Monday 11th January MPs like others have been told to work from home unless impossible not to do so. This will work for most of the week, but I will need to be in Westminster to answer a debate on Tuesday.
I start the week online with a catch up with the Schools Food team at the Department of Education. We are starting the National Voucher Scheme again and want to minimise the risk of some of the tech problems that we had last spring when the system became overloaded. The plan is to start it from next Monday and stagger the orders over the week. We will use this week for schools to check parent’s emails and make sure the tech support is prepared.
Next up, a conversation with the Early Years team. Our nurseries and preschools are worried because next week it is the annual census when they count children attending, and this affects their income from government. We are working on getting advice to them to make sure that they can still count children who are temporarily not attending, for example if their parents are concerned about Covid, provided the nursery is still open for the child. It is very complicated, and we are watching the attendance numbers closely, keeping funding under review. The good news is that community testing for asymptotic people is rolling out across the country. This is the fastest way to get Early Years staff more testing at the moment.
Then a meeting with Andrea Leadsom MP who is preparing a report into the Start of Life – from conception and the next two years. We discuss progress and timing of her report. I call the Permanent Secretary to catch up on early years.
It is late in the evening when I see that a mum has posted a picture of a totally unacceptable lunch parcel on social media. These lunch parcels are meant to replace the free school meal that a child would normally get if at school. I immediately say that this parcel is not good enough and promise to investigate.
Tuesday 12th January Up early in the morning to drive into London. On arrival my phone is pinging with people concerned about the story of some of the lunch parcels. But during the day many others send me pictures of some excellent parcels. I speak to Debs Watson, the Head of one of our own Chelmsford nursery schools, the outstanding Tanglewood in Melbourne. They are doing so much to support families at this time. I listen to her concerns and ideas. I tell her about the asymptomatic testing centre that has opened today in Chelmsford. I hope it will help.
I meet with our team working on the review of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and then call in the catering company that is in the middle of the worries about lunch parcels. The Chief Executive agrees that the parcel in the photo does not meet their standards, he promises to investigate, to improve standards, and to offer refunds. The contracts for school catering are each organised by schools, as different schools have different approaches to how they want to provide lunches. The Government increased the funding for food parcels last week BUT it’s important that if schools chose to use a food parcel that children get a decent box. During the last lockdown many schools choose to use parcels, not vouchers, as it kept them in touch with families and children, which was also appreciated by many families.
I join other ministers who are working up support for people with disabilities for a very helpful cross government catch up with lots of helpful approaches, before heading into Westminster Hall to join the debate on support for Early Years nurseries and preschools. This lets me explain how the plans for the census will work and other support for them. I know it is a very challenging time.
I meet with a disability charity to discuss support for children with special needs in mainstream schools. Before heading off to speak to the boss of the national voucher scheme, Edenred to get an update on their preparations for going live next week. I do a briefing call for colleagues who have questions about how the free school meal system is to work during this lockdown.
It is late again when I get home, but my doctor husband is still not back from his day at the hospital. I think about all NHS staff who are working so hard and all those who are sick. I send a twitter message off to update people about unacceptable lunch parcels, my call with the contractor. I promise to investigate every complaint.
Wednesday 13th January By early in the morning a hotline has been set up at the Department for Education on lunch parcels, but please call your school first to see if it is a local glitch. Schools are doing an amazing job, I don’t want to over-load them with more work, but our hotlines are also supporting schools with many different inquiries and our staff are working to roll out Covid testing across all schools as well. I meet the opposition spokesperson on Children and Families to update her.
It’s a tech disaster when I dial into the House of Commons via Zoom to answer questions from the dispatch box virtually. My computer mouse fails, and I can’t unmute myself. NIGHTMARE!
I join the Secretary of State for Education on an intense call with school caterers. We need to make sure that children will get their lunches and ask the caterers to look at improving the standard of the lunch box, especially with the extra funding. No caterer should be profiteering from this pandemic (they agree), but I also know that school chefs and dinner time staff are deeply appreciated by children and staff and are a core part of the school community. The cost of a lunch parcel includes the cost of the staff preparing the parcel.
I meet with officials about children’s social services. Social workers are too often an unsung hero of the front line and have been working so hard to support families during Covid. We discuss more ways to support them.
My phone has been buzzing with so many calls over the past few days from TV and Radio asking me to comment – but I have been focused on solving the issues not the media. However, I have agreed to take part in BBC Question Time. I work late into the night catching up on other issues.
Thursday 14th January I join ministers and officials from across the Education Department for a catch up and then off to speak to a conference organised by the Time Education Supplement. They have brought together of those interested in our review of the system for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. It is good to give them an update.
I meet ministers from other departments working on the Covid Winter Support Scheme that is making sure children and families get help with food and other essentials, such as heating bills, during the pandemic. It appears that the scheme worked well over the Christmas period. I brief the other ministers on our plans for the Holiday Activities and Food scheme which will offer children across the country fun, food and time with friends from Easter.
I do my weekly stocktake with all those working on children’s issues before putting my head down to prepare for Question Time. The Vaccines Minister calls me to bring me up to speed on how the rollout is going – over 3 million jabs done so far and 96% of people live within 10 miles of a vaccine centre, that’s great news. Then off to get grilled on Question Time – long day.
Friday 15th January My usual Chelmsford day gets interspersed with Children’s Minister work. We launch our Care Review, hooray! I have been working on this for nearly a year. The review will be a once in a generation opportunity to look at all the services for children in care, and the support for families to help them stay together. It is going to be a massive piece of work but will be independently led by the impressive Josh McAllister, a former teacher who set up the Frontline organisation which trains social workers.
I join the Schools Minister for a round table with schools from across Liverpool and then meet up with a leading behaviour expert to hear his views on reforming the alternative provision for young people who have been excluded from school.
A busy constituency surgery helping Chelmsford residents and then a very helpful meeting with our local Chelmsford food bank. Another catch up with the team getting ready to launch the National Voucher Scheme. I finish the working week with a call with our Mental Health team, we are launching a task force which I have been asked to co-chair.
As I switch off my laptop on Friday evening, I know it will be active again over the weekend. We have education questions in the House of Commons on Monday and there is a lot to read!