Yorkshire MP Barry Sheerman calls for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to be replaced with a 'big beast' as catch-up funding row goes on

A Yorkshire MP has called for under-fire Gavin Williamson to be replaced as Education Secretary with a "big beast" as the Government was forced to defend its approach to helping children catch up on lost education.

Veteran Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman criticised what he described as a "lack of leadership" at Scarborough-born Mr Williamson's Department for Education during a Commons debate.

Labour today failed in its bid to force the Government to publish all communications - including emails and text messages - between the Treasury, Department for Education and Downing Street over the rejection of recommendations for children's pandemic recovery from Boris Johnson's expert education advisor Sir Kevan Collins.

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Catch-up tsar Sir Kevan walked away from his post earlier this month, issuing a stinging condemnation of the Government’s £1.4 billion recovery fund for children who have been affected by school closures due to the pandemic.

Veteran Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman criticised what he described as a "lack of leadership" at Scarborough-born Mr Williamson's Department for Education during a Commons debate.
Veteran Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman criticised what he described as a "lack of leadership" at Scarborough-born Mr Williamson's Department for Education during a Commons debate.

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Labour tabled a parliamentary motion asking for the disclosure of all papers, correspondence and advice - including emails and text messages - from February 3 to June 2 - between Treasury ministers, senior officials and special advisers relating to plans developed by Sir Kevan. The Opposition wanted the paperwork to be given to the Public Accounts Committee for evaluation.

It was reported Sir Kevan, who quit as catch-up tsar and criticised the investment plan, had been pushing for £15 billion to help children catch-up lost learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the motion was defeated by 345 votes to 224. And Education Minister Nick Gibb cited the words of former Prime Minister Tony Blair as he said the ability to have confidential and frank discussions was vital for effective government.

Speaking in the Commons debate, Labour MP Mr Sheerman said he was "absolutely furious when I saw Sir Kevan's recommendations have been so watered down".

He added: "And I was also very angry, because Yorkshire did so badly out of even what measly amount of money the government is putting into this. We face a national education emergency following a national health emergency.

"And this is one where they're not bringing resources forward, and not doing the job properly and that resource and that sense of emergency and fixing it, the kids will never get another chance at education, seems to be utterly lacking from the government's determination.

"And secondly, the lack of leadership. Where is the secretary of state when you want him? Why isn't he in the cabinet, really doing the job for education. Dare I say it, we need a big beast in education.

"I'd have been happy with Ed Balls. I'd even been happy with his successor from the Conservative side [Michael Gove] because they were both big beasts. We haven't got a big beast in education.

"We've got a run down, truncated, demoralised Department of Education. And we have education departments in local authorities that have also been run down and sidelined. And the fact of the matter is, we have not got the leadership. We have not got the imagination."

Labour's Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) described the Government's plan as "woefully inadequate", adding: "It completely under-estimates the scale of the recovery required and provides nothing to boost children's mental health, well-being or social development through the creative arts or sports or simply play."

But Conservative Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) said Labour was "calling again and again for more spending", adding: "We simply can't go on that, we've got to at some point try and balance the books".

And responding for the Government, Education minister Nick Gibb said the Government's education policies were undoing the "soft bigotry of low expectations".

He told the Commons: "Since this Government came into office in 2010 we have been focused on our mission of raising school standards for all pupils.

"Successive prime ministers and education secretaries have put ambitious plans in place to make sure that no matter where you were born or where in the country you live you will receive a world-class education."

He went on: "Our reforms are turning the tide, rebuffing the fatalistic assumptions of too many who seem to accept that the gap between rich and poor is inevitable, the soft bigotry of low expectations which, for years, was writing off pupils' lives rather than striving to give them the education needed to influence their own destinies."

Mr Gibb later added: "We know that this pandemic has disproportionately impacted on children, with most missing at least 115 days of school, and that's precisely why we took immediate action to provide education remotely, delivering over 1.3 million laptops and tablets alongside wireless routers and access to free mobile data."