I beg to move,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give a direction to Her Ministers to provide all correspondence, including meeting notes, minutes, submissions and electronic communications, involving Ministers and Special Advisers pertaining to the process of awarding qualifications in GCSE, A-Level and NVQs in 2020 and 2021 by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education to the Education Select Committee.
Today’s debate follows a chaotic summer of distress and dismay for young people, their families and their teachers. The system for awarding examination grades that the Secretary of State for Education put in place left thousands of young people devastated. When they received their results, they felt that they had been robbed of the opportunities they deserved by a flawed algorithm that the Secretary of State had pushed for. As events unfolded, the scale of the Government’s incompetence became obvious. Less than two days before the A-level results, new grounds for appeal were announced, ones that Ofqual has since said were never going to be workable. On results day itself, the Prime Minister and Secretary of State insisted the system was robust, even as it was unravelling around them. Two days later, the Secretary of State said there would be “no U-turn, no change”, but days later a U-turn was made. After days of campaigning by students, their families and the Labour party, the Government accepted that students should be awarded their centre-assessed grades. That was the right decision, but this shambles is no way to run a country.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman asked that question, because initially the Welsh Labour Government intended to rely on the AS-levels, which, of course, they could do because, unlike in England, AS-levels had continued in Wales. However, we have a national, UK-wide university system, so I very much welcomed the consistency of decision across Wales, England and Scotland to ensure that students from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales could all access universities throughout the UK.
Today’s debate is not simply about the Government’s policy and their inability to govern competently; it is also about integrity and process. It is about what the Prime Minister knew, what the Secretary of State knew and when they knew it. It is about why, when faced with concerns about their chosen system, they did not do anything to address them. Our motion is not about scoring party political points; most of all it is about transparent government and learning from the mistakes that were made this year so that they are not made again in future. That is why I hope all Members from all parties will support the motion. As constituency MPs, we all know that what has happened since August has shattered confidence in this Government among young people, their families and education professionals.
Yes indeed we do, but the Government need to start to plan that now so that markers can be recruited, schools can schedule their learning and teaching, and UCAS and universities can plan their admissions process. We still do not have a clear decision from the Government.
The collapse in confidence must be addressed, because only if confidence is in place will we make a success of the reopening of our education settings and the exams to come in the academic year that is just starting, as the right hon. Gentleman mentions. The mistakes that were made this summer must be understood and learned from, and they must not be repeated.
As a dad of two kids, one of whom went through GCSEs and one of whom went through A-levels this year, I understand massively the disruption that was caused to families and especially to the young people looking to their futures. Does the hon. Lady agree that, looking to the future, the Secretary of State should show humility, listen to the teaching profession and learn, and he should understand that all-or-nothing exams next spring are a huge risk to our young people, particularly given the crisis we might be in then? Is it not better to assess along the way, as many teachers are telling us would be far wiser?
Over the past few weeks, we have seen the danger—indeed, the folly—of having put all the eggs into one single, end-of-year final-examination basket. That innovation was, of course, introduced under the current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
We can learn from the mistakes of the summer only if the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister come clean, and today I offer them the chance to do so. Last week, Ofqual gave evidence to the Education Committee about how the decision to cancel exams and award grades by algorithm was taken. I am concerned that there is some inconsistency between Ofqual’s version of events and statements that the Secretary of State made to this House, so will he put the facts on the record today? I am sure he will seize the opportunity to do so.
First, will the Secretary of State explain to the House how the decision to cancel exams and use calculated grades was taken? Roger Taylor, chair of Ofqual, told the Select Committee that Ofqual first advised Ministers back in March that its preference was to hold socially distanced exams; failing that, to delay exams; or, if necessary, to award a teacher certificate, rather than using a system of calculating grades. Roger Taylor also said:
“It was the Secretary of State who then subsequently took the decision and announced, without further consultation with Ofqual, that exams were to be cancelled and a system of calculated grades was to be implemented.”
Will the Secretary of State now make clear to the House when he took the decision to cancel exams in 2020? What other options were presented to him? Why did he reject them? Is Roger Taylor right to say that the Secretary of State made that decision unilaterally, without further consultation with Ofqual? In his statement to the House last week, the Secretary of State said:
“Ofqual had put in place a system for arriving at grades that was believed to be fair and robust.”—[Official Report, 1 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 42.]
Of course, it turned out to be anything but, but is it really right to say that Ofqual put the system in place, or was it done because of the Secretary of State’s decision? If so, he needs to take responsibility for the consequences, which he had been warned about. Ofqual said that as early as 16 March, it warned the Department for Education that—quote its evidence to the Select Committee—
“it would be challenging, if not impossible, to attempt to moderate estimates in a way that’s fair for all this year’s students. Everyone, throughout the process, was aware of the risks.”
A former senior official in the Department for Education, Sir Jon Coles, also met the Secretary of State weeks before results day to raise concerns about the approach adopted. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when that meeting took place, what concerns were raised and what action he took as a result of it? The Minister for School Standards told the House on Monday that the problem was simply passed over to Ofqual to deal with, but does the Secretary of State accept that, ultimately, he is responsible for the chaos that followed?
The hon. Lady is clearly a fan of reviewing the events of the past few weeks with the benefit of hindsight. In that spirit, would she also like to review her own party’s equivocation about getting students back into the classroom?
I have always been clear, and the leader of the Labour party has always been clear, that students must return to class this September, and we are very pleased that the vast majority of schools have returned and children have returned to the classroom. The important task for the Secretary of State now is to keep them there. We must all be concerned, I believe, about the very swift picture we are seeing of children being sent home because of outbreaks. In the absence of a reliable and rapid testing and tracing system, schools are placed in an impossible position.
I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend and then from the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), because, as he knows, I respect all colleagues from all parts of the House. If he will forgive me, I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend first and then of course I will take one from him. Then, Mr Deputy Speaker, I think you would like me to progress a little.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I have this afternoon received an email from a senior leader in my constituency who faces having a member of staff, who has been instructed to self-isolate, waiting, worried and unable to get a test until next Thursday. Is there not a danger that schools will be forced to close not necessarily because of an outbreak, but because of the failure of the testing system?
Yes. This is the test that the Government have to pass; otherwise we will see thousands of children up and down the country unable to stay in class as the Secretary of State wants them to—I know he does—as I want them to, and as teachers and parents want them to.
The hon. Lady is most generous and has always been so. She made a comment earlier about perhaps sitting exams this summer. She has just taken an intervention on, and commented on the fact that, it is difficult having children back in school. This is a very different scenario from where we were in March, so there is a certain amount of hindsight. Does she accept that at the moment those decisions were being taken, we were facing a very different picture—one that seems to be proven by the fact that people are worried about children going back to school at this stage, let alone in March?
No, I will not—I am going to make some progress.
What is not acceptable is that we ended up in a system of utter chaos when results were declared: chaos that was deeply demoralising—indeed, devastating—for many young people.
Ofqual told the Secretary of State that No. 10 was briefed before A-level results day—told about the risks to outlier students and to schools that were improving, and about the benefits to small cohorts such as independent school students. So is it true that No. 10 was aware of these concerns well in advance of results being published, and if so, why did the Prime Minister fail to do anything about them? Time and again, it seems, both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister were warned about injustices that the system would throw up but failed to address the problems. That is not to say that Ofqual was perfect, although the Secretary of State forced it into an impossible position. Ofqual must know that there are lessons to be learned and commit to learning them. That is why it is reassuring to see it commit to releasing all the data used in the qualifications process this year to independent researchers. Will the Secretary of State today give a similar commitment?
Nobody has said that centre-assessed grades are perfect. On the day that the Leader of the Opposition called for them, he acknowledged that problem, but we were in such an extreme situation at that point, where it was vital to put the best interests of young people first. It took days and days of agony and anguish for those young people and their families before the Secretary of State made the right decision.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech concentrating on A-level results, but weeks after the A-level issue was resolved, I still had BTEC students who had not received their grades. We talk about lessons to be learned in 2021, but what about the BTEC students who deserve some justice now?
My hon. Friend speaks for the constituents of hon. Members all around the House. Indeed, I expect that we may hear some examples of that in the course of the debate. Those students had a particularly difficult experience waiting for further re-marking of their awards, and I think it was only last week that the Secretary of State said that they would all be expected finally to receive their results.
We also need to be clear today about the decision-making process that led to the announcement a few days after A-level results day to award students their centre-assessed grades. In his evidence to the Select Committee, Roger Taylor said that that decision was taken by Ofqual. Can the Secretary of State confirm who made the decision to award the CAGs? Did he do it or was it Ofqual? Is it right that Ofqual did not agree with the Secretary of State’s policy to allow appeals based on mock results, believing that that would not be credible?
While responsibility for decision making appears to have been complex and confused, there is no confusion when it comes to who carried the can for the failure. In the aftermath of this fiasco, the chief regulator of Ofqual and the permanent secretary at the Department for Education were forced to resign—but in our democracy it is Ministers, not officials, who are accountable.
No, I will not. [Interruption.] I will not give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
It was repeated incompetence right at the heart of this Government that led to this year’s exams scandal. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) were a member in my class, I would send him to see the head now. A Prime Minister and a Secretary of State who refused for months to listen to concerns pushed ahead with a system that unravelled in a matter of hours. While the eventual U-turn to accept CAGs was welcome, and indeed necessary, it cannot undo the devastating impact on young people on results day. Those who feared losing their university place completely, or who now have to wait a year to take up the opportunities that they deserve, have to live with the serial incompetence of the Government.
Today the Secretary of State can begin to make amends and restore the confidence of young people, their families and teachers, as can all Members of this House, including those on the Government Benches. All they have to do is vote for a motion to provide the public with the transparency they have a right to expect, and to ensure that there is no repetition of the mistakes in future.
The House is aware that, earlier this year, the Government took the difficult decision to close schools and colleges and cancel the summer exams because of the covid-19 outbreak. It was not a decision that was taken lightly. It was taken only after serious discussions with a number of parties, including, in particular, the exam regulator, Ofqual. This virus has propelled not just this country but the rest of the world into uncharted territory. We have had to respond, often at great speed, to find the best way forward, given what we knew about the virus at the time. Although the procedure that we put in place to award exam results was changed, I am pleased that students have now received, for GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels as well as for vocational and technical qualifications, the results that they deserve and that they are in a position to be able to progress to the next stage of their lives.
I say to the Secretary of State that now is the time to look to the future to ensure that adequate places are available on all those courses that were oversubscribed this year. I am speaking on behalf of all the students of Northern Ireland who come to universities here on the mainland. Perhaps now is the time to look at that matter.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. More than a third of students from Northern Ireland come to study in Great Britain, and it is important to ensure that students from all parts of the United Kingdom have those opportunities. It is something that I shall come on to later in the debate. I wish to put on record my thanks to Peter Weir, the Education Minister, who has done so much and worked so closely with us as we tackled some of these issues, including making sure that places were available for youngsters so that they had the maximum amount of opportunity when they came to make their decisions about universities.
Let me turn to the motion tabled by the Opposition. As Members of this House will know, policy can be made only through open discussion between Ministers, their advisers and departmental officials. This motion fundamentally undermines that. Officials must be able to give advice to Ministers in confidence. I am appearing in front of the Education Committee in person next Wednesday, and I will commit now to working with its members to provide the information that they request wherever it is possible.
Today, I will set out the process that was followed once the exams were cancelled back in March. In the absence of exams, we needed to come up with a robust and fair system that accurately reflected the work and abilities of each individual student. In a written statement on 23 March, I explained that the process would be based on teacher judgments, as teachers know their students best, but that other relevant data such as prior attainment would also be taken into account.
