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Education Return and Awarding Qualifications in 2021

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 25 February 2021

With permission, I would like to make a statement regarding the opening of educational settings, our plans to help children catch up and the arrangements we have put in place for qualifications.

The Prime Minister announced on Monday a cautious road map for the gradual relaxation of our current social restrictions. It is not quite the end, but the end is very clearly in sight. As the House is by now aware, the rates of covid infection have come down enough for us to let children go back to school from Monday 8 March. Secondary and college students will be back from that date, after being offered an on-site covid test. University students on practical courses who need to access specialist facilities can also return to campus from 8 March, and we will be reviewing the timing for the return of remaining students during the Easter holidays.

The Prime Minister spoke of a one-way road to freedom. For this reason, we have issued detailed guidance about what we expect all schools and colleges to do to welcome children and students back. A robust testing regime will be in place that will be critical in breaking the chains of covid infection. More than 4 million tests have already been completed across primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities. I know that staff have worked very hard to set up testing sites in schools and have had time to get used to supervising the testing that goes on. I know that the whole House will join me in thanking every one of them for the incredible efforts they continue to make to keep young people safe and learning.

Primary school staff will continue to receive two home tests a week, and this will be extended to private early years providers and secondaries, and secondary school and college students will be offered three tests in school and college when they return over the first two weeks, to be undertaken three to five days apart. Students will then be offered two home tests per week, so that they can test themselves regularly. Schools will be able to retain small on-site testing facilities for those who cannot and have not been able to test at home. Staff and students at independent learning providers and adult community learning providers will also be able to test at home. On-site testing facilities are already set up in universities, and staff and students there can take two tests a week.

We are following public health guidance and advising that in circumstances where social distancing cannot be maintained, face coverings should be worn in secondary school classrooms as well as in further and higher education settings. This is a temporary measure to ensure the safe return of schools and will be in place until Easter. All the other safety measures that are already in place continue to be robust, including bubble groups, staggered start and finish times, increased ventilation and strict hygiene measures.

This has been a hugely challenging time for teachers, staff and parents. The House will be well aware of the incredible work that has already gone into minimising the effects of this pandemic, but I know from research that we have been conducting that it will not be enough. Many children are going to need longer-term support to make up for lost learning. We want families to know that there will be support for schools and for our children. Sir Kevan Collins, our education recovery commissioner, will be working with parents, teachers and schools on a long-term plan to make sure that pupils have the chance to make up their learning over the course of their education.

As an immediate support, we are putting in place a range of additional measures to help children and young people across England to catch up. We are introducing a new one-off £302 million recovery premium for state primary and secondary schools, building on the pupil premium to further support pupils who need it most. We are expanding our successful tutoring programmes: £200 million will be available to fund an extended national tutoring programme for primary and secondary schools and tutoring and language support in colleges and early years settings. Two hundred million pounds will be available for secondary schools to deliver face-to-face summer schools. Schools will be able to target individual pupils’ needs. The package will build on the £1 billion catch-up package that we announced just a few months ago and forms part of a wider response to help pupils to make up on the lost learning that they have suffered.

I would like to update the House on the next steps after we decided that GCSEs, AS and A-level exams, and many vocational and technical qualifications, could not go ahead as planned this summer. In January, we launched a joint consultation with Ofqual on the best way to do this, so that the results for 2021 are as robust and as fair as possible. I am very glad to say that we got more than 100,000 responses from students, parents, teachers, school leaders and other stakeholders as part of that consultation, and we have considered all of them very carefully. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that there was widespread support for the approach that we are taking.

Our priority is and has always been to make sure that every student has the best possible chance to show what they know and can do, enabling them to progress to the next stage of their education, training or employment. The most important thing that we can do is to make sure that the system is fair to every student. It is vital that they have confidence that they will get the grade that is a true and just reflection of their work. This year’s students will receive grades determined by their teachers, with assessments covering what they were taught and not what they have missed. Teachers have a good understanding of their students’ performance and how they compare with other students this year and from previous years. Teachers can choose a range of evidence to underpin their assessments, including coursework, in-class tests set by the school, the use of optional questions provided by exam boards and mock exams. We will, of course, give guidance on how best to do this fairly and consistently.

