The turn of the New Year should mark a changing of the tides, a time for optimism, and hope, after a difficult 2020 that was swept away by coronavirus, something I know all too personally, hope is the little thing we all have left.  Yet here we are, at the start of 2021, debating the Government’s shoddy provision of both education and free school meals.  The issues in question are not of optimism and hope, but instead of anxiety and panic for thousands of my constituents in Bolton, and across the country.

The fact it has taken an Opposition Day debate to hold these failings to account, and attempt to force a change in policy, says a great deal about this Government’s commitment to “building back better,” and says even more about its lack of empathy and compassion.

Impact of coronavirus on home schooling

The provision of home schooling is a real concern for me and other Members.  Even as far back as March, during the first lockdown, there was a huge contrast in the provisions of home schooling at independent and private schools compared to that of high schools in my constituency.  State schools simply were not prepared for this, nor did they have adequate funding to respond.

The Office for National Statistics reports that 700,000 11 to 18 year olds have no home Internet access from a suitable device.  What’s more, 68% say they would find it difficult to complete school work without such devices.  In October, the Government added more panic by cutting the allocation of laptops by 80% in some schools after guidance changed.

This was a callous and vindictive attack on those who need our support the most.

Whilst I welcome the Secretary of State for Education’s decision to increase investment in rebalancing this digital divide, promising 300,000 more laptops, why did it not come sooner?  Additionally, the £100m of funding for the additional laptops falls short of the ringfenced £135mn that the NEU have estimated.  So not only is it late, but potentially, it might not be enough to cover the cost.  This is an issue that demands maximum resources but, yet again – the Government and the Cabinet dither and delay, and it has a real impact on working families.

Impact of coronavirus on exams

Much has been said about the calamitous results for both A-level and GCSE students last summer, and rightly so.  I had constituents phoning me and crying, feeling that their futures had been snatched away from them by this Government’s algorithm which disproportionately impacted poorer students.

Whilst I welcomed the ultimate U-turn at the time, I ask again, why did it take so long?  Why does it take a crisis to hit before this Government is forced into U-turns, when we know this could have been avoided, preventing the stress and anxiety placed on students?

Again, for the year 2020-2021, the Secretary of State for Education remained wedded to the idea of examinations, despite Scotland and Wales cancelling them months ago, until he again made another U-turn, cancelling them altogether.  The speed in which he took this decision meant there was no provision for BTEC students, of which there are 1 million.  This is a failing on a ridiculous scale and previous Secretaries of State have resigned for far less – if a cat has 9 lives, how many does this Secretary of State have before he goes?

The Principal of Bolton Community College, Bill Webster, got in touch with me to say he had no idea whether the BTEC exams for January were still to go ahead, or to be cancelled.  He ultimately took the decision, and the correct one in my view, to cancel them.

Students were left, yet again, ignored by this Government.  One mother got in touch with my office to say that her son was “in tears,” with no idea about what would happen to his BTEC exams that week.  She added he felt like he was being forced to “choose between the health of himself and his family members” or his “potential university place.”  I cannot fathom how the Government remains unable to accept the facts of a situation and act accordingly.

Free school meals

There is a scandal around free school meals, and this is something that I feel personally very passionate about.

Since my election in 2010, and the ensuing austerity that followed, the child poverty rate in Bolton has increased from 25% in 2010 to 39% in 2020.  This is frankly unacceptable, and the Government ought to be ashamed.  We have all seen the images of Chartwell’s food packages, which are frankly abhorrent.  To say we are the fifth biggest economy, the fact we cannot adequately feed children during a global crisis is unacceptable.  The parcels reflected a true value of £5, rather than the allocated £30.  The images widely circulated on social media were comparable to food rationing, although some might argue that rationing was better.

Perhaps worst of all – this scandal speaks to the cronyism that runs at the heart of this Government.  Stephen Forster, a trade body representative, was responsible for the guidance of the food parcels.  He is also an executive at Chartwell’s, which provided the parcels.  Surely that is a clear conflict of interest?

This is a theme that has rung true throughout the pandemic.  There are countless PPE procurement scandals using the ‘VIP’ lane, which reduces scrutiny to zero, as well as the outsourcing of track and trace to Serco; the latest scandal being the appointment of the Chancellor’s advisor as Chairman of the BBC.

Margaret Thatcher spoke of a “meritocracy” in Britain – I think what we have here is a “chumocracy,” no reward for good work or ability, just a quick text and you’re in the running for a multi-million pound government contract.

Speaking from my experience in DFID and now the FCDO – if this were to go on in what we call a “developing” country, we would rightly call it “corruption” – so why not here?

The value of a balanced meal and provision of education go hand in hand.  We need to ensure our children are well fed and well equipped to achieve the best they possibly can at school and colleges, yet our Government appears unwilling to support this.  Therefore, at best, this Government’s behaviour can be construed as gross negligence.  At worst, it is rank incompetence mixed with a crass worldview.

It will come as no surprise therefore, that I voted for this motion.  Whether this motion forces the government’s hand or not is to be seen.  What has been seen by the public, on free school meals and provision of home schooling, is exactly what the Government is: devoid of empathy and care at a time of unprecedented global crisis.

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