On 31 March, I directed the regulator to work with the exam boards to develop a process for providing calculated grades for 2020 and to hold an exam series as soon as reasonably possible after schools and colleges fully opened again—that is the autumn exam series that we have put in place. My letter stated that the grades submitted by centres should be standardised and that the national grade distribution should follow a similar pattern to previous years as far as possible. I also requested that students should have a right of appeal where there are errors in the process. I issued a second direction letter to Ofqual on 9 April regarding vocational and technical qualifications. From that point on, Ofqual began to develop a process for arriving at calculated grades.
At the beginning of April, Ofqual published a policy document on awarding grades for GCSEs and A and AS-levels, which was followed by a two-week public consultation, to which more than 12,700 responses were received.
Ofqual, quite understandably, suggested that exams were the best system of assessment. I think that everyone on the Government Benches would agree that exams are the best form of assessment, but we have to remember the situation in March. We were in the grip of a global pandemic and had to shut down every school in the country. If the hon. Lady takes a look at the advice Ofqual gave, she will see that it clearly recognised that if schools were to close and there was no normal-running schooling system, it would not be feasible to run an exam system. Given that, we had to come up with an alternative, and that is what we asked Ofqual to do—to come up with a series of alternatives that we could proceed with.
Does my right hon. Friend feel that it was helpful, at the point when everybody agreed we should seek to run the independently moderated exams that grades depended upon, that the National Education Union advised its members not to participate in online teaching, making it absolutely certain that the vast majority of children would not get a fair crack of the whip?
There was a challenge there. As my hon. Friend points out, the National Education Union advised its members not to participate in remote teaching, which was a shame, but I am pleased to report that hundreds of thousands of teachers ignored the advice and made sure it happened and that children could benefit from it.
I think the Secretary of State has just contradicted himself. He said that exams were the best form of assessment and then said that in a disrupted education system exams clearly cannot deliver. Why, then, will he not consider a broader based assessment that draws on the talents of all children and tests their skills in many different ways, as educational experts recommend?
Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), if that is the case, the crucial issue—and I speak as a year 11 parent—is the planning for next year. Parents’ deep concern is that the lessons from the mistakes made have not been learned and that we are walking into a crisis next June. Will he please take that into account and provide the necessary support?
It is recognised on both sides of the House, I think, that children in years 11 and 13 are among those who have suffered the most severe disruption. I speak as a year 11 parent myself. We are very conscious of that—Annabel reminds me of it regularly.
If the hon. Lady will allow me to make some progress, I am sure I will make time for her to share her views and opinions.
On 22 May, Ofqual published its decisions. The key principle of using a statistical standardisation approach was supported by 89% of those who responded to Ofqual’s consultation. It is important to remember that similar approaches to awarding qualifications following the cancellation of exams were put in place in Scotland, which, as we are all aware, has an SNP Administration, in Wales, which, as we are all aware, has a Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration, and in Northern Ireland, which, as we are all aware, has a DUP-Sinn Féin Administration. All four nations reached the same policy conclusion about the best and fairest approach for awarding qualifications.
Between April and August, the detail of Ofqual’s model for awarding grades without examinations was developed by Ofqual—the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation—and by other assessment experts in conjunction with it. It was vital that the model was seen to be fair, and we were reassured by Ofqual that it was. We explored issues, including whether disadvantaged students and other groups such as black, Asian and minority ethnic students would be treated fairly by the model. Information on this was shared at the public symposium held by Ofqual on 21 July, which made it clear that the standardisation process was not biased.
After the publication of the Scottish results on 4 August, we again sought reassurance from Ofqual about the fairness of the model. The Department also rapidly considered a number of options to reduce the risk of a similar loss of public confidence happening in England.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way on that very point. How does he reconcile the two statements he has just made? On the one hand, he talked about reconciling the model, looking at its potential implications and considering that it was fair, and on the other hand, earlier in his remarks or certainly earlier in the debate, we heard that the small groups of students who tend to be in independent schools were likely to benefit from this approach. How does he reconcile those two points?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. He refers back to my correspondence and direction of 31 March. One of the key elements of that letter was making sure that Ofqual looked at that issue to make sure that that balance was achieved, and that if there was any unfairness within the system, every action that could be taken was taken to eliminate such unfairness.
I had expected the hon. Lady to intervene just a moment ago, and the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) sneaked into her slot, so I will make some progress. I can see that she is bubbling away with interventions, possibly even provided by the Whips Office, ready to go. [Interruption.] No, that does her a disservice. As a former Chief Whip, I was obviously giving far too much credit to the Labour Whips Office for being so organised.
Following discussions, I announced the triple lock system on 12 August. This policy clearly showed my determination that we build in fairness by giving students a safety net, including being able to appeal on the basis of a valid mock result or sitting an exam in the autumn. As happens every year, we did not have sight of the full details of A-level results at individual or school and college level ahead of their release on 13 August. Over the following days, it became clear that there were far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for students, and that it was not reasonable to expect these to be dealt with through an appeal system.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, and of course I wished to make an intervention because of what he had said, but the question I want to ask is: even if he did not see those results and understand that they were having a disproportionate impact specifically on students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, why was he not able to provide assurance about what a valid mock was, and why did the appeals process, when it was published, have to be withdrawn just a few hours later, adding further confusion to an already difficult situation?
All Members will remember—I think the hon. Member and I joined the House in the same year—the legislation that was taken through for the establishment of Ofqual to create an independent regulator. I would defer to my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards, who has been in the Department for a few years longer than I have, but I believe it has always been standard practice that we do not have sight of those qualifications at those levels, and that has been the case every single year.
When it comes to the extra measures that we put in place to ensure the maximum amount of fairness and flexibility for students and so that they were able to appeal if they felt that there was an injustice, frankly if there is anything that I can do, as Education Secretary, to enhance that fairness and to make sure they get the results they truly deserve, I will do it. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) shouts from a sedentary position about charging. We made it clear that there would be no charge for those centres. She may misremember, but we always made it clear that the exam series for the autumn would be available free to students who wished to retake.
That is correct. Understandably, we always sought assurances on this, because all of us in this House strive at every moment to ensure that there is fairness for every one of our constituents. We want to ensure that all those young people who have studied so much in the run-up to their GCSEs, BTECs, A-levels or AS-levels get the grades they deserve.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the triple lock. Wales had a similar system to the triple lock, but instead of mock exams, AS exams were used to fall back on. Unfortunately, that led to many of the highest achievers, who would have gone on to medical or veterinary qualifications, not being able to get the highest levels because the A* grade does not exist in the AS facility. Is it not right that people who were appealing in Wales would have had a guaranteed downgrade because of the Welsh Labour system?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There would have been weakness and challenges whichever system we adopted. All four nations of the United Kingdom did everything they could do to ensure that there was the maximum amount of fairness for those students who were not in a position to take their exams as the result of a global pandemic.
On 16 August, Ofqual’s chair and the chief regulator advised me that the Ofqual board was minded to make a formal decision to revert to centre assessment grades for all students, or the calculated grade where that was higher. I accepted their view and the decision was announced on Monday 17 August by Ofqual and myself. Subsequently, the Department worked closely with Ofqual and the exam boards to ensure that GCSE results were revised and issued on the original results day of 20 August, and A and AS-level results were reissued on the same timescale.
The majority of awarding organisations that deliver vocational and technical qualifications did not use similar processes as those for GCSEs and A-levels, and those results were issued as planned. However, there were delays to some results where a similar standardisation process had been used, to allow them to be reviewed and reissued.
We took a range of actions to ensure that no young person would be held back from going on to higher education as a result of the grading changes. On 17 August, we announced the removal of temporary student number controls, which had been introduced for the coming academic year. We have also lifted the caps on domestic medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and teaching courses. We have provided additional teaching grant and funding for universities to support that.
Throughout the summer, headteachers in Croydon were getting in touch with me with increasing alarm and concern about what they felt would be really bad outcomes for their children. What does the Secretary of State wish he had done better?
We have to recognise that we were dealing with a truly unprecedented situation. I think it is recognised on both sides of the House that we had to make swift decisions in truly unprecedented times.
Let me turn to what some Opposition Members have said. The deputy leader of the Labour party, the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), opposed teachers handing out unaltered grades. When Ofqual announced how grades would be handed out, she—then the shadow Education Secretary—said:
“We have always said predicted grades are not always accurate, and can disproportionately affect the children who need the most support, and we pushed ministers to ensure students can sit an exam later if they wish.”
There has constantly been a whole set of decisions that have had to be made. That has been done at speed, while we are dealing with a novel virus that we have learned a lot about over the past few months. One thing that was clear in March was that we were not in a position to proceed with exams, and of course, Ofqual and many others would have wished to do that.
I understand the difficulties that the Government faced in an unprecedented and utterly unpredictable situation, and I understand that the Secretary of State did not see the individual schools’ and individual students’ A-level results, but he did know the overall picture some days in advance of results day, and he would have known that 40% of awards were being downgraded. Did that not ring alarm bells? Why did it take so many more days before he acted, during which he insisted that there would be no U-turn?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and to Education Ministers around the UK, who have faced extremely difficult decisions throughout a very difficult and genuinely unprecedented time. Does the fact that all the Ministers came to the same conclusions at roughly the same time and changed policy at the same time give confidence that the best outcome with the information available has been arrived at in every nation across the UK?
I will cease to be generous and kind, Mr Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend makes an important point. At every stage, everyone looked at how we could do what is right and best for those young people who had not been in a position to take exams, in a truly extraordinary situation across all four nations of our great United Kingdom.
We set up the higher education taskforce to tackle some of the issues that we recognised would come about as a result of a higher level of grading due to centre assessment grades being awarded. Through the taskforce, the university sector has agreed to honour all offers to students who meet the conditions of their offer where possible. In the event that a course is full, universities will give students a choice between a suitable alternative course or a deferred place if they would rather wait a year. For those who are not happy with their grade or who did not receive one, we are running an additional series of exams later in the autumn. We have launched an exam support service for schools and colleges, to help them secure venues and invigilators and meet any additional costs arising from the autumn exam series.
Looking to 2021, my Department is working closely with Ofqual, the exam boards and groups representing teachers, schools and colleges to consider the best approach for exams and other assessments for next year. I expect next year’s exams to go ahead. Our aim when providing qualifications this year was ensuring that all our students received just recognition for their efforts, enabling them to progress to the next stage of their lives in the knowledge that their qualifications had the same value as in previous years. When it became clear that there was a risk that for some that would not be the case, I believe that the actions we took offered the fairest solution in these most unprecedented of times.
Let me be clear from the outset that I want to approach today’s debate with humility above anything else. Put simply, the grading of this year’s pupil qualifications is a plague on all our houses, and I wanted to put that on record in the opening seconds of my speech. I will try to be constructive in my analysis today.
In approaching this debate, it is important to acknowledge that 2020 is not the academic year that any of us could have envisaged. From the talk of possible disruption in February, we quickly moved to a position where schools and universities had to be closed before the full lockdown a few days later. After the initial shock, staff and students swiftly developed different ways of working facilitated by Zoom, Teams and Glow, and that has not been easy. It has brought into sharp focus the issue of digital exclusion, which has been highlighted to me by Derek Smeall, the principal of Glasgow Kelvin College in Easterhouse in my constituency.
