Throughout the pandemic, I have been keeping in close touch with all our schools in the Meon Valley, including teachers, headteachers, and parents. The wellbeing of children and young people is an area of deep concern to me, because the pandemic has disrupted their education and development at such an important and sensitive time in their lives.
Accordingly, my view has been that we should do everything we can to keep schools open and to keep children attending. I know teachers and staff share that view, and they have made huge efforts to enable safe ways of working and teaching. I have ensured that any concerns they have raised with me have been passed on to Ministers in my regular discussions with them. I have also urged Ministers to give school and teaching staff a high priority in the programme of vaccination, alongside other key workers in the NHS and social services.
However, the current surge in transmission of Covid-19 is driven by the emergence of new variants which may be more transmissible. Therefore, we must take every precaution to protect our NHS against the spread of the illness in society, with the introduction of the restrictions now in place. Even then, it is only with the greatest reluctance that the Government is closing schools to most pupils.
Schools will remain open to vulnerable children and those whose parents are critical workers – a clearly-defined group of workers engaged in tackling Covid themselves. Schools will also remain open to any child who, for whatever reason, cannot access remote learning.
To support remote learning, the Government has already delivered 500,000 laptops and tablets to schools to distribute to children who need them. A further 100,000 devices are being delivered this week. Many telecoms providers have agreed to provide free data services to families who do not have a suitable connection, and schools are also able to procure 4G routers for families. The BBC is providing an enlarged service of educational programming to support home learning too. [link]
The DfE is putting in place a national scheme to provide vouchers for families eligible for free school meals while schools are closed.
With this scale of disruption to school and college activity it is clear that GCSE, A-level, and AS-level exams cannot proceed. Instead, there will be a process of teacher-assigned grading. The DfE and OFQUAL have prepared for this contingency, and will liaise with teaching representatives to ensure guidance is available to produce fair and consistent awarding of grades.
For students doing BTEC and other vocational qualifications, colleges and providers will consider whether it is appropriate to go ahead with assessments and will liaise with the awarding bodies on the appropriate course of action for students.
We have seen since the start of the new academic year in September that schools and colleges can operate safely. It is only because of the current extreme circumstances that they are closed. I will do everything I can to support teachers, parents and pupils in the coming weeks, and through reopening when it happens.
Again, I thank everyone working in education for their commitment and the contribution they are making to supporting children during the pandemic.