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Exams: Covid-19

Volume 682: debated on Monday 12 October 2020

[Relevant Documents: First Report of the Education Committee, Getting the grades they’ve earned: Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and ‘calculated’ grades, HC 617; Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 2 September 2020, on The impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services, HC 254; Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 16 September 2020, on Accountability hearings, HC 262.]

I remind Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call-list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected.

Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and should respect the one-way system around the Chamber. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members may speak only if they are on the call lists, and that applies even if debates are undersubscribed; Members may not join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for wind-ups. When there are more than 10 speakers, Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move on to the horseshoe when seats become available.

I also remind hon. Members that there is less expectation for them to stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken. That is to help manage attendance in the Chamber. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech but should be aware that, in doing so, they might prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats in the horseshoe—some of that is redundant, because no one is in the Public Gallery at the present time.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 306773 and 320772 relating to exams during Covid-19.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

This debate has been triggered by two petitions: one started by Jakia Ali to review the decision to use previous data to calculate exam grades, which received 148,880 signatures; and Rafia Hussain’s petition to reduce the curriculum content for years 10 and 12 students who will sit exams in 2021, which received 147,099 signatures. The debate is very timely today, in light of the Government’s written statement. In what has been a worrying time for everyone, and in spite of the furore over the summer about the exam results, many students still feel as if they have been abandoned in this crisis.

At the outset, I put on the record my thanks to all the students, parents and teachers who have had to deal with this unprecedented situation. Students have shown a resilience that has surprised many, and dealt with the impact of covid-19 better than the majority of adults I know. Having been a teacher myself, that did not surprise me, but I am proud of them all none the less. From now on, however, we must ensure that our students, our future generations, are supported properly in their efforts.

Since my name was announced as leading on this debate, a number of students have got in touch me with about how the uncertainty is affecting their mental health. The issue has much wider impacts for many of them: it could affect their entire life. Having spoken to the authors of the two petitions, listened to teachers and students and drawn on my own experience as a teacher, I am clear that clarity is paramount for everyone involved.

Today’s announcement from the Government will, I believe, do nothing to allay the fears of most students, parents and teachers. This Government are keen to say that they are “levelling up” the country, but this debacle has shown that they are not interested in helping the most disadvantaged pupils. That is what I find most striking.

All students lost five months of in-school teaching and, as we know, many of them have not had access to the internet or IT. Efforts to address that have not reached everyone. For the five months of missed school, students will now be given three weeks of extra time—I can hear the guffaws of my teacher friends in Wigan from where I am now.

As we face further uncertainty from a second wave of covid, those disadvantages could be further exacerbated. Far from levelling up, this is treading down students who do not have afforded to them all the advantages that the two thirds of the Cabinet who went to private school had.

Unlike the UK Government, the Welsh Government have commissioned an independent review into what happened with exams over the summer, which will look at what improvements can be made for next year. In the summer, when the A-level results came out and students and families were rightly upset, all I could think, as a parent of a child awaiting GCSE results, was, “It didn’t have to be like this.” Where was the debate? Where were the conversations with students, teachers and parents? There was none—or very little. The views of the unions were readily ridiculed and silenced by those who have no idea what it is like to teach in a comprehensive school system.

I would like to thank both of those behind these important petitions, Jakia Ali and Rafia Hussain. The sheer number of signatures on both petitions demonstrates the strength of feeling across the country about this issue. Jakia started her petition in March. It was great to speak to such an eloquent and determined young woman, who was meant to be sitting her GCSEs this summer, like my son. She felt the stress and frustration at first hand, and I can relate to that. Moreover, Jakia had little to focus on when she knew there would be no exams, and she had a long wait until her A-levels. What is notable about her petition is that indeed it was on A-level results day that it gathered momentum: a true reflection of how unhappy young people were. She was worried and concerned about how her results would be calculated and understandably wanted to ensure that she and her friends received grades that reflected their true potential. Is that not what we want for all our children?

When I spoke to Rafia, who is herself a teacher, we found that we had quite a lot in common. Last week, she still felt that the Government were doing nothing. She found it very difficult to engage with her learners through remote learning, and she said that was the experience of many of her fellow teachers. We know that it is not the same as face-to-face learning. She had experience of that, especially with a family member in year 10. The situation had a huge impact on his self-esteem and engagement with the GCSE curriculum.

Rafia set up the petition in frustration in the early hours of the morning so that the Government would hear her call to debate the petition and put into action a plan to reduce the content of GCSEs and A-levels so that students could achieve their full potential in a limited time. The hard fact is, as the National Education Union has stated, that the only route to fairness would be a complete cancellation of exams and use of robustly moderated, externally quality assured teacher judgment. We relied on teacher judgment this year. I found it very difficult listening to my friends in the teaching profession and hearing their concerns, not just in England but in Wales as well. They need to be listened to. This is my plea, and it is the plea of the petitioners: listen to the people at the chalkface. Listen to the teachers, pupils and students at GCSE and A-level. It is very important for them to have their voices heard. That is why I am proud to speak to the petitions, because petitions give people a voice. The Government should do more and should be listening to them.

There is no SNP spokesperson, so I intend to call the two Front-Bench speakers 20 minutes before the end, at 5.40 pm. They will get 10 minutes. There are 10 other speakers, so you can divide that up yourselves.

Thank you, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Having not done too well in my maths, I am struggling to work out how much time I have got, but in any event I will not take all the allotted time. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who gave a wide-ranging speech and an introduction to this e-petition debate as we rightly discuss covid’s impact on exams.

I want to talk about the cohort who have just been through their GCSEs and A-levels without sitting exams. I also want to look to the future and at the current cohort—what might be the right thing for them in the circumstances? Looking at the current year groups who are about to take their exams, I am very mindful of the written statement from the Department for Education today, which has announced that exams will be put back by three weeks. There is also talk of other changes. Can the Minister tease out a little more information from that written statement? Perhaps we can hear a little more from him about that.

I start by talking about the pupils who have had a miserable time in the last six months of their GCSEs or A-levels. All pupils have been affected, but especially those who were unable to sit the exams that they worked so hard for. I am incredibly sympathetic and empathetic to what they have gone through. With the support of their teachers and loved ones, they had geared themselves up to take their big test—to find that they were unable to do so was heartbreaking for all concerned.

I know there has been a lot of discussion, with the benefit of hindsight, about how things could have been done differently, and I am sure it will come up again. All I would say in that regard is that I am very conscious that decisions were made by the Conservative Government in England, the SNP Government in Scotland, the Labour Government in Wales and the DUP/Sinn Féin Government in Northern Ireland, and they were not that different. Every single Department has had to wrestle with what is right in the circumstances in a fast-changing situation. I am certainly mindful of that, and I am grateful to all the nations’ Departments for what they have done. However, the reality is that some young people have missed out in certain regards.

