MP’s Bill Aims to Protect Schools from Pandemic Closures in England

By PA
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November 3, 2021 Updated: November 3, 2021

British MPs must have a vote in Parliament to approve any future school closures following the “disaster” of Covid-19 lockdowns, a senior Tory has said.

Halfon is introducing a Bill aiming to redefine schools as ‘essential infrastructure’ to protect millions of pupils from future shutdowns.

Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Committee, said closures during the coronavirus pandemic “wielded a hammer blow for students’ education and wellbeing”.

The MP for Harlow added that their “apocalyptic” effect has threatened the futures of millions of pupils across the country.

Halfon’s Bill aims to redefine schools and education settings as “essential infrastructure”, alongside power stations, hospitals and food retailers, to protect millions of pupils from future shutdowns.

The Bill, which has the support of the Children’s Commissioner for England, would introduce a “triple lock” of protections to ensure that any possible school closures would have to be approved by Parliament.

On his Ten Minute Rule Bill, which is being introduced on Wednesday, Mr Halfon said: “Whilst national lockdowns were important to protect the health of the public, school closures have been nothing short of a disaster for our children.

“These closures wielded a hammer blow for students’ education and wellbeing. Their effect was apocalyptic, threatening the futures of millions of pupils and students and stopping them climbing the ladder of opportunity.

“Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were already 18 months of learning behind their better-off peers by the time they took their GCSEs.

“Now, as a result of school closures, these pupils face a widening attainment gap and a worsening mental health crisis, numerous safeguarding hazards and diminished life chances.

“Shockingly, it is estimated that school closures will cost our young people between £78 and £154 billion in lost earnings over the course of their lifetimes.”

A triple lock would require the Government to seek the advice of the Children’s Commissioner on whether any national or regional school closure is necessary and in the best interests of the pupils.

A debate and vote to approve any proposed school closure would then be held in Parliament under the proposals.

If such a closure is approved, the Education Secretary would have to return to Parliament every three weeks for another vote on any proposed extension.

Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza said: “There is no doubt that children paid a high price for their time away from school and now is the moment to put children at the heart of the recovery from the pandemic.

“That is why it is absolutely right for us to do all we can to keep schools open for children. A ‘triple lock’ would mean children’s needs were considered at every stage to keep children in school.

“There is nowhere better for children to be than in the classroom. Teachers and schools did amazing things to support children in the last year, but the virtual environment is a shadow of the real thing.

“Now we must do everything we can to keep children in school and this Bill provides the opportunity to do just that.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We support the idea of defining schools and other education settings as ‘essential infrastructure’ and doing everything possible to keep them open during times of national emergency.

“However, this would obviously have to take into account public health advice in any future emergency and it must be accompanied by a commitment from the Government and from Parliament to provide education settings with sufficient support.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said: “We acted swiftly during the pandemic to minimise the impact on children’s education and wellbeing and help keep pupils in face-to-face education as much as possible.

“Protecting face-to-face learning continues to be an absolute priority. We are now at a different stage in our response to the pandemic thanks to the overwhelming success of the vaccination programme, and there are no plans for schools to close again.”

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