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Centre-assessed Grades

Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 10 May 2023

[Relevant document: e-petition 633777, Give students who miss exams due to illness a right to Centre Assessed Grades.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered centre assessed grades.

Although that is the motion, the debate might more precisely have been titled, “Giving young people with serious medical conditions the grades they merit, although too sick to sit exams, so that they have a chance to move forward with their peers.” I think we all recognise that the pandemic had a pretty catastrophic impact on education, affecting every age and stage, from the language development of our tinies all the way through to undergraduates. However, there were some silver linings of the pandemic experience. One is that we came to recognise in a whole new way the great value and the place of our schools in our communities and society, and another is the digital leap for schools that was necessitated by home learning. But the potential silver lining that I want to address in the context of today’s debate is how we provide a safety net for qualifications.

We talk about exams and exam grades, but we mean qualifications. They count and they carry. They are the passport to our next step, whether that is learning, training or employment. People are asked about their English and maths GCSEs for many years after they leave school, whatever path they take. Covid decimated the exam season for all students everywhere, but a pivot to centre-assessed grades based on teacher and lecturer assessment saved the classes of 2020 and 2021. Their schools and colleges worked to compile the evidence and to moderate it to make sure that those two year groups were able to progress and move onwards and upwards to whatever their next destination of choice was. Their lives went on.

In summer 2022, now that we were living with covid, the exams regime reset and resumed. Invigilators paced the exam halls once more. Students could run the gauntlet of subjects to demonstrate all that they had learned and prove their worth. But that is not the case for the small number of students every year who are hit with a cancer diagnosis and unable to sit their exams, despite the many years of committed study that preceded that moment of crisis. That means that their qualifications and life chances hang in the balance, beyond their control.

Before the pandemic, if someone did not sit an exam, they did not receive a qualification; their only option was to resit. I understand that the only resits offered in the November session are in English and maths, so a resit means a full academic year of suspended animation, watching peers up and leave, and being left behind. There is special consideration in exceptional circumstances, and perhaps additional marks. An overall subject grade is sometimes awarded where one paper has been sat in the subject.

A certification of recognition—I confess that that was new to me, even though I have many years of teaching behind me—first struck me as something of a participation award, but I understand that it gives a nod to the grades that might have been achieved had the exams been sat. However, it is not a qualification, and of course it will sit on a person’s CV and they will need to provide the context at every job interview. It feels rather like the shadow of their cancer diagnosis, and of having the opportunity to prove themselves in exams stolen from them, will forever haunt them and drag them back.

I was brought here today by a petition marshalled by local students James Jewell and Jas Turner on behalf of my very brave constituent Lara. We are here today because they saw her situation as deeply unfair—and so it is. Lara was diagnosed with cancer, and her treatment regime is pretty gruelling. She said, “I’m fighting for me life. I shouldn’t have to fight for my GCSEs.” But she was urged and encouraged to see her way to sitting just one module—just one paper—so that she could access special consideration and have a grade awarded and then, on the other side of her gruelling regime, pick up and move forward to the college and the course that she had set her heart on.

That advice has been echoed by the Department for Education, which stated in response to Lara’s campaign:

“As in any year, exam boards have processes in place to assist students whose ability to sit exams is affected by illness or other unforeseen circumstances, including allowing pupils to take exams at home or in hospital or awarding a grade to students who have taken at least one exam or formal assessment in a subject.”

That same advice—“just one paper”—was also echoed by an exam board. The campaign whipped up, friends and family mobilised, the petition gathered pace and the press followed in pursuit. I have met the exam boards. I have had Lara very much in my sights, but I know that she is not alone in this situation.

Ultimately, I met Ofqual, and therein lay a revelation and a 180° turn in the campaign. I was informed at that meeting that, if a candidate’s disability prevents them from sitting an exam in the traditional way, existing equalities legislation allows for the awarding of grades by the board if the centre can provide suitable evidence; mocks were offered as one example. I was told that there was no requirement for Lara, in her situation, to sit one paper, as had been suggested and encouraged, and that because of her disability—for, by virtue of her diagnosis, she is deemed to have a disability under the Equality Act 2010—she is eligible for reasonable adjustments. At the meeting with Ofqual, I learned that several hundred students were awarded grades in that way last year, allowing them to progress with their peers.

