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Exams and Assessments 2021: Covid-19

Volume 684: debated on Monday 23 November 2020

What steps he is taking to ensure that equal treatment is applied to all pupils undertaking exams and assessments in 2021 in response to variations in physical attendance at schools as a result of covid-19 outbreak. (909065)

What steps he is taking to ensure the (a) effective and (b) accessible operation of GCSE and A-level exams in 2021. (909066)

What assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the capability of schools and colleges to hold (a) A-level and (b) GCSE exams at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. (909072)

What steps his Department is taking in response to the covid-19 outbreak to ensure that (a) GCSE and (b) A-level exams can take place in 2021. (909075)

What steps his Department is taking in response to the covid-19 outbreak to ensure that (a) GCSE and (b) A-level exams can take place in 2021. (909076)

What assessment he has made of the potential merits of deferring GCSE and A-level examinations in 2021; and if he will make a statement. (909080)

What steps he is taking to ensure the (a) effective and (b) accessible operation of GCSE and A-level exams in 2021. (909093)

We are working with Ofqual and engaging widely with the education sector to identify risks to examinations at a national, local and individual level and to consider the measures needed to address any potential disruption. That could be a student unable to sit examinations or schools affected by a local outbreak. More details will be published shortly.

GCSEs and A-levels are two-year courses. Most students have missed six months of in-school teaching for these courses. Ofsted has concluded that that has impacted on the disadvantaged the most, and significantly, in the three months since school has started, some students have missed even more, with high pupil and staff absences reflecting the high infection rates. That is particularly the case for the disadvantaged, those in the north and BME communities. How can any form of traditional exams be done on a level playing field, particularly for poorer kids in the north? Will the Minister be happy that the huge attainment gap that follows will be his personal legacy?

Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we help young people catch up on their lost education. That is why we have allocated £1 billion to schools—the catch-up premium—to help students catch up and, of that, £350 million is allocated to disadvantaged pupils. We have delayed this summer’s exams—GCSEs and A-levels—by three weeks to free up teaching time. Ofqual consulted in the summer on changes to assessment on issues such as science practicals, field trips, spoken language and optionality in history and English literature, again to help reduce pressure on teaching times. We will shortly announce other measures to help to ensure that exams are fair, including the approach to grading to ensure that the 2021 cohort is treated fairly compared with previous years’ cohorts of students.

Secondary heads in my constituency told me last month that it was already too late to plan properly for even the delayed GCSEs and A-levels next summer, and they are still waiting. If the Republic of Ireland Government could give students and teachers a clear roadmap for summer 2021 back in August, and a plan B that went along with it if the situation changed, why can this Government not do the same and give students in years 11, 12 and 13 a fighting chance?

As I said to the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), everything we are doing is about ensuring that every student has a fighting chance to do well in the exam. There is a broad consensus that exams are the fairest way to judge a student’s assessment. We want to ensure that that fairness is spread right across the country, regardless of the experience any individual will have had as a result of the virus. That is why we are delaying the exams, why there have been changes to the assessment and why we are still working with Ofqual and the exam boards on further mitigations and contingencies to ensure that every student is treated fairly. We will have more to say about those issues shortly.

Young people across this country, including Sophie, an A-level student in my constituency, are extremely anxious about this year’s exams after last year’s fiasco, and due to the precious face-to-face teaching time lost in the first lockdown and to the self-isolations and teacher absences currently. Why will the Minister not, please, listen to Sophie and follow the lead of the Liberal Democrat Education Minister in Wales by providing clarity and certainty now, by cancelling exams and moving to a robust teacher-led assessment? As Sophie said to me: “We are not lazy. We need your help.” Will the Minister listen to her and help her?

We listen to all opinions on this issue, but there is a broad consensus, including among unions and school leaders, that holding exams is the best option for next summer. That is the fairest and best way of judging students’ performance. But as I said earlier, we know that all students due to sit exams next year have experienced disruption to their education due to the pandemic, and that is why we are working closely with the school sector to ensure that clear contingency plans are in place for students who are ill or have to self-isolate. We are engaging widely on contingency plans and other measures to ensure that exams are fair this year.

