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Exams and Accountability in 2021

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 3 December.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement regarding testing and examinations in schools and colleges next year.

The pandemic continues to cause disruption throughout our education communities and, once again, I pay tribute to all our teachers, school leaders and support staff for the enormous efforts that they are making to keep young people of all ages learning. I also pay tribute to the global teacher of the year award winner, which recognises the most outstanding teacher from around the world. Our very own Dr Jamie Frost, maths lead at Tiffin School in Kingston-upon-Thames, has been shortlisted for this after his tuition website went viral during lockdown, helping millions of pupils in the United Kingdom and around the world to continue their studies at home. He has already won the Covid hero award, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing him luck with the overall prize.

We will not let Covid damage the life chances of an entire year of students by cancelling next year’s exams. Exams are the best form of assessment that we have, and we are therefore taking steps to ensure that any student preparing to sit them in 2021 has every chance possible to do their very best.

We support Ofqual’s decision that, in awarding next year’s GCSEs, AS and A-levels, grading will be as generous and will maintain a similar profile as those grades awarded this year. This is to recognise the exceptional circumstances under which students and teachers continue to work and to make sure that students are not at a disadvantage compared with previous years.

Ofqual is also working with the exam boards to make sure that students studying for vocational and technical qualifications and other general qualifications benefit from the same generous approach. I know that students and teachers are making enormous efforts to catch up with any lost learning. To support those most affected by the continuing disruption, at the end of January, students will be given advance notice of some of the topic areas that will be assessed in their GCSEs and A-levels. That means that they will be able to focus on these areas in more depth and target their revision accordingly. Students will also be given exam aids, such as formula sheets, in recognition of the time lost in the classroom and to give them more confidence and reduce the amount of information that they need to memorise in preparation for exams.

All these measures have been drawn up with the most affected in mind and we will be sharing the advance notice about what exactly the measures will entail with schools and colleges at the end of January. Students taking vocational and technical qualifications or other general qualifications can also expect a number of concessions, including a reduced number of units to be assessed. We want as many students as possible to be able to sit their exams and for that reason we have a contingency package to make sure that they can do so, including spacing exams more widely, as well as enabling vulnerable students to sit exams at home if they need to.

In the minority of cases where students cannot sit all their papers or where a very small number of pupils miss all of them, there will be means by which they can still be awarded a grade, including additional papers available after the main exam series.

The fundamental problem with this year’s exams is that we tried to award grades without actually holding exams. We will not be repeating that mistake. With the measures that I have outlined, we are confident that every student who is preparing to sit exams this summer will be awarded a qualification. As the virus continues to be a fact of life for all of us, schools and colleges are making impressive efforts to ensure that education can continue for those students who must remain at home. We have reviewed and updated the guidance for remote education so that schools, parents and pupils all know exactly what to expect from it. Primary schools need to provide an absolute bare minimum of three hours a day on average of remote education, and secondary schools an absolute minimum of at least four. Schools will also be expected to check and provide feedback on pupils’ work at least weekly, as well as informing parents immediately where engagement is a concern. The department will also ask schools to set out details of their remote provision on their websites so that parents can better understand their schools’ remote education offer.

As levels of Covid infection continue to fluctuate, we know that different areas will experience varying levels of disruption to learning. We will therefore commission an expert group to assess any local variations and the impact the virus is having on students’ education.

I turn to the measures we are taking in respect of the school and college accountability framework for 2021. We need to ensure that the arrangements for inspection and performance measures are fair and reflect the current public health situation. They need to take into account the enormous challenges that schools and colleges have been facing, but, equally, we must continue to provide the information and reassurance that parents need about their children’s education. We will not be publishing the normal performance tables based on test, exam and assessment data next year. Instead, my department will publish data on the subjects that students have taken, how well schools and colleges support their students to their next destination, and attendance data, taking account of the impact of Covid-19. We will also publish national and regional data on 2021 exams, tests and assessments. Importantly, we will make the exam data available to Ofsted and to schools, but we will not publish it in performance tables.

I will now let the House know how our plans for schools and colleges are affected by inspections. It is our intention that Ofsted’s routine graded inspections will remain suspended for the spring term but will resume in a carefully considered way from the summer term. In the meantime, Ofsted will carry out monitoring inspections in those schools and colleges most in need of support. That will include those currently judged inadequate and some in the ‘requires improvement’ category. Inspectors will focus on areas that are particularly relevant at this time such as curriculum delivery, remote education and, importantly, attendance. There will also be a focus on those pupils who are particularly vulnerable. However, I stress that they will not make graded judgments and any inspection activity will be sensitive to the additional pressures that schools are working under at this time.