Now, the focus of the campaign moved to comms. Clearly, provision has been made for recognition of these unique and most compelling circumstances, but high-performing and good schools in my constituency did not understand that from the guidance that had been issued. Although several hundred students were awarded grades in that way, I know of at least four in my constituency of Eastbourne who would be eligible under the Equality Act. If that were replicated across the 650 constituencies of this land, it would not be several hundred students but several thousand. I fear that students have been overlooked and disenfranchised because their school did not recognise the signposting in the guidance last year.

Through my experience of supporting Lara, it has become apparent that the implications of the guidance with respect to the Equality Act have not been universally understood or applied. As recently as a few weeks ago, Lara’s campaign team was contacted by another family in Sussex who had been told that their daughter would qualify only for a certificate of recognition. A member of Lara’s team took it up with the school, which repeated the advice that she would need to sit at least one exam. This is year 2 of the change, and the same wrong advice is being given.

In brighter news, on the eve of the coronation—so perhaps most missed it—Ofqual issued new guidance to clarify the position. In the very short time since then, I have consulted those who have followed the case closely to ask whether the guidance means that situations such as Lara’s would be immediately recognised and understood, and whether students such as Lara would get the recognition to which they are entitled under the Equality Act.

An exams officer said that the guidance still does not go far enough. One lead who works closely with children and young people in hospital said that

“despite the new guidance offering more clarification there are issues with the case study examples. The case studies do not refer to the ‘appropriate guidance’—will this give children and their families any reassurance?”

A head said:

“This is a step in the right direction, but I think we need clarity about ‘rare and exceptional circumstances’. This still suggests that the onus is on the family, or school, to prove or argue that a child or young person with a serious illness cannot sit exams due to ‘rare and exceptional circumstances’. This in my view would create extra stress for the young person involved, their family and not so important, but a consideration, nonetheless, more workload for Exams teams in schools. There should be a clear set of criteria regarding serious illness which of course should be backed by medical evidence which protects the dignity of the families involved.”

I have just two humble asks of the Minister, who has been most generous with his time while we have been campaigning on this issue. First, what more can be done, at this very late hour, with the new exam season almost upon us, to ensure that the new recognition has been clearly understood and applied in every school across the land? Secondly, will he consider the situation of students who may have been overlooked last year? I very much understand that the integrity of exam grades is an overarching concern, and it is important that every student’s qualifications command due respect, but this case has highlighted the need for the recent change to be flagged more explicitly with schools and exam centres.

We received good news on Friday. All exam boards with which Lara is entered for qualifications have confirmed that they will award her GCSE grades based on non-exam assessments completed, evidence of mock performance and teacher assessment. We feel that in Lara’s case—and hopefully nationally—the system is moving in the right direction for children and young people who face similar challenges. I am pleased that Lara will receive her grades this summer.

I will leave the concluding words to Lara’s dad, who has been a champion for her through all these many difficult weeks:

“The impact of this inconsistency is discrimination—some are lucky enough to be awarded grades, others not.”

I pay tribute to the young people in my constituency who mobilised to promote Lara’s interests and help secure her grades, to Lara’s friends and family, and to Lara for sharing her story.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing the debate? I recently applied for a similar debate but, as yet, have not been successful. Perhaps the Minister will be spared yet another debate in Westminster Hall—subject, of course, to his response today. I also take the opportunity to congratulate those who mobilised behind the petition to raise this incredibly important issue on behalf of Lara and her friends.

I will be brief, because my hon. Friend has already made an exceptional speech highlighting the issue, but I want to take the opportunity to mention specifically cancer and examinations. My hon. Friend is right that the definition used in the guidance is very wide with reference to disabilities.

Two weeks ago, I got in touch with the Minister about my constituent Charlotte, who was recently diagnosed with a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and is now receiving treatment under the Royal Marsden Hospital. When Charlotte’s grandma Mavis got in touch with me, Charlotte, who is 16 and a pupil at Maidstone Grammar School for Girls, was expecting to sit her GCSEs in a couple of weeks. Her options, as set out by the then guidance, were effectively limited to her sitting the exams, but if she were too unwell to do so, she would be eligible for a certificate of recognition, which, while equivalent to a GCSE, is not technically the same; as my hon. Friend pointed out, that would cause her health experience to cast a long shadow.

Given that assessments during covid enabled students to get their rightful grades for years of hard work without having to sit an exam, something did not feel right about that, especially as Charlotte is incapacitated by her cancer treatment. Chemotherapy is harsh, even for the strongest and fittest of people; it deprives people not just of physical strength but of mental capacity, too.

