Monday 15th June Before heading off to London, I pick my car up from the garage where it has been having a new clutch fixed (ouch- expensive) and then head into the Department for Education for a busy day of meetings. This includes a very positive meeting with the Minister from the Department of Work and Pensions who has been focusing on helping those with disabilities get jobs. This has been very successful over the past few years, and we are keen to keep up the focus despite the pandemic. We discuss the supported internship program which helps young people with special educational needs and disabilities to find opportunities. We agree that this will continue and be extended for those who have missed out on chances during lockdown.
We publish new guidance for schools that will enable primary schools to bring back more pupils this term if they have space and staff. It will also let all secondary school pupils have a one on one face to face meeting with their teacher this term. I hope this will be really helpful for well-being as well as learning.
During the day there is much discussion on whether we can extend the free school meals voucher over the summer holidays. No Government has ever provided school meals when schools are closed in the holidays, but we do understand the economic uncertainty that many families face this year. A debate has been scheduled in the House of Commons for tomorrow, I will need to “close” the debate, “summing-up” the speeches made by others and answering questions. I work late into the night preparing.
Tuesday 16th June I meet with the charity “Young Minds” to discuss support for mental health and well-being of young people. We know many children and young people will have been anxious and are missing out on school. Working with the Health Minister, we discuss the support that is being given to schools and teachers as well as pupils and students. Then I meet another charity that supports care leavers. A few years ago we set up a Civil Service Care Leaver Internship program which gives those who have grown up in care a chance to start work in government departments and agencies. It is an excellent program, and at this difficult time it is especially important that we help these young people get opportunities.
The Prime Minister decides that we will extend food vouchers to children eligible for free school meals with a special Covid related Summer Food Fund. I head over to the House of Commons for the debate. Over the afternoon I listen to all the speeches made by colleagues, all of them agree that this has been the right thing to do at this time. So many MPs speak that the time for the ministers to sum up is cut very short, but I’m glad when I manage to answer many of the questions.
Wednesday 17th June Spend most of the day in the Department for Education where we are putting the final details to our program to provide “catch-up” tutoring and support for the children and young people who have missed out on much of their education this year. In the evening in the House of Commons we vote on the changes to divorce law. Divorce is never easy, but I believe this will remove some of the hostility from the legal process.
Thursday 18th June A very moving round table with representatives of charities and families of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. Everyone has found lockdown tough, but it has been particularly challenging for these families. We have kept schools open for those with most serious needs, but many have not been able to attend for their own health reasons. We have also put more money into the Family Fund that provides grants. However, families need support and respite. We agree that we need to get more children back to school as soon as possible. Walking back to the House of Commons for more meetings I stop at Westminster Abbey for a few minutes of thought, prayer and reflection. There is still a long way to go in fighting this pandemic, but it is so good to feel some form of normality coming back.
Friday 19th June We announce our £1 billion fund for “catch-up” teaching for children and I start the day talking to BBC Essex and local TV about the project. It will provide funds for all state schools and £350 million for tutoring for those from most disadvantaged backgrounds. Then a helpful discussion with the Home Office about the work we are doing to get children at risk of harm back into schools.
I take a long lunch break to go and visit some of the Chelmsford shops that have reopened this week. It is great to see people out and about in the High Street where lots of work and preparation has gone into keeping people safe. A one-way system in in place asking customers to “stay left” so that people can social distance. I meet the team at Wilco, who have been open throughout and the M&S staff who have had their food hall open but now reopened the rest of the store. The market stall holders are smiling and at H Samuel I hear the stories of customers who have missed special birthdays and anniversaries but have now popped in for a gift. There’s a super new chiropody shop at the top of the High Street that only opened just before lockdown – it has a huge range of shoes for those with un-comfy feet. I do hope it survives. At Runners World, the owner, Martin, fits me out with a new pair of trainers, my 7-year-old pair have taken a battering as I’ve tried to stay fit during this time. He, like other store-owners, has put in sensible measures to make sure shoppers can social distance.
In the afternoon I join Essex MPs on a call with the County Council for an update, and then an excellent call with the Head of Moulsham High. I’m delighted to hear that up to 90% of the Year 10s and 12s have been back at school this week, that morale is high, and that they have been putting extra support into those most vulnerable. My week ends with a conversation with the Arch Bishop’s office about the appointment of a new Bishop. I settle down for a weekend of work preparing for Education Questions on Monday.