Cllr Ed Davie is the Cabinet Member for Children and Young People, and a councillor in Thornton ward.
Schools in Lambeth have now opened their gates to all pupils for the first time in nearly six months. As a parent myself, I know this has been a hard time for parents, carers, teachers, children and young people since the covid-19 pandemic struck and lockdown measures were put in place in March.
Since lockdown began we’ve all had to adapt and play our part in supporting a new way of helping our children and young people get the best education possible in very uncertain and trying circumstances. Teachers have been working all throughout this period, delivering education at school to children of key workers and vulnerable children during lockdown.
As lockdown measures have eased teachers have been adapting school environments and putting measures in place to ensure that all pupils can return safely from September and continue their learning and development. Lambeth Council has been working closely with parents, teachers, and trade unions to monitor the situation closely to ensure the safety of our children and communities.
Plans are in place for each of our schools depending on the buildings, class sizes and any specific challenges they present, and we are coordinating activity across our education team, schools, local public health team as well as housing and community services, so we are as prepared as possible if a year group or a school sees an outbreak.
Our head teachers, school staff and unions have been fantastic in pulling together to prepare for whatever eventuality and I would like to thank them for their dedication and commitment. I was fortunate to see some of this work first hand when I visited Bonneville Primary School, where the inspirational head teacher Andrea Parker, showed me the changes being put in place to ensure that pupils will be able to come back to school, meet their friends and teachers again, learn and have fun in a safe environment.
This localised, collaborative approach – an approach taken since lockdown measures began – compares favourably to the ill-conceived and unilateral approach by the Tory government who wanted to rush back to school in July.
At that time the government failed to consult with parents or practitioners on the ground, leaving local councils, schools and unions to step up locally and lead in a co-operative manner. This localised approach has now been needed again, with patchy support and tardy guidance from central government.
Over the course of the long summer we have seen callous shamble, follow fiasco and U-turn by the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education. Aside from the uncoordinated and uncooperative approach to pupils returning to school, there was the volte-face on continuing Free School Meals over the course of the summer requiring a high-profile intervention from England footballer Marcus Rashford, and latterly the downgrading by algorithm of pupils GCSEs and A-levels before the government finally saw sense.
After all the time available to the government to prepare and consult, there remains a woeful lack of leadership, with not enough attention being paid and support being directed to address some of the most pressing issues around pupils returning to schools.
In London we have seen the Tory government play politics with Transport for London (TfL) ahead of the Mayoral election next year by abolishing free travel for under 18s from October, just at the time when some of our most disadvantaged young people and families need this support more than ever to get our children back to school safely. Local government will yet again be left to foot the bill just as schools are now having to cover the costs of making schools safe for pupils to return from already stretched budgets. If a child tests positive for covid-19 resulting in their parents or carers having to self-isolate, those on low incomes will be able to claim a paltry £13 per day if they have to self-isolate and are unable to work from home.
Damningly, following a decade and counting of Tory austerity, research has found that educational attainment has stalled and is even beginning to widen in some of the country’s most disadvantaged areas. Analysis by the Education Policy Institute has found that the learning gap between rich and poor primary age pupils in England has widened for the first time since 2007 with figures for both primary and secondary education showing that progress in helping poorer pupils catch up has stalled overall. The National Foundation for Educational Research figures also revealed that the learning gap between rich and poor pupils in England has grown by 46% in a year.
So as both pupils return to schools cautiously and safely across England and MPs return to Westminster after a tumultuous summer break, it is timely to assess the Government’s handling of education since the pandemic struck. Sadly, unlike so many of our hard working pupils, this Tory administration simply hasn’t made the grade.
Cllr Ed Davie