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Exams and Accountability 2021

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020

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 joins me in wishing him luck with the overall prize. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

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, 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 same mistake again. 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.[Official Report, 6 January 2021, Vol. 686, c. 4MC.] 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 be 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 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 if there is any disruption due to coronavirus in a school, pupils will be able to take the test when they return to the 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.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance copy of it. I also thank the Minister for School Standards for briefing my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and me yesterday. I also join the Secretary of State in congratulating Dr Frost and wishing him well for the finals of the global teacher of the year awards.

I am glad that the Government have finally responded to the pleas of students, their parents and teachers who have been asking for months how next summer’s exams will be conducted fairly. While I welcome measures to help pupils be assessed on what they have learned and ensure that reserve papers will be in place for pupils who might miss out, that performance tables will be suspended and that routine Ofsted inspections will not resume in January—many of them measures that Labour called for —today’s announcement still bakes in fundamental inequities between students who have suffered different levels of disruption to their learning. The Government have known since September that an ongoing pandemic would create huge challenges in schools, and for months they will have heard school leaders, parents and Labour Members calling for a credible plan to address them. It has taken until December to provide one, so can the Secretary of State tell us what took him so long? Why did he leave students in a horrible and uncertain limbo?

The truth is that the delay has limited the Department’s options. Had it acted sooner, it could have done more to make the system fairer. I welcome the decision to make the distribution of grades similar to last year’s to ensure that pupils sitting their exams this year do not feel unfairly disadvantaged, but we know that last year while grades rose across the board, some pupils—particularly those in private schools—were more likely to see a sharp rise. How will the Secretary of State ensure this year that the distribution of grades is spread evenly across schools and postcodes to ensure that the most disadvantaged pupils are treated fairly? Is he not concerned that providing information in advance about subject content will at best benefit pupils at random, with those who happen to have already covered the assessed material benefiting at the expense of those who did not, and at worst in fact mean that pupils who faced the greatest disruption to their learning lose the most?

There is significant support for greater optionality in exams. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s Department has taken exactly that approach with some exams already. It allows pupils to be assessed on what they have learned, with fewer pupils losing out at random. If it works for some subjects, can the Secretary of State explain clearly why it is not part of today’s announcement?

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to address the fact that over a million pupils were out of school this week? He talked about regional disparity, and we know that exam classes in some regions have faced disproportionate levels of disruption. Can he tell us when the expert group will report, why it has been established so late—I understand just last week—and will it include representatives of school leaders and teachers?

On remote learning, I note the Secretary of State’s requirements, but how many laptops have been delivered to students who need them? Why are we continuing to hear reports of schools receiving laptops only after students isolate, wasting valuable time getting them set up and delivered? Why has the national tutoring programme now been stretched more thinly across two years? Can he even guarantee that all students on free school meals will have access to tutoring?

Many students sitting exams next summer want to go on to university or college. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with colleges and universities to ensure that any additional support these students may need will be in place for them next September? Does he believe that any changes will be needed to the timing of university admissions? Can he tell us when pupils taking vocational and technical qualifications will receive further clarity, and what steps is he taking to clear the logjam in the testing of apprentices’ functional skills in maths and English?

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there are likely to be more appeals than in a normal year? How will he ensure that all students can access a fair appeals process? Will he also ensure that there are the markers with the time and resources needed to grade papers in time, particularly in the second exam window?

I want students to have the chance to show what they have achieved in the most challenging of circumstances, but after months of silence these proposals fall short of the fair exams that the Secretary of State promised. At best, this is a “requires improvement”.

I am glad that the hon. Member could bring herself to welcome the measures, albeit slightly grudgingly, at the start. It is no thanks to the Labour party that schools are back and children are in schools. It is no thanks to the Labour party that we were getting over 1.6 million children back into school before—

I know that you always love Secretaries of State to look adoringly at you, Mr Speaker. I have been dutifully rebuked.

The Labour party has never championed pupils, because it has not fought to get students back into schools. It was actually the Mayor of Greater Manchester who wanted to send children out of school and back home. But the Conservative party stands for getting children back into school.

