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Schools: Examination Assessments

Volume 814: debated on Tuesday 12 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the (1) credibility, and (2) integrity, of the assessment processes in schools for this summer’s A levels and GCSE examinations.

My Lords, parents and students can have confidence in the credibility and integrity of the grades awarded this summer. Teachers did an excellent job assessing students based on a range of evidence and were best placed to understand the content students had covered. The outcomes of the quality assurance process demonstrated the extent to which teachers took the process seriously and followed the guidance and training provided. These grades reflect students’ hard work in what was a hugely challenging year.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness to her new position and I am sure I speak for the whole House in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for her work and her willingness to come to the House so often to talk about education matters.

I of course echo what the noble Baroness said about teachers and students and their achievements in the summer, but she will know that the overall increase in the level of grades was higher in private schools than in other schools. She will also know that the Sutton Trust has said that significantly more teachers in private schools than in comprehensive state schools came under pressure from parents to increase their child’s grades—this is not too long, my Lords. So, far from levelling up, the new style of internal assessment loaded the dice further against comprehensive school students when it comes to higher education and career prospects. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that, where assessments are used in the coming examination process, there will be a level playing field?

I do not accept the assertion that underpins the noble Lord’s question that there was not a level playing field. All types of schools and colleges, including independent schools, had to submit evidence of their students’ work to support grades. Exam boards set out very clear requirements for quality assurance and those quality assurance checks covered all types of schools and colleges. The department trusted teachers’ professional judgment and exam boards set clear guidance for centres on malpractice, including that centres should report instances of parental pressure to their awarding organisation.

My Lords, first, I associate myself with the remarks about the change in the ministerial situation. Is there anything yet to tell us how the grades given last year compared with the grades given in previous years, particularly recent years, in respect of applications for employment?

I think it is early to draw firm conclusions, as my noble and learned friend hints. Obviously, there was a different basis for assessment last summer from pre 2019. But the House will be aware that this was a record year in terms of higher education admissions and that the Government’s plan for jobs is focused on giving young people the skills they need to move into employment.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the conclusion we should draw from the Covid experience in schools is a recognition of the paramount importance of a school’s internal monitoring of a child’s progress, central to which is the role of teachers? What then is the point of GCSEs if children remain in school until 18? This is not about fairness but about whether such exams are necessary. If school education in many countries thrives without the additional stress of external testing at 16, why cannot ours?

Well, I would question the noble Earl in terms of fairness. It is, of course, as I am sure he would agree, absolutely critical, and we believe that exams are the fairest way of judging students’ performance. GCSEs rigorously assess knowledge acquired by pupils during key stage 4 and are in line with expected standards in countries with the highest-performing education systems. So, despite remaining in education to 18, not all students will progress to level 3 qualifications, and therefore GCSEs remain vital to our education system.

My Lords, I have confidence in teacher-assessed grades, but the systems used in 2020 and 2021 were, frankly, not well planned by government—unlike the systems of teacher assessment in, for example, Finland, where there is a vanishingly small private sector in education. Given that government data shows that 204,000 pupils were out of school for Covid-related reasons on September 30, what plans do the Government have to discuss at an early stage what might be put in place for alternatives to exams this academic year? No communication expected in September from the exam boards has yet arrived.

I think the noble Baroness is being slightly unfair, in the sense that the approach we took to teacher-assessed grades was extensively consulted on and agreed. It was clearly not a simple process, as the noble Baroness understands very well, but it was grounded on extensive consultation. She will be aware that we have announced adaptations to the exam system and an amended approach to grading in the coming year, which I hope will go some way to addressing her concerns.

My party would like to welcome the Minister to her new role and wish her well. We also pass on our best regards to her predecessor. My question to the Minister is about summer-born children; she will know that children who are born in the summer could miss a year, 11 months, 10 months or nine months of schooling. Why is no consideration taken of this fact in the guidance regarding assessment?

I know that the noble Lord has been a champion of summer-born children, and I understand that he is one himself. As I am a winter-born child, obviously we might not see eye to eye on this. But we have had to take into account multiple elements in thinking about the adaptations for this summer, and we have tried to reach the fairest possible point in both adaptations to the system and in grading.

My Lords, given all the problems caused by the pandemic, is this not the moment to have a proper review of what children need to learn, how they should be taught it and how they should be assessed? Despite the Minister’s previous answer, there is a case for looking at the need for exams at 16 when young people are remaining in education until they are 18. Should we not specialise at 14, with proper, serious technical and vocational education, as well as more academic subjects for those who want to pursue them, and how should we change the curriculum to take into account new technologies and new ways of learning?

The noble Lord will be aware that we are planning a White Paper on many of these areas, but our priority in the short term—I am sure the House would support this—is on recovery and catch-up for all children, particularly those who have been most impacted in their learning by the pandemic.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to her new post. I could say she is at big school now. I also identify myself with the remarks of my colleague and noble friend Lord Hunt regarding the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge. The lack of standardisation in this year’s exams meant that some pupils sat more than 20 exams while others sat fewer than five. Ofqual stats reveal that children on free school meals were less than half as likely to get a grade 7 or above in their GCSEs than their peers. The attainment gap between those on free school meals and those not has increased by one-third since 2019. Does the Minister expect the new Secretary of State for Education to be any more successful than his predecessor in securing the amount of funding identified by the Government’s recovery tsar?

We were pleased to see that at both A-level and GCSE all groups have seen an improvement in their outcomes at top grades compared with 2020 and 2019. The noble Lord is of course right that we need to redouble our efforts to close the attainment gap after the disruption caused by the pandemic. A crucial part of that is getting pupils back in the classroom. The Government have committed to an ambitious and long-term education recovery plan, including investment to date of over £3 billion.

My Lords, I would not expect there to be a major issue with integrity—teachers are usually honest—but rather one of credibility where A-level and GCSE qualifications are being reviewed and compared by third parties. The 2021 super-results might be written down a little for comparison by third-party assessors.

The department is clear that these grades reflect students’ hard work in an extraordinarily difficult year. It is not unexpected, given the different approach to assessment that was taken, that the grades look different, but students can and should feel proud of their achievements.

My Lords, following the question from my noble friend Lord Hunt, what possible justification can there be for private schools having charitable status? Would not the money saved by removing such status be better used in state schools so that they can improve their exam results?

The rate of improvement in exam results was faster in state schools, with the exception of selective secondary schools, than in independent schools across the board. The noble Lord will be aware that the issue of charitable status in private schools is a lot more complicated than transferring money from one pot to another.