Monday 11th May 2020 During lockdown I start each day with a call with my small team of parliamentary assistants going through the emails, letters and phone calls that we have had from Chelmsford residents. Following the Prime Ministers announcement that there will be a slight relaxation of the lockdown there are lots of questions. We know that lots of detailed guidance will be coming out in the days ahead so we prepare to share this as it arrives.
Then “over” to the department for Education where I meet my Scottish counter part as Childrens minister to discuss the “Early Years” ie 2-4 year olds. The press is saying that there are huge differences of opinion between England and Scotland but actually we both agree. Being able to re-open nurseries and preschools is so important, since these early months are crucial to helping young children develop the social skill and communication skills that set them up for life. However in Scotland the summer holidays start at the end of June, and the autumn term starts in mid august so they may decide on a different approach.
I listen to the Prime Minister answering questions from MPs before starting a series of conference ‘s calls with key stakeholders. I talk with the leaders of Early Years organisations and children’s charities, the head of the Council for Disabled Children, The Children’s Commissioner, the chairs of the Parent Forums that represent families of children with special educational needs and disabilities across the country, the virtual school heads which help children in care and the head teachers of Alternative Provision schools. They are all extremely supportive of a phased return to school, focusing on the very young, and those in transition years as well as vulnerable children. They understand that this will only happen on 1 June if the science advice at that time is that it is safe to do so. It’s a long day but its very helpful to hear their thoughts and feedback.
Tuesday I meet with the Department for Education policy team on school funding. We are looking at ways to make this fairer across different parts of the country by having a national formula, but this is hugely complex! Then my by-weekly stocktake with all those working on Covid response on children’s issues. We know there are children at risk of harm in the home, and have been working with social worker leads across the country to make sure that those most vulnerable are supported
I meet the MP and local council representatives from Richmond. This Local Authority is one that struggles financially to support children with special educational needs and disabilities with the money that is allocated to them under the current formula. They are doing an excellent job helping individual children but is clear that the formula needs re-thinking.
Much of the day is spent reading and commentating on the detailed guidance the government is planning to send out on schools, early years and vulnerable children. Every bit of guidance needs to be reviewed by each government department, Treasury and by No10 to make sure it is consistent. Usually months of preparation and consultation goes into preparing government guidance but during the pandemic guidance has been needed much faster. This is a huge job.
Wednesday Lengthy and detailed meeting on the review we are doing in to Special Educational Needs and Disablities and then a very helpful meeting with the Health Minister responsible for Mental Health. A huge amount of mental health support is available and more is on its way. I want to make sure that teachers, students and pupils know how to access support if they need it.
I meet the minister from the Department for Work and Pensions to discuss projects they are running across the country to help reduce parental conflict. Domestic violence is one of the biggest reasons why children come into care, so projects to help support parents early and reduce conflict are hugely important for children too.
I call with the boss of the Free School Meal voucher company. This is now much better, wait times are down and over 5 million week’s worth of meals have been sent out. I have a catch up meeting with the Secretary of State and then a “join” MPs for a series of individual votes on the Agriculture Bill. I want to make sure our food and animal welfare standards remain strong at the end of the Brexit transition period. Some amendments have been tabled into this bill, which I discuss with the farming ministers. They reassure me that the amendments are not needed.
Thursday After so many days of intense work I take a couple of hours off to visit one of our local garden centres. There have been lots of worries that these would be overcrowded on reopening. I’m very pleased that this is not the case in Chelmsford this week. I buy some geraniums to cheer up the home. I also pop into the local Asian supermarket which has been doing a super job helping get food out to customers and taking pressure from some of the larger stores. I join the cross-departmental meeting on Food, where we agree a new project to help get support to those struggling at this time.
Friday I meet the Home Office minister leading on domestic violence, we are planning a big conference next week to bring together all those involved in tackling hidden harms. Another stocktake on Covid responses with officials and then listen to the Prime Minister taking questions from MPs at the 1922 committee.
In the afternoon I join MumsNet online to answer questions from their members via a “webinar”. I’ve never done this before and the questions cover a huge range of different subjects. It is so important to make sure parents know that safety is the top priority if the phased school reopening is to go ahead next month.
In the evening I join members of Chelmsford’s North Avenue Youth Group to answer questions from children and young people via Facebook Live. Again this is a first for me, I am so impressed by the youth group leader who is still supporting young people at this time. What a great way to end a busy week.