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Examinations: A-level and GCSE

Volume 805: debated on Tuesday 15 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the arrangements needed for A-level and GCSE examinations in the 2020/21 academic year.

My Lords, this Government are committed to ensuring that students taking A-levels and GCSE exams in 2021 receive the qualifications that they deserve. Exams are the fairest way of judging students’ performance and we expect next year’s exams to go ahead. However, we recognise that students have experienced disruption to their education due to Covid-19. We will continue to work with Ofqual, the exam boards and sector representatives to ensure that next year’s exams are fair.

My Lords, the exam fiasco could have been avoided had the DfE been prepared to listen to the teacher associations and other relevant bodies. Can the Minister assure us that this listening has happened in preparation for next summer’s exams? And what contingency plans are in place if an individual school has to be closed down?

My Lords, throughout the period of the pandemic the department has been working closely with sector organisations, local authorities, multi-academy trusts and teaching unions. Of course, we are listening at the moment to all suggestions to ensure that the 2021 examinations go ahead. I would welcome any further contribution from the noble Lord and will ensure that it is taken back as we work through the contingency plans for next year.

My Lords, I declare an interest, as my younger daughter will be taking A-levels next year. There is an extraordinary disconnect between predicted and actual A-level results. This conceals a real mischief being done to disadvantaged children, and it will surely be worse this year. Are officials working on this question? If so, may I and others who have ideas and solutions to propose be put in touch with them?

My Lords, we are particularly concerned to ensure that disadvantaged students, along with other students, have the best opportunity to catch up. In relation to 16 to 19 year-olds, £96 million is available for small-group tutoring. However, I reiterate that I would welcome any contributions and ideas from noble Lords to make sure that we have all that information and so that we, Ofqual and sector representatives can work together to ensure that we run exams properly in 2021.

My Lords, will the scrapping of the spoken element of foreign language GCSE exams in 2021 be temporary? If so, when does the Minister expect it to be reinstated? Has any impact assessment of this measure been made regarding the suitability of this exam for entry into sixth-form or university study, or in the eyes of employers?

My Lords, the alteration to the spoken element of foreign language examinations is only for one year; it has not been scrapped. There will be a change to the assessment, but that will be done during the course of study, rather than in a formal speaking exam, which is similar to how English language is conducted in our schools. That was done to reduce the pressure on students and to free up some teaching time.

My Lords, none of us wants a repeat of the confusions in this year’s exam system, especially young people, who are very articulate about their concerns. What has the department learned from this year’s problems? The Minister said that it wants to consult and to hear suggestions. Here is one: will it consult young people on the fiasco that we have had?

My Lords, in relation to next year’s exams, the department is just about to embark on a whole programme of engagement with stakeholders. I will obviously take back the noble Baroness’s suggestion that we consult the widest possible group of people so that we can learn from what happened last year and ensure the position for 2021.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests: I am a university academic. What conversations are the Government having with universities about the possible disparity between the A-levels that students might achieve next year and the academic background that they need for certain subjects such as medicine if they have lost part of the syllabus because of teaching breaks owing to Covid?

My Lords, the Minister for Higher Education, Michelle Donelan, has been meeting, at times daily, with a higher education task force. In relation to A-levels, there have been many fewer changes to the curriculum instructions issued by Ofqual. There have been changes to subjects such as music and drama because we recognise that those students must have the breadth of curriculum to progress to higher or further education. However, we are of course working on contingency plans. That is the stage that we are at at the moment, and I will take back those comments to the department.

My Lords, for exams in 2021 Ofqual is proposing that, in most subjects at GCSE and in all subjects at A-level, students will be expected to have covered the full course content, despite many having suffered significant losses to learning time this year when schools were closed. As a result, qualifications risk being seriously undermined by the fact that some students will have had access to all the content while others will not. Given the chaos of the past two months, I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgment in an answer a few moments ago of the need for a contingency plan. So will the Secretary of State agree to work with teachers and school leaders to develop a robust national system of moderated centre-assessed grades, should exams need to be suspended again nationally or locally next year?

My Lords, the guidance put out by Ofqual outlined that schools should teach the breadth of the curriculum, but there have been changes to certain subjects, particularly at GCSE, where there are choices of topics—for instance, in English literature. There is no full requirement to do geography field trips because that is about saving time, and for public health reasons such trips might not be possible. However, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his suggestion, and it is one that I will formally take back to the department. This is the perfect time for this Question, so I will make sure that all suggestions are taken from the Chamber, and I hope that noble Lords will feel free to send any further suggestions to me.

Three independent research bodies have now reported that during lockdown a fifth of students had no access to a computer or had access for less than an hour—that is, 1.7 million students, and they are the disadvantaged. I fail to see how they can catch up on five months’ education in 12 months—it is utterly impossible. We should not count too much on tutoring, as most tutors have never taught disadvantaged children, which is quite a different business. So I very much support the contingency plan. The Minister must plan for the possibility of not having exams next year but, if the exams are to be held, they will have to have a substantially reduced content. That is the only way in which those 1.7 million students can be treated fairly next summer.

My Lords, the Government are of course concerned about catch-up for all students. In relation to disadvantaged students, £350 million is being made available for tutoring, and those mentors will begin to be in schools in the second half of the autumn term. We have provided over 220,000 laptops and another 150,000 will be made available. However, it is pleasing to tell noble Lords that the attendance statistics were announced only 50 minutes ago, and more than 7 million children and young people are back in the classroom. Noble Lords will be aware that one thing that the Secretary of State has asked Ofqual to consider is whether to delay the exams next year to allow more catch-up teaching time.

My Lords, research by the Runnymede Trust and others shows that pupils from BAME communities are still less likely to be accepted by the Russell group universities, even when equally as qualified at A-level as their white counterparts. What are the Government doing to address this issue?

My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, the universities are autonomous institutions, but they are regulated by the Office for Students. Under that regulatory framework, they have to have access and participation plans. One of the success stories over the last number of years is that black students have been more likely to take up a place in higher education; I will write to the noble Lord with specific statistics to support that statement.

My Lords, I declare my interest as in the register. Members of the National Education Union in independent schools are very concerned that, unless there is a change to assessment, students in state schools will be very much disadvantaged. Without further amendment, the assessment of A-levels and GCSEs will be more a measure of teaching time lost than of students’ abilities and knowledge. This could be remedied in part by introducing greater use of options within subjects—as is already in place in Wales and Northern Ireland—and open-book assessments. Will the Minister consider these suggestions?

When Ofqual consulted on these matters, it considered whether to introduce not just choice of topic but choice at question level; its opinion was actually that that would disadvantage weaker students—so, it has been considered. Of course teaching has now begun, and so it is not an option at present.