The shadow Secretary of State highlighted a number of issues. It is disappointing that the official Opposition have not engaged in a positive debate. They could not even be bothered to respond to the Ofqual consultation about exams. They seem to have missed the opportunity. Maybe it got lost in the post—or maybe, quite simply, they just could not be bothered. We do recognise that there are significant challenges in delivering education at this time, which is why we have put together a package of truly unprecedented measures to assist schools, teachers, and, most importantly, pupils themselves.

I am sure that the hon. Lady would grudgingly acknowledge that all academic studies have continuously highlighted that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, including children from black and ethnic minority communities, are the ones who always outperform predicted grades when they sit exams.

It is good to see that we have a common view—I note the chuntering from the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), who is sat in the Opposition Chief Whip’s seat—on the importance of exams. We recognise that children will have missed out elements of the curriculum, but giving advance notice will give them and their teachers the opportunity to use that time to focus on the areas of the curriculum that they know they will be tested on. We are also recognising the importance of technical and vocational qualifications, and we will be looking at ensuring that information on those is shared at a similar time to information on GCSEs and A-levels.

The shadow Secretary of State highlighted some important issues, including the potential for extra appeals and ensuring that there are proper extra resources in place for that process; we will certainly be doing that. We recognise that there are challenges from giving extra learning time and moving most exams back by three weeks. For example, this will put added pressure on the exam boards. We are working closely with the exam boards to support them to get the right resources in place, and to deliver the grades as and when we would expect them—at the end of August.

It is right that we have exams in some form next year, because that at least gives pupils much-needed structure. I thank the Secretary of State, because there is no easy or perfect option, but I have two questions that I would like to ask him. First, are we possibly baking grade inflation into the system, as we saw in 2020? Could we not ensure that grade boundaries are in line with 2019 results, or at least between 2019 and 2020 results, so that we can revert to the standards of 2019, while no one loses out, and start transitioning back to normality? From a social justice perspective, does inflating all the grades just move the goalposts, in that the difference between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers remains the same?

Secondly, we know from the DFE’s own data that 798,000 pupils in state-funded schools were not in school for covid-19-related reasons on Thursday 26 November. Is there a way that we could track every single child to assess the learning that he or she is getting from the school? Will my right hon. Friend give Ofsted a much stronger role to ensure that children are learning, and will he use the £143 million allocated to the catch-up programme to ensure that every pupil is prepared for this year’s exams, rather than rolling over that funding into next year?

We have commissioned an Education Policy Institute study on the individual learning loss, and we are getting data into the Department on that. We will be asking the expert group to look at that and how best to address it. I take my right hon. Friend’s point: he would have preferred more of a middle ground in the grading between 2019 and 2020. I firmly believe that, for those children who have had to deal with so much in terms of the pandemic, it is really important that their exam grading is reflective of their work but recognises the fact that they have been through a tremendous amount this year. It would be unjust for them to have grades, having sat exams, that were substantially lower than the ones received in 2020.

Let us head up to Birmingham to see Jack Dromey. [Interruption.] He looks a lot younger! That was not Jack Dromey; we have not arrived in Birmingham yet, so we will head to North Thanet, to see Sir Roger Gale.

The work that my right hon. Friend does in connection with exams is likely to be considered wrong by some people, but I congratulate him on coming up with what is probably the least worst option available to him. He will remember that at Education questions a couple of weeks ago I raised the issue of SATs, which is of particular concern to primary schools this year. He touched on the testing regimes for primary school children and secondary school children. Could he expand on that and indicate precisely what he expects of teaching staff and whether he believes that, for this year only, assessment might be the way forward?

My right hon. Friend is right that there is not an easy pathway, which I think the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) also recognises. Any route taken presents quite significant challenges in delivering assessments and examinations, but I believe that this is the fairest and most robust way of doing it. We have removed SATs from performance tables. That is an important measure, but SATs do present a really important way of measuring a child’s attainment and position, and they will be vital for schools in making that assessment and supporting children to catch up on lost learning. We hope that removing them from performance tables will remove a lot of the pressure that teachers sometimes feel and help with the delivery of SATs.

Securing fairness for all students will be absolutely key, so while I welcome some of the measures that have been announced today that go in the right direction, I am worried that the creation of an expert group is simply kicking the fairness can down the road. Given the huge variations in learning between individuals, schools and local education authorities, when, specifically, will the expert group report on its proposals, and when will the House be able to scrutinise them?