As in the autumn, Ofsted will also be able to inspect a school in response to any significant concerns about safeguarding but also about the delivery of remote education by that school. In both the early years sector and the independent schools sector, the intention is also that standard inspections will remain suspended for the spring, with assurance inspections in the early years and non-routine inspections in independent schools taking place in the meantime. I trust that that provides the House with reassurance that we are providing the right balance in our accountability and inspection arrangements.

I will finish by outlining our proposal for the curriculum and testing in primary schools, recognising the particular challenges they face. Assessments in primary schools next summer will focus on phonics, mathematics and English reading and writing. That means that, for 2021 only, we will remove all tests at key stage 1, the English grammar, punctuation and spelling tests at key stage 2, and science teacher assessments at both key stages. The introduction of a multiplication tables check will be postponed for a further year, but schools may use it if they want to. It is a resource available to all schools, and we encourage them to do so if they can.

We will also add more flexibility to the timetable so that, if there is any disruption due to coronavirus in a school, pupils will be able to take the test when they return to school. These measures will help us to address lost learning time and will give us a chance to support pupils in schools who need help. They will also provide vital information for parents and better help for pupils to make a successful step into the next stage of education —going to secondary school.

Everyone in all of our schools and colleges is working as hard as they can to make sure that no pupils lose out because of Covid and that the future they are dreaming of is still very much within their reach. I am determined that the coronavirus will not jeopardise the life chances of this year’s pupils, and I am confident that the plan is the fairest way of doing this. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Well, my Lords, we have had to wait quite some time for the Secretary of State to respond to the concerns of pupils, parents, school leaders and trade unions, all of whom have been seeking clarity on how next summer’s exams can be conducted fairly. We welcome many of the measures announced in the Statement, which will mitigate the impact of the pandemic, including those on SATs and the delay in Ofsted resuming its inspections, but we believe that the measures announced on GCSEs and A-levels do not go far enough and leave a number of issues to be resolved.

The first concern is the Government’s apparent belief that a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate. Why should that be the case? The changes being proposed will apply to all students, so everyone will know about the topics to be covered, everyone will be able to bring in certain aids, everyone will be graded more generously and so on. Significant numbers of pupils have been and will continue to be absent from school due to Covid, causing disruption to their education. The pattern across the country is uneven, and students’ experiences have been different, so how can making changes that apply to everyone specifically help those who have had the most challenging experiences and therefore need more support?

One size fits all will lead to fundamental inequities between students who have suffered different levels of disruption to their learning, and makes it inevitable that some young people will be examined on what they have not been taught rather than what they have been taught. This is an issue that the interim chief regulator of Ofqual has red-flagged, highlighting the gap in learning loss across different regions, describing it as

“one of the most intractable issues”,

with any potential solutions

“fraught with difficulty”.

The Minister may point to this as being within the remit of the expert group, but with someone as experienced as the head of Ofqual saying it is close to being unmanageable, does the Minister believe there is a solution to be found? If there is not, the question of whether the exams can ever be fair for pupils in the hardest-hit Covid areas must be addressed.

I mentioned the expert group, but we have had relatively little information on it. Why has it been established so late? Who will comprise the group and will it include representatives of school leaders and teachers? Most importantly, when is it expected to report? Additionally, will minutes of its meetings be published, as now happens with SAGE? Will its members, like those who comprise the DfE’s Covid-19 recovery advisory group, be required to sign non-disclosure agreements? That would be completely unacceptable at a time when concerned parents and pupils surely deserve transparency on discussions about their future. How will the Secretary of State ensure that the distribution of grades is spread evenly across schools and postcodes this year, so that the most disadvantaged pupils are treated fairly? We still do not know which parts of the syllabus will be in the exam papers and which will not, leaving schools less and less time to adjust their teaching programmes.

A further concern is why it has now been revealed that funding for catch-up tutoring will be spread across two years. Apparently, around £140 million of the £350 million allocated to the national tutoring programme remains unspent. That might not have been the case had the programme not taken so long to begin its work but, given the widely accepted disparity in the amount of education that school pupils have been able to access since the start of the pandemic, surely every available resource should be used to ensure that every pupil is prepared for this year’s exams, rather than rolling over that part of the funding into next year, because for some that will be too late.

