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Tory MP Warns Children Are “Falling Out Of Society” As Pressure Mounts To Reopen Schools

Tory MP Warns Children Are “Falling Out Of Society” As Pressure Mounts To Reopen Schools
4 min read

A Conservative MP and former teacher has expressed fear of irreparable damage being done to children’s wellbeing with schools closed as a result of coronavirus measures.

Miriam Cates, a former science teacher and MP for Penistone & Stocksbridge told PoliticsHome that children are at risk of “falling out of society” because of a lack of socialisation with peers and communicating online rather than face to face conversations with teachers.

“We’ve accepted as a society that it’s morally right for us all to sacrifice to save lives. I don’t disagree with that," Cates said.  

"There’s a phenomenal cost to businesses and jobs. It’s tough but most people understand that there is a cost and we need to share it equally. 

Cates argued children were beginning to feel an unfair share of the impact of lockdown. "I think if we don’t get the schools back soon, we’re in danger of not sharing the burden equally and too much of it falling on the young,” she said. 

Cates became the first Conservative in a generation to take a seat in Sheffield, representing the Penistone and Stocksbridge constituency, which she took from former Labour-turned-Lib Dem MP Angela Smith as part of the 2019 Tories' 'red wall' intake.

She said arguments about getting children back to school should be focused on their wellbeing and not become part of arguments about getting the wider economy moving.

Cates continued: “You can’t separate wellbeing and the economy [entirely] but for me this isn’t about: open schools so we open the economy. It’s opening schools so we can protect our kids.”

Asked if opening schools should coincide with the reopening of pubs and shops, and she answered simply, “no”.

From speaking to teachers since lockdown began, Cates has found online learning seems to make it easier for chlildren to disengage. Even if pupils are in a livestreamed lesson, they can turn their cameras off and communicate through the chatroom settings on programmes such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, rather than speaking in person.

Cates also believed children were less likely to be put on the spot by teachers than they would in a normal classroom setting.

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Academy schools group is also keen for in-person learning to resume as soon as is safely possible, and has suggested marquees could be set up in school grounds after Easter to accommodate social distancing.

Speaking to the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme this morning, he stressed parents needed time to prepare and whatever the government decides on reopening it should not just be “dumped” on teachers.

But Chalke believed some primary school pupils could go back after the February half term, although the government has still not given a timeline for the return of schools. 

Public Health England have also said there is a strong case for schools to reopen after February half-term.

Today schools minister Nick Gibb, rather than education secretary Gavin Williamson, will respond to an urgent question from the Labour party on schools reopening.

There is a growing number of voices within the Conservative party calling for schools to reopen. A parent-led campaign group UsForThem has the backing of 17 Conservative MPs, including MPs in the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) – including former ministers Steve Baker and Esther McVey – who have led on opposition to lockdown more generally. 

UsForThem is being advised by former Tory party candidate and lobbyist Ed Barker. The CRG, which is reported to have up to 70 Tory members, is also calling for a timetable for school reopenings.

The influential chair of the education select committee Robert Halfon is also pushing the government for a route map for schools to reopen before Easter considering the toll on children’s mental health. He is not in favour of other lockdown restrictions being eased and told PoliticsHome that he is anti-schools being shut, but not anti-lockdown.

Boris Johnson has said reopening schools is a priority however there is speculation that it could be as late as Easter before classrooms reopen.

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