Exam boards will be issuing grade descriptions to help teachers to make sure their assessments are fair and consistent. These will be broadly pegged to performance standards from previous years, so that teachers and students are clear what is expected at each grade. Doing this with a rigorous quality assurance process are just two of the ways that this system will ensure that grades are fair and consistent. Quality assurance by the exam boards will provide a meaningful check in the system and make sure that we can root out malpractice. We will also set out a full and fair appeals system. It will provide a process to enable students to appeal their grades, should they believe that their grades are wrong.

I can confirm that no algorithm will be used for this process. Grades will be awarded on the basis of teachers’ judgment and will only ever be changed by human intervention. There must, of course, be as much fairness and rigour applied to vocational and technical qualifications as there is to general qualifications. For those qualifications that are most similar to GCSEs, AS and A-levels, which enable people to progress to further and higher education, external exams will not go ahead and results will be awarded through similar arrangements as set out for GCSEs and A-levels. Where students are taking VTQs to go straight into a job, exams and assessments should take place in line with public health measures. This is so that students can demonstrate the occupational or professional standards that they need to enter the workplace safely.

All our children and young people have paid a considerable price for the disruption of the past year. It has knocked their learning off track, put their friendships to one side and put some of the wonder of growing up on hold. In short, it has caused enormous damage to what should have been a carefree and an exciting part of growing up. I am absolutely committed to the view that, with this programme of catch-up measures and the extra funds for tutoring, we can start to put this right. Together with the measures that we have set out for a fair and robust allocation of grades, young people will be able to look forward to the next stage of their lives with confidence. Our approach in the face of the worst disruption to education since the second world war has been to protect the progress of pupils and students. Ultimately, this summer’s assessments will ensure fair routes to the next stages of education or the start of their career. That is our overall aim.

In summing up, Mr Speaker, I am sure you would agree with my assessment that, as a nation, we have perhaps never valued education as much as we do today, and I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and join him in paying tribute to all staff in our education system.

We on these Benches want to see all pupils safely back in class, where they can be with their friends and their teachers, and get the structure and stability that they need. It is not enough, though, simply to say that schools will reopen; there must be a credible plan that will not only enable schools to open fully in March, but will keep them open.

The Secretary of State has failed to use the period when most pupils were not in school to put the necessary measures in place. In January he said that he wanted school staff to be in the next wave of vaccinations, so why has there still been no commitment from the Government to prioritise school staff? Does he no longer believe that they should be a priority?

Many schools have lost income or face higher costs because of the pandemic. Why has the Secretary of State failed to review the funding? One way to reduce transmission of coronavirus is to allow schools to teach on a rota basis. Labour, school leaders, and teachers have all asked him to consider this. He has refused. Why? Ventilation has an important role to play in reducing transmission indoors. Will he update his Department’s guidance to ensure that it is clear, robust and specific enough for all schools to implement it effectively?

Can the Secretary of State tell me why, months after Labour called for it, he has not made any progress in providing Nightingale classrooms so that more pupils can study in smaller groups? It is welcome that he has finally caught up on Labour’s call to expand the wearing of masks in schools, but why is this measure only temporary? I worry that, in taking one small step in the right direction while leaving a great many others issues unaddressed, he is failing to do all that can be done to keep schools open and failing to work with, not against, school staff and their unions.

This year’s exams were cancelled 52 days ago. For seven weeks, pupils, parents, and staff have faced damaging and utterly unnecessary uncertainty. The Secretary of State could have avoided that by listening to Labour and putting a plan B in place months ago; instead he was once again slow to act, with millions of young people paying the price. Now he claims to have solved the problem, but guidance from exam boards will not be available until “the end of the spring term”, meaning more weeks of anxiety for young people and their teachers. He blamed a “rogue algorithm” for last year’s fiasco, but the real cause of the chaos was not an algorithm; it was his incompetence. Now, for the first time, he has said that he trusts teachers. I cannot help wondering why he only trusts teachers when there is a chance to make them responsible for what happens with exams, rather than his Department.