The Minister may point to the separate catch-up fund, but that does not justify holding back resources already allocated for spending in this financial year, particularly when it is so critical that they reach those young people most in need. Students should have the opportunity to show what they have achieved in unprecedented circumstances. Despite the delay, these proposals fall short of what is required to facilitate the fair exams that the Secretary of State promised.

My Lords, I first join the Minister in congratulating Dr Frost but also pay tribute to teachers and school leaders up and down the country who have pulled out all the stops to make sure that schooling for their pupils is happening. We welcome the Statement. Clearly, on this occasion, it has been very thoughtfully worked through and every aspect has been covered, unlike last year’s fiasco.

We feel that, had teacher-managed assessments been used, the Government could have given teachers far greater certainty about how to work, what to teach, how to assess and which subjects to prioritise for the rest of the academic year. It is interesting that research carried out by Exeter University shows huge variances across the country in the amount of schooling and learning that children have been afforded. There are huge regional variations, with more teaching and learning in the south compared to the north. There have also been huge discrepancies between types of schools, according to Exeter University’s research, which is why continuing with exams will be deeply unfair given the opportunities that this academic year gives students in different parts of the country and the different effects on remote education. Having school assessment grades would have given schools far greater certainty about how to work, what to teach and how to assess.

But we are now going to operate in the way that the Government propose, and I welcome many of the proposals in the Statement. I have a number of concerns to raise, which I hope the Minister will deal with in her reply. Like the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I would like the Minister to give more details about the statement:

“We will … commission an expert group to assess any local variations and the impact the virus is having on students’ education.”

What does this mean in practice and how will it work, et cetera?

Secondly, we welcome the decision on school accountability for assessments taken, publication of results and how Ofsted will operate. Perhaps the Minister could expand a little more, because this is an opportunity for Ofsted, in a “non-threatening way”—in inverted commas—to support those schools that were judged inadequate and requiring improvement. Perhaps that could happen during this period.

We have concerns also about those children and students who are home educated. This could happen in two ways. Some have chosen to be home educated, but others have had to home educate and deregister from the school, perhaps because a close member of their family has a life-threatening condition and has to be supported and protected, so the child or student cannot go into school. What support is being given in terms of exams and learning for those children and students?

Finally, when we say that our young people will be sitting exams, but that places additional burdens on schools in terms of organising them. Will additional advice and support be given to schools on how to operate and socially distance students, because it is not an easy thing to do? I do not know whether the Government have considered this, but some of the exams might have to be phased so that all pupils can take them in a very safe environment.

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for generally welcoming what we have been doing. It has taken some time to make such a comprehensive announcement because we have been working closely with sector groups, school leaders, the unions and parents. We have consulted widely and, as was seen last week, the Statement has generally been well received.

In relation to GCSEs and A-levels, Ofqual specifically looked at whether we could adopt any kind of regional, local school approach. This was quickly assessed as being too unfair. Even within areas where there has been a high prevalence of disease, there may be schools that have not isolated any pupils, while in another area of the country that is in tier 1, such as Cornwall, an individual school has isolated a lot of students. They would have had very different responses to any regional approach. Within a school, you may also have a lot of pupils isolating but some groups who have not isolated at all. When you get down to pupil level, some respond well to remote education and others do not. It was not ideological. It was very quickly looked at, assessed and viewed, particularly with regional boundaries. Do you use local authority district areas, county areas or authority metropolitan borough areas there? You could quickly have injustices at those boundaries if a school with a large number self-isolating happened to be, for instance, in Cheshire, and you have tiered Trafford for having higher disease prevalence just over the border.

It was not possible to adopt those kinds of approaches, so the view was that the approach taken with its package of measures, although at individual level, will help most of all those students who all noble Lords are most concerned about: the children who have been out of education and who may have had Covid or had to self-isolate. Within those disadvantaged students, at some point during the process we considered having optionality of questions, for instance. This was quickly viewed as working against disadvantaged pupils, as the research shows.