The whole set of measures that we have put in place, whether in extra learning time, changes to assessment, advance notice or giving exam aids, is to support children who have suffered from lost learning. The expert group, which will report to me in the spring, will make a proper and thorough assessment of some of the challenges that students have faced.

This year’s students, such as those at Petroc College in North Devon, have faced unprecedented disruption to their studies as a result of the pandemic. Those who are due to sit some of the most important exams of their lives so far have perhaps felt this disruption most acutely. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the measures that his Department is taking will ensure that these students are treated as fairly as possible in both academic and vocational subjects?

I assure my hon. Friend that the measures we are taking are truly exceptional—they are not measures that we would ever have expected to take in any normal year. The only reason we are taking them is to support students in her constituency to ensure that they achieve the very best grades that they possibly can and unlock their future life chances.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Will he outline the steps taken to ensure that devolved Administrations whose students carry out English board exams have all the relevant information to enable schools to truly lay out the pathway to exam attainment? Will this messaging be going to parents and children soon to ensure less stress for these young ones, who have more uncertainty on their shoulders than children have had for many, many generations?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The measures that we are taking are very much to reduce stress and pressure on students. Many pupils in Northern Ireland sit papers from English exam boards, and the measures that we are taking will obviously be replicated in Northern Ireland for them. Only yesterday, I spoke to Peter Weir, the Education Minister for Northern Ireland. At every stage, we are considering implications that may arise for Northern Irish students as a result of these changes. We are doing everything we can to accommodate any concerns that Peter Weir may have on behalf of pupils in Northern Ireland, and we hope that we can balance that off.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which will end the uncertainty that I am sure is experienced right across the country. Will he join me in thanking teachers and students across Harrow, who have been desperately trying to catch up with the learning that they have missed, and congratulating them on their hard work? Will he use the opportunity—now—of a revision to the process to ensure that exams are not just a test of knowledge, but far more a test of how that knowledge is applied, in assessing how students have performed across their time in school?

We will always look at different options to improve our examination system and how we work with exam boards, and I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that in greater detail. In terms of catch-up, I pay tribute to the teachers and support staff not just in Harrow, but right across the country, who have done so much. They have been assisted by the £1 billion covid catch-up fund to give extra resources, so that extra teaching can take place at weekends and in the evenings, and children have the opportunity to catch up on work that they have missed.

Research from the Education Policy Institute, among others, on the performance of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities suggests that they can be particularly vulnerable to being underestimated in assessments. Given that some of those pupils might also, for health reasons and owing to shielding, have had more disruption to their education, how can we be confident that any new system introduced for next year will take their needs into account?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point on which there is a lot of shared concern on both sides of the House. This was one reason that we particularly weighted the covid catch-up fund to deliver extra money for those schools supporting children with special educational needs. We recognise there are some acute and difficult challenges, and certainly I know that the Minister for School Standards would be happy to sit down with the hon. Lady, along with the children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), to discuss any extra support or intervention she thinks would be of use and benefit.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on achieving a compromise that enables students in Aylesbury to sit exams that they have long worked towards and actually want to take, while ensuring that they have the best possible chance of receiving a fair result? Can he assure me that this strategy will be able to withstand any future shocks that might arise due to covid-19, so that teachers and pupils in Buckinghamshire can plan the next two terms with certainty?

This is why we have taken the decision to make the announcement at this stage. I think the four nations in the United Kingdom believe this is the most comprehensive and detailed plan for how we are going to proceed with assessment, examinations and the awarding of grades. I hope this gives every school leader and every teacher, but most importantly children, a clear sense of what they are going to be assessed against, so that they can achieve the very best grade that they are capable of getting.

The Secretary of State rightly says that he wants to boost fairness and support students, but he will be aware that just last week a million students were not able to be in school. In one school in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, only 63% were present, which is a massive disparity. On 21 October, he said he would deliver 500,000 laptops, but only 200,000 have so far been delivered. Does he accept that there is a massive gap in delivering the fairness he promises? Should priority be given to teachers to be vaccinated to ensure they can stay in school?