I am glad that a wide range of evidence will be used: assessment materials will be available for schools; there will be guidance from exam boards on how to award grades; and individual schools will not be responsible for appeals. Is he confident that grades will be fair and consistent between and across schools? Why has he not used the past seven weeks to provide appropriate training to teachers? Is he not concerned that the lack of common evidence and of a link to an existing grade distribution both puts pressure on schools and colleges and creates huge challenge in ensuring fairness? Finally, on assessments can the Secretary of State update the House on functional skills and end-point assessments.

It was nearly six months ago that Labour first called for a national strategy to help children to catch up and to close the attainment gap, and I welcome the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins to lead education recovery work. I hope this means that the Secretary of State is breaking from the great Conservative tradition of finding work only for friends and donors. Can he confirm, however, that yesterday’s recovery announcement amounts to just 43p per pupil per day over the next school year, and that just 500,000 pupils—fewer than one in three of those eligible for free school meals—will benefit from summer schemes? Can he tell the House why there was no mention whatsoever of the hard-working staff who will deliver this summer support, why there is no specific support for children’s mental health and wellbeing, and why there is only limited support for college students?

This has been a challenging year for children, parents and education staff, and it has been made more challenging by the Government’s incompetence. With schools set to open their doors to more pupils in a matter of weeks, there is a final chance to put things right. The Secretary of State must do so.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. She raises the question of vaccinations for staff. She will have seen in the road map that the Prime Minister launched on Monday that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is to look at two strands. The first involves people who are most vulnerable to either being hospitalised or sadly passing away as a result of catching the covid virus, and we will be making sure that that is one of the strands that needs to be vaccinated out of those groups. Also, the committee will look at those jobs and professions—not just teachers but transport workers, supermarket staff and the many others who do an amazing job in public-facing roles—to see what the needs of those workforces are. I do not want to pre-empt the independent work of the JCVI, but we look forward to seeing what it says.

On the hon. Lady’s suggestion on moving to rotas, that is not a route that we want to go down. We on this side of the House want to have all children back in full-time education. We think that school is the best place for children to be, and we think it is important for them to have full-time education in the classroom. That is why we felt that, when we were able to do so, it was better to welcome all children back into the classroom every day of every week.

The hon. Lady briefly touched on testing. Testing will be an important part of keeping classrooms covid-free. The roll-out of testing that has been happening over the last seven weeks has been incredibly successful. We have had some of the highest rates of uptake in testing of any workforce area and in any individual setting. Not unsurprisingly, schools have readily adapted to the testing regime. So far, out of all the asymptomatic testing stations that we are hoping to set up across schools, colleges and special schools, 97% of those settings have set up asymptomatic testing centres, and obviously there are 3% that we are targeting resources and focus on, to ensure that they are ready to do testing for welcoming children back on 8 March. Testing is important for keeping covid out of the classroom.

I note the hon. Lady’s comments on exams, and we will work with the exam boards and do everything we can to ensure that there is the absolute maximum amount of guidance, training and support for all teachers on giving the grades out and making the assessment of the correct grade. We have been working closely with the exam boards to ensure that this is done swiftly to support teachers. I know that they will be offering a broad range of support to all teachers and schools to ensure that teacher-assessed grades are done fairly right across the system. The hon. Lady makes an important point about having as much consistency as possible in the awarding of grades. That is why we have been working with exam boards to ensure that there is random sampling across schools and colleges across the country—both state schools and private schools—as well as ensuring that where there are clear anomalies and uncertainty, there are proper checks to ensure that there is no malpractice within the system.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the £1.7 billion for catch-up. It is a remarkable achievement that I hope will make a difference to our children. On exams, the decision to adopt centre-assessed grades for the second year in a row highlights the severity of the damage that school closures have done. Although I accept that it is the least worst option that the Government have come up with, my concern is not so much about having one’s cake and eating it but baking a rock cake of grade inflation into the system.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm what the Government’s plan is to ensure that we will not have a wild west of grading, and that these grades will be meaningful to employers so as not to damage children’s life chances? When and how will we reverse the grade inflation? What is the rationale for not tethering this year’s grades to last year’s, or somewhere between 2019 and 2020? Why do we not embed quality assurance more broadly, rather than relying on random sampling or spot checks?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments in relation to how we deliver catch-up. I also appreciate some of his thinking and ideas, which, as he can see, have been embedded into some of the policy work that we have been doing on catch-up. He raises an important issue about grade inflation. That is why we have been doing so much work with the exam boards and with Ofqual to ensure that there are proper internal checks as well as proper external checks.

