Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this Urgent Question.
Despite the heroic efforts of teachers and support staff who have worked tirelessly to keep students learning - the four horsemen of the education apocalypse have been galloping towards our young people in the form of a widening attainment gap, an epidemic of mental health problems, a rise in safeguarding hazards, and a loss of life chances.
We know the attainment gap between rich and poor students has worsened. Children being referred to mental health support services has increased by 62%.
We know the damage that school closures bring. 100,000 “ghost children” are missing entirely from the school role. But just yesterday, the Department for Education released new figures showing over 230,000 children were not in school for COVID-related incidents.
The Government has stated they want to keep schools open but what is the plan in order to do so? What measures are being taken to ensure that should education staff be required to isolate due to COVID, there is a network of supply teachers ready to step in? Is additional funding being made available to provide adequate ventilation in schools?
The Health Secretary is right to say that we should protect the NHS, but why does the Department for Education not say we have to protect our children’s futures? What mental health support is being given to our young people affected by the pandemic? What assessment is being made of the impact of lost learning for students in critical exam years?
There is a nationwide campaign for an army of NHS volunteers, but not for education. Why is a similar army of retired teachers or Ofsted inspectors not being recruited to support schools struggling to cope with staffing requirements?
Why can we not have the same vision, passion and funding provision for the education service as we do for the National Health Service?
Despite the Government’s assurances, it seems to me that we are moving towards de facto school closures. I urge the Government to prove otherwise.