I want to talk about the importance of exams. For some people, exams are the way they are best able to demonstrate their aptitude and their ability to have absorbed information. Young people who have not been able to sit their exams, which would have perhaps given them better grades than their teacher-assessed grades, have missed out. I stand here as someone who was in that exact situation. I got very poor GCSEs and went to a further education college—not the private, elite education to which the hon. Member for Gower referred, but then I am not in the Cabinet; perhaps there is a correlation there.

I attended a secondary modern school because I failed my 12-plus, and then I went through to a further education college, where my grades were effectively rather lazily based on my GCSEs, the assumption being that I had not been taught anything during the two years of A-levels. It was a surprise to everyone, not least me, when A’s were awarded. I had to start again and reapply to universities that perhaps I should have applied to in the first place. That occurred only because I took my exams. I am not suggesting the teaching quality is as it was decades ago, when I was in that situation, but many young people will have missed out on a great place at university, or somewhere else they want to go, because they did not have the opportunity to take an exam. They might have had the fallback, but—let us be honest—who was going to take that in the circumstances?

I absolutely applaud the determination to have exams back on the timetable for 2021; it is absolutely the right thing for us to do. However, I want to express my concern to the Minister about how much time has now been lost by pupils who will be sitting their GCSE and A-level exams. Arguably, they have missed out more of their content than those who would have sat exams in the year just gone, because by March they have pretty much finished their content for the two years. That cohort have lost a good six-month chunk, and I am very concerned. I would like to see us reflect on whether the syllabus and the content can be changed in order to take that into account.

It is fine to say we are giving an extra three weeks, but that does not correlate with the months that were lost, and I feel that would be right. I understand that geography has been looked at, in terms of field trips not going ahead, as has English literature, in terms of the reading. However, I believe that other subjects have not been looked at. Can the Minister tell us whether that can be done on a subject-by-subject basis and whether a report can be given back after the upcoming half-term has ended? Schools and pupils need that clarity.

The other thing that I ask the Minister to do is to take coursework into account. If we go down the road where schools are not able to hold exams again, which we hope we will not, then we are looking at schools on an individual school-by-school basis. I wonder whether it would be better to have some coursework marked by the exam boards, so that there is some rigour and consistency of standards should we fall back to a place that we do not want to fall back to: having no exams.

I will end there, so that there is time for the Minister to respond to the debate. By and large, however, I welcome the statement by the Government today and I welcome the fact that there is a recommitment to exams. The announcement about the few extra weeks will be very well received, but I ask that we go a bit deeper and look again at the syllabus content, to ensure that those young people who have missed out on quite a large chunk of their A-levels or GCSEs are not disadvantaged when it comes to getting their grades.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

It is a privilege to take part in this important debate, which, if I may say so, has been very ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). It has been triggered by a summer of chaos in our schools and colleges. Hundreds of people in my Slough constituency have signed both the petitions that we are considering today, which shows that there is real concern and anger among the people I represent.

Like every hon. Member here, over the summer I was contacted by parents, teachers and young people themselves about their concerns, and about the confusion and chaos, surrounding this year’s exam results. There were heartbreaking stories of university places being withdrawn and people’s futures being stolen. I think that even the Government’s greatest supporters would acknowledge that things did not go well.

In March, the Education Secretary cancelled exams, saying that this year’s students should not face

“systematic disadvantage as a consequence of these extraordinary circumstances.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2020; Vol. 674, c. 1WS.]

In July, the Education Committee sounded the alarm that groups of pupils—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds or from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds—would be penalised. On 13 August, the number of pupils being awarded A or A* at A-level increased to an all-time high in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with 27.9% of A-level students securing top grades; I congratulate all those students for that.

However, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were hit hardest by the algorithm that was used, with Ofqual itself showing that such pupils were most likely to have the grades proposed by their teachers overruled and downgraded, while children from affluent backgrounds were most likely to do well. The same pattern was evident a few days later with the GCSEs. Although Ministers started the summer by saying they wanted to avoid “systematic disadvantage”, by the end of the summer it was plain that Ministers were responsible for the exact opposite, hardwiring disadvantage into the system.

Where was the Prime Minister? Like Macavity, the mystery cat, the Prime Minister is not there. A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research last month revealed that school pupils were on average three months behind where they would normally have been without the lockdown, with more deprived students and schools being worst affected.

I have a rather famous top school near me, down near Slough and Windsor, but why should pupils at that particular college get enhanced opportunity, on top of the huge opportunities that they already have, at the expense of pupils at Wexham School, at Beechwood School, at Ditton Park Academy or other such great schools in Slough? It is especially cruel for those pupils who had worked hard and were on track to do well—simply because they attend a school that historically had struggled they were punished. As the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Mary Bousted, said:

“Grades were initially awarded, for the vast majority of students, with no reference to, or evidence of, their individual achievements.”

We tell people that their children can do better than they themselves did and we tell the next generation that if they work hard they can get on. If we as a society break that fundamental promise, we risk far more than one summer of chaos; we risk there being a breakdown of trust in our institutions and a generation held back by injustice. We are storing up troubles for decades to come.

The petitioners point to two key areas where we can try to get things right next year: first, to review in forensic detail what went wrong this summer, despite the warnings from education unions, schools and the Education Committee; and secondly, to make plans for, and give much-needed clarity to, those who are taking exams next year. I am glad the Government have addressed the exams timetable for 2021, but since August, the Labour party has been calling for exams to be delayed until June to give pupils more time to catch up on lost teaching time. It is unacceptable that it has taken until today, more than a month after schools returned, for the Government to finally commit to that.

Until now, parents, pupils and schools have been left in the dark regarding the timing of exams, making it more difficult for them to plan for the academic year. Additionally, although a delay to exams is necessary, other measures must be considered by the Government to ensure that exams are fair. Perhaps the Minister can address the following three points. First, what guarantees can he give parents, pupils and teachers in Slough schools that we will not see a 2021 summer of chaos? Secondly, what measures will Ministers put in place to ensure that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have their dreams stolen by hard-wired injustice? Finally, what can he tell us about thousands of taxpayer pounds going to public relations agency Public First, which was paid by Ofqual in the summer to clear up its PR disaster?

Money was paid out of the public purse to a PR agency run by Rachel Wolf and James Frayne, former special advisers to the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), on a contract awarded without competitive tender. Does the Minister consider that a good use of public money?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who opened the debate, talked about those who had had a private school education. As someone who had that, I am certainly not going to apologise for going to a school that my parents thought was best for me to attend at the time, when the two state schools nearby were both failing, and one was on the verge of closure. Before other Members chastise me as a Tory toff, they might be interested to note my backstory before they assign that tag to me and make a lazy assumption—

I will not. Ofqual’s reaction was quite simple. It saw what was coming down the road. How do I know that? Because I am a member of the Select Committee on Education. After taking evidence, we made very clear in our report, published on 11 July, what the situation was: where we had large cohorts, kids would be disadvantaged; where we had disadvantaged children within those large cohorts, who were high achievers but were in low-achieving schools, they would see their grades brought down; and schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities, with small cohorts and variable results year on year, would also see an impact, so Ofqual had notice of what we thought would go wrong. Sadly, it appears that Ofqual chose to not heed the advice of the Education Committee.