We did not feel that it would be possible to peg to a certain year because, sadly, doing that would probably entail the use of some form of algorithm in order to best deliver it. That is why we have put a much greater emphasis on those internal and external quality assurance checks. We will work with exam boards and schools to ensure that there is consistency, but my right hon. Friend raises the important point that the best form of assessment, as I know he also believes, is examination. We want to move back into a position to bring exams back, as they are ultimately the fairest and most equal way of assessing all young people.

Does the Secretary of State plan to issue specific guidance on how factors such as the number of rooms in a child’s home, the number of siblings sharing that home, and the level of access to IT equipment will be taken into account when assessing? Otherwise, how can any pandemic grades be judged as equitable?

We believe that, when we are not in a position to be able to run exams, the best way of assessing the work and the progress that the child has made is for that assessment to be done by a teacher. The teacher’s assessment and judgment is the best one to be guided by.

Like me, the Education Secretary married into a teaching family, and I know that he will join me in recognising the phenomenal work done by teachers and school staff in Dudley South throughout this pandemic, but the messages coming from medical professionals differ from those coming from teaching unions about the risk of teachers and other staff being infected if they return to the classroom. What scientific evidence can he share regarding the level of risk that teachers are at, relative to the wider population?

I would very much like to join my hon. Friend and neighbour in paying tribute to the amazing work of teachers not just in Dudley South but right across the country for the work that they and support staff have been doing, keeping the doors of schools open, welcoming the children of critical workers and vulnerable children all the way through this pandemic and delivering brilliant online learning and remote education for so many of our children.

My hon. Friend raises a really important point. When Professor Chris Whitty stands at the podium and makes clear the need for children to be able to return to school, it is incredibly powerful, and it is something that the British people will listen to and that parents, teachers, children and all staff in schools will take real confidence from. There is an enormous amount of evidence to show what a safe place schools are. I point to the evidence and data produced as part of the road map released on Monday, as well as the further information that the Department released as part of the guidance that we set out on Monday, which makes clear the importance of children being back in school and enjoying their education, and of school being a safe environment to learn in.

Contrary to what the Secretary of State just said, the scientific consensus tells us that we need to wait for cases to be extremely low and have a phased return of children to schools, yet he is sending 10 million children back into classrooms en masse. Staff have contacted me, scared for their health and their pupils’ health and worried that the Government have not put in place the measures needed to make our schools safe. If he was on top of his brief and engaging with the profession, he would have used his time this morning to allay their fears. Will he take that opportunity now?

It is disappointing that the hon. Member shows off the instinctive reaction of many people in her party that they do not want children to be going back to school. That is certainly not the case on the Government Benches. We have set out clearly a system of controls, working with Public Health England. That is why we have taken the difficult decision to introduce covid testing for not just staff at primary schools but staff and all children in secondary schools and colleges, to make sure that we keep classrooms covid-free and, working with Public Health England, to make sure that the system of controls is robust and strong to keep our children safe, keep our workforce safe and keep our families and communities safe.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Further education colleges such as East Coast College are preparing for and will arrange a return on 8 March, although organising three tests on site during that week for 5,000 students and 650 members of staff before moving to home testing will present a significant logistical challenge. I would be most grateful if he could confirm that his Department will work with colleges in a collaborative and flexible way to address this and any other obstacles that may arise.

We absolutely will work with colleges and schools to support them, and we are not just putting the equipment at their disposal but providing the financial resources for them to roll out this massive testing programme. Colleges will have two weeks to conduct the three tests, and we have given colleges and schools the flexibility to allow students and children to come into college and school to take the tests before the official reopening on 8 March.

