Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Vulnerable children not being educated need to be considered, too.
Of all the arguments about schools re-opening in a cautious, phased and deliberative manner – as the Government intends – there is one that stands out the most to me: the fate of our most disadvantaged children.
Some of the national figures show that, despite the remarkable efforts of many teachers and support staff, the disadvantage gap may widen considerably during school closures.
55 per cent of teachers from the most disadvantaged schools believe that the average pupil in their class is learning for less than one hour a day. Two thirds of children have not taken part in online lessons during the coronavirus lockdown.
An estimated 60,000 children in the UK lack any internet connectivity at home, while 700,000 are in homes lacking any laptop, desktop or tablet. Close to 90 per cent of vulnerable children are not in school during COVID-19.
This is why the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has suggested that schools should be opened in a phased manner and has pointed to evidence from 62 hospital nursery schools which have remained open, none of which have reported transmission of the virus:
“We know there are thousands of vulnerable children who need to be in school… The decision to bring back children from Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 first is sensible, as these are the year groups who need to be in school most urgently… We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school. It’s time to stop squabbling and agree a staggered, safe return that is accompanied by rigorous testing of teachers, children and families.”
Elsewhere, the Chief of Mental Health at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Lee Hudson wrote:
“As much as they try, all parents – including my wife and I – cannot educate as well as schools. Whilst for a short period that might have small influence for some, for many children this is potentially a disaster. The negative effects of adverse social determinants of health in children, in particular education, is well established. Children carry the effects on their physical and mental health throughout their lives, and as such childhood and adolescence are key windows for many life outcomes Right now, that gap is almost certainly widening with effects for many years to come…
“…We find ourselves as individuals and as a society having to make decisions without exact certainty on what the best thing is for children. On balance, in my view, that is a structured return to school for children, and that goes for mine too.”
This view has also been supported by former Labour Education Secretaries Lord Blunkett and Alan Johnson. Blunkett told BBC Radio 4:
“It’s about how we can work together to make it work as safely as possible. Anyone who works against that, in my view, is working against the interests of children…
“…It’s only one in seven of the most vulnerable children who are actually getting educated…some children are actually getting nothing.”
So by no means is it a ‘Tory’-only belief to start opening up our schools. But, it should be the mission of a Conservative Government to ensure that our most vulnerable children do not get left behind.
Please Jacob, don’t make this the Euthanasia Parliament: An open letter to the Leader of the House
The arguments for and against a return to Parliament have had a fair wind in the pages of Conservative Home and I hope the Editor will indulge me just a few lines on this subject.
For the record, I do believe Parliament should return. If we are asking schools (see above) and other workers to go back in a phased way, so Parliament should, too.
But, if there are MPs who are sick, shielding, or self isolating, surely it is right to let them continue to vote online, and participate in committees also virtually via Zoom and Microsoft Teams?
How can it be just to stop those Parliamentarians from doing their duty by Parliament for a number of weeks, until things are back to normal?
Is it really morally just to say in effect to MPs, because you are not Tarzan-like and able to swing through the Chamber, beating your chest shouting to your constituents, ‘Look I am here!’ that you are effectively euthanised from the Commons. MPs who are disrupted by this awful pandemic are not just old horses to be sent to the knackers yard.
So Jacob, be fair. Let us have the hybrid Parliament until the very worst of the pandemic is over. Encourage MPs to return, absolutely. Go back to the traditions, once we are COVID-free. But don’t ignore those affected by coronavirus, who want to be legislators, when the technology makes this possible. Please be generous-spirited.
The Overseas Aid Budget should be part diverted to combat the Coronavirus
Here’s a thought: our Overseas Aid Budget currently comes in at about £14.1 billion. Given the pandemic, is it really conceivable that it should continue to be spent in the same way?
With scarce financial muscle, why not divert a significant proportion of the aid budget to dealing with the coronavirus, whether it be developing a global vaccine, laboratory research, testing, resilience or any other infrastructure that is needed to combat this dreadful disease?
At a time of national emergency, it seems right to use some of the Overseas Aid Budget in this way. The first duty of Government must be to protect its citizens.