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Schools: Exam-year Pupils

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to permit exam year pupils affected by the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to repeat that year of study.

My Lords, the department and Ofqual are working at pace to provide clarity to the sector on how grades will be fairly awarded to all pupils following the decision that exams will not go ahead as planned. The Government will also collaborate with the education sector to develop specific initiatives for summer schools and a Covid premium, alongside developing a long-term plan to support pupils to catch up during this Parliament.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that everybody has experienced disruption in their schooling and that it has been worst, as was referred to in the first Question today, for those on the lowest incomes, who often have least access to online capacity? If there is a need for people to retake the year, will the Government make sure that such pupils can access the help that they would have got—for instance, from the state through child benefit and other methods? Will they make sure that such help is available for those groups who have the lowest economic status and who will probably need the help most?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. That is why part of the catch-up premium will be made available to all schools, recognising that all children will be affected. However, the effects are disparate, and some vulnerable children have been in school for the entirety of the school year. Under the system at the moment, head teachers in exceptional circumstances can allow a child to repeat a year and that remains the position. I am sure that noble Lords will be aware of the complexity that would arise if cohorts were to repeat an academic year.

My Lords, retaking a year is a good idea in principle, but the practicalities would be difficult to work out. One of the many questions would be: what provision would be made for individual schools hoping to have a normal intake and have students repeating a year?

My Lords, my noble friend outlines one of the implications. We are also expecting a population bulge through secondary schools, which will be another consideration, as well as the fact that any repetition of a year when children in England transition at 16 would have implications for FE, while, at 18, it would have implications for higher education. This is not a simple proposal to consider.

My Lords, we are aware that children suffered greatly last year due to the school closures that were necessary to contain Covid-19. However, it is likely to have increased further the educational divide between children of richer and educated parents, who are likely to have had better-quality home schooling, and children in deprived areas. What steps are the Government taking to help these unfortunate children catch up before the next school year?

My Lords, the Government have given some £650 million to the national tutoring programme, which is for disadvantaged pupils. Within that, for the cohorts of the most disadvantaged pupils and schools in the most disadvantaged areas, Teach First is leading on academic mentors—that is, a full-time employee for the school. Some 700 of the 1,000 mentors that we are anticipating are now in schools, supporting catch-up provision.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Covid-19 crisis is itself a highly exceptional circumstance and therefore that there may be many occasions where it would be in the interest of the pupil to repeat a year? The job of the Government is to make that possible, including putting in place the logistical and funding arrangements that are necessary. Does she not accept that, for pupils who drop out and do not get the exam grades and qualifications they need, the long-term impact, including the impact on society and the direct costs that we will have to bear in due course, may be much greater than those of making arrangements for pupils to repeat another year?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. Catch-up is for this Parliament, as I have outlined. We are looking at summer schools and at the immediate catch-up that pupils need, but the necessary arrangements are longer-term and for the duration for this Parliament. Yes, we also need to look at individual cases. No idea is ruled out and off the table but, as I have outlined, there are very serious implications if whole cohorts of pupils repeat an academic year.

My Lords, it is not just in schools where studies have been disrupted. What discussions have the Government had with universities about offering a free additional term or terms to enable students to experience face-to-face teaching and other aspects of student life that have been denied them in lockdown?

My Lords, there is close collaboration between Minister Donelan and the higher education sector. That sector is offering remote learning until at least 8 March, except for critical care workers. But of course arrangements for the experience that university students are given is a matter for students and their providers.

My Lords, by half-term next week, the total loss in face-to-time in school will amount to around half a normal school year. The Government urgently need to provide exceptional support to these students. Allowing a limited number to repeat the school year if it is in their best interest should be considered, together with extending the school year, lengthening the school day, and the widespread use of summer schools. In the current circumstances, thinking outside the box is not a luxury; it is an essential. So are the Government up for that?

My Lords, the department welcomes all out-of-the-box or in-the-box ideas. It is a national priority to help these children catch up, which is why we are looking to stand up summer schools and at some form of Covid premium as well. The consultation in relation to the exams had more than 1,000 responses; by the end of February we will be informing the sector —or Ofqual will inform the sector—about the arrangement for examinations this year. All ideas are being considered but, of course, when it comes to lengthening the school day, with the workforce working flat out at the moment, we have to consider all those issues when looking at initiatives to catch up.

My Lords, the JCVI has asked government to look at occupational roles in the next phase of the rollout. We are working across government to make the case for the teaching and education workforce generally; advice will be produced and then it will be for Ministers to decide on the next phase of vaccination.

Both the UK and Scottish Governments failed to prepare last spring for the end of the first long period of lockdown and the need immediately to catch up with flexible solutions inside the school environment. Will the Government be better prepared now for the post-Easter period? I recognise that there are uncertainties between February and Easter but, for after Easter, can the sorts of solutions mentioned by other noble Lords today, including flexible school days and school weeks, the opportunity for more tutors to be inside schools helping with catch-up, and so on, be planned for in April rather than scraped at afterwards?

My Lords, some of the solutions that have been outlined by noble Lords, such as extending the school day, are possible for schools now. Many schools use certain tools that the department has made available so that they can deploy their workforce most efficiently and extend the school day—but of course there are also contractual implications if we were to require more from a teaching workforce that is flat out. Yes, we are planning, which is why we are focusing on summer schools at the moment because we can deliver that. The national tutoring programme has shown its flexibility as well, in that most of the providers could move online straightaway. We are looking at the more structural solutions as well as more immediate catch-up solutions.

With the exception of three weeks of relative respite last July, Greater Manchester has known some of the tightest restrictions in the country for more than 10 months, resulting in significantly greater disruption to young people’s learning, which will impact on not only this exam cohort but next year’s. The differential regional Covid and Covid restrictions have been mitigated with a differentiated regional policy. This consultation must ensure that children and young people are not disadvantaged by the lost learning time that they have experienced in comparison with their peers nationally.

My Lords, one of the matters in the consultation was around teacher assessment, which is why this year, for these exceptional circumstances, some form of teacher assessment will assess the performance of students. However, we are aware of the differential impact of Covid and are trying our best to train and support the teaching workforce to be able to deliver a fair qualification for students this year, for GCSEs, A-levels and technical qualifications as well.

My Lords, seven vice-chancellors this morning signed a letter to the Government highlighting unprecedented pressures on our students. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Government will look to help those in need of financial support in exceptional circumstances, which may require resitting a year—for example, where there is limited access to digital devices and for those with special educational needs, and where this has the support of universities or school heads, depending on the cohort of students?

My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Lord in relation to the department’s response to that specific letter, but we have asked the Office for Students to make significant funds available for those students who are suffering hardship. Many providers have been excellent at providing for students who have had to remain on campus, because that is the only place they have to live and stay.

My Lords, we seem to be missing the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for the next business. I propose that the House do now adjourn for five minutes until 1.08 pm.

Sitting suspended.