It is great to hear that all schools and all year groups will be returning on 8 March. Teachers across Keighley and Ilkley have been working exceptionally hard over the past months to ensure that children’s learning has remained as unaffected as possible, and they deserve all our thanks and support, but some schools in my constituency are raising concerns about the roll-out and logistics of testing for students. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to provide support for those schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that point. We have made a substantial financial package of support available to schools in case they need to bring in extra resources to roll out the testing programme. We have the one-week period starting from the 8 March, where schools can bring in those year groups so that they can get tested and straight back into class, but we have also given them the flexibility to enable students to come in earlier than 8 March if they wish to, so that they can get tested prior to the official start of the new term.

The pandemic restrictions have caused much damage to our children and young people across the country. The Secretary of State has made bold assertions in the last 24 hours that no child’s life shall be blighted, and says we have

“never valued education as much as we do today”,

yet his spending commitment to children’s recovery is the equivalent of between 3% and 4% of the annual schools budget. Compare that to the spending on the discredited test and trace system, which was almost half the annual schools budget. Why is he not being more ambitious for our children by putting forward a more generous, longer-term package that focuses on their wellbeing and emotional, as well as educational, recovery?

That is very much part of our overall plan for raising standards in education. We wanted to give schools a sense of what they will be able to do and to plan for over the coming weeks and months; we wanted to give them that immediate notice. We saw over £1 billion being funnelled into helping our schools and students straight away, topped up by a further £700 million. As I said, our ambitions do not stop there. We want to go much further, making sure that we deliver the reform and change that is so crucial to ensuring that children get the very best of everything in their education and that it is focused on them. That is what we are going to be delivering not just over the coming months, but over the coming years.

Before I call the next speaker, just a gentle reminder that I want to try to get everybody in, so I ask the questioners to be brief—and obviously those answering as well.

About 7% of children in England go to fee-paying schools. Those pupils also face pressures in learning at home, and many of their parents’ incomes have been severely impacted by the consequences of the pandemic. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had and what guidance does he propose to give to that private sector to see what can be done to ensure that children in those schools also benefit from appropriate catch-up provision and good practice to that effect?

It is important that we do everything we can to help all children, right across the country. That is why, especially through working with the Education Endowment Foundation, the guidance and the evidence is freely available and exists to support all schools, whether they are state schools or private schools. We will always ensure that that evidence, information, and very best guidance and best practice are available for schools in the private sector as well as the state sector.

We have seen a road map back to education done on the back of an envelope, and today—only weeks from exam season—it appears that detailed exam guidance will not be available until the end of the spring term. There is nothing concrete to account for differentials in lost learning, no details on the quality assurance process, nor any on how schools and colleges will be supported with the grading process at the same time as helping pupils to catch up. Will the Secretary of State recognise that he needs to bring forward detailed guidance this week so that pupils and teachers can adequately plan? If he does not, I fear that he is walking us into yet another shambles.

It is always lovely to hear from the hon. Lady; I thank her very much for her comments. We have set out a comprehensive plan for the return of pupils to education, which is, let’s face it, something that she will always be opposed to. She seems to think that the only thing that a school should do is be shut. In her time on the Front Bench and on the Back Benches, she has never taken up the baton for children in order to campaign for them to be in school. She seems to take the view that they are best at home. That is not the view of Government Members.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. As he will know, in November last year I published a report with Onward advocating a shorter summer break, as statistically that would help prevent the attainment gap from widening—especially important for disadvantaged pupils. Does my right hon. Friend agree with my idea, particularly as we help children who have lost face-to-face learning in classrooms due to the global pandemic to catch up?

I remember reading my hon. Friend’s report, which reached much more broadly than just the issue that he raised. He is right to raise the important issue of how we look at the structures in education. I very much encourage him to sit down with me and Sir Kevan Collins to discuss some of his thoughts and ideas. We will always be very keen to talk about the whole breadth of what can be done to really drive attainment for children, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

I have been contacted by a number of concerned parents and teachers from my constituency, who have expressed worry about the safety of schools opening on 8 March. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he is doing all in his power to work closely with parents, teachers, the trade unions and communities to ensure that, when schools return on 8 March, sufficient resources and support are in place for every school to ensure that school staff are prioritised for the vaccine, to prevent further disruption to children’s learning? The Secretary of State himself has previously said he believes that education staff should be prioritised for vaccination. Why is that not happening now?

