The start of a new school year is the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of so many children, students, parents and school staff. But this school year has begun like no other.
I have been incredibly impressed by the tireless efforts of school leaders, teachers, teaching assistants and support staff to prepare a safe and supportive environment to the pupils who returned to school and college last week. They all deserve our thanks.
I want to wish all pupils and students well for the year ahead, this year, going back means a return to the classroom for many students for the first time since Covid restrictions swept over us in March. Many who have struggled to engage will have significant work to catch up on now, despite the efforts of schools and parents to facilitate home distanced learning.
All of us in public life agree that a return to school is critical in giving the best start in life to a generation who have been held back since the Spring by this awful pandemic. Nothing can replace the learning environment of being in school or college and the direct support of teachers is indispensable in bringing learners back up to speed.
And as Parliament, like schools and colleges, returned last week, to normal or to the new normal, it is essential that the Government keeps turning the wheel on plans that will help local businesses and shops to revive and recover.
The unprecedented package of loans, grants, and furlough funding has protected firms and jobs through the extraordinary times since March. But freeze and furlough isn’t a solution to getting our economy back on its feet.
We’ve already seen the benefits of effective, targeted support in the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme rolled out by the Chancellor when the reopening of restaurants, cafes and hospitality venues was confirmed at the end of July. 171 venues in Stoke-on-Trent joined the scheme, serving up 154,000 discounted meals across the city in the month of August. That’s a real boost to an industry whose trade was all-but-extinguished in the Spring, and has given employers the confidence to bring back staff and get back to doing what they do best.
And this month, the Government’s landmark new Kickstart scheme has been launched. We know how damaging economic recession is to young people just entering the jobs market. Lack of confidence in the future ahead means businesses lack the confidence to invest in the most important resource: growing their workforce.
The £2 billion scheme has been designed to ensure young people at risk of long term unemployment have a future of opportunity and hope by creating quality jobs across the UK, kickstarting the economy and their own careers. Under the scheme, employers that sign up will be able to offer youngsters aged 16-24 who are claiming Universal Credit a six-month work placement that is fully funded by the Government.
This means the Government will pay 100 per cent of the young persons’ age-relevant National Minimum Wage, National Insurance and pension contributions for 25 hours a week, which the employer can top up if they chose to. In addition, the Government will also pay the employer £1500 for each young person they take on, to support any training or associated costs like uniforms that they might incur when setting up the scheme.
The scheme will initially be open until December 2021, but there is the option for it to be extended. I hope that it is a success and that I can look forward to pressing the Government to extending the same opportunity to more of our young people later in the year. Local employers should certainly consider whether they can join the scheme right away.
I have arrived back in Parliament this month with a renewed purpose. The regeneration of our town centres in this unique city of six towns is now more vital than ever. And the ceramics industry that made our city strong is deserving of bespoke support, just as it is right for young workers and the hospitality sector to receive support that is tailored to their needs at this time. So this week, I will be calling on the Government to consider carefully how jobs and industry in Stoke-on-Trent can be safeguarded.
With support, Stoke-on-Trent has the potential to contribute hugely to getting our economy back on track, stronger and more prosperous than before. And that’s a lesson for the Government now we are back to school.