The letter sent from Kate Green, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, to Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, on 1 January 2021.
I am deeply concerned that your statement to the House of Commons yesterday did not provide pupils, parents, or education staff with the clarity and certainty that they need as they plan for the reopening of schools and colleges in January, and I am writing to ask you to provide this clarity as a matter of urgency.
There has been a consensus across Parliament that keeping schools open to all pupils should be a national priority, but it appears that the government have simply lost control of the pandemic, and children are now paying the price in the closure of their schools and disruption to their education . Yesterday, I asked you to publish in full the advice the government has received in relation to the reopening of schools in January, and I ask you again to do so. Parents and school staff deserve to know that the government is taking all possible measures to keep children learning and keep children and staff safe. Are you confident that the measures you announced yesterday will be sufficient to reduce the spread of the virus?
Your statement came only a matter of days before the parents of pupils across the country, including all primary school pupils, expected their children to return to school, but now hundreds of thousands of children will see their school close, with no clear support in place for pupils or parents, and no clear path to their reopening.
Given the huge uncertainty and concerns facing families and hardworking education staff across the country, I hope that you will answer these questions urgently.
Schools will be relieved that they have been given extra time to put arrangements in place for mass testing of pupils, but there remain concerns about the support they will receive to do this. Will additional funding to recruit temporary staff be available to all schools, on what basis will it be allocated, and will schools be expected to meet any or all of the cost from their own budgets?
Is it the government’s intention that the testing programme will be introduced in special schools, and if so, what arrangements will be put in place to meet any additional support needs they may have, including the provision of PPE and staff resources.
Can you confirm whether it is the government’s intention to roll out testing in primary schools in due course?
In Parliament yesterday, you said that the overwhelming majority of primary schools would open on 4 January, but in London alone there are over half a million children in areas where primary schools will not be opening as planned. Your Department has admitted the original list published was incorrect so can you immediately confirm how many primary schools across England will not be opening as planned, and how many pupils are affected by this?
In your statement, you said that primary schools would not reopen in “a small number of areas, where the infection rates are highest[.]” But many local leaders have reported concerns that schools in areas with the highest levels of transmission will still open normally. Can you outline clearly and transparently the set of criteria used to determine when schools should not open?
We cannot reach a point where schools are closed indefinitely, and I welcome the fact that closures will be reviewed on 18 January. However, I am concerned that there is no clear process or criteria in place for allowing these schools to reopen. Will you publish, as a matter of urgency, the specific circumstances in which schools will reopen during the new term?
Can you provide clarity for schools with mixed primary and secondary intakes? Will primary pupils attend those schools, while secondary students will not return until 11 or 18 January?
Did you consult school leaders and local government leaders before deciding which areas should be subject to contingency measures?
Has your decision on contingency measures, particularly in London, considered the extent to which pupils will live in one local authority area but attend school in another?
Your statement said nothing on what will happen for nurseries in tier 4 contingency areas where primary schools are closing. Can you confirm all nurseries can remain open under the new restrictions?
Teachers and school leaders simply do not understand the situation for secondary schools in the first weeks of January, entirely because of the lack of clarity in your statement. This must be clarified as a matter of urgency so that schools and families can prepare. Will you therefore provide urgent answers to the following questions:
During the week commencing 4 January, will it only be pupils in exam years who receive remote learning?
If this will not be the case, can you confirm that no school will be found to have violated laws implemented by your Department requiring schools to provide remote learning to all pupils who are not in school? Will you be clarifying the situation to school leaders?
During the week commencing 11 January, will all pupils who are not in school, meaning those not in exam years, receive remote learning?
It is my understanding that the next review point for the contingency measures is 18 January, the same date secondary schools are due to reopen. However, your Department’s press release suggests that areas with secondary schools subject to the contingency framework will be published at the next review point. Can you confirm when secondary schools will be told if they will not have to reopen to all pupils, and can you guarantee that that parents and school staff will have adequate time to prepare for this?
Support for families
Parents across the country have received only a matter of days to prepare for their children not to return to school at the beginning of January, creating huge challenges for those who need to balance work and supporting their children. Can you urgently outline the support that will be made available to families whose children are not able to return to school in January?
Can you set out in detail what reassurance is available to families with a clinically extremely vulnerable household member that their children can return to school safely.
It is my understanding that parents can be furloughed if they are unable to work due to childcare commitments, but this is not something that the government have made sufficiently clear to parents. Can you clarify if this is the case, and work with employers and unions to make this clear to the parents who are affected?
While I appreciate that you have committed to an expansion of digital access to learners who are out of school, I am concerned that schools will not receive devices they have ordered promptly, and that not all disadvantaged children will receive the support that they need. Can you set out a clear timeline for schools to receive the devices they are entitled to, and confirm the number of disadvantaged pupils who will be eligible?
Students are due to start returning to university from this weekend. While I understand that government guidance will now ask fewer students to return to campuses in the first weeks of January, given that a clear majority of the country is now under tier 4 ‘stay at home’ restrictions, will you consider pausing the return of students to prevent further spread of infection?
Plans for exams
In your statement you confirmed that BTEC and vocation and technical exams taking place in January will go ahead but you have not set out any plans to ensure these exams can go ahead safely and fairly. This support must be provided as a matter of urgency.
What further steps are you putting in place to ensure summer GCSE and A-level exams can go ahead safely and fairly? I understand you are establishing a working group to consider lost learning but this is worryingly delayed, so can you tell me when the group will meet and when exactly it will report?
We have now had weeks of chaos and uncertainty for pupils, parents, and schools, which has been a direct result of this government’s mishandling. You have once again waited until the last possible moment to act, causing unnecessary worry and inconvenience to the hundreds of thousands of people who are affected by these changes.
This is my third letter asking you to clarify as a matter of urgency the details around the start of the spring term, the support that schools and families will receive and how children’s learning and wellbeing will be protected. It’s extremely disappointing you have not yet responded to my previous letters, and your statement yesterday did not provide the answers needed.
Families across the country deserve far better. At a minimum they deserve clarity about how many schools are affected, how these decisions were made, and when schools will be able to open again. I hope that you will urgently provide this clarification.
I look forward to your swift response.
Kate Green MP