What annoyed me even further was that when the chair of Ofqual appeared before the Committee after the A-level and GCSE results fiasco, I asked him whether he had run a dataset after what happened in Scotland on 4 August to see how results would be impacted in this country, and I got dodging and skirting from him. There was no answer to the fact that Ofqual chose at no stage to look at its data analytically enough to determine whether it would see a good outcome. I am led to believe that the algorithm itself was not shown to Ministers for an awfully long time. It certainly was not shared with the Education Committee and was not published, despite numerous people wishing to take part. In fact, an outside agency, the Royal Statistical Society, offered its services to engage with Ofqual and look at the algorithm, but that offer was turned down. Two fellows were blocked from joining the Ofqual technical advisory group of independent experts, even though they wished to advise. Again, Ofqual has answers that it needs to give.

In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which I am proud to represent, I had emails from young people who had worked tremendously hard and were unable to leave school in the traditional way. When they were unable to have a leavers assembly and to get the recognition that they deserve, I was deeply disappointed.

I will not, unfortunately. To return to Ofqual, Tim Oates, the director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment, raised issues with the Secretary of State and the Minister, who, he said, were eager to hear about the problems the organisation uncovered regarding the algorithm. Sadly, when that was raised with Ofqual, it shrugged it off, as if to say, “We’re not interested in hearing from anyone outside.” Ofqual, therefore, has lost the confidence of the education sector.

As a former secondary school teacher in state schools for eight years, across London and in Birmingham, I can only imagine the pain teachers felt when they saw that their hard work ranking students—my partner, who is a head of religious education, worked for eight and a half hours ranking students—was simply ignored because of the size of the cohort. I do not think that is good enough. The lessons must be learned from Germany, where students sat exams and results fell in line with previous years or slightly exceeded them. Exams are an absolute must.

Before I finish, I must say that two young ladies in my constituency would like to know what is expected of them in terms of the curriculum and the exam content they will face, because they feel that while those three weeks are very welcome, six months of face-to-face contact was lost, which was awfully damaging to them. I beg the Minister to ensure that Ofqual does not move to an online model, as it mentioned in the Select Committee, because I believe that will only end in disaster yet again.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I went to a tough south-east London comprehensive, which was big on pastoral care but not so big on academic results. If I had been graded in 2020, I am sure that I would not have been graded my three As by the algorithms and my life would have taken a very different path, so I feel strongly about this issue.

The pandemic has presented schools with a range of complex problems, but schools up and down the country, not least in my constituency, did a brilliant job staying open for the children of key workers and for vulnerable children, providing lessons for home-schooling and preparing for the wider reopening in September. However, the summer exams fiasco, the failure to get an adequate testing system in place and a complete lack of specific guidance for schools have made it apparent that our schools are being let down by the Government.

I recently invited all the headteachers in my constituency to a virtual meeting to discuss the current situation and to listen to their concerns. One of the most pressing issues that they raised was clarity and guidance around how exams will be conducted this academic year. Their demand is completely acceptable. It is staggering that it has taken the Government until today to respond to it, particularly given what happened over the summer.

While today’s announcement of a three-week postponement is necessary, it does not do anything to make up for a term or more of missed classes. It also does not recognise that students have been disrupted by the pandemic to varying degrees. Those impacted the most by coronavirus are at the greatest disadvantage. More must be done to take that into consideration and make this year’s exams fairer.

Pupils set to sit those exams were in the final stages of years 10 and 12 when schools closed in March. As a result, they have missed out on months of face-to-face learning. Additionally, the wide range of safety measures in schools, the risks of periods of self-isolation and other external disruptions are preventing teaching as usual for now. Further, it is possible that the development of the pandemic could prevent many from physically sitting the exams of summer 2021.

In these difficult times, we look to the Government to set a direction and bring a degree of certainty to the uncertain, but it has taken until today to get an answer, and questions and uncertainty remain. This uncertainty does not help anyone. We should not underestimate the impact of lockdown on young people’s mental health. The pandemic has further exacerbated inequalities in society. Schools need to be able to focus on pastoral care and support after many months out of the classroom. A recent survey by the charity Parentkind found that 88% of parents surveyed thought that the lack of clarity about arrangements for exams had negatively affected their child’s mental health or wellbeing.

Several questions are omitted from today’s announcement. How will exams ensure that pupils, who have faced different levels of disruption, will be treated equally? What will the contingency plans be if future lockdowns occur? What information should schools be gathering in case exams are cancelled again and grades have to be estimated?

Serious consideration also has to be given to the impact that self-isolation of pupils and teachers will have, given the issues with the lack of access to tests that schools have told me about. Five education unions, including the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers, have put forward a detailed proposal to help remedy these problems. They suggest mechanisms such as reducing the content in qualifications, or introducing greater optionality by which students could choose to answer questions on, for example, three out of five possible topics. That would help to ensure that the grades received were as fair as possible and recognise the different experiences pupils may have had over the year. The proposal also suggests contingency plans, so that students who were significantly impacted by the pandemic would still be able to receive a fair grade. Suggestions include reserve papers for students unable to sit exams on a particular date, but able to sit them shortly afterwards, and staged assessments before the summer exams, which could then be used if those exams had to be abandoned altogether.

I hope that we can get clarity from the Minister and his Department today, and that, going forward, they will be discussing with schools and unions how best to design the summer exam system. The Government’s approach to negotiations with the unions about the wider reopening of schools was wholly lacking; I hope they do not make the same mistake again when it comes to exams. I do not doubt the scale of this challenge, but given the Department’s recent performance and the lack of urgency with which it has treated this issue, it is more important than ever that the Department engage with schools and unions. By doing so, I believe a fair system could be delivered that would give the young people who have already been impacted so much by this pandemic a fair chance at future attainment, but that requires the Government to listen and to work with all those involved.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and it is of course a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves). As many colleagues have mentioned, the impact of the results scandal is still being felt by young people across the country: students who felt their life chances had been changed through no fault of their own, parents who spent hours on hold waiting to speak to someone in a university admissions office, and teachers who felt ignored by this Government and powerless to help their hard-working students.

Back in August, when the A-level results were published, I received correspondence from many angry constituents who had their results downgraded by the Government-approved algorithm. Barnsley College, which serves my constituency, said that, overall, 63% of pupils were downgraded against teacher predictions. This was in sharp contrast to pupils in more affluent areas and those who were in private education, whose grades were reported to have risen overall—that is the point that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), despite his private education, seems to have missed. Fortunately, the pressure that followed led to a Government U-turn, but young people in Barnsley East and across the country should never have been subjected to such an injustice, which in turn led to so much uncertainty regarding their university places and next steps.

