The Covid-19 pandemic has had huge impact on the normality of all of our lives, and this is especially true for children and young people. The closure of schools, whilst necessary to limit the spread of the virus, has left young people without their usual routines and created uncertainty about their education and future. I have been in regular contact with our local schools and I pay tribute to the hard work of teachers and other school staff who are continuing to support their students in these challenging circumstances. I have been working hard to raise the concerns that teachers and young people have raised with me with the Government.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to maintaining free school meals throughout the pandemic. However, schools and parents across the country have reported extended waits for vouchers and technical problems with the scheme. I have written to the Minister for Children and Families to ask that the vouchers are extended so that they can be used in lower cost supermarkets which many families rely on (previously vouchers could be used in Waitrose and Marks and Spencers, but not Lidl and Aldi). I have this week contacted local headteachers to request an update on any problems they are aware of and I will continue to raise these issues with the Secretary of State for Education.
This extended lockdown period without conventional education in schools threatens to widen existing inequalities in our society, with children at state schools much less likely to be able to access virtual learning. Whilst some students have personal computers and space to work, many of the families that I represent have to share devices in cramped conditions and with unreliable WiFi. I welcome the government announcement of funding to allow local councils to purchase laptops for vulnerable children and year 10 pupils due to sit exams next year. This scheme must be prioritised to prevent Covid-19 from further widening inequality as students without access to technology fall further behind in their studies.
I am also concerned about the impact that cancelling GCSE, BTEC and A-Level exams will have on many young people’s future. I understand the need to cancel exams in this unprecedented situation, but I know that this will be disappointing to the students across Dulwich and West Norwood who have been working hard to revise and prepare themselves. I am also concerned that the use of predicted grades will be unreliable and potentially underestimate the results that many pupils would have received. Extensive research suggests that predictive grades disproportionately underestimate the actual results for BAME and female students. No student’s potential should be limited by their background. I have tabled written questions to the Government on this issue, and I have written to the Secretary of State for Education and the Chair of Ofqual to request urgent training and guidance on unconscious bias for all teachers and measures to prepare for exams in Autumn if students are unhappy with their grades.
This week, Boris Johnson indicated that some schools may be asked to reopen as soon as two weeks from now for some year groups. There is an urgency to reopening our schools, but the government cannot trade off health and safety against education and must work with teaching unions and parents on a detailed plan for Covid-19 safety in schools. I believe that any decision to reopen schools must be supported by a detailed plan developed in partnership with teaching unions to ensure that pupils, staff and parents are kept safe from the risk of Covid-19 and to support schools to facilitate social distancing, access the personal protective equipment they need and maintain additional hygiene measures.