"Tonight, I will focus on remote learning. That will give me the opportunity to pass on some of what I have heard from teachers about their experiences during the pandemic. My understanding is that, to put it simply, remote learning puts at a massive disadvantage the most vulnerable pupils, who may not have the same resources as others. They may not have somewhere quiet or even safe in which to work, and may be less inclined to continue their learning when not in school. We saw that those who did not attend live lessons during the first lockdown had an evident knowledge gap when they came back to school in September. According to teachers I have spoken to, we are seeing that play out once again, as those same pupils are not participating now. So that gap is becoming ever wider.
"Significant investment has certainly been made in remote learning; millions have been invested in supporting remote education and access to online social care. As we have heard, more than 700,000 laptops and tablets have been delivered to disadvantaged children at schools and colleges, with hundreds of thousands more on the way. Ministers are working with major telecommunication companies to improve internet connectivity for disadvantaged and vulnerable families who rely on mobile internet connection, but we must go beyond those initial interventions, as some pupils are still missing from lessons.
"Two key issues remain. The first is that children need interaction with their peers; mental health issues, with potential social care effects, arise from not having that. Of course, the best way to address that is to reopen schools safely, as soon as possible, which brings me on to the second issue. Although most teachers want to get back in front of children as soon as possible, many do not feel safe doing so. Many express anxieties about household mixing, and the hundreds of close interactions per day. To make them feel safer, school staff must be made a higher priority for vaccination, particularly those with underlying health conditions who are under the age of 50. They should get the vaccine soon, at least before the suggested reopening after half-term. Widespread vaccinations will engender a feeling of safety among school staff, and I believe this is the quickest way for schools to return to normal.
"Teachers have made massive sacrifices. They have been unable to see their families for months. The only safe and fair way to reopen schools is following a vaccination programme among school staff, and I ask the Government to prioritise that. The future of schoolchildren, especially the most disadvantaged, depends on it. Our teachers have been nothing short of heroic, and they need our support. They are on the frontline, so now is the time to put them at the front of the line."