I very much share the hon. Gentleman’s view on the important role that teachers, and also support staff, have been playing in the delivery of education. Obviously, right through this pandemic, there has been a national priority of putting education at the centre of the Government’s response, which is why schools have remained open, even during a national lockdown. There will be specific clinical needs that have to be met as part of a vaccination programme, but there has always been a priority put on education, and for teachers to be able to get into school and teach and for support staff to support them. We will obviously be looking at this in the next wave and the announcement on vaccinations.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the position regarding exams today, as someone who was keen to see them go ahead. More importantly, all the young people I have spoken to want to see them go ahead as well, so that they are in control of their own futures. Does he agree that, given the learning loss, particularly for disadvantaged young people, it will still be important for schools to have an effective system for young people to learn during the holidays between now and summer to give these exams their best shot?

My hon. Friend raises an important point and identifies a great opportunity for many schools to take advantage of. I know so many schools have been putting on extra lessons after the school day has concluded, and so many schools have been looking at how they can use the holidays to deliver extra education and catch-up for those critical year 11 and year 13 pupils. That is a great idea and certainly something we very much encourage.

I welcome this announcement, but let us talk about regional disparities, because I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western). More than 12% of children in Greater Manchester were impacted by covid-19, meaning that they could not attend school. That compares with 5% nationally. Information technology poverty affects up to 18% of the student population, and the learning conditions at home affect many more. How will this announcement help mitigate the impact on those pupils? How do we make it fair for them?

As I touched on in an earlier answer, obviously we expect schools to deliver a full curriculum, but some schools will have been impacted in such a way that they cannot deliver every aspect of it. However, giving advance notice of the topic areas means that over the coming months those schools and students can focus on those areas that need to be covered for exams, in the run-up to them.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I know that he has considered very carefully how to make things fair, and students and staff will welcome the certainty. Students and teachers in Sleaford and North Hykeham are working really hard to catch up with any lost learning, but it is clear that some students, through no fault of their own, will have missed more days of school than others. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how the £1 billion catch-up fund will be targeted towards those students who need it the most?

There is not only the general pot of the catch-up fund, but the specific national tutoring programme, targeting children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We have always believed that schools, with their intimate knowledge of their pupils and understanding of their learning needs, are best able to target how that money is spent, so that pupils are best able to catch up.

I have heard from teachers, school leaders and young people across Luton North, all saying that we need alternatives to standard exams next year. Students from Luton sixth forms and the Luton youth council wrote to me with a comprehensive list of options last month, and I urge the Secretary of State to hear their concerns. The headteacher of the fantastic Lealands High School summed it up perfectly when he wrote to me sharing concerns not just for children’s future, but for their mental health:

“It has become apparent that the disparity in experience of Year 11 students across the country is vast and those who are suffering the most have not control over this... There are many ways to assess what young people know, understand and can do.”

Will the Secretary of State listen to teachers, parents and students and avoid any unnecessary unfairness of exams, or does he just think he knows better?

We have spent a great deal of time working with stakeholders and listening to children, teachers and professional academics on how best we do this. That is why we have pulled together the proposal that we have, putting the interests of children very much at the heart of everything we do.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his entire departmental team on today’s statement, which gives certainty and clarity to teachers, pupils and parents for exams in the summer. We know that schools, including those in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, have been hit hard financially this year due to covid-19. That will only be added to by the need to advertise for, train and hire additional exam invigilators, which is a challenge at the best of times, so will my right hon. Friend back my call for an army of volunteers, made up of former and retired teachers—please add my name to the list—to help the national effort and deliver exams next summer?

I would be delighted to add my hon. Friend’s name to the list of that army of volunteers who will go out there and help in schools. However, we do not just need invigilators; we also need markers—people who have experience as teachers, who are maybe retired—to come forward and assist us in this significant effort to ensure that papers are marked punctually. This is a great opportunity for people to give something back to the next generation and to schools in their community by either volunteering as an invigilator or coming forward as a marker.

We have had yet another statement from the Secretary of State that did not mention children in care or children with special educational needs and disability. That is not surprising, since just last week the Court of Appeal found that he acted unlawfully in scrapping critical safeguards for those very children. Will he apologise and outline what support he is providing to them so that they are as exam-ready as every other child?