The Government’s mishandling of this was nothing short of disastrous—a fiasco. Young people and their families were put through days of anxiety and uncertainty just because our Prime Minister and his Education Secretary were too stubborn to accept that using their algorithm was unfair and discriminatory. At the time, teachers reported to me that they were left feeling undervalued and ignored after their predicted grades were overruled. I accept that these are unprecedented times, but this should never have been allowed to happen, and I fully support calls for an investigation of what went wrong and how to ensure it is never repeated.

However, any investigation should take place alongside planning for exams in 2021. Our year 11 and year 13 GCSE, BTEC and A-level students face enormous pressure, trying to cram the lost six months of learning into an already crammed curriculum. Unless there is a rethink, they will have to complete up to 18 months of work in nine short months if they are to have any chance of following their desired educational career paths. I fully support the move to get students back into the classroom, but the Government have to acknowledge that this is so different from any other academic year, and our teachers’ calls for a rethink in how exams take place this school year should not be ignored.

As we realised from August’s fiasco, no one is better placed than our teachers on the frontline to judge what will happen if the Government fail to step in and make the required changes, before we hurtle headlong into another educational catastrophe. Pupil attendance is already significantly lower than in previous years, mainly due to bubbles collapsing, pupils isolating, suspected and confirmed covid cases, and rising anxieties and mental health challenges. Teachers are reporting fatigue such as they have never felt before in October, because of the stress of managing their and their pupils’ health and safety, and the added workload. However, one of the most important factors, which the Government appear completely to have overlooked, is the disparity between pupils from affluent areas and their less affluent neighbours.

Young people from more deprived areas are more likely to do worse in the 2021 exams if the Government do not step in with a sustainable, fair plan. As many schools and colleges begin to move back to online learning, it must be acknowledged that that disproportionately affects pupils who may not have the internet at home, who do not have access to a laptop, or who simply have a chaotic home life, so that finding a quiet space to work is almost impossible.

I welcome the Government scheme to provide laptops for disadvantaged children, but it does not go anywhere near far enough to ensure that no student or young person will miss out on vital learning as a result of the crisis. There are many students who are outside the Government eligibility criteria, who will simply fall through the cracks if the scheme is not extended. In July, it was reported that 80% of private schools were offering a full online suite of lessons, in contrast to just 8% of state schools. The outcome of the pandemic cannot be one where the richest survive. Steps must be taken to equalise the life chances of all who are due to take exams next summer. I pay tribute to the hard work of teachers across Barnsley East and the whole UK. These are unprecedented times and they call for unprecedented measures. The Government must listen to the professionals and act quickly to ensure that the life chances of the class of 2021 are not reduced.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to contribute to a debate where we have the wonderful leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who was a teacher and who, Members may not be aware, is also an excellent rugby player. We can all be grateful for that.

It is never easy waiting for exam results, but the young people of Hornsey and Wood Green spent their summer waiting for the results of exams that they never sat, which were determined by algorithms designed by someone who had never seen their work. This has been particularly challenging. Everyone accepts that setting grades was difficult in those unique circumstances, yet the Education Secretary had five months to prepare, and it was not as if warnings were not flagged. As has been mentioned, the report of the Education Committee went into quite a lot of detail:

“Pupils will carry these qualifications with them for their entire lives. Their calculated grades must be accurate. But we have concerns that the system described by Ofqual as the ‘fairest possible in the circumstances’ could be unfair for groups including disadvantaged pupils, BAME pupils, children looked after, and pupils with SEND.”

Never was a truer word spoken, yet all the hard work that Members of the House put into the report appears to have been completely ignored.

While the Prime Minister was holidaying in a wigwam, I joined the local students, in Parliament Square, in their fight for justice. Many I spoke to were distraught, terrified that they had lost their university places through no fault of their own, and unable to believe that they had been given grades lower than they had ever received throughout their education. Ludicrously, some students got a U, as though they had never been there—a U that related to a student at their school from the previous year. My local mental health trust has given me a figure of 20% for the increase in demand for mental health services, which is predominantly going to fall on the shoulders of our young people. Not only are we not prepared at that level; it seems that we are not prepared on the level of education either. We need to begin to predict the dreadful outcomes of covid now, and prepare for the mental health needs of the next generation, because they appear to me like the first world war generation—shellshocked, traumatised and in desperate need of comfort and support.

Eventually, the U-turn came. It was quite exciting watching television every day in the summer holidays, with Ofqual coming out, then the Department, and then Ofqual again. What was finally done was so late, and caused so much unnecessary distress, that, sadly, it seemed to symbolise the way the Government have approached the whole covid crisis. Tragically, many students decided to defer, which means that universities will be in a terrible place in a year’s time. Once again, they will have to turn down certain students. When a large number of students defer their university place for a year, the poor university ends up with a lot of applicants to process. Inevitably, some people will miss out. The endless pattern of incompetence is no way to run the country. Young people deserve to know why they were let down so badly, and 17-year-olds embarking on their final year of A-levels or BTECs need to know that it will not happen again.

I want briefly to comment on today’s announcement, because the Minister is in the Chamber. I shall take no more than 30 seconds, Mr Stringer. Would he please get the poor teachers around the table? They want desperately to discuss the proposals in today’s announcement. He should not just try to impose this from the top, because pupils should be treated fairly. Able pupils in schools should not just reflect the cohort from the year before; they should be taken seriously. The concept of exams needs to make allowance for the fact that some students are so nervous about sitting exams for which they have missed so much preparation that will they drop more difficult subjects that they are capable of doing, thereby missing out on good university places which will go to the same students, as they do every year. Let us try to fight this with a genuine vision of how we can allow students to be socially mobile, and allow those who are able to get places at good universities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to speak in this timely debate.

One point on which we can all agree is that students have had an incredibly tough time this year. The petitions that we are debating raise several important questions about exams next year. The Government’s announcement today represents, I think it is fair to say, baby steps in the right direction, but we are left asking where are the serious actions that will help to stop a repeat of this summer’s fiasco. So far, the answer is to delay school exams by three weeks next summer, to give students more time to study. If those exams cannot go ahead, plan B is to push the schools to perform “rigorous mock exams” many months earlier to provide more data to determine grades. That is incredibly half-baked. Today, students and teachers have met the measures with, at best, scepticism and, at worst, derision. How can we push back school exams by three weeks to give more time for teaching, then basically bring them forward by five months by formalising mock exams?

Most mocks will take place early next year, and many students and teachers feel that they will have little time to cover this year’s syllabus, making a mockery of the Government’s measures to give more teaching time. I would like the Minister to give a firm commitment that no student will be tested on any subject that they have not learned. That is absolutely vital. I would like the Minister to explain why mocks are being used in this way, because the Government had previously dropped the idea of using them, so it is important that people understand what has changed. I would also like him to explain whether time will be provided to make sure that marking is done after the full exams.

That brings us to the second petition, which asks for the curriculum to be reduced, as teaching time is likely to be lost because of disruption. Students have lost at least five months of in-school teaching, and many of them are right to be concerned that some of this year’s mistakes may be repeated. Where there is increased interruption in teaching, we should give schools and teachers more input into those decisions on which parts of the curriculum should be prioritised. As hon. Members have said, many teachers have said that they were not consulted on today’s announcement, and they want to discuss it. Will the Minister make a commitment today that he will meet them very soon?

