It will be tough – but children need to be heading back to the classrooms

Schoolchildren, some wearing masks, attend a class in Strasbourg, France. Ipswich MP Tom Hunt says s

Schoolchildren, some wearing masks, attend a class in Strasbourg, France. Ipswich MP Tom Hunt says sensible measures will be taken to get as many children back in schools as soon as possible. Picture: PA - Credit: AP

The Prime Minister’s speech to the nation last Sunday was clearly of great significance and it clearly marks us moving to the next phase in tackling Covid-19.

Straight after the speech was given, I was contacted by a number of constituents who had a number of concerns about what was announced and questions about what it all meant for them.

Over the past few days a significant amount of further guidance has now been issued by the Government and I hope that for many their concerns have now been addressed but I’m very happy to provide whatever help and support I can to those who still have questions and are seeking greater clarity.

Clearly the past week has been a significant one as far as our schools our concerned, particularly our primary schools. It has been announced by the Government that it is their ambition for some phased reopening of primary schools to take place from early June.

Having been in contact with a number of Ipswich primary school teachers this week as well as parents of primary school children, I’m well aware of the concerns there are and clearly the Government has a big task over the next few weeks to answer an array of different questions and to provide a significant amount of reassurance to both teachers and parents.

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It is important to stress that this will be a phased reopening targeted at those year groups and individuals who stand to lose out the most as a result of school closures.

In addition to this, class sizes will need to be much smaller than usual and there will need to be appropriate guidance around social distancing.

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Having spoken to a number of local teachers this week it’s clear to me that headteachers ought to be trusted to make decisions that they know to be in the best interests of both their pupils and their staff. They know their school better than anyone else and there ought to be a bit of flexibility to allow them to do what they know to be best.

Ultimately there are no easy choices at the moment. Though I do sympathise with those who believe that embarking on a phased reopening comes with some risks, I would also point out that a continuation of the status quo until the autumn carries with it grave risks to some of the most vulnerable children within our society and the life chances of many who really rely upon learning in a classroom-based environment.

As someone who sits on the Education Select Committee I am part of a Parliamentary inquiry looking in detail at the ways in which school closures have impacted young people and all I can say is that it’s utterly depressing developing an understanding of how this is likely to have a chilling impact on social mobility and how it seems to be children from the most deprived backgrounds who are being disproportionately impacted by school closures.

It’s vitally important that the Government provides the assurances and guidance they need to over the coming weeks and that the potential impact of partial reopening is closely monitored. But I believe if everyone works together we can get to a point where an increased the number of children can go to school over the coming weeks.

The teachers who I speak with in Ipswich are passionate about what they do and have been operating within very challenging and unique circumstances since lockdown commenced. They’re desperate for things to go back to normal as soon as it’s safe to do so.

However, it does seem that some senior representatives from certain teaching unions are adopting positions that will make this very challenging. The head of one major teaching union has stated his opposition to any phased reopening before September (presumably even if his concerns around health and safety are addressed) while another large teaching union has produced guidelines actively discouraging teachers from carrying out online classes.

I really do hope that some of these antagonistic positions that have been adopted are modified so that it’s far easier for everyone to work together to do what’s in the best interest of both children and teachers.

It’s time to get back to more normality in Parliament

I was glad that earlier this week the Leader of the House of Commons stated that early next month the Parliamentary timetable will be extended and that some of the restrictions on how many Members of Parliament can be in the House of Commons Chamber at one time will be relaxed.

I believe that introducing a virtual Parliament was necessary and I also think its important that MPs should follow exactly the same restrictions that everyone else has had to follow.

However a virtual Parliament cannot replicate the real thing and there has been a real cost to representation and Parliamentary democracy in my view, and the sooner we can go back to something approaching “normal” the better.

Over the past few weeks Parliament hasn’t been sitting on Thursdays and the consequence of this has been that the Parliamentary timetable has had to be squeezed into three days, limiting the ability of MPs to effectively represent their constituents in the House of Commons Chamber.

Two times in a row now I’ve been drawn to ask questions in the Chamber relating to concerns that have been raised directly with me by constituents and both times the question time session has been “timed out” and I haven’t been able to ask my questions.

From early June Parliament needs to sit on Thursday and for longer each day to ensure that all MPs are able to adequately represent their constituents and hold the Government to account.

Clearly strict social distancing guidelines will need to be followed but at a time when the Government are asking many others to go back to work I think it’s important that Parliament leads by example and that where possible we hold the Government to account in a safe way from the House of Commons Chamber and not from our living rooms.

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