We have a very proud history, actually; we put the needs of the most vulnerable at the heart of our response, whether it was the covid catch-up funding—making sure that extra funding goes to those children who most need it—or the fact that this country took a global lead in making sure that schools and colleges remained open for children with special needs and those who are most vulnerable. We led the world in that, and we are very proud that we took that lead.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that keeping schools open is a national priority? That is vital for our young people, especially those in my constituency of Great Grimsby, to ensure that the disruption to their education is kept to a minimum as much as possible. However, we cannot deny that, despite best efforts, many young people have had their teaching and learning disrupted more than others. Can he assure me that the measures will allow those students to catch up on their curriculum and make sure they achieve the best they can in their exams?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on when she highlights the importance of keeping schools open and ensuring that as many pupils attend as possible, because school is the best place for children. As the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all highlighted, children are always better off in school. We are so pleased to see schools open and so many children back. She is right to highlight the need for children to be able to catch up, but also to be able to focus their attention and efforts on the key areas that will make a real difference to their grades in exams. That is why we have taken these unprecedented and significant measures to ensure that children in her constituency are able to get the best grade and achieve their absolute maximum potential.

In Manchester, some year 11 pupils are now in their fifth period of isolation. Most have lost at least 10% of class time because of isolation and many of those pupils do not have decent digital access to enable home learning. The deputy head at my local high school told me this morning:

“The system he is putting in place will serve to widen the disadvantage gap. He repeats that exams are the fairest means of assessment and all the studies point to that; however those studies were not undertaken in a global pandemic.”

May I plead with the Secretary of State to think again about what more he can do to help those pupils who have been disproportionately affected by isolation? That does not need to include keeping all examinations, because, on exams, making the playing field slightly smaller for everybody is not creating a level playing field for those disadvantaged pupils.

The measures we have introduced are very much designed to support the pupils the hon. Gentleman talks about. I know from personal experience—my own daughter has had to isolate and is facing her GCSE exams in this academic year—the impact it has on all children. That is why we have put these measures forward to assist all children. That is what we have done, and we believe they will make a significant difference to all children in his constituency and mine.

I appreciate that there are no easy solutions here. I have been discussing these difficult issues with the principals of my local sixth form colleges—New College and Greenhead College. My area in West Yorkshire has had some of the highest covid rates in the country, with hundreds of students off with covid or self-isolating at any one time. How will the Secretary of State make it fair for students in my patch who have been disproportionately impacted by covid, and level up their life chances?

This is what all the measures we are introducing are aimed at doing: making sure that children who have missed out on the opportunity to learn are able to focus their efforts, as they come to the crucial exam period, on the things that will matter most to them as they try to achieve the very best grade. This is on top of the action we have taken with the covid catch-up fund, which has already been initiated and is available to all students in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Last week, I met headteachers from across Gateshead who talked about this very issue of unfairness. Today’s statement covers the issue across the whole cohort, but, as many other colleagues have said, what measures will the Secretary of State take to ensure that those who have been through isolation—there are many of those in the north-east and in my constituency—and do not have access to technology are really able to make up that difference and are able to be tested fairly in that system?

Again, not wishing to repeat myself, we recognise that there are children in that situation. That is why we think it is really important that teachers and pupils alike have a clear sense of where the testing will be applied so that, over the final months as they head to exams in summer 2021, they are able to focus that effort and those resources on ensuring that they cover all those key critical areas.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The excellent teaching staff across Carshalton and Wallington are doing their best to prepare for the 2021 exams, but they have been telling me that when students have to self-isolate, there is obviously disruption. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will put education at the top of the priority list for vaccinations as they begin to roll out, so that we can return to some form of normal teaching before next year’s exams?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about vaccination roll-out. We have also been doing testing pilots around the country to see how we can be in the best possible position so that, if a child does have covid, it does not mean that a large group of children will have to self-isolate. As we complete those pilots, we will look at how we can roll that out, especially into the areas that have been most affected. He makes an important point on vaccination, and we are certainly looking at how we can prioritise that, since teachers and support staff play such an important role in our national endeavour.

The Secretary of State’s statement sadly does little to address the disadvantage that pupils, particularly from northern schools, have faced compared with those in other areas less affected by the virus. Alarmingly, a survey of National Education Union members found that nearly 80% felt that they would not be able, in the time available and with repeated pupil absences, to teach the whole syllabus. At the very least, will he accept that to give pupils a real chance, he must release those topics that will be on exam papers now and not wait until the end of January?