No option was off the table. These options were looked at when trying to come up with the fairest system, bearing in mind that these students were part-way through their courses and the general view from children, parents, teachers and the sector was that exams should go ahead. They are the fairest means of assessing a pupil’s performance. We believe that the combination of contingencies and the introduction of some of the topic areas mean that children will be examined on what they have been taught. If some topic areas are announced at the end of January and teachers have not reached that part of the curriculum, they would have from then until the start of the exams three weeks later to ensure that it is covered, so we will not be examining children on what they have not been taught.

The external advisory group, which will continue to look at whether there are other ways to reduce and mitigate the differential learning loss—which we do not deny, but do not agree that a regional response is the way to address it—will give the same sort of confidential advice to the Secretary of State to look at any further measures that civil servants give. It is not about lack of transparency, but about pulling together a group of people such as MAT leaders, Ofqual, exam boards, assessment experts, unions and other members, including on special educational needs. It is not about gagging or lack of transparency; it is just the nature of how Ministers need free and frank advice. We and Ofqual will ensure that the generosity of grades, which will be similar to last year’s, though not identical, is spread across the relevant institutions.

Regarding the catch-up tutoring, the phased approach to the national tutoring programme that has been adopted will ensure that more disadvantaged students gain from high quality. It is about not only rolling out quantity but ensuring that the quality of what we provide is excellent. This was decided to be the best way to provide that support. Obviously, catch-up for many pupils will go beyond this summer, so we are utilising the resources as well as we can. There are already 188 academic mentors from Teach First in our schools; there will be 1,000 by the end of February. They are in schools in our most disadvantaged areas, which need that one-on-one person who can physically run small group tutoring. We hope that there will be 15,000 through the national tutoring programme, available to reach about a quarter of a million students, but it is important that we maintain that quality and enable those students to catch up.

As the Minister in charge of our specialist maths sixth forms, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for recognising the achievements of Dr Frost, who got an award for making his maths tuition available during Covid. We are very proud of him and all the other teachers. I agree with the noble Lord that teaching staff, support staff, estate staff and school business leaders have pulled out all the stops to help young people catch up. As he outlined, there are huge variances across regions, but there are huge variances within regions in pupils’ experience and we cannot adopt a regional strategy. However, exams are not deeply unfair; they are the fairest way for students. I reiterate to noble Lords that we tend to forget some of the complaints from previous eras about the subjectivity of assessments, although not deliberately done by teachers. BAME communities have complained over the years, and we have a potential issue over the lack of accurate predicated grades for disadvantaged students. But when you enter an exam, you enter with a number: nobody knows your gender, where you come from or your ethnicity. It is an opportunity for pupils to display what they know and how they can apply it.

On the comments regarding Ofsted, yes, it will introduce its monitoring-type visits in the spring. Obviously, it is the same situation for early years and the independent sector. It is envisaged that this will be more supportive, but it will be a monitoring visit. Given there are disadvantaged students who were already in institutions that Ofsted said were struggling, because they were inadequate and required improvement, we need to know how those institutions are doing, including in responding to the crisis. These will be monitoring visits, but I assure noble Lords that Ofsted retains its powers to go in when there are any safe- guarding concerns or serious concerns around educational achievement.

Many noble Lords, and Members in the other place, have raised the issue of home education. Many parents choose to do that and deliver a high quality of education. They are free to do that in our country. However, we must ensure that suitable education, as I believe the legislation says, is being delivered. Most of the original cohort of extremely clinically vulnerable children are back in school, which is the best place for them. There is a tiny cohort—much smaller now—who are still advised to remain at home. It is envisaged that for their exams, there will be some system of home invigilation under exam conditions. This is already being planned for.

In relation to home-educated students who must then register at an exam centre, it is proposed that the papers in exams for a particular subject are spaced as far apart as they can be within the timetable. An English and maths paper will take place before the half-term to ensure that everyone has that under their belt before that holiday. There should be a gap. If they sit one of those papers and there is evidence that they missed other papers for good reasons, rather than because of choosing not to sit them, they can then go into the normal special consideration process and so get a grade. If you miss all those papers, then a contingency paper in that subject will be sat 10 days after the final paper. Obviously, we envisage that if you are ill at the last one, you would have 10 days to get well and sit that paper.

It is obviously hoped that home-educated students, of whom quite a lot were in the cohort who sat exams in the autumn because we could not give them a centre-assessed grade, will either sit all the papers or, if they cannot do that, sit at least one and get a grade, and, if they miss everything, sit the contingency paper. Ofqual will announce the details, but if a child misses all those exams, there will be a very defined set of teacher assessments. We will have to work closely and continue to engage with the home-educated sector on how we can try to ensure that what happened last year does not happen this year, in that many centres said that they did not know the children well enough to be able, with all professional integrity, to give them a grade, and obviously we had to respect that.