Some young people were able to continue their studies, albeit on a different platform, whereas others found themselves cut off from their support systems just at the point when that support was most needed as they prepared for state exams. The decision to cancel the exams was therefore unquestionably the right thing to do, and I think we all agree on that. It was the right thing to do not just because of the health risks to students in physically participating, but because of the massive inequality that would have been built into any exam results as a consequence of the difficulty in accessing the usual teacher support. Unfortunately, actions meant to tackle inequality ended up embedding it, and that has to be acknowledged and apologised for, and that is exactly what has happened in Scotland.
Above all else, tribute should be paid to the young people campaigning for Governments across these islands to see the error of their ways and to U-turn. In Scotland, that campaign was fronted by my Shettleston constituent Erin Bleakley, who goes to St Andrew’s Secondary. She eloquently articulated the anger and dismay of young people with her placard, “Judge my work, not my postcode”.
There is no getting away from it: this has been a summer of confusion and distress for young people across the UK, who found themselves at the mercy of algorithms. However, it is not the use of the algorithm that is ultimately the problem; it is the litany of errors, ignored warnings, failures to act and missed opportunities for the Secretary of State to be proactive.
In April, experts from the Royal Statistical Society offered to help with the modelling. Their offer was refused. At the start of July, the former director general of the Department for Education, Sir Jon Coles, wrote to the Secretary of State, warning that Ofqual’s grading system would lead to unfairness in the system. His concerns were ignored. On 10 July, the Education Committee warned about the algorithm, saying that it risked inaccuracy and bias against young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Still the irresponsibility continued. That is why we find ourselves debating Labour’s motion on the Order Paper today, which is very specific in its proposed wording.
When Scotland’s young people received their results on 4 August, it quickly became clear that something had gone wrong. Our Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills sat down and listened to the young people affected, yet the Scottish Tories were jumping up and down, calling for his resignation. I remember listening on the radio to the Scottish Conservative education spokesperson demanding that resignation. I look across the Chamber this afternoon, and I see no Scottish Conservatives here. That is why I deliberately started by saying that a bit of humility in this might not have gone amiss.
What happened in Scotland should have been a red flag moment for the Conservatives, and it should have been a warning to the Secretary of State to act, but what happened next left many young people in England in turmoil. As Scotland took decisive action, awarding young people their predicted grades, and crucially announcing new funding for universities to ensure that any young people with the entry grades would secure their place, the Tories remained in denial that there might be a problem with A-level results. When these shockingly inaccurate results were published, the Secretary of State dug himself into a hole by denouncing the actions of the Scottish Government, pontificating about the “unfairness” of taking teachers’ predictions seriously as the basis for results and declaring that there would be no “U-turn, no change”. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister was insisting that
“The exam results…are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable,”
before going on to talk about “mutant algorithms”. To make matters worse, the Secretary of State faffed about with the appeals process, leading to Ofqual revoking the process that it had published only a few hours earlier, leaving school leaders and exam boards utterly bewildered.
Despite what the Secretary of State said in his statement to the House last week, his actions were not immediate. He had both foresight and time on his side and squandered both. At the time of his U-turn on results, university places had been lost. The Schools Minister has maintained that he did not see the algorithm until results day, suggesting that something went wrong with its implementation. What questions were Ministers asking prior to the publication of results? Did anyone ask for a trial run of the algorithm? This is a pattern that keeps repeating itself with this irresponsible Tory Government: first, pretend the problem does not exist, then brush away the scrutiny, then make the wrong decision and then blame somebody else.
Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many young people who missed their first choice of university because of the now discredited approach to awarding grades have now been given places? Now more than ever, what has happened calls into question why young people should be paying £9,000 in tuition fees and saddling themselves with an average debt of £50,000. They are due some breaks, and if the Government were serious about their futures, the Secretary of State would be looking at that.
But of course, universities are dealing with much more than just this carry-on. A combination of the covid restrictions and the ongoing hostile immigration environment means that universities are preparing for an unprecedented drop in international students of up to 70%, which will punch a massive hole in the finances of our institutions. Indeed, Universities UK estimates that the shortfall could be close to £7 billion. At a time when universities are facing the loss of Horizon Europe collaborations and funding, the Secretary of State should be acting to protect the very institutions that will help to kick-start the economy. It would therefore be helpful to know what assessment he has made of the impact on universities and what discussions he has had with the Treasury about providing those institutions with additional financial support.
Universities are ready to support these young people, but as well as increased financial support, they need a fresh look at immigration. In Scotland, we have been clear about the need to extend the post-study work visa. It is incredible that, at a time when we most need talented graduates to be economically active, we have not brought post-study visas forward for our 2020 graduates. What is needed now is clear action to ensure that, whether or not we have another year of covid disruption, young people are not the victims.
As well as taking the steps highlighted earlier, the Scottish Government have gone further. In order to learn lessons and plan for next year, the Cabinet Secretary for Education in Scotland has asked Professor Mark Priestley of Stirling University to carry out an independent review of the events following the cancellation of the examination diet and to make representations for the coming year.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. What happened in Scotland is perfectly on the record, but we have been back since the middle of August. Children are back in schools, learning. I have been in those schools and seen that for myself, and it seems to be going relatively well, although no doubt there have been hiccups. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, with humility, this is a process that we are all feeling our way through. If that humility was reflected by the right hon. Gentleman and the Government, that might be helpful.
The OECD’s ongoing independent review of the curriculum for excellence will be asked to include recommendations on how to transform Scotland’s approach to assessment and qualifications, based on global best practice.
In conclusion, young people have been extremely poorly served over the summer. We know that the Secretary of State hates to follow Scotland’s example on anything, but he must now ensure that his actions are not ostrich-like, and instead be proactive to ensure that young people have the best possible experience over the next few years, because—to finish with an education metaphor—those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
As a child, I hated examinations—I was on the Pro Plus, up all night—so I would have been over the moon at the idea of exams being cancelled. However, knowing that even if I worked hard my future would be decided by a mutant algorithm would have filled me with dread.
The Education Committee is going into what happened in a lot of detail. I thank the Secretary of State for saying that he would send all relevant documents to the Committee, and I am sure that will be confirmed by the Minister for School Standards when he sums up the debate. In the short time available, I want to make three points—and I will focus on Ofqual, as we have the Secretary of State appearing before us next Wednesday.
First, having listened to Ofqual and read its statement, I feel that it had the Charge of the Light Brigade mentality with its algorithm. It refused to publish the standardisation model in advance, despite the recommendation of our Select Committee. There should have been much more external scrutiny. As was just said, Ofqual should have taken proper advice from the Royal Statistical Society and people such as Sir Jon Coles. Yes, many consultations were done, but in my view those should have been specifically on the algorithm.
The second point that I would like to raise is whether Ofqual is fit for purpose and genuinely an independent body. Clearly, what happened on the weekend of 15 and 16 August, on which the Select Committee will go into more detail next week, suggests significant blurred lines of accountability and questions about how independent the organisation is. Given the opposition even to partial reopening of schools and the lack of learning of millions of students, I understand why the Secretary of State said that the formal exams were not a viable option at the time, but we need to understand better what ingredients the Department for Education demanded in terms of the burnt algorithm pie.
Thirdly, given the clear need for lines of accountability and the blame game that has gone on, I found Ofqual’s refusal to communicate during the Select Committee session incredible; everything was referred back to the DFE. That was unacceptable to parents and teachers. I think the BTEC was mishandled.
Was my right hon. Friend struck, as I was, in that Education Committee hearing that Ofqual could see coming many of the problems that came about? It knew that high-achieving children at low-performing schools would be disadvantaged, and it knew that schools with small classes would be advantaged, but its attitude was very much “We’ll just sort it out at appeals” rather than to worry about the distress it would cause on results day.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is a hard-working member of our Select Committee. I just think Ofqual had this Charge of the Light Brigade mentality that it knew best and no one could challenge its algorithm.
I mentioned the BTEC; 450,000 students were affected. The way that all came out is very depressing. As a country, we should value vocational qualifications as much as we do academic qualifications, and I just think that summed up everything that is wrong with our country in the way we look at these results. We need to learn the lessons from that.
Let me say in the time that I have remaining that we clearly need to make a decision on exams next year—that is very important—but before that is done there should be nationwide assessments of all the pupils in the relevant years in particular, so that we can find out how much loss of learning there has been and how much catch-up is needed. The Government will then be able to say, working with the regulators, whether the syllabus needs to be pared down and how much of a delay is needed. I very much hope that exams will take place. That is the best solution, but if they do not and there is a plan B and we go to teacher-assessed grades, I hope very much that there will be an independent assessor—a human independent assessor—acting as a check and balance.
I hope that this saga and the things that went wrong give us a chance to reboot education. I hope that we can have a long-term national education plan that looks at addressing social injustice in education, levelling up, meeting our skills needs, helping children with special educational needs, and much more besides.
Having listened to the exchanges and read some of the documents before the debate, I am satisfied that the Secretary of State asked Ofqual to deliver the right answers. It is disappointing that its algorithm did not work and it was right that it had to be changed. Once the decision had been taken to close schools and not to proceed with exams, I think the best answer probably was to look to the teachers to evaluate the pupils and put them in the right rank order, but for there to be some moderating influence so that, overall, we got a fair spread of results. However, it appears that the algorithm did not do that and produced all sorts of individual injustices. It may have produced what Ofqual thought was the right answer school by school, but it did not produce the right answer pupil by pupil. That was a great pity and it was clear from what the Secretary of State has been saying that that was not shared with him, which is why we are debating this today. We should now move on. As many have said on both sides of the House, we need to learn lessons and make sure that the class of 2021 is better served and does not have the same difficult foray into getting their results as the class of 2020 did.
I am very pleased that a decision has been made that exams will be reinstituted. I note that we have had one Ofqual consultation already, with some conclusions, and a further consultation is under way. We have a series of new injustices that have to be dealt with, and they need to be dealt with quite soon, at this early stage. Some pupils were taught a full timetable of lessons remotely by their schools. Others had very little teaching during the summer period. Some schools were better equipped to press on with the full rigours of the GCSE and A-level courses and others were not. We need to ask ourselves what will happen in those situations, where some have been prepping for the full exam and others are now saying that perhaps they cannot in time prep for the full exam. Can we create some more time to make sure that all can be brought up to a satisfactory situation?
I see that it has been decided already that there will not be field work for geography and geology, which is quite a big loss, that there will not be formal oral examinations for languages, including the English language, and that there will be less of a syllabus for those who are doing history and geography, in terms of choice of questions. These quite big decisions have already been made. I hope that there will be no need for any further decisions that could in any way undermine the reputation or the quality of the exam that will be set, and many will pass, for the class of 2021.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting the students who are due to sit their exams next year, in all the subjects that he mentions, back into the classroom again is vital to their continued academic success? Will he also join me in welcoming Labour’s refreshing new position of wanting to see all children go back, having dragged its heels on this issue over the summer?
I am delighted that the Opposition rightly wish to see children properly educated. I have never doubted that they wanted to see children properly educated—that must be a shared view that we all hold—but it would certainly be good if the Opposition carried on in the spirit of co-operation and responded to some of the consultations, for example, because very important decisions will now be taken over when the exams will take place, what the content of exams will be and how they will be marked and assessed. We need to have two things first and foremost in our minds: of course, we need to be fair to the pupils and to take into account that their education has been interrupted in recent months, but we also need to make sure that the system itself guarantees quality, so that they get a qualification that means something and is widely respected both at home and abroad. I hope that the Secretary of State will soon be able to bring forward positive proposals so that the class of 2021 can be properly looked after.
Order. I understand that it is important to have free-flowing debate, but I point out that we have a lot of people who are probably not going to get in on the debate, and interventions do prevent others from speaking. That is just a gentle reminder.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It seems that I am in good company here today as the parent of a year 11 child. I want to speak up for them and year 13 children today in my remarks.
