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Schools: Exams

Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure exams which were originally scheduled to take place in January can take place safely; and when they plan to publish alternative arrangements for exams which were scheduled to take place in the summer.

My Lords, schools and colleges can continue with vocational and technical exams that are scheduled in January where they judge that it is right to do so. Students will not sit GCSE and A-level exams this summer. We are working closely with Ofqual to provide clarity on VTQ exams and assessments that are scheduled for later in the academic year. We and Ofqual will consult on how to award all pupils a grade to ensure that they can progress.

My Lords, the Government could not quite complete yet another 180-degree turn of the sort we have become all too familiar with in education policy, stopping short by leaving it to individual colleges to decide whether BTEC exams should go ahead this week. That inevitably means a patchwork system for BTEC students, who once again seem to be an afterthought for this Government, and is a further example of their lack of leadership. There should have been a plan B for the always-likely scenario now facing school and college exams. How will the Department for Education reassure students who were expecting to sit BTECs that they will not now lose out on university applications or other career opportunities, and how can a repeat of the uncertainty and stress caused to pupils and parents by the changes to last year’s GCSE and A-level exams be avoided?

My Lords, colleges have been given the discretion this month, because most of the content will have been learned. Seven awarding organisations had assessments planned for this month, and many of those assessments are required occupationally for people to progress, even into work, so it was important that colleges were given that discretion. We have encouraged this where career progression is dependent on the assessment. From February, the Ofqual consultation will consider all qualifications so that those who take qualifications other than A-levels and enter higher education will get a fair assessment of their grades. The noble Lord will be aware that UCAS has extended the window for applications this year by two weeks.

My Lords, so exams will not be sat and there will be teacher assessment, presumably with some external moderation. It is important that individual students’ situations are considered in that moderation and that guidance is given to schools. For example, children and young people in vulnerable circumstances, and young people without access to the internet, paid-for wi-fi or a laptop, must be taken into account. As one head teacher put it, there is a huge regional variation between space and peace and support. Can the Minister guarantee that all students will have a level playing field when it comes to their virtual learning? She might be interested to know that the guidance on the government website says that children who are vulnerable can still attend school in person. Hopefully that will be changed or altered.

My Lords, we have made clear that school places are available for children where one parent is a critical worker, and for vulnerable children, because they are best off in school. We have given head teachers the discretion to include in that vulnerable category any children who they identify as being at risk and better off in school. There will be a consultation. Ofqual will have to consult, as the Prime Minister outlined, working with the department on how the assessment exams will take place this summer so that all the factors outlined by the noble Lord can be taken into account. I will ensure that noble Lords who have an interest in this matter get the link to that consultation when it is announced.

My Lords, this latest lockdown and the change to exams is yet again likely to impact disproportionately on the outcomes of already disadvantaged students. The Minister reassured me on 2 September that better-resourced independent schools were keen to engage in supporting these students and that her next meeting with them would focus on how to structure their desire to help. Can she update us on these discussions and say how, at this critical juncture, their support might be accessed and made widely available?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. For disadvantaged students the lockdown and the closure of schools was a last resort. We are keenly aware of the implications for children and families. Regarding the independent schools’ offer, we have made clear to them that if they already have students who are vulnerable or the children of critical care workers, they should make education available to them. I am meeting with the sector at the end of the month and will be able to give the noble Baroness further information then.

My Lords, given that the history of pandemics has shown that there are often many twists and turns, and given that even with the vaccine there may be further disruption for the rest of this year and possibly even next year, can the Minister share some of the plan Bs in the event of future lockdowns pushing out the exams further? For example, are there plans to explore taking exams virtually, where technology allows you to check that the pupil is sitting the exam properly? Also, are measures in place to show employers and universities other evidence beyond the teacher’s perspective on the achievements of a pupil?

The noble Lord is correct that twists and turns can obviously be very quick. Remote education is the most important thing for students at the moment. A direction was issued before Christmas of three hours for primary-school children and four hours for secondary, and the right honourable Member the Secretary of State for Education is currently outlining the strengthening of those requirements. In 2020, we delivered 560,000 laptops to disadvantaged children. We delivered 50,000 on Monday, and there will be another 50,000 by the end of the week. This is key to those students in accessing curriculum that is delivered remotely for them. Regarding the consultation, all perspectives on how exams can be conducted will be able to be put forward.

My Lords, the summer exams were cancelled in Wales on 10 November, allowing time for schools and exam boards to develop robust alternative assessments. In Scotland, they followed suit on 8 December, yet Ministers in England dogmatically held out until Monday. They have catastrophically mishandled the impact of the pandemic on schools, on the digital divide, on free school meals, on last summer’s exams, on the abandoned mass-testing rollout and now in providing some certainty for schools this year. Has the Minister seen today’s statement by Parentkind that 84% of parents say that it is impacting their children’s mental health? Given that Ministers have lost the confidence and trust of teachers, school leaders and parents, is it not time for the Secretary of State and the Schools Minister to resign?

