This week's MP's column comes from Judith Cummins, Labour MP for Bradford South.

AS August draws to a close many parents will be thinking about the start of the new school year.

This year, however, last-minute preparations and the usual worries are overshadowed by the unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves living in. 

Since the beginning of the lockdown in March, families have been thrown into a world of home-schooling, online lessons and PE with Joe.

Although many parents and families have tried their best to continue their children’s education over the past six months, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that the closure of schools widens the attainment gap, entrenches inequalities, and harms children’s physical and mental wellbeing. 

The safe return of children to classrooms must therefore be the Government’s number one priority. Unfortunately, the last few weeks do not fill me with confidence that they will be able to undertake this considerable task. 

The GCSE and A-level results fiasco revealed a Conservative Government in turmoil. Since schools closed and exams were cancelled in March, it’s been clear that we needed a plan to fairly award results to young people to allow them to continue their education or enter the world of work. It is simply unforgivable that Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson did not foresee this problem before August. 

Yet the Government initially designed a system which judged children on their postcode rather than their ability or effort. A system which built existing inequalities into the algorithm. A system which did not recognise that young people from poorer areas could outperform expectations. 

On A-level results day, I wrote to every school and sixth-form in Bradford South to offer my support and to take up any individual cases with Ofqual, exam boards and universities. I also congratulated students on their hard work at school and college and their achievements so far. 

I was inundated with calls from worried A–level students and their parents who missed out on places at their chosen universities due to the postcode lottery of results. Although this has been partly resolved after the reversion to predicted grades, it has severely dented people’s faith in the Government to do the right thing for our young people. It is also a scandal that BTEC students did not receive their grades for nearly a week after they were due to be published.  

The Government’s u-turn was inevitable but by leaving it so late they caused young people and parents to live through a ‘summer of anxiety’ over their exam results.  When it comes to reopening schools, the Government must do better.

The statement by the UK Chief Medical Officers that children are at very low risk of severe illness from coronavirus is reassuring, but for a safe return to school we need the Government to step up and get the basics right. 

Despite promises of it being “world beating”, we still barely have a functioning track and trace system. The incompetence at the heart of Government is staggering. The longer this goes on the less confidence people will have in the Government. 

The Government also needs a concrete plan to protect teachers and students in the classroom and ensure they do not unwittingly pass on the virus. I know teachers have been working hard to prepare but many vital questions remain unanswered, including how local outbreaks associated with schools will be managed. Headteachers urgently need proper guidance from the Government on what to do in this situation. 

In Bradford, where local restrictions remain in place, extra care will have to be taken to ensure that schools reopening do not push up the overall infection rate. The Government must guarantee that councils will get all the resources they need to carry out adequate testing and get the right health messages out. 

When children do get back into school, we need a plan to ensure they catch up on missed learning. In particular, there must be an unrelenting focus on closing the attainment gap between children across the district that will have inevitably widened over the lockdown.  

Simply saying children need to be back in the classroom is not good enough. 

The responsibility to reopen schools safely lies with this Government. For the sake of all our children, they need to get it right.