Parliament has been back in action after the half term break, and our first day back saw the Prime Minister make his much-awaited announcement about the roadmap out of lockdown.
I’m glad to see he is taking a cautious approach. Of course, I’m sure I’m not the only one who is longing for things to return to normal, to get out and about, and to see friends and family. But if we’ve learned one thing over the past year, it is that we can’t be too careful when it comes to this terrible virus. The staged approach the Prime Minister announced is sensible – it seems that at last he has been listening to the advice of his scientific advisers. But there are still many concerns to address – such as financial support for businesses, self-employed people and families, take-up of vaccinations, and plans for the return of schools, colleges and universities. I’m hosting a zoom call this afternoon for my constituents who’d like to discuss these and other issues – if you’d like to attend and haven’t yet signed up, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send you a link to join the discussion.
There have also been a number of detailed announcements this week about education in the pandemic. On Monday, the Prime Minister said schools and colleges would return in full from 8 March. University students studying essential practical subjects can also return, and there will be a further review regarding when remaining students will return during the Easter holidays. Covid tests will be offered to all secondary and college students, with tests being carried out in their first week back, and home tests will be available thereafter.
On Wednesday, we learnt about the government’s plans for summer activities and tutoring to help pupils catch up lost learning. And on Thursday, we finally received information about how A Level, GCSE and vocational and technical assessments will take place this summer.
So we‘ve been back in Westminster to respond to a statement the secretary of state for education made to parliament about all this on Thursday. It came hot on the heels of my (virtual) visit to see for myself how one secondary school has set itself up to offer tests to its staff and students. I’m just in awe of all that school and college staff have been doing during the pandemic, teaching online as well as face to face, providing food vouchers during holidays, arranging to make their premises covid-secure, doing all they can to reassure staff and students. Meanwhile, nursery and early years settings have remained fully open throughout, yet because many parents aren’t able to work during the pandemic and have taken their children out of nursery, many face a financial crisis. And I know from constituents running out of school clubs and activities that they too have faced huge uncertainty. May I say an enormous thank you to everyone who has done so much to support our children and young people during the pandemic – I’ll continue to do all I can to speak up for you.
Finally this week, I was very concerned to see the latest unemployment figures, which show that unemployment is rising fastest among young people. Struggling to get your first job damages your future employment prospects, and the government needs to act urgently. At the moment, we have a Kickstart programme which is supposed to provide work for 25 hours per week, but it has no training element, and has reached only 1 in 100 of young people eligible to participate. Meanwhile there has been a huge reduction in apprenticeship starts among young people in the north west, yet over £300 million paid by employers through the Apprenticeship Levy went unspent last year, and has simply disappeared back into the Treasury’s bank account. Labour has suggested using that money to subsidise small and medium sized businesses to take on a young apprentice this year. We reckon that could create 85,000 apprenticeship opportunities, giving young people a great start to their career, and helping to restart our economy as we emerge from the pandemic.
Tackling youth unemployment is something I feel absolutely passionate about. I started my working life at the beginning of the 1980s, when we faced very high levels of youth unemployment, and I saw how that blighted lives, wasted potential, drove inequality, and cost our economy dearly. Most of all, I’ve never forgotten how it felt to be a young person at that time, worrying about getting started in employment. That’s why I am so determined that skills, education, and opportunities for all, and especially for young people, must be at the heart of the economic recovery in the months ahead – and it will also be at the heart of the programme of a Labour government after the next election.