When the lockdown was lifted, and not a moment before, I went to see some friends in the countryside—not near Barnard Castle. This was after the regulation was lifted. My friend’s child goes to a private school. I sat alongside this young girl, the same age as my son, who goes to a state comprehensive school. I heard about the level of education that she had been having and compared it with the level of education my son had been having, and knowing that she will be entered into the exact same exam that my son will be entered into filled me with fear, and that was before the exam fiasco.
I ask the Secretary of State today to give me confidence as a parent that I will not be faced in August next year with having to lobby for a change to be made because another unfair system has been imposed on children who cannot afford to pay for their education and who cannot afford to have computers in their homes. I had to go around my constituency giving out sim cards so that people could access their kids’ schools on their phones, because they did not even have access to the internet. That was how their children were intending to access education.
The reason I want full disclosure of all the documents is that I do not want this mistake to be made again. I get it, we all like a bit of party political banter, but what I have seen over the summer and today is that Ministers seem more obsessed with things that people from the Labour party might have said, as if they are not the Government. If I had one wish, it would be that my children’s lives were not particularly in their hands, but here I am as a rule taker, not a rule maker, in this situation.
I wish that the Secretary of State would show more humility. I am the representative for Birmingham, Yardley and I have a very eminent predecessor, Baroness Morris of Yardley. When she felt that she had not done her very best when she was in the position the Secretary of State is in today, she said that the children, schools and teachers mattered more than her job. That is the kind of humility that I would expect from a Government, and it is not something that I have seen. All I can say is that the Secretary of State had better pray that he does not find himself in the same situation in August next year.
This is the first time I have made a speech in this Chamber since leaving the Government, and I want to speak today to put on record my confidence in my former ministerial colleagues, with whom I had the pleasure of working closely. I know that my hon. Friends would have sought to ensure that, in this year that no one could have predicted, the replacement assessments were as rigorous, and held to the same standards, as previous exams.
If we are to have confidence in our exam system, its credibility needs to be maintained not just in a single year, but across decades. The UK’s A-level qualification system is internationally renowned for precisely that reason—it has been maintained as a gold standard, providing confidence to pupils, teachers and society alike. It simply is too easy to judge in hindsight what course should have been taken. Hindsight can be a friend to us all, but in reality we must caution that, at the height of uncertainty in the global pandemic, any alternative could equally have come unstuck.
What we need now is recognition of the fact that we need solutions to issues that have resulted from the grading that has now been adopted. Some of these issues are good problems to have. We now have record numbers of young people progressing to higher education. We have record numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds entering university. Now these students have been enrolled in these institutions, I believe that we have a duty to ensure that their welfare is protected. Travelling to perhaps an unknown city or leaving home for the first time during the pandemic, many students will be anxious and nervous about their future. I know that universities have made extensive plans in advance of students returning to campus, but amid the scientific focus on preventing outbreaks of the virus, we must never forget that students can be vulnerable young adults whose pastoral care is paramount.
That duty, however, should not be limited to as long as the pandemic lasts. Many students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will struggle to adapt to their new environment and new forms of learning, having missed valuable time at school. Allowances must be made to ensure that students do not fall through the net and drop out.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s priority has been children’s education? That is demonstrated by the delivery of the £1 billion covid catch-up plan to make up for lost teaching time, as well as by the £650 million for children who have fallen behind.
My hon. Friend is correct to highlight what is being done now. I raised this during questions to the Department for Education earlier in the week with regard to South Gloucestershire Council’s recovery curriculum. We must also maintain a focus on future intakes. Next year’s intake needs reassurance that they will not be penalised by any restriction in place due to deferrals that are being made this year.
Some issues have taught us valuable lessons that need to be heeded. One, I believe, is that our entire admissions system to university should now be reformed. Both main parties have already spoken of a desire to investigate what a post-qualification admissions system might look like. The Office for Students and Universities UK is doing important ongoing work, which was commissioned when I was Universities Minister, on what future measures could be considered. We know, however, that neither predicted grades nor A-level grades can solely be an accurate measure of future success at university.
Too many students, including those with health or mental health conditions, those facing the stress of a care or caregiver background and those from homes that can never provide the learning environment needed for effective study or revision, will never achieve their actual ability while at school. They should not be written off simply because they have not achieved the grades, which after all measure performance at school, and not future potential. Of course universities are select institutions, but selection should be far more finely tuned to merit than to simple grade boundaries. An admissions system that uses post-qualification offers would help empower students to choose courses in the full knowledge of their results, whether based on qualifications or university assessment. That would end the process of clearing, which, no matter how smooth it has become, has always struck me as no way to decide the future of—
The publication of A-level results confirmed that nearly 40% of A-level grades in England were downgraded on the basis of an algorithm that was based on the prior performance of the pupils’ school and their prior attainment. That created mass inequality and did not account for individuals’ ability. The number of pupils achieving grade C or above was downgraded from teacher estimations by just over 10% for children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, compared with just over 8% for their most affluent peers. Yet again, working-class young people are being failed by this Government.
The Government imposed a deeply unfair system on young people, and were forced into a U-turn by the determined campaigning of the young people whose hopes, dreams, and aspirations had been shattered, supported by their families, the National Education Union, and the Labour party. Although the U-turn was welcome, it created other problems that the Government have been slow to address, if they have addressed them at all.
Some young people had still not received BTEC results by the end of last week, and some students in my constituency have had no choice but to defer their place at university entirely, due to the Government’s incompetent handling of results. To add insult to injury, we have now learnt that, in the days and weeks following the exam fiasco, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister were warned repeatedly about the risks of their chosen approach, but did not act to prevent that.
Ofqual’s chair said that the Secretary of State took the decision to cancel exams and move to a system of awarding grades, and that his decision was taken without further consultation with the regulator. It is abundantly clear that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are directly responsible for the exams fiasco. They imposed the discredited system for awarding grades and, despite being repeatedly warned of the problems, they did nothing.
Our young people deserve better. Austerity policies over the past 10 years have already ensured that this generation will be worse off than generations before them, with insecure housing, low-paid work and zero-hours contracts an impending reality for so many. The serial incompetence of the Government’s approach is no way to run a country. It is time for them to be fully transparent about the process and provide all documents related to the exam fiasco to the Education Committee. Ensure absolute transparency and ensure this situation is never repeated.
As my time is short, I will start by saying that I fundamentally disagree with pretty much every word that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) just said.
In reality, Ofqual did not want to get rid of exams. It said to the Secretary of State, “We would rather do exams”, but that option was not on the table. We saw the unions kicking back when we wanted to get children back in primary school in June. The idea that we would easily have been able to hold exam season at that time of the year is simply for the birds. That was not going to happen. Putting that aside—that is the history and that is where we are—what was the best step forward?
It is no surprise to learn that many of the public would prefer to have expert outsiders and independent people running things, rather than politicians. That is not exactly a shocking revelation to anyone here. When the Secretary of State said that we could not hold the exams—he did so for reasons that we could explore further but, in hindsight, he still made the right decision at the time, given the circumstances that we faced—he instructed Ofqual, by directive, to put forward a system, and people had a right to expect that the independent experts would come up with the right answers. When the Secretary of State challenged Ofqual about the problems that he perceived and that had been presented to him, he had the right to expect that he would be given the correct answers. By the way, the head of Ofqual earns far more than the Prime Minister, because apparently we have to pay such salaries to get the best people in the job. That is not a criticism, but it is what is always said. When the Secretary of State asks specific questions and is given specific answers, he therefore has every right to expect that the system is robust.
There are lessons to learn, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear at the Dispatch Box today that when he goes before the Education Committee next week, he will work with my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). However, we must be careful not to say, “Nobody wanted to do this in the first place; they wanted to do exams,” because that option was not on the table. We still face a pandemic crisis to this day. At 4 pm this afternoon, the Prime Minister gave a broadcast to the nation about the tightening of restrictions, so we are not out of the woods yet. Everyone in this Chamber has concerns about the welfare of children and their education, and we need to learn the lessons, but we must recognise that it was not an option to say, “We should sit exams.” I therefore urge my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and his Committee to take a strong, hard look at Ofqual and make sure that the Secretary of State can rely on its advice, so that these mistakes are not repeated.
I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s speech. Apart from the litany of excuses that he offered to explain how the exams fiasco came to unfold—none of it his own fault, of course—he did not offer a compelling reason why the document that the Opposition motion calls for should not be released to the Education Committee. I appreciate that he intends to give evidence—I hope it will be fulsome—to the Select Committee when he appears before it next week, but our motion asks for a higher degree of disclosure than is the normal practice when Secretaries of State attend Select Committee hearings. He offered nothing substantive about why that should not happen as our humble address suggests.
For all the young people who have been on the receiving end of this Government’s incompetence, the inescapable conclusion that they will draw from all that they have heard from Government Members today is that, rather than being the result of a “mutant algorithm”, the blame for this fiasco lies squarely at the Secretary of State’s door. When he was warned about the problem with the exam system, why did he not address the issues that were raised? We had no answer on that point today. Why were the Government so willing to preside over a situation in which the top grades at private schools were increased far beyond those of their state school at counterparts? We had no answer on that point today either.
I want to address the situation in relation to BTECs, and I welcome what the Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), had to say about that. The situation has been very much mishandled, and that is depressing to see. BTECs do a great job of contributing towards social mobility, which has been, frankly, limited over the past decade. The Secretary of State will know that almost half of students whose parents are in routine or manual jobs study BTECs or a mixture of BTECs and A-levels, compared with just over 22% of those whose mums and dads work in higher managerial administration roles. Half of white working-class and black British students in England get into university with qualifications that include BTECs. Those students should not have been left languishing at the back of the queue, waiting longer than anybody else for their results to be confirmed. They have been treated with a particular degree of disrespect, and it would have been good to hear the Secretary of State give an apology at the Dispatch Box today to BTEC students and a confirmation that they will not be forced into the same position next year.
What we have seen unfold over the summer is not simply a story of Government incompetence; it is the inescapable end point of the political approach that has been adopted by this Government, one that has degraded teacher assessments and coursework. They must change course before next summer.
I, too, thank all the school leaders in my constituency, who have worked so hard to ensure not only that the pupils receive the exam grades they deserve, but that the schools have reopened. I pay great tribute to their leadership. I also wish to thank the ministerial team, who have always afforded me a great deal of time in dealing with the questions and concerns I have raised. They have always been very open, on a cross-party basis. A month ago, I joined a call that all colleagues were encouraged to attend, and at that point we did not see the issues that were forthcoming—we can all be experts in hindsight.
I also wish to put on record the fact that I do not believe that the Department’s time and Ministers’ time is best spent at the photocopier delivering documents about the past; it is best spent fixing matters for the future—for the next cohort who are about to take their exams. With that in mind, I call for three points to be considered by the ministerial team. First, I am keen that we be unequivocal that the exams will be held at their scheduled time at the beginning of summer and will not be pushed back, as the teachers I speak to do not believe that that will work for them, or for pupils or universities. I know, as this was almost to my cost, that exam grades, rather than teacher assessments, can sometimes give people the opportunity in life, because they can turn out better than the assessment that teachers have made. That is particularly the case for pupils from schools that are perhaps not as highly performing; my own example sees me here as a result of exams, rather than teacher-predicted grades.
