effect immediately?
“I welcome his comments on free school meals, and I hope he can guarantee that every child eligible for this support is already receiving it. If not, can he assure me that they will do so within days?
“Mr Speaker, months ago, the Education Secretary gave a cast iron commitment that exams would go ahead. At that moment, we should have known they were doomed to be cancelled.
“I wanted exams to go ahead fairly, but I was always clear that there must be a Plan B if that was not possible. For months, there was no sign of any such plan, although the risk exams couldn’t happen has always been entirely predictable.
“The Secretary of State said he will be providing support to teachers to award grades. Can he tell me when they will receive this support, what form it will take, and confirm that it will be available in all schools?
“And can he tell me exactly what will be done to ensure that all grades are fair, consistent, and support pupils to move on in their education or employment, including private candidates.
“He had nothing to say on technical and vocational exams this summer, and is frankly failing to show leadership on exams in January. Can he tell me what will happen this summer to exams other than GCSEs and A-levels, and will he now do the right thing and cancel this week’s BTEC exams as parents, colleges and the AoC are calling for?
“Mr Speaker, staff in every part of our education system have faced a hugely challenging job and have done extraordinary things to keep children safe and educated throughout the pandemic.
“But too often the Secretary of State has refused to listen to their concerns or engage meaningfully with the expertise of professionals on the front line. He can start to make it up to them today.
“Is the JCVI working on a strategy to vaccinate all education staff, to keep them safe and get children back in the classroom?
“Does the Secretary of State believe that they should be prioritised for vaccination, to keep them safe and allow schools and colleges to reopen?
“Early years settings remain open to all children, but the Secretary of State has failed to explain how this will be safe for staff and families.
“So, can he tell us what scientific advice he received that made him think they will be safe? Can he honestly say that he is following the science?
“And, whether providers are open or closed, can he finally reconsider the unjustifiable decision to move early years funding in line with current occupancy, which will push tens of thousands of providers to the brink of collapse?
“Finally, Mr Speaker, I turn to the return of schools in the months ahead.
“The decision to close them is not one to take lightly, and while it is the right thing to do to control the virus and save lives, it has huge consequences for children’s learning and development.
“That is why Labour have always said that schools should be the last thing to close and the first thing to open.
“But yesterday the Prime Minister could not guarantee that children would be back in school before the summer.
“Can the Secretary of State tell us when he expects children to be safely back in the classroom, and what he will do to make it happen?
“Mr Speaker, At every stage of this pandemic young people have been an afterthought for this government, which has had no plan to safeguard their education, support their families, or protect the most vulnerable.
“Now we are back where we were nine months ago – schools closed, exams cancelled, and an Education Secretary without a grip on his brief or on the challenges facing pupils, parents, and staff.
“There is time to act. But he must act now, to ensure all pupils can learn remotely, that families are supported, and that the most vulnerable are safeguarded.”