This package of measures has been well thought through but, if noble Lords have anything further to add, I will expect to hear from them, not only now but going forward.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Secretary of State and the Minister for what has been said so far. Is the Minister able to confirm that there will be early and full consultation on the detail of the methods to be used to ensure fairness between those participating in 2021 and between those who have participated and those who will participate in other years?

My Lords, for those participating this year, the generosity of grades will be similar, although not identical, to the generosity of grades in 2020. That is important because it recognises the exceptional circumstances of those two cohorts of pupils and enables the higher education institutions, which will use last year’s assessment to award places, to be in a similar situation. What the position will be going forward in relation to the cohort is, I am sure, in Ofsted’s in-tray to be dealt with later, but I anticipate that there will be consultation, as there has been in relation to these matters. If my noble and learned friend has anything specific that he wants to raise, I ask him please to communicate it to me.

My Lords, first, I declare an interest that may prove conflictual. I am the chair of the board of directors of the Central Foundation Schools of London, with one school in Islington and another in Tower Hamlets. Both are pretty densely populated, with considerable levels of poverty and a very high number of free school meals.

I have looked at the Statement, and a lot of thinking has gone into it, but my first question is: do we really have to wait until the end of January for the package of measures referred to? The head teachers whom I spoke to just this morning are desperate to have something before Christmas because the end of January is virtually half term, half way through the school year. There is pressure on schools such as ours and many others to get their teaching programmes accomplished in the short time between then and the examination period, and that really will be at the expense of those in a more parlous situation domestically and economically.

Perhaps I may ask my second question directly from an email that I received from some students who have missed schooling because of the virus. They ask, “How do we ensure fairness for a student whose A-level biology teacher has been out of school for up to 20 days, Teamsing from home, with another A-level biology student whose teacher has been present all term?” The Minister mentioned the disparity of coverage that we are attempting to reach with the measures now under scrutiny, but this affects not just the independent schools, with playing fields and small classes. When numbers are going into a classroom and it is a number who come from a class of 12, with playing fields and constant teaching, the number does not make a difference: they will do better than the pupils whom I know and speak for in this intervention. What can the noble Baroness help us with on that question? Wales has decided not to have exams, and that is probably the fairest way.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his involvement in schools. We depend on thousands and thousands of volunteers in our schools for governance in the school system. In terms of the aids that can be taken into exam rooms for some topic areas, the exam boards are now working at pace to make sure that those are broadly equal across subjects, so that there are no assertions that one subject is easier than another. That work is taking place and, bearing in mind the issue that the noble Lord talks about, they will be completing it as soon as they can. However, there is also the three-week delay in the examination system, which was announced a few months ago. All exams, barring the English and Maths papers, are taking place three weeks later, as I outlined.

With regard to the email, these measures are being taken precisely because there are so many different circumstances, even within one school, as I outlined. Some students might have thrived on the remote teaching facility but others will have struggled with it. It is not possible to take into account every single variant and response to the situation, but, after careful consideration, thorough consultation with the sector was felt to be the most appropriate way to help the most disadvantaged students. We remain convinced that exams are the fairest way for pupils to display their performance. In a way, those students will be more disadvantaged than last year’s exam cohort because of how much their teaching has been disrupted this year. However, exams, rather than teacher-assessed grades, are the fairest way to judge pupils’ achievements.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister, and it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. This Statement shows, again, the Government’s obsession with academic achievement and disregard for vocational and practical skills. I am sorry to contradict the Minister, but exams are not always the best and fairest way to carry out assessment. Coursework and continuous assessment are often far more appropriate, particularly for students who are struggling or for practical skills. The measures that the Government are proposing here—I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said—will do very little to help disadvantaged children or level up opportunity. Given all the difficulties that students have suffered— again, I echo my noble friend Lord Storey—why will the Government not give more responsibility to teachers to determine grades? They have done a phenomenal job in these very difficult times and are very much better placed to know which children have missed out, which have suffered the greatest disadvantages, and which are better suited to practical forms of assessment and not to exams. Indeed, teachers are better placed to determine the merits of the grades that the children should get.

