We can support teaching communities to build a better system for a post-Covid world
The ingenuity and attitude of teachers has been one of the most inspiring things about this pandemic.
It is now nearly a month since we had to ask schools and colleges to once again limit the number of children and students who could attend for face-to-face teaching. The government has made no secret of the fact that this was the last thing we wanted to do, but we had to take a national decision in the national interest to protect the NHS and react to the impact of the new variant.
I know the latest lockdown will have been a real blow for families who are already under pressure working from home and who once more have to make sure their children are studying at home. While for children themselves, even though they can continue to learn remotely, the rest of their lives have been put on hold.
This is why the Prime Minister’s announcement last week has given us cause for hope. Subject to the impact our vaccination programme is having on hospital admissions and deaths, and the effect that the current restrictions have had on infection rates, we can then take a view on reopening schools.
I have already promised that we will give schools and colleges two weeks’ notice of any change to restrictions, so if things go to plan, then we could conceivably look at getting children back from 8 March at the earliest.
We intend to work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their learning
The Prime Minister also announced a number of additional measures and funds to tackle learning gaps. He pledged a further £300m of new catch-up money to help right across the board, from early years, to schools and colleges and there will be specific initiatives for summer schools and a Covid premium to also help students make up lost ground.
To be successful, these catch-up programmes are going to take some intensive teamwork, which is why we intend to work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their learning over the course of this parliament.
These latest measures are on top of the £1bn catch-up programme which was announced last year to address lost teaching time and support pupils’ social and emotional needs, especially for those children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But although this latest lockdown has been so unwelcome, I’d like to praise the resilience and resourcefulness of staff across the country.
One of the stand-out successes from this whole awful period has undoubtedly been how quickly teachers were able to pivot a large part of their lessons online, so that all children can continue to learn from home.
I continue to be impressed by the ingenuity of our teaching communities and how schools and leaders across the sector are helping each other, for example through Oak National academy, or our £6.5m peer-to-peer EdTech Demonstrator programme.
We continue to support these efforts, whether it’s partnering with our leading mobile network operators who are giving data uplifts to disadvantaged families, or our continuing operation to deliver laptops and tablets to students who would otherwise struggle to study remotely.
In an unprecedented procurement exercise, we set out to get hold of 1.3 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children and young people.
At one point we were the world’s biggest buyer of this equipment and as of 31 January, over 927,000 had been delivered to schools, trusts and local authorities to distribute to those who needed them.
These devices, together with our platforms programmes, training and digital services will create a lasting legacy across our schools sector and help to embed a more resilient system for the future.
Although my department has obviously been focused on our national Covid response, we have not lost sight of our ambitious reform programme or our intention to level up. I am enormously proud that we have just published our Skills for Jobs white paper which is going to help us build back better.
This is going to reshape the whole system of learning and acquiring skills in this country after many decades in which the further education sector has been in the shadow of higher education.
The white paper is going to put employers firmly at the centre of local skills systems, working in partnership with colleges and key local stakeholders to shape technical skills provision, so that local economies thrive and local businesses benefit. This is what levelling up is all about.
The pandemic will end and when it does, I want all our young people to have the right skills to seize all the exciting opportunities that are going to lie ahead in our post-Covid world.
Gavin Williamson is the Conservative MP for South Staffordshire and education secretary.