I welcome Boris Johnson’s u-turn today on the provision of free school meal vouchers for children this summer, after Marcus Rashford’s campaign and calls from Labour MPs in support of the 1.3 million children who would have been potentially left hungry this summer.
This is one of the important issues that I included in my letter to Gavin Williamson, the Shadow Secretary for Education, about the reopening of schools and the government’s response to COVID-19 yesterday. Other constituents are worried about the lack of urgency around a school re-opening strategy, the need for proper home-learning equipment for all students, and the need for a fair and just examination system so children and young people are not left behind.
Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP
Department for Education
20 Great Smith Street
15 June 2020
I am writing with some concerns shared by my constituents regarding education during the COVID-19 crisis and the government’s strategy to re-open schools. These are issues which are aggravating already existing structural inequalities in our society and have very concerning implications for the most disadvantaged children and young people.
The points raised below have serious implications for the development of children and young people and are affecting families both socially and economically. I would be grateful if you could please provide a response:
- Firstly, on the provision of remote internet access for school children. Last week, the Chair of the Select Committee on Education said that there were 700,000 children without devices. Your government has confirmed that 100,000 had been distributed, and 230,000 are still waiting to be given out. This means that hundreds of thousands of the most disadvantaged children in our country have not been able to meaningfully study from home on a par with their counterparts, and the deficit in the provision means that hundreds of thousands more children will miss out.
Could you please urgently commit to a date by when my constituents who are still in need of the correct technology and a router for Wi-Fi will receive these items as promised?
Will you rectify the deficit in the provision to ensure that every child has equal access to learning materials from home?
What support are you providing to equip teachers and schools with the skills and resources, including financial and equipment, to support online learning?
- Children who receive free school meals shouldn’t spend the summer holidays hungry. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and left even more people with an uncertain future. As Marcus Rashford has written in his letter to all MPs, for many struggling families, these meals are a lifeline. I appreciate that this is not common practice in normal times, but given the rising numbers of unemployed people and the significant gaps in any financial support identified by the Treasury Select Committee it is clear that there will be many families struggling to feed their children through the summer. These are not normal times and they need exceptional actions.
Can the government provide free school meal vouchers for the duration of the holidays?
- My constituents are rightly confused and worried by the lack of action and planning for schools to re-open safely now and in September. They have noted that the government was able to act with considerable speed and efficiency when building the Nightingale hospitals. There is a need for increased space and teacher numbers to enable quality teaching at the same time as social-distancing to ensure that children and young people can all return to the education that they need are currently missing out on.
Will the government act with urgency and creativity and provide a clear strategy and action plan for reopening schools?
- We are continuing to learn about the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on BAME people. This is compounded by the other risk factors identified by the report from Public Health England published last week, such as having a low income, working in health or social care and risks for vulnerable, shielded and older people. My constituents are concerned that you are not taking all of this into account when calling for the return to school.
What risk assessments have been carried out specifically for BAME families and across all risk factors identified by the Public Health England report how will risks be managed and how are you ensuring that families understand these risks?
- It is likely that the attainment gap has widened a great deal over the last couple of months, with some children being able to study at home, but others still without the correct equipment.
How will you reassure families in my constituency that you will ensure that predicted grades this year, where students could not take their exams, will not mean that BAME students and other students from disadvantaged backgrounds will not do disproportionately worse than their counterparts?
How will you take this into account for exams next year?
Reopening schools will require the trust of teachers, students, parents and carers. Education is vitally important to a child’s development and children going back to school is essential for parents to be able to go back to work.
I am extremely concerned that in Bristol West many are already falling behind and risk falling behind even further unless the reopening of schools is given the same government attention and urgency as the attention rightly given earlier this year to the NHS and social care sectors in treating Covid-19. We know that it is possible for government to escalate action in certain areas. This is surely one of the most pressing.
Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West