To the relief of parents up and down the country, schools reopened to all pupils this week. I know how much school staff have been looking forward to welcoming them back, and on Monday I was delighted to accompany Keir Starmer on a visit to Sydney Russell school in Dagenham to see the preparations that had been made.
It was impressive. The school is very large – around 2500 pupils – and every one of them and the staff were offered a covid test this week. They’ll be tested twice more in school, and thereafter will receive home testing kits. I must say the school testing site was very efficiently run, and I pay tribute to the efforts school staff have made to get everyone safely back, right across the country.
The first priority as children return is to resettle them, to allow them time to socialise and get into a routine, and to pay attention to their wellbeing. Again and again, teachers and parents have told me these are prerequisites for effective learning. But the learning loss over the past year is also a concern, children have had an average of over 100 days out of the classroom, and the most disadvantaged pupils will have been hit the hardest. Often they have lacked access to digital and other resources for remote learning, and despite repeated government promises of laptops and dongles, thousands of children are still waiting for them. Even before the pandemic, the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better off peers was extremely concerning, and covid has exacerbated the problem. Labour has set up our Bright Future taskforce to develop ideas and solutions to this challenge, and I am looking forward to working with its members. It’s so important that we leave no child behind, as the long-term effect on their lives if we fail to act is alarming. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated the earnings loss could be as much as £350 billion for this generation, devastating for those young people as they grow up, and disastrous for our economy.
Pupils, teachers and education staff have been top of my agenda this week, but at the same time, a huge row has broken out about nurses’ pay, following last week’s budget from the chancellor. Despite passing legislation months ago to guarantee them a pay rise of 2.1%, the government recommended only a 1% increase following the budget. The government needs to reverse its position, and fast; this is no way to treat our NHS staff who have been working heroically throughout the pandemic.
And on the subject of heroic healthcare workers, an enormous thank you to the third year medical student who gave me my first dose of the covid vaccine on Wednesday. I’ve been waiting excitedly for the programme to reach my age group, and like everyone else who has been vaccinated, I feel an enormous sense of relief – though of course I am still being super-careful, wearing a face covering, staying home as much as possible, and respecting social distancing. The NHS are making really good progress with the vaccination programme, and more and more people are feeling confident about receiving it. I encourage everyone to take up the offer when you’re invited for your vaccination. It is the way we can finally begin to come out of this terrible pandemic and return to normal.