There are wider issues at play. Schools are warning that they may grind to a halt without access to covid tests, and without quick turnaround times for results. Many still do not have the resources and funding that they need to provide education from home for those who have to self-isolate. That is all the worse for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Today’s announcement is unbelievably thin. It could have been made weeks ago. Where is the independent assessment of what went wrong? Where is the scenario planning for next year? Saying that it will come later in the autumn is not good enough. The Government have had months to sort this out. What about our most vulnerable children—those who are clinically vulnerable, who are facing a life or death decision about whether they can return to school? When can we expect a comprehensive plan for these various challenges?

Students, parents and teachers are sick of the Government passing the buck and letting civil servants take the hit. Ofqual was not on the ballot paper last December; the Conservative party was. It is this Government who are accountable to the public, both for what went wrong and for how they are going to fix it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this important debate.

I am proud that around 250 Leicester East residents were among the 300,000-plus people who signed the petition calling on the Government to improve the allocation of grades during the coronavirus pandemic. It is important for us all to keep in mind that pupils will carry these qualifications with them for their entire lives. We cannot allow young people in Leicester East, across Leicester and across the UK to be punished because of circumstances beyond their control, and yet there are widespread concerns that the system described by Ofqual as

“the fairest possible in the circumstances”

could be unfair for groups including disadvantaged pupils, African, Asian and minority ethnic pupils, children who are looked after and, as has been said, children on free school meals and pupils with special educational needs or disabilities. Ofqual must urgently identify whether these groups have been systematically disadvantaged by calculated grades and, if that is the case, Ofqual’s standardisation model must adjust the grades of affected pupils upwards.

Research by the University and College Union found that the grades of pupils from low-income families are more likely to be incorrectly predicted than those of their more affluent peers. High-attaining disadvantaged pupils are even more likely to be underpredicted compared with those from more affluent backgrounds, with Sutton Trust research concluding that the grades of 1,000 high-achieving disadvantaged students are underpredicted per year.

Tragically, racial inequalities exist alongside class discrimination at every stage of the education system. Research by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that black African and African-Caribbean A-level students had the lowest predicted grade accuracy, with only 39% of predicted grades accurate, while their white counterparts had the highest, at 53%. Amid the coronavirus crisis, it is therefore likely that the cancellation of A-levels will have a disproportionately negative impact on black students. The Government must work urgently with Ofqual to ensure that students are not discriminated against because of their background.

It is crucial that pupils are able to appeal their grades if they believe that bias or discrimination has occurred. Worryingly, research into grade prediction accuracy for university applicants has found that just 16% of applicants receive the grades they are predicted. I am concerned that Ofqual has not given enough thought to how accessible this route is to all pupils without support. Proving bias or discrimination would be an almost impossible threshold for any pupil to evidence. Disadvantaged pupils and those without family resources or wider support risk being shut out of this process. The Government, working with Ofqual, must urgently publish the evidence threshold for proving bias and discrimination and set out what evidence will be required and how they will support students through the appeals process.

Before I finish, I take this opportunity to send my solidarity to year 12 A-level students in Leicester and across the country who have taken strike action over the Government’s failure to provide adequate support to their cohort during the pandemic. Aaisha, one of the strike organisers from Leicester, says the Government have not done enough to support the future of this country. I could not agree more. Two thirds of the current Cabinet were privately educated, and yet they systematically deny working-class young people—especially from African, Asian and minority ethnic communities—the opportunities that they were afforded. The Government must urgently adopt a fairer means of allocating grades, to ensure that no one is unjustly left behind as a result of this pandemic.

Education has changed dramatically since the covid pandemic. I, too, am a former secondary school teacher. I feel deeply concerned about the disruption, challenges and stresses that teaching staff, school leaders and especially our young people had to go through, and that they continue to face. In Bath and across the country, our teachers, school staff and pupils, along with their families and carers, have done a truly amazing job, and I thank them all.

The exam results chaos caused great distress and disruption that could have been completely avoided. The Government, more worried about grade inflation than about fairness, let thousands of young people down. As I said at the time, teachers are far better judges of their pupils’ ability than are algorithms imposed by the Department for Education. Many young people’s aspirations and plans for their future were dashed. Once again, as we have heard already, students from disadvantaged backgrounds were disproportionately affected.

Today, the Government have announced that they will bring back exams in 2021, with a three-week delay. Having engaged this afternoon with school leaders in Bath, whom I trust in everything they say and do, I believe that that is the wrong decision. We have seen that teacher assessment works, and for the next academic year that is clearly the best option.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) did not take any interventions, but I wanted to ask him what lessons we should learn from Germany. I am always interested when people speak with great confidence about other countries without necessarily knowing the details. Germany does not have any national exams. It has a devolved education system. Indeed, many exam grades are awarded through teacher assessment, which proves that teachers know best and we can rely solidly on their assessments of their pupils. I believe we should look at that as the best option for next year, at the least.

Many learners are still catching up. The help announced in June for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds has been delayed, and in some cases is still not in place. The education of young people is constantly in danger of being disrupted. If some members of a group or cohort have to self-isolate because of an outbreak, young learners find themselves back at home. Those who are due to sit the exams next year already worry that the mock exams might end up counting as the actual results. That adds another layer of stress that teachers and pupils do not deserve.

Behind every exam result is a young life, full of promise. We cannot begin to know what toll the A-level and GCSE results fiasco will ultimately take on the self-esteem, mental health, personal development and earning capacity of those who have been impacted. On behalf of the students and teachers of Bath, I call on the Government to bring back teacher assessment for 2021. It is simply not realistic to assume that we can return to business as usual for this academic year.

That is also true of Ofsted inspections. I understand that Ofsted inspections are due to resume in January. Schools are simply not ready for that. Many schools have finely tuned social distancing arrangements in place. The additional presence of inspectors at the school, when they are not normally part of the school community, adds extra worry and anxiety. How should schools plan for that? Is it right that schools should have to have an extra contingency plan in case of unexpected inspections, to add to their already stretched capacity? I hope that the Government are considering that too, and that they will put back Ofsted inspections until at least September 2021.

As cases rise, so too does the risk of local and national lockdowns. Pupils may not have seen the last of home learning. In that eventuality, the Government must support all schools to deliver high quality education to every child in this country. Give schools the space they need, and trust teachers and school leaders to be the best judges of the young people who are their responsibility.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I thank the 551 petitioners from my constituency who have signed the petitions.

Our young people have shown extraordinary resilience as they have battled the traumas of the past six months, not least when they were presented with a mutant algorithm that downgraded so many of their expectations after the extensive work that they and their teachers had done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) rightly said, it is so important to listen not only to pupils, but to teachers. She is not just an excellent rugby player; given the way she tackled the debate, the Minister should surely step out of the way and listen to what she had to say.

