Now that schools have moved to remote learning for most pupils, the focus must be on getting the school classrooms reopened as soon as possible and supporting the schools with the mix of remote and attended learning. I want to put on my record my thanks to the staff who lead and run our schools. I also want to recognise that the success of our vaccination delivery will be the key to getting our schools back to normal. As I pointed out to the Prime Minister in the chamber, every jab in the arm should be viewed as a pupil back in the classroom.
Keeping Schools Open
Throughout the last year, I have consistently supported keeping schools open where safe to do so. Whilst schools have now closed due to concerns about transmission rates, I would still encourage you to read this article as it may give comfort for a return once the vaccination roll-out starts to deliver and transmission rates reduce. The article gives detail about the risk to schools in opening during the pandemic, to staff and transmission in the community. Admittedly, this pre-dates the new strain but it gives a good review of this specific cohort and setting. I hope you will take time to review: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52003804
The Chief Inspector of Ofsted has said that children’s time out of classroom should be kept to the ‘absolute minimum’. The Children’s Commissioner has said ‘I hope the Government will follow my advice that these schools should be the last to close and first to open.’ Over the weekend, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health issued a statement saying ‘the new variant appears to affect all ages and, as yet, we are not seeing and greater severity amongst children and young people,’ It’s President said ‘As cases in the community rise there will be a small increase in the number of children we see with COVID19, but the overwhelming majority of children and young people have no symptoms or very mild illnesses only.’
These three individuals range across education, the NHS and as advocates for children. The statistics from the Department for Education showed that 0.2% of all pupils were self-isolating with confirmed COVID19 over the prior term. Before this strain got out of control, and prior to us having a vaccination programme, I had tended to the view that the broader health (mental and physical) arguments pointed towards school classrooms remaining open for physical learning. With schools now being moved to remote learning, I am concerned at the social and economic costs which could be borne by pupils not receiving such a positive educational experience. There is also no guarantee that being outside of the school gate, and mixing in the community, will contain the spread. Ultimately, the vaccination programme should deliver this control.
Summer exams will not be going ahead as planned. Today, I spoke to the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and discussed the replacement for exams. The Government will announce more this week. Our local headteachers had recommended that a national form of coursework assessment could give some form of independent assessment of grading. This would then back up the teacher assessed grades which I expect to be used to replace exam results. This is an excellent idea and I am pleased to have passed it on to the Schools Minister. I do not expect the computer model to be used this year. With an early decision having been made to cancel exams, we have more time to create a better solution and ensure that our teachers are not left without some form of assistance to justify fair grading. More news will come this week.
Vote in Parliament
I am attaching my 3 minute speech in the Parliamentary debate. This explains my rationale and also includes my point that I did not ever envisage walking through a division lobby to close schools to physical attendance. Whilst I have concerns over the damage to young people, I thought it more helpful to be more optimistic to their contribution than create a self-fulfilling prophecy: https://www.huwmerriman.org.uk/news/watch-vote-latest-covid-19-restrictions
Supporting Schools and Pupils
It is important to note that schools remain open to remote learning. Schools are also welcoming pupils to the classroom if a parent is a key worker, if they fall within a vulnerable list of categories or if the pupil has struggled to keep up with work in the previous remote-learning period. This means that more pupils are likely to be taught inside schools. Again, I want to put on record my thanks for what our schools are doing in this regard. It is not easy for them to teach remotely and physically. The school I have personal contact with have been absolutely brilliant and I am sure the case is similar across the constituency for other parents.
For those now moving to remote learning, there are legally binding requirements for schools to provide high-quality remote education. This is mandatory for all state-funded schools and will be enforced by Ofsted. Schools are expected to provide between three and five teaching hours a day, depending on a child’s age. The Oak National Academy continues to provide video lessons for all ages across all subjects and the BBC this week announced it will be delivering the biggest push on education in its history, bringing 14 weeks of educational programmes and lessons to every household in the country. We have purchased more than one million laptops and tablets. 560,000 of these have been delivered to schools and local authorities, with an extra 100,000 this week alone. By the end of next week we will have delivered three quarters of a million devices. We are also working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators, to provide free data for key educational sites. We are very grateful to EE, Three, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile, O2 and Vodaphone for supporting this offer. We have also been delivering 4G routers to families who need to access the internet.
I’m attaching an exchange I had with the Prime Minister in the chamber this week.
It’s vital we work in an orderly manner, get all GP patient lists vaccinated per the priority list and don’t change the rule-base otherwise it will delay everyone being vaccinated. There’s a long way to go but we’ve already vaccinated more people in the UK than the EU countries put together. We now need to deliver it faster. Locally, people are being vaccinated at the GP surgery at Sidley and at the Conquest and DGH. Etchingham Village Hall will become a vaccination centre from next week.
We will get out of this lockdown situation faster by vaccinating those who are clinically at risk not just by the catching of COVID but by losing their life from it. These are the categories we are prioritising, rather than by occupation.
I very much hope that schools will soon be opening their classrooms to all again. The scheduled date is mid-February but will depend on the vaccination numbers. I also want to finish with a huge thank you to our staff, pupils and parents who have had a very trying time. I am truly sorry for the disruption caused.