It is very nice to see the hon. Lady again. The reason for this focus and the advance notice for schools is so that, where there has been missed time, they are able to be in a position to focus on the areas that matter. I appreciate that she would want everything yesterday, as against in January, but the work will take a little bit of time for exam boards to pull together. It will be done swiftly—by the end of January—to give schools as much space as possible to focus their attention on those areas.

The stress and anxiety that has been faced by so many pupils, staff and parents due to covid restrictions cannot be denied, so I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. It is the right thing to do. Can he give me an assurance that his Department will also do everything possible to ensure that this message goes out loud and clear to anyone who might seek to stigmatise the class of 2021 as having had some sort of easy pass, rather than these measures’ being rightly about fairness in the face of exceptional circumstances?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. The children who are facing exams this year have done so much, in quite extraordinary circumstances. The grades they will receive will be a real testament to their hard work, their dedication and their commitment to education, either in the 11 years in the run-up to their GCSEs or in the 13 years in the run-up to their A-levels and other vocational qualifications. I hope that employers in the future will recognise the amazing work that has gone into every single grade and every single achievement of all our children.

Around 80% of Ealing schools have had covid cases, leaving gaps in learning and holes in budgets. Some have demolished walls to accommodate distancing, and now they have huge staff absence bills—all at London prices. Can the Secretary of State compensate all those in full and prioritise vaccinating not just teaching staff, but the admin lot, who have worked non-stop throughout all this? The Chancellor seems to have given them all an effective pay cut last week.

We have already set out details to support schools during this covid pandemic, not just in the run-up to summer, but during the current term.

It is always easy to criticise, but does my right hon. Friend agree that while, sadly, it appears that the dog ate Labour’s homework on this one, his statement provides headteachers in my constituency and others with certainty? Does he also share my admiration for the work being done by local authority virtual schools so that children who are in the care system are able to access the wide range of support provided by the Government to ensure that they continue to close the gap with their peers who are not in care?

My hon. Friend highlights a really important area. The virtual school heads programme for local authorities and schools, has been a real success. We have seen a real impact for those children—some of the most vulnerable children in society, with some of the best attendance for them—by getting that tailored support. It is a scheme that I would deeply love to see rolled out more extensively, because the evidence points to the real impact and difference it makes to young people’s lives.

The Secretary of State referred to remote provision in his statement, and yet last half-term school laptop allocations were cut by 80%. That decision affects the most disadvantaged pupils the greatest, so will he reconsider the decision and commit to delivering the laptop provision that schools were originally promised?

We continue to deliver ever more laptops every single week. More than 0.5 million laptops will be going out, and we continue to do everything we can do to support schools with laptop provision.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Christchurch on being given an accolade by The Sunday Times for being one of the best primary schools in the country? Will he tell us what criteria will be available to enable the public to judge primary schools next year, if there are no tests at key stage 1 and very few at key stage 2, bearing in mind that the key stage 1 tests are the test against which future progress is gauged?

I very much join my hon. Friend in congratulating St Joseph’s school in Christchurch on such an accolade. I am sure that he, the teachers, parents and, most importantly, pupils feel incredibly proud at receiving it.

We recognise that we have had to make some changes that we would not normally want to do, in order to facilitate the smooth functioning of schools. We will continue to publish data on schools, including attendance, so that parents are in the best possible position to make the best choice for their children in school.

Some regions of our country, including my constituency, have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Slough schools have faced several outbreaks and huge disruption as a result. There is also the huge issue of the digital divide experienced by many of our more disadvantaged and less well-off communities. So, in addition to the Secretary of State’s announcement today on exam changes, surely he should consider regionally targeted measures to support those areas that have lost out the most.

We believe that this is a comprehensive package. We will ask the expert group to look at some of the challenges that students will face in order to be able to progress to their next stages. We will look very closely at the evidence that is provided on lost learning.

I welcome the decision to retain exams, not as the best but as the least worse form of assessment. Having held a virtual roundtable with heads recently, I know that they will welcome this long-awaited clarity and the flexibility that will be given to schools that have been in areas of high covid infection, which has obviously impacted on classroom time.