Being a good student, Charlotte has engaged with the schools team at the Marsden. Under the impression that she will still have to sit her exams, she has, since beginning this horrible journey, tried to stay up to date with her school work. She has tried to do past practice papers, but manages about 20 minutes before she is too exhausted and has to sleep for several hours. Her mother tells me that the experience is upsetting, because it is challenging Charlotte’s identity. Identity is not just about what someone looks like, but who they are. I am sure Charlotte’s hair loss, through her chemotherapy, is making her feel like a different person, but the impact of not being able to sit and study, having done so diligently since primary school, will have an equally significant and profound impact on her psychologically.

Chemo brain is a real thing. As someone who has no recollection of an urgent question I asked after a round of chemo, I can sympathise with Charlotte, who often cannot remember what she studied the previous day. We have the benefit of Hansard to help us with our recollections. It usually makes us look marvellous, but she does not have that. So angered was I that poor Charlotte, who was already facing a health crisis, an identity crisis, and—ever so importantly for someone in their teenage years—a social crisis, was now also facing an educational injustice that I disturbed the Minister on a bank holiday Monday. For the record, he was his usual kind, receptive and brilliant self.

Last Friday, I was delighted to receive the updated guidance from the Joint Council for Qualifications. It was updated last Wednesday, and at the bottom of page 14, it says—I am paraphrasing—that in rare and exceptional circumstances, where the centre cannot identify additional reasonable adjustments that would allow the candidate to sit their examinations, an awarding body may be able to determine grades using suitable alternative assessment evidence. I drilled down into what that actually meant, and it was exactly what Charlotte needed. The family are really grateful, and the change has removed an enormous amount of stress. Charlotte can concentrate on her treatment and general wellbeing. She will suffer this horrific treatment until September, but she will hopefully finish in time to start her A-levels.

I want to make two points. First, Charlotte’s school, Maidstone Grammar School for Girls, has been brilliant and nothing but supportive of Charlotte and her family. However, it learned of this change when I sent the revised guidance to Charlotte’s family, who then sent it on to the school. What communication is taking place with schools, including hospital school teams, about this change? I dare to suggest that there is minimal awareness of it. Given how close we are to the start of the exam period, its enactment might face challenges. The updated guidance is really difficult to understand, and the school had to seek clarification that it covered cancer.

That brings me to my second point. In the 109 pages of guidance, there is only one reference to cancer, and that is in the explanation of the definition of disability in the Equality Act 2010. Cancer should not be skirted around like that in guidance. Cancer is not just the cruel, harsh disease that we all hate; its treatment is like nothing else. I would not want to get into ranking the disabilities defined in the Act, but a diagnosis of cancer turns your world upside down, regardless of age. However, the value and importance of educational assessment is drilled into children and young adults; that starts with their standard assessment tests in primary school. A diagnosis of cancer threatens all they have ever worked for. I think the guidance ought to be a bit more open, explicit, transparent and empathetic. Covid proved that we can provide a different kind of assessment, so let us capitalise on that. Let us make it clear in the guidance, in actual terms, what will happen if a student cannot sit their exams due to cancer treatment.

Understandably, Charlotte might not feel as though she is lucky right now, but she has an articulate, caring and supportive family to help her navigate this minefield. She has a school that cares about its pupils, and lives by its Latin motto “not for self, but for all”. She is on the right side of a change in guidance, for which the appreciation is heartfelt. However, I hope the Minister recognises that despite that, there need to be further changes in awareness and specification around cancer. I look forward to hearing his response.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for requesting this important debate, and I pay tribute to her brave young constituent, Lara, whose battle against cancer inspired it. I think I speak for all hon. Members in saying that our thoughts are with her, and we wish her all the best.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne spoke with passion and empathy about her constituent’s experience, the longer-term implications of the current arrangements, and her constituents’ tireless efforts to bring these issues to this place via the petition and campaign. Of course, Lara is not alone, and I am therefore grateful to the hon. Member for raising these issues with Ofqual, too. No one wants young people to be discriminated against or overlooked, so I thank her for securing today’s debate. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) made a number of helpful points with regard to her constituent’s experiences of cancer. As ever, I thank her for her insight and contribution.

As Members have outlined, the Joint Council for Qualifications sets out rules and guidance for exam boards across the UK on access arrangements, reasonable adjustments and what is known as “special consideration”. The JCQ special consideration guidance says that for enhanced grading in “acceptable absences”, 25% of the total assessment must have been completed. Where special consideration cannot be used, a candidate may be awarded a certificate of recognition, but as we have heard today, this is not a qualification certificate.

