Tuesday 6 July 2021 / 2:22 PM Education / Kate Green

Kate Green responds to Education Secretary’s statement on easing restrictions across the education system

Kate Green, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, responding to the Secretary of State for Education’s statement on easing restrictions across the education system, said:

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Thank you, Madame Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and advance sight of it.

I would like to echo his tribute to the education staff, pupils, and parents who have done so much over the past 16-months to keep children and young people learning.

Just over an hour ago, the Department for Education confirmed that last week there were 623,000 pupils who were not in school because of coronavirus.

And while 471,000 of those pupils were out of school because of a bubble collapsing in school, there were still over 150,000 who were not in the classroom with confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus, or because of potential contact with a case outside the classroom.

It is not just bubbles that have driven pupils from the classroom, it was the Conservatives’ negligence in letting the Delta variant take hold at the same time as they failed to take the necessary precautions in schools.

I have always said that school is the best place for children – for their learning, their wellbeing, and their social development – and that is why I believe we must do everything we can to keep them there safely.

Mr Speaker, many parents across the country will be relieved to hear that the bubbles policy is coming to an end.

But the Secretary of State has not given us confidence that his alternative will keep more children in school without driving up infections.

His Department has piloted using testing instead of the bubble system, but he did not mention this in his Statement. Can he tell us the results of those pilots using daily testing instead of bubbles in some schools? Did it mean more hours in the classroom, did it mean more cases, did it mean an unmanageable workload on school leaders?

Can he confirm how many schools pulled out of the pilots and if the reasons for schools withdrawal is informing his department’s planning for next year?

He said that bubbles will end when we reach Stage 4, but that there will not be any on-site testing until September. So what support is he putting in place to keep pupils in the classroom for the remainder of this term?

He said bubbles need to end in order to support summer schools, can he confirm that they will have mitigations in place in addition to testing so that children can actually learn and not just isolate over summer?

And separate to summer schools his Department has promised a holiday activities and food programme. Can he tell me what measures will be in place to ensure that this programme can run and that the children relying on it will not lose out?

The Secretary of State spoke of a baseline of protective measures for when schools return in September, can he say more about what they are? He mentioned better ventilation, will all schools receive support from his department to put this in place?

Specifically, on masks – can the Secretary of State explain to me why masks were required in schools in March and April, but are not required now, when case number are much higher? Will he publish the scientific advice that I am sure he has received that is underpinning his decision, and if he cannot do that, will he think again?

We know that the vaccination programme, delivered by the NHS, remains our route out of this pandemic, but we still do not know if this will be available to children. When does he expect to receive this advice, and when will he make it public? If the JCVI do propose vaccinating older children, can he guarantee that there will be an infrastructure in place to begin that process before the return to the classroom in September?

As we look ahead to the new academic year, can he guarantee that schools, staff, and pupils will know his plans for assessments next year by the first of September at the latest?

The Secretary of State mentioned on-site testing in colleges, but what other measures will be in place? Have they been supported to put better ventilation in place?

I am sure students will welcome the return of in-person teaching and learning in higher education, but can the Secretary of State say what protective measures will be in place in these settings and what steps will be taken to support the return and safe learning of international students?

Madame Deputy Speaker, I want nothing more than for children to be in class, learning and spending time with their friends, and it is right for children’s learning that we move away from the chaotic bubble system, but we can’t simply wish away the real challenges of the pandemic.

Today’s statement offers no clarity on how the Government will stop infections spiralling. The Conservatives’ inadequate testing regime, lack of action on ventilation and their recklessness at the border have put our children’s education at risk. This must not continue.