May I ask the Secretary of State about A-levels and university applications? Unfortunately, other nations in the UK rushed ahead to scrap exams next year. Therefore, pupils from England applying to Scottish universities—as my son did—or to Welsh or Northern Irish ones, will be treated differently from pupils in those other nations, or from such pupils coming to English universities. How do we ensure that all will be treated equitably in this now divergent system?

We been working very closely with UCAS and Universities UK on this issue. Universities have been used to different systems. The Scottish system, for example, is different from the English system in terms of its grading, its curriculum and its qualification at the end. There has been divergence between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England over the past few years. We are confident that, by giving clarity at this stage, including on the way that we will be grading and the generosity with which we will be grading, universities will best be able to adapt. We saw a record number of students going to university last year, and we will not be surprised to see a record number going to university next year as well.

I still do not get how these proposals mitigate the effects of extended absence of teaching and learning. It is not just about the differential in lost schooling, which still is not resolved, but the differential impact that missing school has on some children—those unable to access learning, unable to cope, unable to engage and unable to thrive. The loss of six months and counting has massively widened the gap. Simply making the grades more generous for everyone equally does not deal with the widening and widened gap. Is it not the case that the Secretary of State’s dogmatic fixation with exams has blinkered him to solutions that would more effectively deal with the growing and widening gap and the impact of school absence?

All the measures that we have undertaken have been aimed at supporting those children who have been most affected, but we have to understand that every child in this country has been affected by this pandemic, which is why we also need a national approach to support all children. We have created a system that supports those children who have suffered the most and makes sure that they are in the best position to focus their studies and their time on the areas that will deliver them the best results in terms of grading in August.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of a package of measures to ensure fairness in next summer’s exams despite the many challenges. Can he assure me that, if the disruption caused by the pandemic continues into next year, the situation will be monitored and assessed and, if necessary, further measures will be introduced?

We are absolutely certain that we can deliver a full exam series. Quite simply that is because, over the past number of weeks, we have delivered a full exam series for GCSEs and A-levels in which tens of thousands of students have taken part and they have gone safely and have been successful, so we are absolutely confident about being able to deliver that exam series in the summer of next year. My right hon. Friend highlights the issue of lost learning and differential learning, which is why we have set up the expert group to be able to advise us should we need to take any other interventions to ensure that students are in the best possible position to be able to progress to college, to university, into an apprenticeship or into the world of work.

As you know, Mr Speaker, east Hull has been one of the hardest hit areas by the pandemic, and our schools have faced massive disruption. I thank my school leaders, teachers and support staff for performing what has been a near miracle in keeping schools going, but the support from the Government has been derisory up to now. What regionally targeted measures will the Secretary of State be implementing to make sure that areas such as mine are not left behind?

At every stage, we want to support all those schools that have been impacted by the pandemic, whether they are in east Hull or east London, whether they are in the east of England, the south-west, the north-east or the north-west. We will continue to deliver that support not only to schools, but, most importantly, to children.

I have been on many calls with my local schools—Mr Speaker, as you represent a Lancashire seat, your schools will face the same difficulties—where our infection rate has meant that local pupils have had to isolate more than once and their education has been severely disrupted. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that if the disruption caused by the pandemic continues into next year, it will be monitored and assessed and, if needs be, further measures could be introduced?

That is why we established the expert group to look at some of the challenges, including the ongoing challenges, as it is not always possible to predict the course that the pandemic will take. There is a great deal of optimism and excitement about the future with the roll-out of a vaccine, but we need to continue to monitor the challenges we face as a result of the pandemic. If extra measures need to be added, we would certainly not be blinkered or ignore such other measures that were needed.

I asked headteachers in my constituency for suggested questions to the Secretary of State and had to rule out at least one on the basis that it would have been unparliamentary. I stress again on behalf of all headteachers that the disparities in the disruption to schools are significant in areas like mine, where we have had higher than average infections and restrictions for much longer than other places. Communities with higher proportions of black, Asian and minority ethnic pupils have been particularly affected. How will the Secretary of State ensure that his proposals reflect those serious differences?

We put together the package of proposals to deal with and support schools in the hon. Lady’s constituency of Halifax and many other areas across the country. We recognise that exceptional measures have to be put in place to support them, and that is why we have taken the steps that we have.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.