At its heart, this is a debate about the need for us to provide an inclusive education system—a system that is fair for all, that does not allow any child to slip through the cracks or be treated unfairly, and that gives every child the opportunity to demonstrate what they are capable of and to succeed. That is particularly important for the most vulnerable children in our country, who too often get forgotten. This has become even more significant in the light of the fact that so many children have lived through so many different challenges in recent years. Evidence shows that children and young people have suffered greatly as a result of the pandemic. The surge in mental health conditions among children is unprecedented, and there have been sharper increases for children than for adults. Paediatric services have not been protected from the growth in waiting lists for hospital care. Vulnerable children, such as those with special educational needs and disabilities, are particularly affected. It is essential that our education system be set up to support the most vulnerable children, and to ensure that the safety net is ready to catch every child in every school in every corner of the country, should they need it.

That is why it was vital to invest in education recovery following the pandemic, to ensure that all young people, particularly the most vulnerable, were given the opportunity to catch up on the learning they had missed. Unfortunately, however, the Government ignored the advice of their own education catch-up tsar; the now Prime Minister said that the Government had “maxed out” on supporting children’s learning. We are only now beginning to see the impact of that decision.

As we have heard, during the pandemic, we saw the use of centre-assessed grades across the country. Although centre-assessed grades work much better for most students than the Government’s botched algorithm chaos, which caused distress for so many young people and their parents, we should note that centre-assessed grades were not without issues. Teachers worked incredibly hard to produce grades at late notice, but the Government failed to set a level playing field. There was variation between centres, variation in assessment, variation in awarding, and variation in internal appeals processes. Private school grades soared, then fell sharply last year. University College London’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities and the London School of Economics found that pupils without graduate parents were disadvantaged by the centre-assessed grades approach, so serious questions were raised about the lack of moderation that permitted such variation to flourish. Ofqual may be the regulator in this area, but the buck stops with the Government. If we are to consider embedding centre-assessed grades for any students, those issues need to be addressed.

As with all types of assessment, it is essential that the results produced by centre-assessed grades are fair and consistent across the board. On a broader level, it is clear from the stories we have heard today that a degree of flexibility is needed in our assessment system to support children in extremely vulnerable situations. Allowances are made for pupils in exceptional circumstances, but as we have heard, more could be done to make the guidance clearer and more accessible. There are too many examples of vulnerable young children not being aware of the support they need, and being penalised as a result. Also, exam boards must be reachable by those who require assistance, and must be flexible where possible. Schools must ensure that they provide the best possible support and advice for children in severe need.

In his response, I hope the Minister will outline what his Department is doing to ensure that guidance to exam boards, schools, parents and pupils on the options available is as clear as possible on alternative assessment options in exceptional circumstances. I finish by restating my thanks to the hon. Member for Eastbourne for starting this important conversation, and I look forward to hearing updates on her campaign.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing a debate on this important subject. She has raised Lara’s illness with me, and I know how gruelling and debilitating fighting cancer is; we all wish Lara a full and speedy recovery. I was also sad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) about the diagnosis of her constituent Charlotte, a student at Maidstone Grammar School for Girls. We all wish Charlotte a speedy recovery. I was pleased to hear that the school has been hugely supportive of Charlotte, which does not surprise me, given my experience of being a pupil at Maidstone Grammar School—albeit, I am afraid to admit, half a century ago.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne is aware, Ofqual regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England. It is responsible for ensuring that regulated qualifications reliably indicate the knowledge, skills and understanding that students have demonstrated, and that people have confidence in the qualifications it regulates. The duty to make reasonable adjustments for students taking qualifications, and the judgment as to whether an adjustment is reasonable, sit with the exam boards, subject to the specifications that Ofqual has published under section 96 of the Equality Act 2010. Ofqual rules require exam boards, in line with equalities law, to have clear arrangements for making reasonable adjustments, and to publish them, including details of how a student qualifies and what reasonable adjustments will be made.

Exams mark the culmination of a number of years of hard work, and provide students with the fairest chance to show what they know, understand and can do. To be diagnosed with a serious illness in advance of exams will always be an incredibly difficult and distressing experience. Examinations and formal assessments are the best and fairest way of judging students’ performance. They have a level of impartiality that other forms of assessment do not; everyone is assessed in the same way at the same time. Additionally, they are marked to the same standard and, crucially, they are marked anonymously. The unprecedented disruption in 2020 and 2021 meant that centre and teacher-assessed grades were needed to enable students to progress. However, last year we were able to return to exams, and it was an important step back to normality for students.

