Education Secretary responds to criticism by Sir Iain Duncan Smith during Tory conference of ‘terrible’ pandemic experiment.
The Education Secretary has said she cannot rule out pandemic-style school closures in the future.
Gillian Keegan refused to take class lockdowns off the table after Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said that they were “the worst thing that could possibly have happened” for children during the pandemic.
He said: “I hope we never, ever again repeat this terrible, terrible experiment.”
Responding during a Conservative Party conference fringe event in Manchester, Mrs Keegan said: “Iain says we hope we would never do a lockdown again, and I agree with that. I often get asked that question.
“But of course you don’t know the circumstances. If you were in a completely different set of circumstances where it was awful for children and of course you have to consider teachers as well, you know you do have to look at the circumstances.”
Asked by The Telegraph whether schools should be classified as critical infrastructure so there is more parliamentary scrutiny ahead of any future closures, she said: “I think there’s been a lot of lessons that have been learned about what we would do in a pandemic and what we would not do in a pandemic.
“The one thing I think is really important though is to know what it is you’re dealing with. So I was asked this, would you say you would never close schools again? And obviously mostly you would say yes, of course you wouldn’t.
“However, you would have to deal with what you were dealing with.”
The Education Secretary was speaking at an event hosted by the Centre for Social Justice think tank, which has warned that a rise in pupils missing lessons post-lockdown risks a “tidal wave of youth crime”.
Overall school absence is up by more than 50 per cent since 2019 and persistent truancy, where pupils miss at least 10 per cent of lessons, has more than doubled.
Mrs Keegan said that a rise in pupil absence was “by far the thing that I worry about the most as Education Secretary”. She said it was an issue that is “harder to solve” than industrial action and the Raac crisis of crumbling concrete in schools.
Parents and children need to overcome “real barriers” and “barriers in their head” to get themselves into school, including poverty, transport costs, mental health and anxiety, she said.
She added: “There’s a lot of action really focused on trying to work with parents and children, to get them back into school.
“The thing we know more than anything, and we want every parent to know in the country is the outcomes for your child will be so much better if they are in school.”
Street gangs ‘rife’
Sir Iain, who is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green, said that street gangs are “rife” in his area of north-east London after lockdown.
He said: “There was no particular plan in place to be able to support the at-risk children during Covid. They are the ones who have … gone into street gangs.”
He said that without an education and job opportunities, the only real option for those children was to get sucked into street gangs which give them a sense of family.
He added: “Street gangs in my area are rife. We have constant stabbings and violence going on. This is the consequence of that complete failure.”News