My Lords, obviously education is a devolved matter within the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland is still planning examinations, so there will have been different decisions at different times. In normal circumstances, exams are the best way to assess the education that children have been given, and we held out, as we believed was appropriate. It was a last resort to close our schools. We are keenly aware of the mental health and well-being implications for young people, hence why schools are open for vulnerable children at this time. We have not abandoned mass testing, because there are children in school. This will be a period in which schools can roll that out for students and staff who are there with a view to it being rolled out to primary schools and with a view to reopening as soon as the public health situation allows. That mass testing may be necessary at that point in time. We have closed the schools as a last resort and will reopen them as soon as public health allows.

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests and declare another: I have an 18 year-old daughter who was actually set to be taking her exams this year, and I can confirm that, even for somebody like her who was expected to do well, there is stress.

Looking at other groups, students who sometimes overachieve in exams—generally the males of the species and particularly those with special educational needs, and who, for instance, might be able to dictate to somebody for the first time in an assessment—what plans have been made to make sure that these people are allowed to progress? Are we going to make sure that extra places are available in the next stage of their education in the foreseeable future?

My Lords, on the cancellation of exams for this summer, the consultation by Ofqual will include all the factors, including the ones that the noble Lord outlines. We know that although there was generally, percentage-wise, an inflation grade last year over the previous year, there are certain groups—sometimes disadvantaged students, sometimes BAME students—whose predicted grades are less than what they actually achieved. This consultation will enable those factors to be part of that assessment as to how we fairly assess the performance of our young people who will not be sitting exams.

My Lords, one of the groups that lost out last summer was the group of students studying for a GCSE or A-level in a heritage or community language at a supplementary school that was not partnered with a mainstream school, so they were unable to be awarded a centre-assessed grade. Will the Minister assure the House that, if similar or indeed whatever arrangements are made this year, the Government will work in advance with teachers and all types of school to ensure that no students from supplementary schools are so unfairly disadvantaged again?

My Lords, those students at supplementary schools are reviewed as private candidates. That is the same situation that home-educated students found themselves in last year, many of whom took advantage of the autumn series to sit examinations where centres could not, with integrity, give a grade to their work. Again I must point the noble Baroness to the consultation that will take place, but I anticipate that private candidates, including supplementary schools, will be part of what is looked at in the consultation to try to ensure that we can give them a grade through the assessment process in the summer.

My Lords, I declare my interest as set out in the register. I support the Government’s decision to put teachers at the forefront of grading A-levels and GCSEs this summer. Following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I stress that there must be an external moderating assessment of whatever process is put in place. Can my noble friend shed some detail on the timeframe for the consultation of what this process will be? What assessment has been made of the impact of this timetable on university applications?

My Lords, as I outlined, UCAS has extended the application window for two weeks. I am anticipating that external moderation will be part of what the consultation will include. That will be swift; it needs to be a valid consultation, but we know that we need to give certainty as soon as we can to schools, pupils and families. It may be that as I speak the Secretary of State is in the other place outlining further details. I am obviously not at liberty to give them today but I will be repeating that Statement tomorrow.

I apologise. I was saying that many children still do not have a computer, wi-fi or space in which to work. If schools are open for the children of key workers or for vulnerable children, why can space not be found in schools, community centres or libraries for those who cannot learn at home? Why not pay unemployed graduates or retired teachers to support pupils whose parents cannot afford tutors?

My Lords, in addition to the laptops that I outlined, 50,000 4G routers have been given to disadvantaged children. We have worked closely with the mobile phone companies to lift data limits so that children and families can access data on educational sites without limit. I advise noble Lords to look at the “Get help with tech” part of the website. However, in relation to space and the gathering together of people, contacts are what we need to limit at the moment, so those kinds of out-of-school settings are open only for vulnerable children and children of key workers. In relation to graduates, the academic mentors, who are part of the catch-up programme that Teach First has been using, are physical mentors in schools, so I anticipate that some graduates and potentially retired teachers have taken advantage of that.

My Lords, the last time I had occasion to ask about exams, it was to ask the Minister why the Government had not followed the lead of other UK jurisdictions in cancelling 16-plus exams, given that it was clear even at that stage that they could not be held fairly in 2021. Today I ask whether her department will take the opportunity to review the appropriateness of exams at 16-plus going forward, particularly given that, however good online teaching is, current year 10 students will have missed at least a term and a half—and probably more—of face-to-face teaching.

My Lords, as I have outlined, the Government closed schools as a last resort and cancelled exams as the best independent way of assessing students’ performance. The tectonic plate that shifted with the new variant over the Christmas and after-Christmas period has changed things dramatically from the last time that I stood at the Dispatch Box. However, it remains the case in England, as I have outlined—there are different approaches in different parts of the United Kingdom because of different education systems—that most students in England transition at 16, and that is why an examination at 16 is important.