This week was an important moment for schools and families across the country as many of our youngest children returned to schools, nurseries and pre-schools.
I know that many parents will have been anxious on Monday morning about their kids leaving the protective environment at home.
But I know too that many of you will have been reassured by the care and meticulous planning shown by schools across the country, and subsequently the positive feedback from staff and families alike.
For more than two months now we have been undertaking the unprecedented step of staying home to save lives and because of this collective effort we have protected the NHS and are now meeting the Government’s five tests to be able to safely begin easing the lockdown.
This week marked the first cautious step towards reopening the country by welcoming back pupils in Early Years, Reception and Years 1 and 6.
We know how damaging it can be for a child to be out of school for so long. For very young children the experience they get at pre-school, nursery and the first school years is vital. It helps them build the social and communication skills that set them up for life. This is why we have prioritised these children in the first steps of reopening.
So now that the evidence supports a phased reopening of schools it is vital that we proceed so that our children do not fall further behind.
I want to thank every teacher and staff member for the work you have put in to make this possible.
Many of you have already been safely keeping schools and nurseries open throughout COVID in support of our critical workers and I have seen how hard you have been working to provide digital support for pupils who have been continuing their learning from home.
This virus has been an unprecedented challenge but the ingenuity and commitment you have shown has been so impressive.
I am sure you will have been heartened to hear the laughter and chatter from pupils who have been so keen to get back into class and to see their friends again.
I hope that other schools will see your successes and feel confident that they too can welcome children back because unfortunately, until we acquire a vaccine, we will need to live with this virus for some time to come.
This is simply too long for a child to be out of school when we know that they can safely return with the necessary protective measures in place.
We recognise that some schools and nurseries will require more time to prepare and we will support you to ensure more pupils can return to class as soon as possible.
Some local authorities and dioceses are still advising their schools to remain entirely closed – but I would urge them not only to look at the success of this week, but also to the successes in other countries who have adopted a similar phased approach.
The longer children are out of the classroom or their pre-school setting, the higher the risk that they fall behind.
This is particularly the case for those children who are already starting life at a relative disadvantage.
For them, even under normal circumstances, we know that they can fall behind the rest of class by the age of five, and for every additional day they spend out of school that gap widens.
COVID has already made the path to success more difficult for our students.
So I hope each of us can follow the amazing examples of schools right across the UK and refocus our collective effort to ensure that no child loses out on their education because of Coronavirus.
Vicky Ford, Minister for Children and Conservative Member of Parliament for Chelmsford