Sadly, the upheaval continues for too many young people as infection rates soar. After securing a place at the university of their choice, they now find themselves locked down, isolated and not knowing what comes next. Young people really need a clear plan to see them through this year securely, and the Government need to come up with that plan now. One thing that this summer has done is to shine a spotlight on our whole education system. The inequality has been exposed. Pupils who took the BTEC line of assessment had such a delay in their results coming out—that was a real inequality for them. What happened this summer also demonstrated that reliance on a single form of assessment—the exam—at such a time has created significant risk. When the Minister knew about the inequality that was coming through, as my parliamentary question exposed, why did he still go ahead and publish those results, and not hold off and put the corrections in the system? That could have removed a lot of the trauma and stress that our young people had to experience this summer.

The catch-up support that the Government promised—the covid catch-up programme and the national tutoring programme—has not arrived, partly because they are trying to procure a national contract with some private organisations. We know how well that has gone with testing. Local authorities have the relationships and the means to deliver this, and they know the needs of local schools. I suggest to the Minister that he moves that support to local authorities, as York is requesting—the excellence of York’s education system is well known—so that they can deliver it to schools. That would be a first step forward. Today’s announcement that six months’ catch-up can be achieved by having a three-week extension to exams is just unreal.

Further episodes of isolation are continuing as we speak. This morning I was told that a constituent who is due to sit exams this week has had to self-isolate for the second time this term, resulting in three weeks of absence in this half-term alone. How can she be fairly assessed against her peers, who have perhaps been in school the whole time? The same applies to pupils who have been shielding at home because they are extremely clinically vulnerable.

Today in York, 50 more pupils from just one secondary school have been sent home to self-isolate. We know that this year will be a very disrupted one, but the scenario planning that we would expect to have had from the Government by now has not been forthcoming. The Government really need to recognise the reality of the situation. I trust that the Minister will let us know exactly when we will hear what the future holds for young people. We cannot get to the end of the year and have some young people self-isolating when exams are due. Young people who are already stressed today will be even more stressed by that point in the calendar, so we need to build flexibility into the system now.

I support the call from the trade unions and others to have a broader choice of questions in exam papers so that young people have options as to which ones they answer, because we will not get all the content into this year. I would be interested in the Minister’s views on that. We should also have a broader assessment process that is properly moderated and planned for—not like it was last year—to ensure it can accommodate people.

If we are honest, we will acknowledge that exams are a crude assessment tool. I am glad to hear about the experiences of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), for whom exams were the solution that allowed him to show his academic prowess. However, we know that that is certainly not the case for other people. How can we really assess an individual’s whole learning journey in a few hours? Different people respond in different ways to assessment, and I believe that we need to see how young people can thrive through the assessment process and show off their capabilities, not least because exams are currently the only tool on which their future depends.

The acquisition of knowledge is so important. Understanding how to navigate ourselves through this complex world with the necessary skills to chart our course and to accomplish our goal is the value of education. However, if we never get to enjoy the journey, mature as a person, and gain confidence and the application of the tools required, what has been achieved through our education?

A hybrid assessment tool of moderated assessment, project work, problem-solving challenges, assignment and exams would stretch pupils further and assess their broad range of skills, without benefiting only those who succeed at exams. At the moment, recovery curricula are being put in place in some schools, but that is not universal. Will the Minister say whether more attention will be paid to that? I welcome how some schools—I believe even Eton is doing this—are putting things like farming and art into the curriculum, yet so many of our state schools do not have that opportunity. If that benefits some kids, it should benefit all kids. That is what we should look at.

While mastering data management and league tables might be important to Government, our young people’s mental health is suffering more stress than ever before. We have heard that throughout this debate. If we are serious about developing confident and well-rounded young people, building an economy fit for the future, improving productivity and being world leaders again, we should equip our young people with a curriculum that helps all of them to soar and not to stumble.

Knowledge is one thing, but skills to know how to research and critically appraise information are of far greater value. We should therefore redress the assessment system, because before an exam paper, some people thrive and some people dive. Education must therefore be about stretching and challenging young minds and providing young people with the opportunity to show off their gifts and talents to shape our future.

Let us not crush this opportunity with an exam, particularly when there are so many unknowns in the equation. Let us reward our young people with the right assessment tool so that they can have confidence in their learning now, and in the assessment to come at the end of the year.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this debate. This issue has affected thousands of our constituents, and I thank the more than 1,000 of my constituents who supported both petitions. I also thank the teachers, the other workers in the school system and everyone who has played a part in keeping our young people safe as they returned to school.

That happened despite the Government—despite their failure to prepare over the summer and despite warnings from education unions, parents and Members of Parliament across different parties. The fiasco over the summer demonstrated a level of incompetence that frankly beggars belief. I hope that the Minister, with his colleagues, will ensure that lessons are learned from what happened and went wrong. It is not enough just to blame the institutions—Ofqual and others—and not to take responsibility. If politicians are going to blame such institutions, they ought to ensure that Ministers are responsible. Ultimately, what happens is down to ministerial responsibility.

Teachers, students and their families have faced nothing but anxiety all the way through to the exam period and then through the summer. The Education Secretary had his head buried in the sand. The reactive, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to handling the crisis over the summer—along with others—has damaged young people’s future and left many parents wondering what will happen to their children.

In my constituency, where 55% of children live below the poverty line, although the Government promised that young people would be given laptops and support, many have not received the help they need. Up and down the country, many young people who suffer disabilities have not had the help that they desperately need, and that is no different in constituencies such as mine. It is important for the Minister to address the question of getting the help and the kit that young people need but have not received. I would be grateful if he provided some facts about how many young people are still to receive that. The reports are that, in constituencies such as mine, they do not have the laptops and are not getting the internet access that they need and that would make a big difference.

Findings from the FFT Education Datalab show that kids from disadvantaged schools are now 22% behind those from advantaged schools, and there is a big differential in the impact, with ethnic minority young people significantly worse off. Those in the SEND category need much more help. I hope the Minister will address that point.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the issue of school results being based on results from previous years, which is a massive problem. I have come across a number of cases in my constituency. In one, a student received three unclassified grades when he was predicted two As and a B. That was to do nothing to do with him; it was the algorithm making judgments based on past exam results. There is an inherent problem with that and there must be an inquiry into what went wrong.

It is scandalous that the Government chose a system that discriminated between private schools and state schools, against minority ethnic groups and, ultimately, between social classes. That is shocking. Nobody ever thought that could happen in this day and age. We must learn the lessons from what went wrong. I hope the Minister will not only give us assurances but demonstrate precisely how he will ensure that that does not happen again.

The National Foundation for Educational Research found that, while the average learning loss was three months for all pupils, it was four months for children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. We have seen the differential impact on different groups, with poorer families made worse off by both the economic crisis and the health pandemic and its impact. We have seen the differential impact on BAME communities and, as others have said, on those with disabilities, particularly children. We need special initiatives from the Government to support the groups that have been hit very hard. Whatever our analysis of what happened over the summer, that is surely something we can all agree on. We need to ensure that young people are not condemned by what has happened in the pandemic and that their future is protected. What happened this year was avoidable and lessons could have been learned. Action could have been taken faster.