I will try to give a brief answer, Madam Deputy Speaker. We always want to give assurance to those who work in schools, as well as parents and the children themselves, about the safety measures that we have put in place. That is why we have developed the current set of controls for safety in schools with Public Health England, taking on the very best public health advice.

Children’s experiences over the last year will no doubt have varied greatly, but I am particularly worried about children with extra challenges such as dyslexia. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how we will ensure that all children who learn differently will receive the extra support that they need to catch up and reach their potential?

That is why we felt it was so important to give some flexibility to schools and teachers, who will obviously understand their children and their individual learning needs best of all. Obviously, we rightly often look at some of the challenges of children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, but learning needs and challenges can vary regardless of what parents earn or the background they come from. That is why we need to give teachers the flexibility to target that support most appropriately to the child.

On Monday, the very day the Prime Minister announced his “big bang” school return, the minutes of SAGE scientific advisers were published. They recommend a phased reopening of schools. Another group of Government scientific advisers warns that full school reopenings could increase R by up to 60%. The devolved Administrations are listening to that evidence and taking a phased approach. Just last month, the Prime Minister called schools “vectors of transmission”. Why are the Government now ignoring the advice of the scientific advisers? Is that not a reckless gamble that unnecessarily risks a spike in community transmission of the virus?

At every stage we put the wellbeing of our children and those who work in schools very much at the heart of everything we do. We believe that children benefit from being in school. That is why we are very pleased that, by taking this cautious approach, we are able to welcome all children back.

We have made much of schools, but we should not forget that a significant number of young people and children are in vocational education and on apprenticeships. I have recently been contacted by BCTG Group in Oldbury in my constituency, which is very concerned about the large number of apprentices who have not been able to carry forward their qualification because they have not been able to access functional English and mathematics courses during the pandemic. What work is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that apprentices across the Black Country and more widely can access these vital functional skills courses, so that they do not get locked in and can finally achieve the qualifications for which they have worked so hard?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and apprentices will be able to access these courses online so that they are able to complete their studies and their training.

Yesterday, the Education Secretary said that schools could hire more staff with £6,000 from his Department. Can I just ask the Education Secretary: how much does he think a teacher gets paid?

I very much hope the hon. Gentleman got the copy of the skills for jobs White Paper that I sent him, which he had obviously not read when he asked his last question. He will also be aware that I am fully aware that teachers are not paid £6,000. Thankfully, as a result of this Government’s interventions, starting salaries for teachers are going to be hitting £30,000 a year for newly qualified teachers very shortly. What we are doing is giving schools the ability to use that extra resource to bring in and pay for extra support for a few weeks to boost the learning and the education of children in lots of different settings. That might be on English, it might be on maths, it might be for sport or it might be for a whole different range of areas. It is odd to see a Labour politician not seeming to welcome the fact that we are putting more money into education, but maybe it betrays his true colours.

For the students at the excellent FE college Petroc in my North Devon constituency who were due to sit their vocational and technical exams, today’s announcement will provide much welcome certainty. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in continuing with exams and assessments in cases where students will need to demonstrate their knowledge to a professional standard, we can help them progress into a good job more rapidly?

The point my hon. Friend raises is incredibly important, because we must ensure that those youngsters, and people of all ages doing those technical and vocational qualifications who need the ability to demonstrate their professional competency, are able to do so. So it is absolutely vital that we open up our college system and open up our training providers to ensure that they can continue to progress.

Following on from the question from the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), FE colleges such as West Thames have had years of underfunding, yet they work hard to ensure that young people get the skills they need. September’s new students will have had almost two years of disrupted learning and limited time in school, so can the Secretary of State tell the House what additional support the Government are making available for FE colleges?