My Lords, the Statement from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State addressed the fact that similar concessions are being made for vocational and technical qualifications. As the noble Baroness is aware, those assessments are made much more regularly throughout the year—I think that the next ones will be in January. Therefore, concessions will be made. Flexibility has been introduced into assessments during the pandemic, one change being a reduction in the number of assessment units. We are acutely aware of the need to maintain parity and we recognise the lack of education due to the pandemic, which has affected those studying BTEC and other qualifications. I repeat that we pay tribute to all that teachers have been doing, but the more objective way to assess pupils’ performance is through exams.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Storey: teachers and support staff should be thanked for their professionalism and for the care they have shown in these challenging times. The Civil Service—the members of staff in the department—have also been working particularly hard in difficult times and they too should be commended. I also agree with the Minister that examinations are by far the best way of measuring progress, as I think is universally agreed. But this year students of all ages have faced unprecedented disruption to their studies as a result of the pandemic, and those due to sit some of the most important exams of their lives have perhaps felt the disruption most acutely. Therefore, can the Minister reassure me that the measures the department is taking will ensure that those students are all treated fairly and in the best way possible?

My Lords, I want to thank my noble friend. As a Minister, it is not necessarily always on the tip of my tongue to thank Civil Service staff for what they do. However, I have seen first-hand that they have been working extremely hard, along with schools, to support the sector. As my noble friend outlines, those transition points are very important, and the exams are a key objective marker, particularly for further and higher education institutions. We are not asserting that this package of measures can ameliorate every effect of what has happened; we are living through a global pandemic. However, after careful consultation, we believe this package can, as far as possible, create a situation where exams can take place, allowing pupils who have been working hard throughout the school year to have their abilities and knowledge assessed in that way.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as recorded in the register. As we all know, continuing to assert something that is, at best, contentious does not make it true, and so it is with the assertion that exams are the best form of assessment. Our colleagues in Scotland took the wise decision some months ago to cancel the 16-plus exams—the equivalent of GCSEs—in favour of teacher assessment, and my noble friend has already referred to the situation in Wales. A major study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 2019 found that teacher assessment during compulsory education is as reliable as formal external exams. Research from 2019 also shows that GCSEs heap stress on to school students in what we might call “normal times”; clearly we are not in normal times. I wonder therefore if the Minister can answer a question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, as quoted in the Guardian. He pointed out that

“the school leaving age is 18 … Education goes on from four to 18. So what are you testing people at 16 for?”

I might add that the question is especially pertinent this year when a level playing field both between and within schools is clearly an impossibility, given the very significant but differential levels of absence from school that have occurred, and which the Minister has acknowledged.

My Lords, in relation to the situation in the devolved Administrations, the Secretary of State is in close contact with his equivalent representatives. In Scotland, yes, there has been some alteration, but the exams at 18 have been kept. The reason why exams in England have been kept at 16 is that the majority of students in England transition at 16 and therefore need that assessment. Northern Ireland has also decided to keep exams. There are differences between the constituent nations of the United Kingdom. We are living in extraordinary times, so we have introduced an extraordinary set of contingencies and changes to relieve the pressure—on teachers, yes, but primarily on students facing the exams. They will have certain aids with them and they will know some of the topic areas.

In relation to the comments from my noble friend, Lord Baker, one has to recognise that he has been the pioneer of the university technical colleges, where students enter the system in an atypical age range of between 14 and 18. We do not accept his view that exams are not necessary at 16 because most students, unlike those in UTCs, do transition at 16.

My Lords, I welcome the proposals, which will give young people greater certainty about their chances of progressing into whatever they want to do after school. However, I want to ask a question from the point of view of universities and colleges, because exams are also a clue and an indication to them of what students know and can do. Over the years, they become familiar with the curriculum, so you get continuity in teaching. What work has been done with colleges and universities so that they can offer continuity of teaching and curriculum, and fill in any gaps that exist due to children not having learned as much or had as much time to practise various skills?

I thank the noble Baroness for her comments. As I have outlined, one key to this —and the reason why the exceptional circumstances and generosity in grading this year will mirror, not replicate, last year—is that the higher education institutions dealt with that situation and those grade profiles last year, so we are drawing on that. Information from the exam boards about what aids will be given and which topic areas are outlined will be made available to the universities. We recognise that this is an unprecedented situation for the universities as well, and that they will be dealing with a cohort that has had a different experience of the education system from that in normal times.

Sitting suspended.