Thank you for your email about closing schools to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Across the country, Coronavirus cases are higher than ever. In London, a new, more contagious strain of Coronavirus was identified at the end of last year which led to the capital being placed under Tier 4 restrictions, before the government finally conceded last night and announced another national lockdown.
Over the Christmas period, Ministers failed to show any semblance of leadership over the return of pupils to primary and secondary schools.
At first, the government announced that all pupils would return to secondary schools by 11th January. They then u-turned and announced that secondary schools would reopen to all pupils by 18th January, with remote learning taking place in the interim. Now, as a result of last night’s lockdown announcement, schools will only open to vulnerable children and the children of key workers until at least the February half-term.
When it comes to primary schools, the Department of Education initially released a list of London boroughs in which most pupils were to remain at home until 18th January – but the list excluded Islington, despite our COVID infection rate growing by 58% a week. Labour colleagues and I sent a letter to Gavin Williamson in response, in which we stated that different approaches across different London boroughs “risks confusion and diluting the public health message”. I also made a phone call to the Minister for Schools in which I explained to him how worrying the situation is in Islington. We have the highest population concentration in the country and our infection rate is very high indeed.
Although common sense did eventually prevail with the government announcing the closure of all London primary schools until 18th January, primary schools in many areas of the country, including other Tier 4 areas, were required to open on 4th January and they did so for just one day before the national lockdown was implemented.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that the way the government has handled this issue has been chaotic and dishonest from start to finish. On Sunday, Boris Johnson assured us that there was “no doubt” in his mind that schools were safe. Yet he ordered all of them to close the very next day. Staff, pupils and parents deserve much better than this.
Teaching unions had been calling on the government to “pause” the return of pupils to all schools. They are now calling for teachers to be prioritised for vaccination, and for remote learning plans and equipment to be improved. Throughout the pandemic, teachers, support staff, caterers and all the other key members of staff who keep our schools functioning have been risking their health to make sure that children receive their education. I think the least the government can do is listen to them on this issue.
Ofcom estimate that up to 1.78 million children in the UK do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, with many families also unable to afford broadband. In the first national lockdown, this meant that 700,000 children were unable to complete schoolwork. The government urgently need to tackle the “digital divide” in this country, otherwise poorer children from more deprived areas are not going to be able to participate in remote learning.
In the Labour Party, we do not underestimate the value of education. We know that school closures have a huge impact on children. That is why we supported the government when they kept schools open during the ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in November when the situation was less severe.
Now, the spread of Coronavirus is completely out of control. That is why Keir Starmer had been calling on the government to announce another national lockdown. I agree with him that “the government needs a plan on children’s learning, but also for working parents”. School closures are going to undoubtedly have a huge impact on working parents and the government must provide them with the support they need during these difficult times. For those pupils whose exams have been cancelled, clarification as to how they are going to be assessed is also extremely important and urgent.
The situation we have found ourselves in is far from ideal, but it is a result of Tory incompetence. Boris Johnson has failed to get the virus under control, and we must now all live with the consequences of his many incidences of inaction.
This winter lockdown will be tough on us all. But with the ongoing rollout of the vaccine, we must remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I sincerely hope that you and your family are keeping safe and well. If you have any further points you would like to raise with me or any issues you would like me to help you with, please do not hesitate to get back in touch.
The Rt Hon. Emily Thornberry MP
Islington South and Finsbury