Can the Minister say how the arguments put forward by the Welsh Government to cancel GCSE and A-level exams are informing his own decision-making process at UK Government level?

Yes, I can. We of course look at the decisions taken by the devolved Administrations on such matters, but the broad consensus remains that exams are the fairest and best way of assessing student attainment and of ensuring that young people have the qualifications that they need for the next stage of their education. The £1 billion catch-up fund, £195 million on laptops and computers, the delay of three weeks in the exam timetable and the changes to assessment already announced by Ofqual are all designed to ensure that the experience of students next summer is as stress-free and as fair as possible.

I have received a number of letters from the heads of primary schools in Sittingbourne and Sheppey concerned about the potential further loss of learning time if pupils have to sit standard assessment and other tests. What reassurances will my right hon. Friend offer to my hard-working and valuable teachers that those tests are essential to the future development of children as they are being prepared for future individual and group study later in life?

My hon. Friend is right, as he so often is. The exams, and the preparation for revision, tests and exams at primary and secondary are the best way of ensuring that knowledge is retained, so it can be built on in the next stage of a young person’s education and training. That is why we are determined to do all we can to help young people catch up on the lost teaching time that they may have suffered while schools were closed to most pupils.

Despite the excellent news regarding vaccines this morning—Britain has the largest vaccine portfolio in the world—and despite the millions being put into getting schools on to a level playing field for all students regarding virtual teaching, it is estimated that right now some 80% of schools are disadvantaged when it comes to training their students who are isolating at home. Can the Schools Minister please tell me what discussions he is having with the examining boards? Will he ensure that they take all this into account when they are allocating grades next year?

My hon. Friend will know that 99% of schools are open and that overall attendance is 83% in secondary schools. We are working with the exam boards and with Ofqual on the issue of grading, and we will have more to say on that shortly, but we are also working with the exam boards and Ofqual to ensure that the experience students have next summer is as fair as possible, given all that they have experienced over the last year.

I was recently in touch with schools across my constituency and, other than the money to meet the costs of covid, a common theme was the disproportionate amount of days lost by teaching staff and pupils in towns such as Rochdale and in Greater Manchester across the piece. The Minister says that he will make exams fair, but how can he do that when young people in Greater Manchester have lost more teaching hours than those in other parts of the country? Also, how can it be fair when young people who are at the end of the fourth term of their A-level syllabus still do not know what the regime will be as they approach their exams next summer?

We have been very clear that exams are the fairest and best way of assessing student attainment, but we are also conscious of the fact that a large number of pupils have suffered a different experience from other pupils up and down the country. We want to ensure that the exams are as fair as possible while also being valid qualifications. That is the work we have been doing with Ofqual and the exam boards for several weeks, and we have announced a delay of three weeks to holding those exams to try to free up as much teaching time as possible.

We all agree that exams would be the fairest and best way to assess pupils this year, and given the absolute chaos at the heart of last year’s exams, it would have been reasonable to expect Ministers to have a plan in place by now, yet the Minister’s answers this afternoon have been woefully inadequate, at a time when school leaders, teachers, parents and pupils are crying out for certainty. Given the obvious challenges to ensuring that exams go ahead in a way that is fair to all pupils, and the fact that any delay makes the job harder, when will Ministers present a plan, which teachers and pupils can see, for exams to go ahead in a fair way?

The hon. Gentleman is a serious Member of this House—I was delighted when he was appointed shadow Schools Minister; I congratulate him on that appointment and welcome him to the Front Bench—so I know that he knows that these issues are complex. They need to be thought through and they need to be consulted on, and that is what we are doing with pace, rigour and energy, but I recognise that, in opposition, there is always a temptation to reach for the slogan rather than the solution.