For many kids, school is not only a place of learning but a centre of stability, offering support to those who face testing circumstances at home
The Shapps household is like millions of others preparing for the start of the school autumn term. New clothes, new books and a new year – a flurry of activity. This is a crucial moment in youngsters’ education.
Children have paid a heavy price in the coronavirus pandemic, deprived of teaching and separated from their friends for months.
Rightly, we think of those who have had their lives snatched away, or their health damaged, by this invisible foe.
But as we rebuild from the initial emergency to something resembling normal life, we must put our children first. And that means getting them back to school.
The Prime Minister has spoken of the need to re-establish classroom teaching for all children as a moral duty. It is.
Missing out on education is a bigger threat for youngsters than this horrible disease.
For many kids, school is not only a place of learning but a centre of stability, offering support to those who face testing circumstances at home.
They in particular have had to cope with isolation, physical and psychological, that has starved them of the teaching and care meant to improve their prospects for the future. We can’t allow this to continue.
This means bringing them back into the school fold, in a safe environment that marries the needs of education with the overriding priority of preventing a re-emergence of the Covid epidemic.
For many kids, school is not only a place of learning but a centre of stability, offering support to those who face testing circumstances at home (file photo)
Teachers have worked through the summer to prepare schools for the autumn influx. Not everything will look the same, with schools putting new measures in place such as extra hand-washing, staggered breaks and lunchtimes.
But on the road back to normality this is a crucial milestone, one we have to reach.
We in government have a responsibility to facilitate that return, to calm fears through practical and proportionate measures.
For my part, as Transport Secretary, that means doing everything possible to ensure that the journey to and from school is as safe and efficient as possible.
Over the past few months, along with my team at the Department for Transport, local authorities up and down the country, and transport operators, I’ve been focused on doing just that.
First, we’ve rolled out some major investment. This includes more than £218 million to help councils keep buses running over the coming weeks, as well as £40 million for dedicated services to take children from their home to school.
For my part, as Transport Secretary, that means doing everything possible to ensure that the journey to and from school is as safe and efficient as possible (file photo)
We are also giving councils £225 million to introduce measures swiftly, such as segregated cycle lanes and wider pavements.
These should give pupils and their parents more confidence to choose to walk or cycle on the school run.
Second, we have concentrated on getting the transport network back in shape.
This has meant resurfacing 319 miles of road during lockdown and using data gathered by delivery firms to detect and fix potholes.
From September 7, we’re ramping up train services to 91 per cent of pre-lockdown capacity during peak hours, while ensuring that services regularly used by pupils are up and running before that date.
We have coordinated preparations for this surge in public transport use with councils and bus and train operators.
Local authorities will be largely responsible for overseeing the return to school in their areas, and we have been in constant communication with them to understand where problems could arise.
I’ve also set up a dedicated unit within my department to monitor the national transport network closely during the first weeks of September.
This should allow us to troubleshoot emerging issues at an early stage.
But while we’re doing our utmost to make the great return to school a success, we need your support, too.
So I am asking everyone to help. Where possible, please try to get your kids to walk or cycle to school.
It’s not only the greenest and healthiest way of getting around, it also frees public transport for those who need it the most. We are making it as safe as possible for you to do this.
Also, be even more than usually considerate when driving on roads close to schools. There could be a lot more children walking and cycling around them. And please, avoid transport that is aimed at school children. If you can stagger your commute to avoid the school rush-hour, it would be a major help.
Employers, too, can play their part in making this possible for their staff. Everyone over the age of 11, unless they have a reasonable exemption, should wear a face covering on public transport.
And we all need to remember to wash our hands before and after every journey, keeping hand sanitiser with us if possible.
This will help keep the network safe for all. I know it’s been said before, but it really does help.
Finally, if you are a pupil heading back to school, I wish you the very best for the new term and year ahead.
As Covid lingers in our midst, do your best to help your teachers and the transport staff. In trying times, courtesy and consideration are a wonderful help.
And if you are a parent, be assured that we are pulling out the stops to make sure their journey goes smoothly.
After these past six months, our children deserve brighter and happier times. Ones they can look back on with fondness, as school days should be.