Secondly, we have to make sure we get the content right for this year’s exam takers. I still believe that we have not reduced the content commensurately with the amount of time that can be fitted in. The exam boards need to work closely to guide teachers as to what content will be needed in order for those exams to be focused, and they need to work with universities to ensure that where degree courses rely on A-levels to get the young pupils through, the focus is on the right amount of A-level content to ensure that pupils get the right start in that course at university. This requires the schools to work with the exam boards, and the boards to work with the universities to ensure that the content is correct and is proportionate in respect of the amount of time young people have missed, so that they are not penalised.
We need to send out a message to all parents that schools are safe. As the Secretary of State knows, we have various views on face masks, but the most important point is that schools are open, they are safe and they are places where young people can learn and thrive. They should all be there, and parents need to heed that message too. I echo the point that has been made about testing. People are having to travel far too far to get testing, and that will hold schools back.
Those are the points I wish to make.
When the sheer scale of this exam fiasco started to unfold, I had students and parents contact me, their hearts broken and their dreams in utter tatters. This total shambles has occurred on the watch of a Secretary of State who a few weeks before the fiasco dared utter the words
“I will stand for the forgotten 50%.”
He has been responsible for overseeing 40% of students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, having had their results downgraded. This failure to live up to his promise will not be forgotten, and certainly not as quickly as he forgot his promise to the students who needed the Government to support them the most.
To explain the absolute ludicrousness of the algorithm used, let me give the example of one pupil from Luton who was born and raised in Spain, with Spanish being his native tongue. He was predicted to get an A* in Spanish by the teachers who knew him, yet he was downgraded to a B by an algorithm that knew nothing about him. This was replicated thousands of times across constituencies in the country.
This is not about blame. This is about accountability—something that this Government have been running away from rapidly for the last six months. We have heard heavily caveated yet empty apologies, excuses and delays from Government Ministers, so I think we should now hear some sensible words from students in Luton North. One said:
“We are capable of so many great things, and it is not at all fair that so many doors are being shut for us based on an algorithm or due to the Government.”
“Unfortunately, due to the Government’s mess, I was rejected on Thursday by LSE. I was heartbroken, yet after the U-turn on my results I still want to go to the university of my choice.”
Some of those who are contacting me were hoping to get on to medical courses—something we are crying out for during this pandemic. I really welcome the fact that the Secretary of State mentioned the lifting of the cap on medical places, and I ask him to extend that to the next year, because we are going to see students who have had to defer this year clashing with next year’s intake.
While looking to the future, if we are ever in a situation like this again, instead of the exam results chaos that we saw in Luton and across the country, I implore the Government to believe the teachers and to believe that the students can live up to the grades that were predicted for them and that they are worthy of futures brighter than those who have gone before them.
I refer hon. Members to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as well as a declared interest in that my son who was another one of the many pupils who made up the 5.2 million GCSE exam entries this summer. He is happy with his results, and as both a parent and a former Children’s Minister, I believe the decision that was made to revert to centre-assessed grades was the right one. Once covid-19 hit and the repercussions became ever starker, ultimately leading to school and college closures, the class of 2020 was always going to need to be treated as an exceptional year. When it became apparent that the process put in place by Ofqual had led to any evidence or suggestion of unfairness, that was a necessary step to take. It is one that was also taken, as we have heard, in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
For what it is worth, the feedback from my local heads in Eddisbury at the Winsford Academy, Bishop Heber High School and Tarporley High was that the centre-assessed grades, while in need of moderation, were almost moderated out of the final calculated grades altogether—leading, they believe, to some of the anomalies that we saw played out. For A-level students in particular, this caused real and well-founded worry about potentially lost university places and, in some cases, the actual loss or deferred acceptance of their chosen course. So it is important that we look to understand what needs to be done to future-proof the integrity, reliability and fairness of the awarding of exam results for 2021 students and beyond. I have every faith that, in that endeavour, with the assistance of the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) forensically following all legitimate lines of inquiry, the Government will work hard to meet that particular test, although this might also be an opportune moment to review the performance of all awarding bodies, both academic and vocational, to establish whether they are, individually or collectively, what is required to meet the expectations that lie ahead.
The House also needs to consider constructively how best to equip our head teachers, teachers, school support staff, parents and children for the academic year ahead. Take physical education. Whether in relation to behaviour management, academic attainment, mental health, obesity, social skills, self-confidence or, sometimes, reacting positively to failure, physical education can ensure a better core for a better life. That is why, with the support of the Association for Physical Education, I am chairing a taskforce that brings together a range of experts, practitioners, frontline staff and others to look under the bonnet of the PE taught in our schools, with an ambition to demonstrate how to put high-quality PE at the very heart of our recovery and beyond—and boy, it has never been more needed. To that end, it would be helpful if the Minister could reiterate that PE is going to carry on as normal, not least because of the huge benefits that it brings.
Let us make sure that the unique circumstances and challenges of this summer lead to a heightened ability to respond to all conceivable exam-related issues effectively and with fairness, but let us not forget that there are many other aspects of school life to help to shape children’s futures.
The head of Ofqual made it clear that the grades fiasco was not entirely the fault of an algorithm; it was a conscious decision taken by the Secretary of State for Education. It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State is still ducking responsibility for this latest of shambles, which caused so many young people throughout the country serious distress last month.
The head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that Ofqual must consider the equality impacts of the results. Ofqual did produce a paper on the subject in April this year, but that was well before the Secretary of State decided to use the algorithm to calculate grades. Will the Secretary of State publish the equality impact assessment of the algorithm? I did ask that question last week, but did not get a straight answer, so I respectfully ask again. Will the Secretary of State also commit to publish an equality impact assessment for whatever arrangements are put in place for next year?
We know that after their exams were cancelled, home-schooled and independent learners were left without any grades at all, as a result of their having no teacher to give a centre-assessed grade to fall back on. Home-schooled and independent learners account for tens of thousands of pupils UK-wide, so what assessment has the Secretary of State conducted of the impact on those young people, and will he publish it? What about those young people who are now going into work full time while also preparing to sit their autumn exams? There is no level playing field for them.
Naturally, there are conversations about the possibilities of pushing back the dates of exams next year to give students some time to catch up; will the Secretary of State give us assurances about how those decisions will be reached and who he will consult on any such changes before they are finalised?
I probably should not, as you have given me a strong steer, Madam Deputy Speaker—my apologies.
As we all look ahead to the next year, I draw Members’ attention to the gov.uk guidance on the four tiers of local-level restrictions on education that could be used. It is clear that remote education could be used in three of the Government’s four scenarios. Working parents will look at the guidance and wonder what guarantees the Government will provide that their children will continue to receive a good education over the next year if, in three of those four scenarios, parents are going to be responsible for home schooling. Will the Secretary of State listen to parents’ groups such as September for Schools and reconsider the Liberal Democrat amendment to the emergency covid legislation, which called for a guarantee that families could expect a minimum standard of education and that the Government would give schools the necessary resources to deliver it?
Ultimately, we need the full disclosure of the documents that the motion calls for, and we must have an investigation of the decisions and evidence that led to this debacle. We must learn from this episode and ensure that it is never, ever repeated, especially if we get to a position in which exams could be cancelled because of further lockdowns. It is time that the Secretary of State commissioned an independent investigation of the handling of GCSE, A-level and BTEC results.
I approach this debate as not only a Member of this House but a teacher who taught students who were directly affected by this year’s exams issues. Covid-19 has presented us with an exceptional set of circumstances and meant that tough decisions have needed to be made. In the end, Ofqual’s decision to use centre-assessed grades was the correct one, and the Government were right to back it.
As a teacher, you go out to bat for your kids. If a teacher is 50:50 on a grade to award, they are naturally going to want their student to do well, but that is matched with professionalism and fairness. Teachers’ professional judgment is exceptional, but we still need things such as moderation, and there will always be some schools that award grades differently from others. That is why the original system was a well-intentioned one that tried to correct things in the fairest possible manner.
With hindsight, we can now say that the appeals process would not have been able to handle the excessive numbers of results that would have needed to be reassessed because of the algorithm, and that that simply would not have been possible in the time available. When it became clear that it could not be done, we made the right decision by our students.
I welcome the early decision that was made on the awarding of GCSE results and on ensuring that BTEC students were not forgotten in all this. Have we seen grade inflation? Yes, but that is a small price to pay compared with the disruption and unfairness that would have been the alternative.
So where do we go next? My biggest concern is making sure that we support those who are in year 10 and year 12 and halfway through their courses, so taking their exams in 2021. I am delighted that through the covid catch-up plan we must now focus on getting them the outcomes that they deserve. Getting students back into school this September is a crucial part of that. I thank our heads, teachers, governors and support staff for making this possible. Now we need to make sure that we can keep the schools open.
Grade inflation now could affect students next year, so we need to make sure that this is dealt with. Many have suggested that students could defer university places, but the reality is that most want to go to their chosen universities and want to do it now. In my constituency, we will have a new £3.5 million university campus in Worksop to train healthcare professionals, thanks to a partnership with the health trust, the University of Derby and my old university, Nottingham Trent. I hope that those people will then choose to stay in Bassetlaw to work in their chosen careers.
This should not be about playing politics with our children’s education. In Scotland education is controlled by the SNP, in Northern Ireland it is controlled by the Executive, and in Wales it is controlled by Labour and led by a Liberal Democrat.
There has been a lot of strong and emotive language used in this Chamber. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that swift action was taken by this Government to deal with this perceived crisis: this “chaotic, terminal shambles”. Does he agree that education is so important that it should not be politicised?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.
Getting back on track is the No. 1 thing, but, as I said, education is controlled by different parties across the UK. The main point, though, is that this has been an incredibly difficult process for everybody and that we must make the right decision by the students, as I think that everybody in this House would want to do. So today let us concentrate on that and on the next step, not on political point scoring.
The pandemic has raised a huge number of challenging and unprecedented problems that the Government have had to grapple with. They have had to create countless schemes and programmes to support us and to keep us safe, and are now having to find ways to unravel it all while the playing field continually changes around them. These have been necessary responses to questions that the pandemic has asked of them, and they have had to do it in record time.
With schools, there is no easy answer. Nothing will ever be able to cover, even in the short term, for the amazing job that teachers across Mansfield and Worksop do week in, week out. With schools being closed, we knew that children’s learning would suffer. We knew that ever-tightening restrictions were going to make it impossible to hold exams. We can look back now and say that maybe it could have been different, but at the time the widely accepted truth was that we must close the schools and plan for an alternative system of assessment.
The Ofqual formula was an imperfect solution to an impossible problem. In hindsight, it was not right that those from lower-income areas had their grades disproportionately affected. It was not right, clearly, for a child to get a U for an exam they were never allowed to sit. That was hugely problematic. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Perhaps it could have been done differently. But the Government employ experts in the form of Ofqual to manage these processes, and at the time those at Ofqual were offering reassurances to Ministers that it would be okay. They have since apologised for getting it wrong. They too are only human, and every other nation of our United Kingdom had come to the same conclusion.
What this says to me on a broader level is to do with the problematic nature of these structures of government run by a kind of quangocracy that we have had for many decades now, which blurs the lines of accountability and decision making. I hope that the Government will address that over the course of this Parliament.
I was glad that Ofqual agreed for teacher-assessed grades to be awarded to pupils who were unable to sit exams. That was the correct way to proceed given where we have ended up. It is still not perfect—it throws up questions about grade inflation and impacts on universities in future years—but we have eventually got to the right place.
I know at first hand from my own experience how long and hard Ministers and officials in the DFE have worked to try to rectify the problems. I know how many phone calls my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, for example, has made to universities to try to get them to go back and make more offers to students and to support them. I know how much time Ministers have offered me to raise concerns, ideas and issues, and I am very grateful to them for that. Nothing is perfect in a pandemic, and I know that what has gone on has been incredibly frustrating, but I have seen how committed the Department has been to trying to make it work. We should all be grateful for that.