This was an important part of the £700 million extra funding that we have made available, making sure there is funding for FE colleges to be able to deliver and expand the tutoring and catch-up programmes they already have, but this is against a backdrop of increasing funding for our amazing further education colleges that we value so highly.

I welcome the statement from the Secretary of State. However, I am concerned that we are asking children to wear face coverings in the classroom. Can I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that adequate consideration has been given to understanding the impact this will have on a teacher’s ability to interact and engage with his or her class, and what consideration has been given to the impact on a child’s ability to learn and concentrate effectively? Will he set out the scientific evidence that demonstrates the need for secondary school-aged children to wear a face covering in the classroom?

We always work incredibly closely with Public Health England at every stage. Obviously we, and I know my hon. Friend also, want to see the opening of all schools for all pupils at the earliest stage, and one of the key elements in assisting that smooth return was the advice that Public Health England gave us on the wearing of face masks.

There has been a lot of talk today about children and the apparently reduced risk in schools due to the age profile of the students, but alongside overlooking staff in those schools, I worry that we are also overlooking the urgent issues of safety and loss of education for adult learners in further education colleges like Warrington and Vale Royal College in my constituency, especially those on trade courses that really cannot be delivered remotely. How will the Secretary of State ensure that there is adequate catch-up support in place for further education?

I refer to my answer to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on the extra support that is being made available to further education colleges.

May I put in a plea for this year’s year 10 cohort, who will be taking their GCSE examinations in summer 2022? We have plenty of time to consider what those exams might look like. Will my right hon. Friend set out the details of that as soon as he possibly can to reassure young people and, indeed, their parents?

I can very much reassure my right hon. Friend that we are currently working with Ofqual and the exam boards on that exact piece of work right now, and we would hope to be able to share that in the not too distant future.

University students have been treated appallingly. They were encouraged to return to campuses in September with the promise of a normal university experience, only to be fenced in, fobbed off and unable to access rooms they had signed for. They have paid an estimated £1 billion for empty, unused accommodation, and the impact on their mental health has been dire. Students at more than 50 universities, including Coventry and Warwick in my constituency, are now on strike. Will the Secretary of State listen to the rent strikers and offer rent refunds and rent reliefs, and finally put an end to fees and the marketised higher education system that has driven this injustice?

The hon. Lady is probably aware that my hon. Friend the Universities Minister laid out a set of packages of support for university students as part of a £70 million hardship fund. I would be happy to get her to write to the hon. Lady with the details of that.

I thank the Secretary of State and the ministerial team for getting our schools reopened for 8 March and for his statement. Notwithstanding the lack of national coursework benchmarking, is he confident that there are sufficient assessments in place to stop teachers being pressured by parents for grades and to prevent grade inflation? May I also urge him to ditch face masks in classrooms by Easter, as that is absolutely essential?

My hon. Friend has always had strong views on face masks, and I very much note his comments. This will be reviewed during the Easter holidays. He is right to highlight the concerns about teachers being under pressure from parents. That is why we have put in an extensive and robust internal quality inspection system where the head teacher has to sign off and verify the results that are given by the teachers, as well as external assessment by the exam boards to ensure that the grading is in line with where it should be.

May I ask the Secretary of State for clarification on the use of fines, particularly in the case of parents who are immune-compromised and worry about children bringing coronavirus into the home? As he will know, we still do not have evidence on whether the vaccine works for this group. The all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus was given horrific evidence by a parent who was told that she had had her life and should put her daughter’s education first. Does he agree that that kind of language is unacceptable and that a compassionate approach needs to be taken in these extreme circumstances?

I very much agree that that sort of language is absolutely not acceptable, and it genuinely surprises me that it would have come from any school or educational establishment, as they are usually so incredibly good at showing compassion and understanding. My right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this in more detail. We saw, from September onwards, schools showing a sensible level of discretion in terms of saying, yes, school is quite clearly mandatory and fines can be applied, but also showing some good sense in working with families to ensure that their children were attending schools and making sure that all risk was minimised.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. We will now have a three-minute suspension to make the arrangements for the next business.

Sitting suspended.