Monday 23rd November There is frost on the ground as I head off towards Westminster. It’s the turn of the Education Ministers to take questions at the Dispatch Box. This is always nerve-wracking as one is never certain what topics will come up. I spend the morning preparing and, with my head full of statistics, I walk over to the House of Commons. In the Chamber I’m glad to get asked about rolling out our Holiday Activities and Food schemes next year. It is such an exciting project that could be transforming for children and families, especially those on lower incomes.
After we finish Education Questions I stop to listen to the Prime Minister announcing that the national lockdown will finish next week. There is huge relief that the lockdown has made enough difference to the spread of the virus so that restrictions can be eased, but it is clear that there is still a challenging winter ahead.
In the evening I join colleagues discussing the Spending Review. The huge expense of fighting coronavirus is going to have to be paid for, but there is also concern about reducing our international aid commitment as it is a key part of our reputation and leadership globally. This helps us tackle global challenges such as climate change, disaster relief and humanitarian aid. Our long term work to educate girls in less developed countries is key to tackling poverty and reducing migration. I think it is important that changes to our aid target should therefore be temporary, accompanied with plans to make sure that funding is well spent.
Tuesday 24th November An early meeting with the Children’s Commissioner and a catch up with the Minister who is leading on the Online Harms Bill which is so important especially to protect children and young people. I do more work on our reforms to special educational needs and alternative provision and join an excellent meeting bringing together those who are involved in improving access assistive technology especially those with disabilities and other special needs.
Colleagues from across the East of England join the Health Minister and Public Health officials to discuss the tiering approaches that will be decided in the morning. As Essex went into Tier 2 before lockdown our cases have started to stabilise, and we want to make sure this is reflected in the decision. The Prime Minister joins MPs from the One Nation Conservative group for a zoom call. He explains that there is still a great deal of work to tackle the pandemic but optimistic that we must keep on investing in infrastructure, skills and services to deliver on our long-term commitment to levelling up.
Wednesday 25th November Today is a big day in Parliament when the Chancellor will present the Spending Review, setting the targets for public spending for the year ahead. As Ministers we have been working on this for many months, we know the impact of the virus on our economy has been extremely serious and there are tough economic times ahead. I listen closely to his speech and am pleased to hear of the support for those on lower incomes, investment in our infrastructure, NHS and other public services as well as the continued commitment to tackle climate change. There have been tough decisions and not all of the projects one would like to do are possible but I’m pleased to have got increased support for early years nurseries and pre-schools so families will continue to be able to access childcare. I join other ministers for a cross government meeting on the work we are doing to reduce the cost of living and have a helpful catch-up with Theresa May who is continuing to champion our initiatives to tackle domestic violence at this difficult time. In the plethora of announcements that have come out this week I’m pleased that the Prime Minister has written back to one of the thousands of children who have contacted him asking about whether Father Christmas can come this year. It’s a beautifully worded letter, reassuring our youngest children that the answer is yes.
Thursday 26th November At a meeting with other ministers and officials we hear about the tiering decisions that are soon to be announced. I know people in Chelmsford will be worried that we are to be in Tier 2, but it is also clear that this has been a difficult decision and only Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight are to be in the lowest tier. I catch up with all the officials working on children’s matters before heading over to the Cabinet Office for another tricky discussion needing a cross government decision.
Charities representing people with autism join me for a call on our review of special educational needs, a good chance to hear their expert views. Then to a discussion on school food standards with Dame Emma Thompson who has been working with a commission of young people from all across the country. They are delighted about our plans for holiday activities and food going forward and I am taken aback when at the end of the meeting they give me a spontaneous round of applause. Thank yous in this job are rare and deeply appreciated by all those who work so hard.
The day finishes with another meeting with East of England MPs and Public Health experts, discussing the local impact of the tiering decisions and looking at the detailed statistics. There is thick fog on the road as I leave London.
Friday 27th November A day focusing on Chelmsford and Essex, starting with a telephone surgery for constituents and then a helpful catch up with Essex MPs and our own Essex Director of Public Health. The test, track and trace system is continuing to improve but there are still increases in positive test results especially in the west of the county. We will all need to work together to reduce these in order to be moved back to Tier 1. My call with one of our Headteachers is postponed as he is reacting to a coronavirus case in the school. I have a super catch up with a local organisation that supports couples to reduce domestic violence and spend a quiet few hours writing Christmas cards to so many of those who have gone to exceptional lengths to care for the people of Chelmsford in this deeply challenging year.