My final point is about test and trace. We need to ensure that it is working properly. I have reports from schools in my constituency of whole year groups being sent home because test and trace is not adequate. That cannot be good for ensuring that young people get the education they deserve and need. The Government need to get a grip on that, otherwise it will get worse and become an even bigger problem during the exam period.

I will conclude, because I am conscious that the Front-Bench speakers need to come in, but I hope that the Minister will have clear answers and give assurances to our constituents that lessons will be learned and that there will be an inquiry into what went wrong, so that we have a proper line of sight on that. The Government can then be held to account properly, to ensure that the young people with exams coming up next year get a better outcome.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this important debate. We have had some really important contributions from Members. My hon. Friend gave an excellent speech, grounded in the realities faced by pupils and teachers, and called on the Government to listen to their voices. She rightly said that clarity is paramount for everybody involved.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Hew Merriman) called on the Government to consider looking at coursework marked by exam boards. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) spoke eloquently on the confusion and chaos that the Government have presided over this year and the heartbreaking stories of university places being withdrawn. He also set out how students from disadvantaged backgrounds were most likely to be adversely affected and how Ministers were responsible for hard-baking disadvantage into the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) spoke passionately about the injustice visited on her constituents as a result of the Government’s discriminatory actions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) expressed her concerns about the impact that Government actions would have on students’ subject choices.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) paid tribute to pupils who have shown extraordinary resilience this year, and she spoke of the injustice visited on BTEC students, who had to face such long delays before receiving their results. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) set out quite clearly that the Government’s incompetence over the summer beggars belief, and that they should learn from their mistakes. She also spoke eloquently about the disadvantage that children in her constituency face.

The petitions that we have been debating today each received almost 150,000 signatures, so it is clear that these issues are of immense public interest. The Government have presided over a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion, and their failure to effectively manage the exams and assessments processes for summer 2020 caused enormous anxiety for many children and young people, as well as their families and teachers.

There were problems from the beginning, with the way in which the Government decided that pupils’ grades would be calculated. According to Ofqual, Ministers were repeatedly warned about this issue. At a meeting of the Education Committee in September, 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 estimated grades in a way that would be fair for all of this year’s students. She went on to say that

“Everyone, throughout the process, was aware of the risks”,

and referred to a paper of the general public sector ministerial implementation group on 1 May, which highlighted the risk of widespread dissatisfaction with the grades awarded among individual students, schools and colleges, and the risk to public confidence. She also said that Ofqual briefed No.10 on 7 August and held regular meetings throughout this period with the Minister for School Standards.

After days of confusion following the A-level results on 13 August, when nearly 40% of students’ centre-assessed grades were adjusted downwards, the Secretary of State finally listened to young people, their parents, their teachers and the Labour party, and allowed centre-assessed grades to be used.

Labour tried through an Opposition day debate and a vote on the Floor of the House to get the Government to be open and transparent about what Ministers knew, when they knew it and what they did about it when they were warned of the difficulties. Full disclosure of this information by the Government would at least have enabled students, their families and their teachers to see what went wrong and why. Although Conservative MPs voted the motion down, the Government’s chaotic handling of the exams process really dented confidence in our examination system.

There are now questions about what happens next summer and beyond. Petition 320772 called on the Government to reduce curriculum content for year 10 and 12 students who will sit exams next year. It argued that the loss of classroom-based learning cannot be effectively compensated for by the provision of remote learning activities, and that reducing the content will give students the opportunity to sit their exams equitably. In August, Labour called for A-level and GCSE exams in 2021 to be pushed back to June, to give pupils a better chance to catch up on lost teaching time. On 1 September, the Secretary of State indicated that the Government would indeed implement a delay to exams. Then there was a long period of silence from the Department.

What were the Government doing when they should have been providing much-needed clarity to teachers and students about assessment for 2021? The silence lasted for five and a half weeks, until just two days ago, on 10 October, when press reports suggested that the Secretary of State was expected to announce a three-week delay in the start of next summer’s exams, alongside a requirement for schools to hold mock exams in controlled conditions earlier in the year, with exam-style invigilating, marking and grading. According to those reports, the mock grades could then be used to assess results in regions or centres where pupils’ exam preparations had been severely disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks, or in the event of their being unable to sit exams in the summer.

The Government’s announcement today about the exams for next summer, along with those press reports, raise a number of questions. Can the Minister say why speculative reports about next year’s exams appeared in the press before an official announcement was made? Why has it taken the Government almost half of the first school term to come up with this statement? Can the Minister elaborate on reports in the press referring to tensions between the Department and Ofqual? Will he also set out the full range of options for next summer’s exams presented to the Department by Ofqual?

The Government have also announced that they will engage widely with the sector over the next six weeks to identify any risks to exams at national, local and individual student level, and to consider measures needed to address any potential disruption. That is really quite remarkable. What have the Government been doing, and why have they not been doing this already? Students and teachers really cannot wait any longer for the clarity that they need, yet today, as the leaves outside are turning golden brown, the Government are telling them that more detail will be published later in the autumn. Precisely when during this season does the Minister have in mind?

The incompetence of the Government is breathtaking. We need a Government who are able to plan effectively for next year. We do not know how much more school-based teaching time may be lost. However, we know it is likely that any such loss will be different for different schools and cohorts of pupils. A group of headteachers who wrote to me last week highlighted that very point, and said that:

“Substantial adjustments need to be made at subject level that will ensure those in areas of the country that have been most badly affected by the virus are not further disadvantaged by an assessment process that assumes that problems experienced have been spread equally”.

What plans do the Government have to address the matter? As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) has pointed out, five education unions have come up with a proposal for awarding GCSE, AS and A-level grades in 2021. Together, the ASCL, the National Association of Head Teachers, the NASUWT, the National Education Union and the National Governance Association have set out recommendations that include commissioning an independent review of what happened this year to learn from when planning what to do next year, and publishing contingency plans as soon as possible to outline how students who are unable to sit exams in the summer, or whose education is significantly disrupted, will nevertheless receive robust, reliable grades next year. What assessment have the Government made of the unions’ recommendations?

Today’s announcement could have been made weeks ago. The consultation with the sector that the Government now say they will carry out over the next six weeks, to consider measures needed to address any potential disruption of learning, should have happened already. The fact that the Government say that they will publish more detail in the autumn will not give students and teachers reassurance. It will make them anxious at having to wait even longer for answers from the Government.

Minister, we have marginally more time than we expected. I would ask you to ensure that there are two or three minutes left at the end for winding-up remarks.

I certainly will, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and to respond to the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). I congratulate her on securing the debate, and on the way she introduced it.