The key thing now is that lessons must be learned from these challenges. Let us look at the relationship between FE and HE, at the admissions process and at the Government’s decision-making structures and ensure that we do these things better in future. We also need to draw a line and move forward, in the best interests of our children and young people, which I know the Secretary of State is committed to doing.
On the Sunday following A-level results day, students in my constituency should have been celebrating their achievements with their families after years of hard work. Instead, they were in Coventry city centre protesting the unjust algorithm that levelled them down, in some cases, by three to four grades, denying them their place at university.
I stood with them that Sunday, not just as their MP but as a former student at a school deemed failing by Ofsted. I suspect that if I had been a student this year, my postcode would not have passed the Government’s algorithm test, and my grades would have been downgraded significantly. I would have lost out on my place to study pharmacy, and the NHS would have had one less pharmacist to treat cancer patients in their time of need. I cannot help but fear that this Government’s failure to handle A-level, BTEC and GCSE results has cost the NHS and other sectors future key workers at a time when the country has remembered their necessity.
I also regret the disregard of teachers—a workforce of key workers who are too often forgotten about during the pandemic. This Government chose to implement an algorithm that devalued not only students but the professional expertise of teachers. At the height of the pandemic, teachers worked relentlessly to provide the requested evidence for predicted grades, while simultaneously providing increased pastoral support for their students. The Government should have listened to these key workers and valued their skills, rather than an algorithm steeped in bias. We must do everything we can to ensure that these key workers are never undervalued again. Our future generation depends on them.
For students in Coventry, the academic year ended in uncertainty because of the coronavirus, but it is because of this Government that their next academic year has needlessly begun with uncertainty too. Colleges and universities, which are already under the pressure of adapting to blended learning and ensuring a safe working and learning environment, have also been forced to pick up the pieces from the Government’s chaotic handling of results day. Even now, there are students still uncertain whether they are starting university in just a matter of weeks, still unsure about accommodation and still in the dark about their immediate future.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s U-turn, which saw the abandonment of their algorithm that graded by background and not by aptitude. However, I do not welcome the lost futures, mental anguish and disruption incurred by waiting for its arrival. As an NHS worker, I knew that young people’s mental health was already in crisis. This summer’s exam results will have undoubtedly exacerbated that crisis, already strained by lockdown and restricted access to mental health crisis care. A survey by YoungMinds found that 80% of respondents agreed that the coronavirus pandemic has made their mental health worse, with 31% saying that they were no longer able to access support but still needed it. I am also deeply concerned about the further impact that this mishandling of young people’s future has had on their mental health—
First, I would like to thank all the teachers and members of staff in our local schools, colleges and sixth forms across Hyndburn and Haslingden who have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic. The class of 2020—and, in fact, all students—have been some of the most affected by this pandemic, with exams cancelled and schools closed. Those moving from primary to high school or high school to college have missed out on all the events that take place during that time—proms, leavers assemblies and those final days with close friends.
I spent most of my week on the phone to pupils and parents, trying to assist those who had potentially lost their place at university and feeding into the Department the effect of this algorithm on the hard-working pupils in Hyndburn and Haslingden. One parent I spoke to in my constituency, Paul Fury, told me about his wonderful and talented son, Joe, who was predicted top grades throughout but received lower, threatening his future and risking his position on his degree apprenticeship. Joe contacted me this week to let me know that he received final confirmation last Thursday of his degree apprenticeship, and I know that this young man has a brilliant future ahead of him. That would not have happened if the Government had not changed their decision.
I recognised that something had gone wrong when I first spoke to Joe’s father and heard the heartbreak in his voice. I also spoke to local headteachers at Haslingden High School and at my former school, St Christopher’s. My former headteacher, Mr Jones, said: “I know that you share my passion for the liberating force of a good education. For the young people of Hyndburn and other parts of east Lancashire, St Christopher’s Sixth Form has sought to act as a beacon—a place where the levelling-up agenda can be seen in practice—and yet for this year’s students we risk snuffing out the beacon for good.”
As someone who knows the immense weight that exam results carry and who only took her final exam at university last year, I feel a deep sense of empathy with students across my constituency, and I wrote to the Secretary of State. The announcement was welcome. The Opposition constantly use the phrase “U-turn”, but I personally think that, in the exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves today, the fact that our Government are willing to listen and to change their approach when they recognise that something is not working is the right thing to do, even knowing that the Opposition will then chant in their numbers about a U-turn again.
It is vital that the Government take every step possible to ensure that students sitting exams next year will not be at any disadvantage in the future through the lack of teaching. I know that Ofqual is continuing to work with the Department. I truly believe that the Conservative party is a party of opportunity and that we cannot let this awful pandemic ruin the chances of this country’s future.
I think the right place to start is to recognise the impact that covid has had on young people in my constituency, by which I mean the disruption to their learning, the impact on their social development and, in particular, the challenge presented to students due to take their GCSEs, A-levels and BTECs who just could not take their exams this year. When it comes to impacting a child’s life chances there is no replacement for learning in the classroom. I want to acknowledge the work that schools in Warrington South have done to introduce online learning. I also know that schools received laptops and routers to allocate to those children who did not have access to IT kits.
Looking at Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, I think we can all accept that, whatever method Ofqual chose to award grades, there were always going to be some problems when exams were not actually taken. There was also the issue of trying to ensure that grade inflation did not leave students disadvantaged against previous or future cohorts, and that there was no disadvantage with regard to future university places. We should not forget that the majority of students who received their initial A-level grades saw no change when the system was amended, but I am afraid that too many did. I spoke personally to a number of young people who had been deeply affected by it. None the less, I am pleased that the Government responded and at speed when colleagues raised these issues, and we were able to make the necessary changes to avoid lengthy appeals and, of course, to reflect the changes for GCSE students.
So much of the discussion in the Chamber today is about what happened in August and about placing blame. What is critical is how we ensure that students taking exams in 2021 and 2022 have the opportunity to reach their potential and that our children are back in school, engaging fully and benefiting from a full and rounded education. Yes, we must learn lessons, and I welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is taking to address the Select Committee next week.
I came to this House with a belief that we must ensure that every child has the best potential start to their life with a great education, so I welcome the increase in school funding that this Government are putting forward. Some £14 billion is to be invested over the next three years to ensure that every child gets a good education. As a member of the levelling-up taskforce, I can say that increasing per pupil funding for secondary schools to more than £5,000 and for primary schools to £4,000 under the national funding formula is great progress.
I saw for myself on Friday the work that is already going on so that young children can catch up. I went to meet Mrs Briggs, the brilliant headteacher at Great Sankey Primary School, and I saw the work that the staff team had done, which was an incredible experience, but best of all was seeing children back in their classroom.
We know what has been going on this afternoon. We are trying to ask for transparency from the Secretary of State, but I will use my limited time to talk about those young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods who are suffering the injustice of having their vital GCSE and A-level grades marked down because of the school that they went to and their postcode. I will, if I may, illustrate my comments with the experience of a couple of my constituents. One young man, Hamzah, who was hoping to go to Leeds University, was on course to achieve the grades. He was originally marked down by the algorithm. By the time he managed to get his appeal the course was full, so he is now waiting another 12 months.
Haaris is another young man with a bright future. He was informed by his college that it would be unable to award him centre-assessed grades. On the same day, Ofqual announced that external candidates could transfer their exam entries to a new centre, one that could assess them and award them grades, so he transferred to a new AQA exam centre, Cambridge Street School in my constituency, and called AQA to ask if that would be okay.
The following sequence is just a Kafka-esque nightmare of flip-flopping that has really impacted on Haaris’s mental health. He was told on that day, 15 May, that that was the deadline for submissions, a deadline that he and his school were unaware of. The next working day they submitted a late entry, accepted as long as basic information was supplied. There was then a long period of silence, with calls and emails unanswered. AQA has said that around the entry deadline in May it experienced an extremely high volume of inquiries from exam centres, parents and students. It is clear that the exam board was not properly prepared or resourced. Had it been able to reply, AQA could have told Haaris earlier that he would not be considered because Joint Council for Qualifications regulations would not allow CAGs to be awarded where a prior relationship did not exist between a student and a centre.
What happened was that after a period of assessment and mocks, Haaris got A*s and As, and it looked like he would be going to a university of his choice in London. However, when AQA was contactable it said that Haaris’s entry would not be processed and that he would not get grades. Then it changed its mind and said that it would process the application if the unique candidate identifier was available. Within hours, that was snatched away again when AQA said it could not process his application.
The back-and-forth impacted severely on Haaris’s mental health and sense of self-worth. Four years of dedication and hard work in extreme extenuating circumstances have all been for nothing. Students like Haaris and others really do deserve transparency from this Government. We need full disclosure. I support the motion 100%.
As this is the first time I have spoken in a debate on education since the lockdown has been lifted, I would first like to pay tribute to all the teachers and school staff in the Meon Valley. The measures and work they put in place during lockdown were crucial to the education of many children, and parents are very grateful.
Last week, I visited Cowplain School and heard how 99% of year 7 are attending school and that 97% of all pupils have returned. I am meeting Horndean Technology College next week and I know it will be the same story. Our headteachers have worked incredibly hard in difficult circumstances and I pay tribute to every single one of them.
I do not have a sixth-form college in my constituency and have just three secondary schools, but of course many constituents have just done their A-levels and I know how hard they have worked over many years. Several contacted me after the first set of results were announced. I am therefore extremely grateful that Ofqual and the Government took the right decision over A-levels and GCSEs. Inconsistencies and unfair grading were obvious very quickly, so the swift action taken by both Ofqual and the Secretary of State was very welcome. The fact that two teachers have considered the judgment of centrally assessed grades, which have been signed off by the headteacher or principal, means that students must be confident that their grades are the right ones. This year has been a difficult year for everyone, but I hope that every young person is now confident about what they will be doing next.
Looking to next year, young people definitely need to do exams and there is no reason why village halls or other buildings cannot be turned into exam centres if we have to still socially distance. There is also talk about delaying exams. I do not see that that is necessary if the exams start after the summer half-term, but exam boards should be looking to reduce the content while making sure that the mastery of a subject can be demonstrated by students. There is the issue of local lockdowns and some schools and classes closing for a period of time. It is a confusing situation for everyone and difficult decisions will have to be made, but to avoid confusion, we need to have very clear decisions ahead of time and clarity of guidance for those administering the exam process.
I personally think that covid has given us the opportunity to look at restructuring our exam system and that we need to look at whether we still need exams at 16, as we expect people to stay on in educational training until they are 18. I know that that is a subject for another debate, but do we really need GCSEs any more?
Lastly, I praise all our young children for the fortitude they have shown during the past few months and wish all school leavers best wishes for the future. Very shortly, they will find that exam results at 16 and 18 are not as important as character and resilience. They have all shown that over the covid-19 crisis, and it will stand them in good stead for their future careers.
This summer, pupils have been tested in more ways than any exam could manage. First, classes and exams were cancelled. That was followed by a rollercoaster of emotions as the Government took a chaotic path with their education, failing teachers and young people. As the Secretary of State spun himself into a series of U-turns, rather than him taking responsibility, we saw the heads roll of leaders across the education sector. Our education system, which once was the best, crashed. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister joked that this was some kind of mutant algorithm—no laughing matter, when the mutant system has been carefully designed to manipulate grades to uphold entrenched inequalities.