Exams are going ahead again this year, and GCSE students will continue to be provided with formulae and equation sheets in maths, physics and combined science exams. That is important to prepare students for college, university or employment in the best possible way, and to help them make choices about their future. I am pleased to confirm that there are arrangements in place to support students facing challenging medical circumstances this year. As my hon. Friends have mentioned, details were published last week by the JCQ.

I recognise that the guidance has been published, but how does the Minister account for the fact that it has not been universally understood or applied?

I will come on to my hon. Friend’s important point about how we ensure that schools are aware of the changes to the guidance.

Every year, reasonable adjustments are made to assessments, or the way in which assessments are conducted, in order to reduce or remove disadvantage caused by a student’s disability. Adjustments are determined on a case-by-case basis, and can include allowing a student to take exams at home or in another setting, such as a hospital. Last year, in 2022, exam boards were able to use alternative evidence as a reasonable adjustment to determine a grade in exceptional circumstances where disabled students were unable to take exams and assessments, even with other reasonable adjustments in place, due to the extent of their disability. It is important to say that in this context, “a disability” does include some long-term illnesses, including cancer diagnoses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has identified.

Senior examiners use robust evidence provided by schools and colleges to determine a grade without the student taking the scheduled exams and assessments. Exam boards considered each individual situation carefully, case by case, and ensured that the work was assessed by their examiners to the same performance standard as the work of students who took exams. To ensure that the grades awarded reflect national standards, it is only fair for examiners, rather than teachers, to determine grades in these exceptional circumstances. I am pleased to say that exam boards have confirmed that in 2023 and beyond, they are taking an approach that is very similar to the one they took in 2022.

The Joint Council for Qualifications published its updated reasonable adjustment guidance on 5 May 2023 —on the eve of the coronation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne rightly pointed out—to provide clarity and assurance to students and schools. It may be helpful to note that as part of the resilience arrangements in place this year, Ofqual provided guidance on how schools and colleges should collect and retain evidence of student performance in the unlikely event that exams cannot go ahead as planned. That means that schools and colleges will be more likely to have the assessment evidence that they would need to provide to the exam boards so that they could determine a grade. I should clarify that the arrangements in place last year were not centre-assessed grades, as referred to by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. Rather, they were a form of reasonable adjustment, because the determination of the grade is made by the examiners, not by the teacher or the school.

My hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne, and for Chatham and Aylesford, both asked how the new guidance will be communicated. The JCQ has shared the updated guidance with the education sector and with schools, and will also include mention of it in its newsletter to schools and colleges this week. In addition, the Department for Education and Ofqual will look for other opportunities to promote the updated guidance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly send a letter to all MPs and peers that will further summarise this matter. Our key advice to students, and parents of students, who find themselves in difficult situations prior to their exams is to speak to their school or college, which can then contact the exam board directly on their behalf to discuss possible arrangements for them to be assessed and to receive a grade. As was the case in 2022, those arrangements will be decided case by case, based on supporting assessment and medical evidence. I conclude by reiterating that we must give as many pupils as possible—

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister’s peroration, but part of my speech was about being very explicit about cancer. The Minister is absolutely correct that cancer is covered by the Equality Act—it is highlighted—and comes under the definition in the guidance, but given that Charlotte’s school had to seek clarification on whether cancer was included, there could be further communication to make it much more explicit and clear that cancer is a very important part of what is covered by the guidance. No child should go through that horrible diagnosis thinking about their education or their exams. If that concern can be removed very early on in conversations on the subject, it would be enormously helpful to every child who, sadly, faces cancer.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will make sure is conveyed to the Joint Council for Qualifications. The whole administration of exams has to be conducted away from the interference of Ministers and other politicians, to make sure that it is fair and objective. I will make sure that my hon. Friend’s comments, and other comments from this debate, are passed on to Ofqual and the Joint Council for Qualifications.

I reiterate that we must give as many pupils as possible the opportunity to sit exams, as they are the fairest way for pupils to show what they know, understand and can do. I am pleased that exam boards have now put in place a clear process that allows students with a disability that prevents them from taking their scheduled exams or other formal assessments to receive a grade, after all the work they put in during their studies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne, and for Chatham and Aylesford, for the caring and attentive way in which they have supported and raised the concerns of their constituents.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered centre assessed grades.

Sitting adjourned.