Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
It may be hard to believe, given what has gone on in the past six months, with millions of children having done barely any school work during the Coronavirus – alongside the exams controversy – but there have been a number of education heroes both inside and outside the Westminster Village.
Rather than taking the attitude that everything was impossible, they followed the guidance from Sir Nicholas Winton: “if it is not impossible, there must be a way to do it”.
I thought it might be worth naming a few.
First, edu-heroes are all those schools and FE colleges, the teachers and support staff who, despite the many difficulties during the lockdown, did all they could to keep children learning, with daily online lessons or marked hard-copy homework packs. Rather than waiting for Government procurement schemes to bear fruit, they bought their own computers and SIM cards for those pupils without IT equipment.
Second is the extraordinary Invicta Academy; an online school set up by Conservatives Anna Firth, Stephen James and others. They delivered 36,000 lessons over the course of the summer to students as far and wide as from Essex to Lands End – all at a cost of just £1.48 per pupil lesson.
Stephen James, a teacher, has set up the campaigning group ‘Conservative Friends of Education’, which is already having a big impact on social media. Invicta Academy is a wonderful example of practicals conservatism – determined and charismatic individuals, who act on the principles of the ‘little platoons’ to build social capital and extend the ladder of opportunity to the many.
Third is the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield. Long before it was fashionable to do so, and when some of the school unions were at their most vehement – opposing even modest school returns in early June – the Commissioner was campaigning to get pupils learning again, warning of the risks to the education attainment of children, their mental health and well-being.
She also highlighted the digital divide, noting that 700,000 children didn’t have proper access to computers or the internet at home, pushing the Government to offer the national procurement laptop scheme to some school years. In contrast to Ofsted, which was in a state of badger-like hibernation during the lockdown (exempting their work with local authorities), Anne Longfield performed a real leadership role – whatever the regulations said she could or could not do. She will have a legacy to be proud of.
Fourth is Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Pediatrics, who, like Longfield, set out from the start the dangers of lockdown to children. He has been a voice of commonsense throughout, especially when discussing issues like face masks. In June, he organised the letter signed by over 2,000 pediatricians, urging the Government to make school opening a priority, at a time when the political left were in full opposition.
Fifth is the UCL Institute of Education. It was their shocking academic study, published in June that showed how 2.3 million children had not been learning or had received very little contact with teachers amid school closures. This confirmed what many had feared and gave a much-needed jolt to policy makers. The survey provided grist to the mill to those who were campaigning to get pupils learning again and back into schools.
When the Coronavirus inquiry takes place – as announced by the Prime Minister in July – questions need to be asked as to why, despite the wonderful efforts of individual schools, millions of children were not learning in lockdown. The Government should ensure that if there is a second wave or a new virus, this never happens again.
Sixth, recognition for the Westminster ‘behind the scenes’ edu-hero must go to both Angela Richardson, a PPS at the Department for Education and Michelle Donelan, the Higher Education Minister.
I was a PPS to George Osborne in 2014, so have some idea of the work involved. I know how true the ‘bag carrier’ epithet really is (although because I have problems with my legs, I was probably the first PPS in history in which the Minister helped me carry my bags).
However, in all my time as MP, I don’t think I have known a PPS more courteous, hard-working and efficient than Angela Richardson. Day and night, seven days a week, dealing with the many and complex questions from Tory MPs on Whatsapp groups and much more besides. Elected in 2017, clearly this is a PPS who is committed and dedicated in her role.
Similarly, Michelle Donelan, a former member of my Education Select Committee, has quietly but determinedly been trying to sort out the devastation caused to universities by the avalanche of exam confusion and the impacts of the pandemic.
To her credit, close to 70 per cent of students now have their first choice of university, despite the delays and grade changes. She has worked hard to ensure that Higher Education bodies can offer blended learning approaches to students.
Further, Donelan has secured significant Treasury support to help universities through the financial challenges ahead, including pulling forward £2.6 billion worth of tuition fee payments to ease cash flow pressures this autumn and covering up to 80 percent of income losses from international students for the 2020/21 academic year.
Finally…the media. The print media are always blamed for one thing or another. And yet, in terms of mobilising public opinion for a return to school, The Telegraph stable, The Times/Sunday Times, The Mail/Mail on Sunday, The Sun and The Daily Express have consistently campaigned for pupils to be back in the classroom.
Acres of print have been published showing the damage to children’s life chances so long as they are not learning, case studies around the world and the scientific evidence demonstrating the low risk of the virus to children. In the broadcast media, Julia Hartley-Brewer of Talk Radio was, rightly, most angry and vocal about the many children who were not learning during lockdown, from early April, long before the UCL study emerged.