Faced with such evidence, one would expect contrition, learning and urgent action. That is why the motion is so important. We have to look to the past to make sure we get it right for the future. It will therefore be important to work with educational experts, academics, teachers and trade unions to build from this point.
There are four things I want to raise. First, we need proper recovery proposals. Secondly, ignoring the calls for a recovery curriculum will not put children in the best place for their future. Thirdly, the obsession with exams does not accommodate the realities of life and does not test young people in the best ways. Fourthly, we need to look at young people’s wellbeing and the impact that this situation is having on them.
We must move from the chaos before us into a recovery programme. Obviously we welcome more money being put into the system for catch-up, but the fact that it will not be delivered until later in the autumn term is already adding to the chaos. Local experts in York, which is well known for its educational prowess and success, tell me that they could deliver a programme much more quickly because they have the relationships on the ground, they know the needs of the local schools and children, and they have the people in place to deliver it.
The urgent request from my local authority and local leaders is, instead of running a national programme, to make it local. That kind of U-turn would be most welcome, because we would be able to build an education system run by local experts, delivering local results. That is what we want to see in the recovery curriculum; not children working on Saturdays and after school, as the Secretary of State is suggesting, which our local leader of education said would just stress out traumatised brains.
Coronavirus has impacted nearly every aspect of society; sadly, schools are no exception. Despite the difficulties and extra stress that covid has caused, I commend the hard work of all the teachers and teaching staff across Delyn who have adapted their lessons to be accessible online and supported students throughout. I also praise Delyn’s students, and those throughout the United Kingdom, who have had to cope with unprecedented pressures and uncertainties over the past few months regarding their results and futures.
Before we can start to move forward and ensure that the same errors are not made again, we need to understand the distress and worry that has been caused to students, families and schools. The algorithm was wrong. It did not lead to the fairest outcomes for all students. It is right that we stop to evaluate the methods used to calculate grades and how that process was handled.
As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), while some Opposition Members triumphantly trumpet another Government U-turn, I urge them to consider what it actually shows: a Government willing to listen and to be flexible and adaptable. Indeed, a recent YouGov tracker of the public response to Government U-turns found that 49% of respondents think that a U-turn is a good sign, as it shows that Ministers are willing to listen and change, compared with only 23% who think that U-turns are a bad thing. The Financial Times has stated that a Government U-turn can be
“a sign of a healthy and functional democracy”.
If we want to encourage healthy and honest debate, we should define these U-turns in a positive light, as they demonstrate that the Government can be held to account and will react accordingly and do the right thing. I therefore support the Government’s decision to base GCSE, AS and A-level results on teacher estimates, when the algorithm that was widely accepted as the best system failed to deliver.
I cannot help but comment on the slight hypocrisy of Opposition Members, who have been very vocal in their criticism of this Government’s handling of the grading process, despite the Labour-led Government in Wales, with a Lib Dem Education Minister, using a similar algorithm and undertaking a U-turn to base results on teacher-predicted grades. Claims were made by the Welsh Labour Government that the system in Wales was, in fact, more robust and more credible, with the First Minister even defending the original system, but that actually led to a higher number being downgraded than was the case in England. They either carried out their own analysis and reached the same conclusions as the UK Government, in which case they should feel the same criticism from their colleagues, or they did no analysis and just followed blindly the UK Government’s position, and they have no legitimacy to govern at all. I suggest that Opposition Members evaluate the same mistakes and decisions made by their own party in government before criticising this one.
I hope, ultimately, that the regulatory bodies and relevant groups across all the devolved nations take the time to learn the lessons needed, even in these challenging circumstances.
The Government’s exam process has been nothing short of shambolic, with their disastrous predictive algorithm resulting in students being significantly downgraded and ultimately missing out on their first-choice schools, colleges and universities. In many cases, this even included their insurance option. While the subsequent Government U-turn was welcome, sadly it took four days to arrive and was too late for thousands of students, with educational institutions already having filled their places during that period.
The question remains as to why the Government were so slow to act, given that, in its evidence last week to the Education Committee, Ofqual stated that both the Education Secretary and No. 10 were briefed about the issues in the system. Why, therefore, did they fail to address these concerns, which has resulted in such distressing scenes for families across the country and is having a detrimental impact on the future of so many children? Instead of apologising and acting swiftly, this Government allowed the situation to spiral out of control, and instead of soul searching, they threw civil servant after civil servant under the bus in an attempt to deflect from their own failings, including the sacking and scapegoating of Ofqual’s chief regulator and the Department for Education’s permanent secretary. Only one person should have carried the can for this fiasco, and that is the Education Secretary.
This episode is the latest fiasco for the Government to preside over and shows once again that they are not fit to govern, but it is far from concluded. As late as last week, many of my constituents in Stockport contacted me to say their child had still not received their BTEC results, some two weeks later than the official results date. Furthermore, students at Aquinas College and Stockport College in my constituency had to endure the worry and uncertainty of this year’s ill-conceived algorithm. Those restarting their interrupted courses, having missed months of face-to-face teaching, have no idea what format the 2021 exams will take or when they will sit them. This is the latest insult to schools across the country, which have been rocked by the covid-19 pandemic and have very understandably looked to this Government to provide support. But the reality is that the Government have been found wanting. There appears to be no credible plan to ensure the stability of the sector at a time when schools are stretched to breaking point.
I am afraid that Madam Deputy Speaker has said she is discouraging interventions, so I will pass on that—forgive me.
I will just finish on the point that it is an incredibly worrying time for students, their families and teachers, and it is only right that they are given the assurances they deserve by ensuring schools have sufficient funds to remain open and avoid a repeat of this situation next summer.
It is a bit concerning for someone coming in at this part of the debate that they will end up repeating what everyone has said before them, but I will give it a go and try not to be repetitious. I want to start by paying tribute to my schools and my students in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, many of whom were impacted by this and by the postcode lottery we have seen.
Opposition Members have made quite a big thing about the postcode lottery, disadvantaged students and how we need to close that gap, yet when we had a debate on this, not one of them was here. I am sorry, but this is absolutely just not on. We were here—I was in that debate and talked about this—and we talked about how we were going to close that gap, and bar the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who had to be here, not one hon. Member from the Opposition was here. I am sorry, but that is unacceptable. I come from a community that has been hit by that postcode lottery. Many of my students were impacted by that, and I share their anger. It is absolutely unacceptable for the Opposition to talk about that when Labour Members cannot turn up when it matters.
I do not want to repeat the points that many of my hon. Friends have made, but yes, the centre-assessed system did not work, and no, it is not perfect. Indeed, many of us lobbied our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education on this point. People can call it a U-turn or whatever; I call it pragmatic government, because that is what it comes down to at the end of the day. But it always seems to be the same old story, because the Labour Administration in Wales are doing exactly the same thing, yet what we did is classed as a U-turn. It seems to be one rule for them and another for everyone else, and if they come to Sandwell, they will see what 50 years of Labour running the place looks like.
We need to ensure that this does not happen again. That is absolutely right, and I agree with all hon. Members who have made that point today. I am heartened by the work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done to, for example, lift the cap on medical places, ensure that kids in vocational education are not impacted, and lift the temporary student numbers limit for universities, but we need to go further. I would implore him please not to forget technical education. Students in my communities are absolutely reliant on that. They want T-levels to work, and I know he is committed to this, but I implore him to ensure that they do.
To round up, in the 40 seconds I have left, we now need to look to the future. It is as simple as that. We need to ensure that, for example, communities such as mine, which lag below the GCSE A* to C grade average by 14% and where the A-level attainment rate at AAB is only 5%, are levelled up. We need to sort that out. I trust my right hon. Friend to get that right, so let us move on from this and look at how we level up. Let us take the opportunities that this presents and really examine it, through the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and the Education Committee. Together, let us make sure that students, particularly in communities such as mine, can thrive and succeed.
In my time in this place, I have repeatedly highlighted the attainment gap for young people in Bristol South. The covid crisis makes it much worse, which is why it is urgent that the Secretary of State makes a decision about exams and what will happen next year to allow planning to close that gap. I congratulate all schools, leaders and City of Bristol college in Bristol South on their heroic efforts over the summer to get our kids back to school fully and make things as covid-safe as possible. I have been very impressed with the work they have done, and also with the collaborative way in which Bristol City Council has worked with them.
However, everyone is completely and utterly dismayed at the Government’s late and unhelpful guidance during this crisis. As one of the chairs in Bristol South said to me, “The DFE guidance still comes in fits and starts, often lacking in clarity and sometimes seeming to ignore the practical issue real schools face in interpreting and implementing the guidance.” In the spirit of being helpful, I am keen to help my own children and the children of Bristol South and, indeed, the country. Education is about outcomes and preparing for life. No set of school leavers needs that more than these young people, so let us help. Let us think big. Let us get ambitious for these young people.
First, let us start co-ordinating the guidance. Do not send it every day or every week, but make clear what has changed since last time. Put it through a computer with track changes on. That will make a massive difference for school leaders. Secondly, can we have some clarity on how we use Ofsted in the next year or so? What will be the nature of its visits to schools? Can the approach now be reviewed to look at the balance between support and challenge? We need to get Ofsted helpfully assisting with school improvement and safeguarding, rather than doing last-minute, high-stakes accountability inspections, which are unnecessarily adding to school leaders’ workloads.
The third area is FE transition apprenticeships, which are the key to young people’s opportunities in Bristol South. I am a strong supporter and a chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships, but the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the ability of employers to support apprenticeships. As was discussed in the Education Committee yesterday, what is needed for FE is a national plan for colleges and sixth forms. There can be no one-size-fits-all approach. We need an end to these piecemeal, headline-grabbing policy announcements.
Those are my suggestions for the Government. They need to take note of what we have learnt this year to help with next year and going forward, and they will have a lot of co-operation from many Members in this House in doing so.
Clearly, this was a very concerning time for many of my constituents, and I have seen many cases of young people in my constituency having been negatively impacted by this algorithm, so it could have been handled better, perhaps. It could have been handled better in Wales, perhaps; it could have been handled better in Scotland, perhaps. However, this is an unprecedented time. It is not like we can go to the shelf and ask, “How do you reopen schools in the middle of a global pandemic?” or “How do you award exam results when you have no exams?” This is completely unprecedented, and it is right that we take that on board.
It is interesting that when it came to reopening schools and getting kids back to school, or awarding exam results when we had no exams, it is not like the Labour party said, “Right, this is our plan: you should do this. Here’s a really detailed plan that you should follow.” The Labour party has never done that. In fact, as I pointed out earlier, we actually had the shadow Education Secretary in July criticising predicted grades and saying that standardisation was a way forward.
I say this passionately, as someone who became a Member of Parliament because I care about children with special educational needs and as somebody who had special educational needs myself. I think the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition should take some responsibility for the fact that we were not able to get more kids back to school before the summer holidays. I think he should accept that responsibility. Looking forward—[Interruption.] He made no effort. The Labour party has great influence in the National Education Union. It used none of that influence, and it continues to use none of that influence. Vulnerable children have paid the price of its leader’s inaction. [Interruption.] Okay—let’s all calm down.
Looking forward, it is absolutely critical that we provide schools and schoolteachers with certainty as quickly as possible, and that must mean exams next year. Exams are not perfect, but they have a place and they should continue to have a place. I say that as someone who was dyspraxic and an unconventional learner and pulled rabbits out of the hat in exams. Sometimes kids with SEND actually do better in exams than they do if there are no exams.
