Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this important debate. We have had some really important contributions from Members. My hon. Friend gave an excellent speech, grounded in the realities faced by pupils and teachers, and called on the Government to listen to their voices. She rightly said that clarity is paramount for everybody involved.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Hew Merriman) called on the Government to consider looking at coursework marked by exam boards. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) spoke eloquently on the confusion and chaos that the Government have presided over this year and the heartbreaking stories of university places being withdrawn. He also set out how students from disadvantaged backgrounds were most likely to be adversely affected and how Ministers were responsible for hard-baking disadvantage into the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) spoke passionately about the injustice visited on her constituents as a result of the Government’s discriminatory actions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) expressed her concerns about the impact that Government actions would have on students’ subject choices.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) paid tribute to pupils who have shown extraordinary resilience this year, and she spoke of the injustice visited on BTEC students, who had to face such long delays before receiving their results. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) set out quite clearly that the Government’s incompetence over the summer beggars belief, and that they should learn from their mistakes. She also spoke eloquently about the disadvantage that children in her constituency face.
The petitions that we have been debating today each received almost 150,000 signatures, so it is clear that these issues are of immense public interest. The Government have presided over a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion, and their failure to effectively manage the exams and assessments processes for summer 2020 caused enormous anxiety for many children and young people, as well as their families and teachers.
There were problems from the beginning, with the way in which the Government decided that pupils’ grades would be calculated. According to Ofqual, Ministers were repeatedly warned about this issue. At a meeting of the Education Committee in September, Julie Swan, executive director of general qualifications at Ofqual, said that the regulator provided advice to Ministers on 16 March that
“it would be challenging if not impossible”
to attempt to moderate estimated grades in a way that would be fair for all of this year’s students. She went on to say that
“Everyone, throughout the process, was aware of the risks”,
and referred to a paper of the general public sector ministerial implementation group on 1 May, which highlighted the risk of widespread dissatisfaction with the grades awarded among individual students, schools and colleges, and the risk to public confidence. She also said that Ofqual briefed No.10 on 7 August and held regular meetings throughout this period with the Minister for School Standards.
After days of confusion following the A-level results on 13 August, when nearly 40% of students’ centre-assessed grades were adjusted downwards, the Secretary of State finally listened to young people, their parents, their teachers and the Labour party, and allowed centre-assessed grades to be used.
Labour tried through an Opposition day debate and a vote on the Floor of the House to get the Government to be open and transparent about what Ministers knew, when they knew it and what they did about it when they were warned of the difficulties. Full disclosure of this information by the Government would at least have enabled students, their families and their teachers to see what went wrong and why. Although Conservative MPs voted the motion down, the Government’s chaotic handling of the exams process really dented confidence in our examination system.
There are now questions about what happens next summer and beyond. Petition 320772 called on the Government to reduce curriculum content for year 10 and 12 students who will sit exams next year. It argued that the loss of classroom-based learning cannot be effectively compensated for by the provision of remote learning activities, and that reducing the content will give students the opportunity to sit their exams equitably. In August, Labour called for A-level and GCSE exams in 2021 to be pushed back to June, to give pupils a better chance to catch up on lost teaching time. On 1 September, the Secretary of State indicated that the Government would indeed implement a delay to exams. Then there was a long period of silence from the Department.
What were the Government doing when they should have been providing much-needed clarity to teachers and students about assessment for 2021? The silence lasted for five and a half weeks, until just two days ago, on 10 October, when press reports suggested that the Secretary of State was expected to announce a three-week delay in the start of next summer’s exams, alongside a requirement for schools to hold mock exams in controlled conditions earlier in the year, with exam-style invigilating, marking and grading. According to those reports, the mock grades could then be used to assess results in regions or centres where pupils’ exam preparations had been severely disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks, or in the event of their being unable to sit exams in the summer.
The Government’s announcement today about the exams for next summer, along with those press reports, raise a number of questions. Can the Minister say why speculative reports about next year’s exams appeared in the press before an official announcement was made? Why has it taken the Government almost half of the first school term to come up with this statement? Can the Minister elaborate on reports in the press referring to tensions between the Department and Ofqual? Will he also set out the full range of options for next summer’s exams presented to the Department by Ofqual?
The Government have also announced that they will engage widely with the sector over the next six weeks to identify any risks to exams at national, local and individual student level, and to consider measures needed to address any potential disruption. That is really quite remarkable. What have the Government been doing, and why have they not been doing this already? Students and teachers really cannot wait any longer for the clarity that they need, yet today, as the leaves outside are turning golden brown, the Government are telling them that more detail will be published later in the autumn. Precisely when during this season does the Minister have in mind?
The incompetence of the Government is breathtaking. We need a Government who are able to plan effectively for next year. We do not know how much more school-based teaching time may be lost. However, we know it is likely that any such loss will be different for different schools and cohorts of pupils. A group of headteachers who wrote to me last week highlighted that very point, and said that:
“Substantial adjustments need to be made at subject level that will ensure those in areas of the country that have been most badly affected by the virus are not further disadvantaged by an assessment process that assumes that problems experienced have been spread equally”.
What plans do the Government have to address the matter? As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) has pointed out, five education unions have come up with a proposal for awarding GCSE, AS and A-level grades in 2021. Together, the ASCL, the National Association of Head Teachers, the NASUWT, the National Education Union and the National Governance Association have set out recommendations that include commissioning an independent review of what happened this year to learn from when planning what to do next year, and publishing contingency plans as soon as possible to outline how students who are unable to sit exams in the summer, or whose education is significantly disrupted, will nevertheless receive robust, reliable grades next year. What assessment have the Government made of the unions’ recommendations?
Today’s announcement could have been made weeks ago. The consultation with the sector that the Government now say they will carry out over the next six weeks, to consider measures needed to address any potential disruption of learning, should have happened already. The fact that the Government say that they will publish more detail in the autumn will not give students and teachers reassurance. It will make them anxious at having to wait even longer for answers from the Government.