MPs are set to debate whether to ban Boris Johnson’s government from shutting down schools again without parliamentary approval.
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education select committee, said the closures enforce during the Covid pandemic have “wielded a hammer blow for students’ education and wellbeing”.
The Conservative MP is introducing a bill which would redefine schools and education settings as “essential infrastructure”, alongside power stations, hospitals and supermarkets, in a bid to protect pupils from future shutdowns.
The backbencher’s Private Members’ 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 must be approved by parliament.
On his Ten-Minute Rule Bill, which is being introduced on Wednesday, Mr Halfon said he wanted to stop the “apocalyptic” impact of school closures, claiming they had threatened the futures of millions of pupils.
“Whilst national lockdowns were important to protect the health of the public, school closures have been nothing short of a disaster for our children,” he said.
“Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were already 18 months of learning behind their better-off peers by the time they took their GCSEs,” Mr Halfon added.
“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.”
The Tory MP’s plan for 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 the Commons under the proposals. If approved, the education secretary would have to return to parliament every three weeks for another vote on any proposed extension.
Few Ten-Minute Rule Bills proceed through parliament, even if they make it past the first reading stage. Mr Halfon’s bill only stands a chance of becoming law if the government backs it.
But education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told MPs he would “take a look” at Mr Halfon’s bill as he vowed to keep schools open this winter.
Speaking at the education committee on Wednesday, Mr Zahawi told MPs: “I’ll take a look [at Mr Halfon’s bill] … I have no plans whatsoever to close schools again. We don’t want to go back to a world where children are out of school. My commitment to you as secretary of state I will keep schools open.”
And it has won high-profile support from Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, who said: “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.”
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.”