We should also look at what happened in Germany, which is probably the main example of a country that carried out socially distanced exams. With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we made the right decision at the time, but we should learn from Germany and next year give certainty to all our schools that exams will go ahead. There will be no plan B; there must be exams. I disagree with much of what Ofqual has said over the last few months, but on that I am in agreement with it. I look forward to seeing the Secretary of State next week.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this important debate.
I want to begin by paying tribute to all the young people whose courageous and passionate protests secured major and justified U-turns from the Government. Much has already been said about the impact of the fiasco, so in my short contribution I shall focus instead on the issues that are still outstanding as a result of the decisions and U-turns—because the issue is not over or resolved. Indeed, I and countless colleagues continue to be contacted by students who have had no choice but to defer their places at university entirely because of the handling of the results.
First, some BTEC students have still not had their grades. Can the Secretary of State provide clarity and an assurance about when all BTEC students will have their results? Given the way that BTEC students are often stigmatised and treated as a class of their own in the education system, they truly deserve an apology.
Secondly, days before the fiasco unfolded, the Minister with responsibility for exams reassured MPs in a meeting that there was no evidence to suggest that the attainment gap had widened in any way during the pandemic. I remain very concerned that those from disadvantaged groups—primarily those of black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds—have been disproportionately affected as a result of the previous performance of their institutions impacting their grades. What assurances can the Secretary of State provide that every single student and institution has had enough support and information to appeal, and will be supported through that process?
Thirdly, the significant financial challenges across the entire education sector have been exacerbated by both coronavirus and the Government’s handling of the exams fiasco. What plans are there to ensure the stability of the sector?
The answers to those questions are crucial to ensuring transparency, and they are the key to ensuring that there are no repeats of this mishandling in any future processes. It is increasingly clear that we need a long- term review of the assessment methods used to award qualifications, including the possibility of more coursework, and systematic—
This has been a really important debate, and at its heart is the question of public confidence in the Government’s handling of GCSEs, A-levels and NVQs this year. Clearly, feelings are running high on this issue, and I pay tribute to the students, their families and the teachers who faced months of uncertainty after the Secretary of State announced back in March that the exam regulator, Ofqual, and the exam boards would work with teachers to provide grades to students whose exams would not take place in the summer.
I regret that I will not be able to mention every single person who has spoken in today’s debate, but there have been some important contributions from all parts of the House. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the shadow Secretary of State, for opening the debate. The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) spoke about just how badly BTEC results were handled and made the important point that we should value vocational qualifications as much as academic ones. I was concerned to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) say that she has constituents contacting her now to say that those results still have not been given to some of her constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) made an emotional plea that this fiasco never be repeated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) spoke of how students in her constituency have had no choice but to defer going to university because of the Government’s failure. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) spoke about the devastating impact that the fiasco has had on her constituents and spoke of hearts broken and dreams in tatters. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) told of how young people’s mental health will have been impacted by this debacle. Indeed, that was illustrated by the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), who described one such case as a Kafkaesque nightmare.
The hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) asked the interesting question of whether we need GCSEs any more. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said that she had expected to see contrition, learning and urgent action, and she spoke of the importance of a recovery curriculum. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) spoke of constituents missing out on their chosen universities and colleges because of the Government’s failures, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) spoke of just how difficult it was with Government guidance coming out in fits and starts. She also called for clarity on how we use Ofsted.
This Government have presided over a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion. Even the Secretary of State acknowledged on 1 September that the situation with exams had caused students
“a great deal of stress and uncertainty”.—[Official Report, 1 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 42.]
It is the failure of this Government to effectively manage the exams process this summer that has caused enormous anxiety to young people, as well as to their families and their teachers. At last week’s meeting of the Education Select Committee, Julie Swan, executive director of general qualifications at Ofqual, said that the regulator provided advice to Ministers on 16 March that it would be
“challenging, if not impossible, to attempt to moderate estimates in a way that is fair for all this year’s students. Everyone, throughout the process, was aware of the risks. A paper to the general public sector ministerial implementation group on 1 May, highlighted the risk of widespread dissatisfaction with grades awarded, from individual students, schools and colleges, and the risk to public confidence.”
She said that Ofqual had briefed No. 10 on 7 August and held regular meetings on the matter with the Schools Minister throughout the period.
The warnings were there, so why did the Government not heed them? Was it simply that they chose not to and hoped that everything would turn out all right in the end? It is time now for full transparency from the Government, and that is why we have tabled this motion today. Young people and their families deserve to know how they came to be let down so badly.
On 17 August, the shadow Secretary of State called for the Government to use centre-assessed grades for GCSEs and A-levels to put an end to the exams fiasco. Later that day, the Government did that. It is not just in the delivery of A-level, AS-levels and GSCEs that the Government failed. As the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow, pointed out, BTECs were treated almost as an afterthought, and that comment has been made by many contributors today. Even as late as 2 September, the Government’s Minister in the Lords admitted that some BTEC students were still waiting for their results to be communicated. Why are they in that situation? Will the Minister apologise to them?
Four education unions—the National Association of Head Teachers, the National Education Union, the Association of School and College Leaders and the NASUWT—have called on the Secretary of State to commit to an urgent independent inquiry into what happened this year in order to understand what went wrong and to learn the lessons for the future. Will he act on their call?
The chair of Ofqual told the Select Committee last Wednesday that Ofqual would be happy to publish all the communications and minutes it has had with the Department of Education, provided the Government are in agreement with it doing so. What discussions has the Minister had with Ofqual about materials being made public?
The Government need to set out for schools and students how they plan to deliver an assessment process in 2021 that is rigorous, fairly managed and able to deliver in the event of further disruption in the coming year. Labour has called for exams to be put back to June to allow students and teachers to make up vital lost time and to address the potential for further disruption. The NEU is calling on the Government to reduce the content in GCSE and A-level exams, and to work with teachers and school leaders to develop a national system of moderated centre assessment grades in case there is further disruption. I ask the Minister: what consideration have the Government given to those suggestions? It is vital that the Government set out as a matter of urgency how they will ensure that grades are awarded fairly next year so that teachers can teach accordingly.
So far, we have seen no coherent plan from Government. If they wish to rebuild confidence in the public in the awarding of grades, it is essential that they are open and transparent about their failings regarding the awarding of grades this year. The House needs to know what the Secretary of State knew and what the Prime Minister knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it when they were warned of the difficulties. Full disclosure is vital so that students, their families and teachers can see what went wrong. I appeal to Conservative Members to think of those young people in their constituencies who have been left upset, angry and disadvantaged by the Government’s incompetence, and I call on all Members to support the motion today.
The debate has been largely constructive. As we have said consistently, the Government never wanted to cancel exams. They are obviously the best and fairest form of assessment. But we had to take the difficult decision to close schools and colleges and cancel summer exams because of the covid-19 pandemic. As the Secretary of State said in his opening speech, the virus has propelled not just this country but the rest of the world into uncharted territory, and we have had to respond, often at great speed, to find the best way forward given what we knew at the time.
Once the decision to cancel exams and instead to issue calculated grades to students was made, the Government followed the necessary steps. Our overriding aim was to ensure that all students received just recognition for their efforts and were able to progress to the next stage of their lives in the knowledge that their qualifications had the same value as previous years.
We provided clear direction to Ofqual in the form of two direction letters, the first for general qualifications and the second for vocational and technical qualifications. We worked closely with Ofqual as it developed the process for arriving at calculated grades. As an independent body, the decisions throughout this process were rightly for Ofqual to take, but as the Secretary of State has already made clear, the Department was consulted throughout. I met weekly with senior colleagues at Ofqual during the model development period, and whenever I was made aware of possible challenges with the model, I raised them with Ofqual, seeking the necessary reassurances and urging Ofqual to consider appropriate changes to the arrangements—for example, an enhanced appeals process to help address our concerns about able candidates in schools with a track record of lower standards.
As other issues were raised, we were reassured that, overall, the model was fair. The work to award qualifications based on calculated grades was a mammoth task that had never been carried out or even expected before this year. It is important to remember that similar approaches to awarding qualifications following the cancellation of exams were put in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the key principle of using a statistical standardised model was supported by 89% of those responding to Ofqual’s consultation.
As is normal every year to reflect its status as an independent regulator, Ofqual shared some headline data in the days immediately before the release of results, but I and the rest of the Department did not see the detail of how individual students or schools and colleges would be affected until A-level results day. Over the following days, it became clear to me and to the Secretary of State that there were far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for students that did not reflect their hard work or ability. It was not reasonable to expect all of those to be dealt with through an appeals system, and they severely undermined public confidence in the system. Therefore, Ofqual and the Government took immediate action, announcing on Monday 17 August the decision to revert to centre assessment grades for all students, or the calculated grade where this was higher.
The Department worked exceptionally closely with Ofqual and the exam boards in the following week, and I chaired daily taskforce meetings on the matter, pressing hard to ensure that the results were issued as soon as possible. Despite the extremely challenging circumstances, GCSE results were revised, and they were issued on the original results day of 20 August. A-level and AS-level results were reissued to schools and colleges at the same time as well. I continue to hold this taskforce, which is attended by Ofqual, the awarding organisations, key school and college leader stakeholder organisations and unions, and I will ensure that it meets whenever appropriate to discuss operational concerns.
The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), who has responsibility for apprenticeships and skills, also held daily meetings during this time to monitor progress with the issuing of vocational and technical qualifications and to ensure that the results were issued as soon as possible, so no one awaiting a place in further or higher education, or on an apprenticeship, would lose out.
In opening the debate, the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), said that lessons must be learned from what happened this summer, and of course that is right. We are working closely with Ofqual to make sure that we learn the lessons from 2020.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said that we should all approach the debate with due humility, and I share that wish. He asked about Sir Jon Coles and his concerns about the model. We did raise Jon Coles’s concerns with Ofqual and were given assurances.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, made the important point about the degree to which—[Interruption.] Ah, he has moved. He spoke about the degree to which pupils need to catch up on lost education. I can assure him that we will be conducting the research that he is suggesting, in particular, to monitor progress that pupils make.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) and for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) were right to focus on 2021 and on ensuring that we release as much time as we can for extra teaching, and that those exams go ahead as planned.
The former Universities Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), made compelling points about the admissions system, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb), in a powerful intervention, reminded the House about the Government’s commitment to help students to catch up, with a £1 billion catch-up premium.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) was correct to say that—[Interruption.] I wish my right hon. Friends would stay in the same seats. He was correct to say that while exams are of course the best and fairest way to award qualifications, in the middle of this pandemic, exams were no longer an option.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) raised the issue of BTECs. I can confirm, from the four awarding organisations that I have been working with, that there are now no results outstanding. The delay was to ensure that candidates taking BTECs were not put at a disadvantage, given the changes to the grading of GCSEs and A-levels.
I share the passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) for PE. That is not something I would have said as a child, but he is right that exercise is vital for mental as well as physical health. The hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) spoke of a minimum standard of education in three of the four tiers in the contained guidance. We have published very clear expectations for schools on the quality of remote education.
Every child and young person in this country has experienced unprecedented disruption to their education as a result of covid-19, with those from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds being among the hardest hit. Education recovery lies at the heart of our national mission as we recover from the disruption caused by covid-19 and ensure that we provide schools with the necessary guidance, support and funding that they need, with high attendance at schools—
If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I am just coming to an end. I was delighted to hear of the very high attendance in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley.
The Secretary of State and I know that the situation has caused stress and uncertainty for many, and clearly this was never the intention. I can assure them that we are working with Ofqual to ensure that what happened this summer does not happen again. There are lessons to learn, and we want to be transparent. The Secretary of State—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.