Letter to the Education Secretary about schools re-opening

The Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP

Secretary of State for Education

12th June 2020

Dear Gavin

I am writing to raise my serious concerns about the way in which your Government has failed to make education and schools a priority during the coronavirus pandemic, and in particular when it comes to enabling the safe, wider opening of schools and educational opportunities as lockdown restrictions are eased.

This is urgent. I am getting a steady stream of letters from parents who feel abandoned and, frankly, desperate as education has been treated as the "poor relation" of this pandemic. Working parents in particular need the Government to recognise that the current situation is putting them under immense strain - and that pressure is increased where families live in cramped accommodation with no access to gardens.   It is virtually impossible for people to successfully manage childcare, home schooling and full time work all at once, and it's not good for children or families.  In addition, there are the children who do not have anyone to write on their behalf, a serious number of whom are of serious safeguarding concern to their schools. 

Tens of thousands of children will have to wait until the start of the next academic year, at the earliest, before they see their friends and teachers in person again – and the most disadvantaged pupils are suffering most.  

Taskforce required

I was particularly disappointed that in your statement to the House of Commons on 9th June, you did not address the concerns raised publicly by Anne Longfield, England's Children's Commissioner, about how distorted the Government's priorities seem: ministers have found the time to announce they are ready to re-open zoos and theme parks, yet don’t seem to be bringing any serious ambition to bear when it comes to finding solutions for schools.   Children, parents, local authorities, teachers and school governors have been left in the dark for weeks and they remain none the wiser on what the future might look like. 

We need a major taskforce with representation from councils, teachers, heads and Government ministers to bring forward safe, workable solutions. The same kind of ambition and creative thinking that led to the establishment of the Nightingale hospitals needs to be brought to bear in education too.  Ministers should be engaging proactively with those who have expertise and operational experience to explore a range of different options - could schools take over community centres and other buildings, for example?  Can portacabins be built? Could we bring back retired teachers as a means to urgently provide heads with more leadership/teaching support to cover a greater number of buildings?  Is there a way of safely giving children some limited social contact with their peers before the holidays where a return to school cannot be made to work?

Aside from the terrible effect on children’s learning and life-chances, your Government will be far less able to embark on a meaningful economic recovery without finding, funding and planning innovative and creative ways to ensure children get access to education and to their schools.  

Test, trace and isolate (TTI) system

I would also like to stress the role that a comprehensive, effective, community led TTI system needs to play in opening up schools more widely. The Government’s scheme is currently falling far short of what’s required, and local authorities and head teachers have been put in an incredibly difficult position.  As with so many Government actions during this crisis, the TTI system that has been brought forward has arrived weeks later than needed, and was ‘launched’ to great Ministerial fanfare before it was properly working.  On 1 June, we did not have a fully operational widespread TTI system in place, no matter how hard the Prime Minister thumps his dispatch box when he says so, and as a result a number of local authorities judged it to be unsafe to support wider school opening.  

Poor communication

The Government's lack of communication, to parents and children, to school leaders and teachers, has caused real and avoidable problems. It is vital that you urgently formulate, consult on and publish a proper plan for those year groups who cannot yet go back.  

Head teachers have frequently complained that they are not informed of major announcements before they are made public. Moreover, announcements are unaccompanied by planning or guidance – this tends to come two or three weeks later.  

The failure of communication was laid bare this week by the alarming lack of detail in your oral statement to MPs about what longer term plans will entail.  Obvious questions were not addressed and were left hanging in the minds of school leaders who have already moved mountains during this pandemic.  For example:

  • What does helping those held back by the pandemic look like in terms of DfE resources and planning?  
  • Will there be a ‘catch-up premium’ to fund extra staff and lessons?
  • If so, when will extra lessons and support be provided? 
  • Will the school year next year need to be reshaped? 
  • And what will happen to SATS, especially for the current year 5s?  

Standard Attainment Tests for next year

On the last question of SATs for next year, I have received the following message from a constituent. I share the concerns raised and urge you to cancel all SATs for next year, including the planned introduction of the Reception Baseline Assessment:

"SATs tests are already incredibly stressful for both pupils and teachers with most of their Year 6 being taught solely for the test. For them to have to also catch up with 2.5 terms worth of their Year 5 learning in this incredibly short period of time will be putting immense strain, and unnecessary mental stress, on these young children, and teachers. Not to mention the fact that many of these children may also have suffered terribly during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in terms of hunger, abuse and grief."

The digital divide

The digital divide for children not in school and trying to learn from home remains unbridged months into this pandemic.  We need a straight answer to questions about the missing laptops.  In your statement, you said they wouldn't arrive until the end of the month.  That is *three* months of children falling behind their digitally connected peers because they don't have access to a computer or adequate wifi.  As you will be aware, the Education Select Committee chair has pointed out that 700,000 children lack the technology required for online teaching. So your, as yet undelivered, scheme falls short in terms of numbers of laptops as well as the timetable -  it is for 230,000 laptops, with only around 100,000 sent out to date. Why wasn't a more rapid system, that matched need, put in place from the start of the school closures?

All year groups and SEND children

Taskforce planning should include hearing and acting upon the Covid-19 safety concerns of school communities, and must take account of the emotional and physical needs of all year groups.  Within those year groups, SEND Families with children who have very complex needs are particularly hard hit, having lost both much of their education provision and any prospect of respite.  What is the plan for SEND children with or without EHCPs where they cannot be safely accepted into schools under new safety restrictions?  At the very least, will you work with Ministerial colleagues to ensure their increasingly desperate families get access to greater respite support during this period?

Child hunger over the holidays

I urge you to extend the free school meals vouchers to cover the summer.  Families on low incomes need that support more than ever – if the Government doesn’t step up, some children will go hungry.  There is a working scheme in place and at a time of real desperation, it would be a scandal not to use it.

In short, there is genuine appreciation that this is an incredibly difficult situation, but my constituents rightly want to know why you have not, from the start, led on the development of a plan for schools that could be publicly discussed, understood and readily adapted in response to changing evidence as this pandemic has peaked and unfolded. 

There is a policy, strategy and empathy vacuum in your Government’s approach education where there should be understanding, urgency and action. 

I should be grateful for your response to the questions raised in this letter.

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