Coronavirus has been causing huge disruption to young people and their families, schools and the wider teaching community. The Government have always made the education of young people a priority and, as we all continue to adapt and to progress through the pandemic, we are determined to make sure that, when the time comes, young people are able to take the next step in their lives with the skills and qualifications that they need. At the same time, we must do whatever we can to reduce the pressure on all those studying at school or college during an incredibly stressful time. As many Members have said in the debate, too much teaching time has been lost in the past few months. We are determined that we cannot risk any child’s education being put on hold. Today’s announcement of a three-week delay is only one component, designed to increase teacher time and help students to catch up. The changes proposed by Ofqual to the assessment process, and the £1 billion catch-up fund, are also part of that process.

I stress that I understand clearly that the grading situation in summer 2020 caused great stress and uncertainty. The Education Secretary and I both understand the distress that it caused young people and their parents. We 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 outbreak. We were in uncharted territory in devising an alternative system. The overriding aim was to ensure that all students received just recognition of their efforts and that they would be able to progress to the next stage of their lives in the knowledge that their qualifications would have the same value as in previous years.

We worked closely with the independent qualifications regulator, Ofqual, as it developed a process for arriving at calculated grades through a standardisation model, but it became clear that the model was throwing up far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for students that might not have reflected their hard work or ability. It was not reasonable to expect all those to be dealt with through an appeals system. The outcomes also severely undermined public confidence in the system, so Ofqual and the Government took immediate action. We announced on 17 August the decision to revert to centre assessment grades for all students, or the calculated grade if this was higher. That was the best outcome in the difficult circumstances we were in, and the fairest for students and their families. GCSE results were recalculated on that basis and returned to schools on time and within 48 hours of that decision being made. A-level results were also recalculated and reissued.

The Minister said that students should receive the fairest grade, but 63% of pupils in Barnsley had their grades downgraded, compared with 40% nationally, while many private school pupils’ grades went up. He says the Government acted quickly, but they saw this happen in Scotland and did not anticipate it happening here; they did not take action and waited days. This is genuinely affecting the future of many hundreds of thousands of young people. We need to make sure it does not happen again.

That is why the decision was taken on 17 August to revert to whichever was highest of calculated grades or centre assessment grades. It is also one reason why we determined that exams will go ahead this year, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) said, they are the fairest system of assessing pupils’ ability and the work they have done in the two years of their course. Our priority now is to ensure that next year’s exams proceed fairly and efficiently and that students gain the qualifications they deserve. That is the view of the teacher and headteacher unions, including, I say to the hon. Member for Gower, the NEU, as expressed in its letter to the Department on 2 October, which said:

“The government is right, in our view, to pursue a ‘Plan A’ which would enable all students to sit exams in summer 2021. Students in Year 11 and 13 are already more than halfway through their courses, and must be enabled to complete those courses…As these qualifications are mainly designed to be assessed by final examination, it is right that these exams should go ahead if possible.”

Will the Minister explain the contingency plans in the event that testing and tracing is not as effective as it needs to be and exams are disrupted? What is plan B?

We are working with Ofqual on viable assessment options based on a number of different scenarios, and we will share further details of those in good time. We asked Ofqual to support the Government in developing these arrangements, engaging closely with schools, colleges, teachers, exam boards, unions and universities. The planning and discussions are ongoing, and once we reach a conclusion, we will publish the results.

The hon. Lady also raised issues about remote education. The vast majority of children are back in school, but if face-to-face education is disrupted, we have made 250,000 laptops available, building on the more than 220,000 laptops already delivered to those in need. We have also made resources available to deliver online education and we are funding the Oak National Academy, which provides hundreds of online lessons for schools, as well as webinars and guidance for teachers on how to deliver remote education in the most effective way.

The Minister is being extremely generous with his time. Does he accept that it is particularly difficult for many students on reduced incomes at further education colleges to pay for internet access or devices? It is hard to write an essay on a mobile phone. What does he propose to do in those cases?

As the Secretary of State said today, there is flexibility in the bursaries available to be used for those for those purposes.

We have been working continuously with the exams regulator, Ofqual, the exam boards and groups representing teachers, schools and colleges on the best approach to exams and assessments in 2021, and we will continue to work together to ensure that exams take place next year. However, we recognise that students continue to experience disruption to their education because of covid-19, and we need to take account of that, which we are doing. In July, Ofqual consulted on a range of possible adaptations to GCSE, AS-level and A-level exams and assessments next year on a subject-by-subject basis, with the overriding priority of ensuring that the exams and assessments are fair. In particular, the consultation proposed a range of ways to free up additional teaching time, including the possibility of a slight delay to the exams timetable, which we have now announced, and to accommodate any public health requirements next year.

On 3 August, Ofqual published its decisions on the changes proposed in the consultation, which include changes to assessments in some subjects: for example, removing the requirement to record the spoken language assessment in GCSE English language, and allowing GCSE students to observe practical science work rather than undertake it. In some subjects with a high volume of content, such as GCSE history, ancient history and English literature, Ofqual has confirmed that exam boards should change how they assess students next year by allowing a choice of topics in the exams. Those changes will reduce pressure on teachers and students in the next academic year; individually, some may appear modest, but we believe they will have a significant impact when combined across subjects, and with the three-week delay and the £1 billion catch-up fund.

As it was this year, the most important principle is that students due to sit exams and assessments next summer should be enabled to progress successfully to the next stage of education or employment. Each of the elements of content that forms the foundation for GCSE, AS-level and A-level qualifications is important, and while the Government were clear that the content of GCSEs and A-levels will not be changed in 2021, allowing a choice of topics in certain subjects with a high volume of content will release teaching time, and support students and their schools or colleges. As the Education Secretary has confirmed, there will be no further subject-level changes to exams and assessments this year. That confirmation gives teachers, school leaders and pupils clarity on what will be assessed in the exams next summer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle was right to raise the issue of lost teaching time, and we recognise that students, including those who will sit exams next year, will have experienced disruption. That is why we have the £1 billion catch-up fund, as well as the tuition fund for 16 to 19-year-olds, from which up to £96 million will be allocated for disadvantaged students. To conclude, our approach next year will ensure that young people can prepare for exams with confidence and receive the extra teaching time and support that students need to enable them to do their best in their exams, so that they can progress on to the next stage of their education.

I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his response, and say for the sake of correctness that I took my comments from an immediate email that was received from the NEU this afternoon.

To point out a couple of things, I know that the petitioners, Jakia Ali and Rafia Hussain, will be very pleased that we have discussed this today and that they have seen some action, although maybe not exactly what they wanted. I also say to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) that I am sure my son would also have done better if he had sat the exams—it is matter of learning style, I think—and exams are important, but we have to remember that we are in a pandemic. It is important that we have a contingency, and the feeling behind this petition was not to have a go at the private education system, but to call for transparency and equality across all education. That did not happen this summer, and we and the Government have to ensure that it does not happen again; also, the buck stops with the Government, not with Ofqual.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petitions 306773 and 320772 relating to exams during Covid-19.