Yesterday in Parliament there was a brief discussion under the headline of Educational Disadvantage: Covid-19 and two of the elements that arose were rather disappointing. One was a request by an MP who represents the the constituency of Ashfield in Nottinghamshire. For most of his political life Lee Anderson was an active member of the Labour Party until 2018 when he changed to join the Conservative Party and got elected as a Councillor soon after. He has been an MP since December. His question which could not have been answered as Keir Starmer was not present was:
I have spoken to many headteachers across Ashfield who want to get back to full service as soon as possible. One way to begin to do that is to encourage all kids who can go back to school to do so, because it is safe. I deeply regret that last week, the Leader of the Opposition refused to say publicly that schools are safe to go back to. Will my right hon. Friend remind colleagues across the House that the education and welfare of our children come before any political point scoring?
So assuming that political point scoring was not helpful in the case of such an issue and given that very few politicians have a scientific or health background it would appear reasonable for these people to take a more careful approach. Just as Lee had only spoken to many headteachers in his constituency, it is not realistic for him to know what all of them are thinking, indeed he may not have listened to those he was speaking to. In the case of knowing if Schools are safe to go back to, such statements can be made by anyone, but they require information from a number of groups of people who together can make a more credible approach. However Gavin Williamson, the Minister in the debate chose to ignore the call which Lee Anderson had set out rather strangely given his own approach.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. He will know from his constituency the real benefits that schools are bringing to the children who are going back, and we need to expand that. Schools are a safe environment not just for children, but for those who work in them. It is a shame the Leader of the Opposition does not acknowledge that, but I hope the shadow Secretary of State will acknowledge how important it is to get all children back and what a safe environment schools are.
It is very clear that claiming Schools are safe varies enormously depending on a range of factors and so this sort of comment has a number of challenges. However moving on, the Shadow Secretary of State is Rebecca Long-Bailey and she did not respond to this rather ridiculous call for her to take on the role of a scientist or health professional. Indeed a couple of comments later the Speaker of the House of Commons pointed out to Gavin Williamson and to all of the others in the debate “Can I just say that it is the Opposition who ask the questions, not the other way round?” So it is clear that in this context asking her was unrealistic given the point of this debate. However she made a call which seemed very reasonable.
All of this uncertainty could have been avoided if the Secretary of State had chosen to listen to the sector. Will he confirm that he will now formally convene a taskforce of trade unions, education and childcare leaders and staff, local authorities, parents’ organisations and health experts to address these issues urgently?
Now to be clear there were more issues being discussed than whether Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey could guarantee that Schools were safe. However this call seemed to make a great deal of sense for the wide range of issues that need to be discussed. Sadly the response from Gavin Williamson was limited to:
We will always listen to the whole sector, whether it is trade unions, those running the schools, or parents and children themselves—
We clearly need people like Gavin to respond in a more effective manner than suggesting he will listen to the whole sector without explaining how he could achieve that. It is a bit like the speaking to a lot of headteachers in Ashfield which may not have communicated very much at all.