Labour had an urgent question about schools reopening in the Commons this afternoon, but once again it wasn't the Opposition that really increased pressure on the government but Conservative backbenchers. They are getting increasingly agitated by the prospect of classrooms remaining empty for many weeks longer than ministers had originally suggested, and were keen to convey their concerns to schools minister Nick Gibb.
Gibb had to field questions about rising mental health problems among young people who've spent the best part of a year trying to learn at home, about parents struggling to work and home-school their children, and about the criteria for reopening. Almost every question from Conservative MPs either demanded that schools return after the February half-term, or probed the minister on why they were currently closed. MPs were anxious about the children who were falling behind, and whether there was work underway to identify them and close the gap once they were back in school. Only a couple of MPs stood to make wholly supportive points. The anger seemed to have been taken out of the session by Gibb turning up, rather than Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Gibb has lengthy experience and expertise as a minister in this department and is well-respected by colleagues. Williamson is now largely viewed as weak and on the way out.
Labour, meanwhile, are not doing particularly well in their attempts to put pressure on the government. Why, for instance, was one of the party's main demands that ministers guarantee schools would be the first to reopen, when ministers have been saying this all along? It meant Gibb was able to bat away the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, quite easily. He told the Chamber:
“'The hon. Lady says again, “Why aren’t schools the first to open and the last to close?” Well, that is something we have been making clear all along. The problem with her is that she repeatedly calls for action that we are already taking. She is always two steps behind. The Opposition have no plans, no direction and no clarity on what is the biggest crisis facing this country and the world for nearly a century.'
Still, there's plenty of opposition within the Conservative party itself to be keeping ministers busy.