[James Gray in the Chair.]
[Relevant Documents: First Report of the Education Committee, Getting the grades they’ve earned: Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and ‘calculated’ grades, HC 617, and the Government Response, HC 812.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 326066, 550846, 316404 and 549015, relating to the impact of Covid-19 on schools and exams.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. This is a timely debate as only last week the Secretary of State for Education laid out the Government’s plan for the delivery of GCSEs and A-levels next summer. I want to put on record my sincere thanks to Libby Harris, Alex D’Arcy and Ellis Rogers, whose petitions we debate today, for giving me time to speak with them at length about their reasons for starting their respective petitions. I also thank Dame Glenys Stacey from Ofqual for giving me her time to explain the processes for exams next summer.
I start with Ellis’s e-petition calling for the reclosure of schools and colleges due to an increase in covid-19 cases, which has been signed by 416,000 people—990 of them are from my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke—as well as Libby’s petition asking the Government to mandate schools to close two weeks before the end of autumn term, enabling students to self-isolate before joining loved ones in their Christmas bubbles.
Ellis began his petition because of his mum and aunt, who both work as teachers—unsung heroes during the global health pandemic—at the same secondary school. When all year groups returned to Parrs Wood High School, where Ellis’s mum and aunt work, it was only a matter of weeks until his mother caught covid-19. Ellis feels that, despite all the measures introduced by the school to be as covid-secure as possible, they simply are not enough, in large part because not all pupils are following the rules of wearing masks in corridors, keeping socially distanced from staff and peers, and not mixing with different bubbles. He also highly doubts the regularity of people hand-sanitising or washing. That causes only more anxiety for Ellis as his aunt was classified as extremely vulnerable via her GP during the first lockdown, and his first concern is—rightly so—the safety and wellbeing of his family.
Ellis has some questions for the Minister that he would like to have answered. Why can we not move back to online learning for all pupils? What have the Government done to invest in technology to enable learning from home since the start of the 2020 summer term? Have they invested in better ventilation in schools, as has happened in some countries across Europe? Lastly, what are they doing about vocational qualifications? Many students felt let down by having to wait an additional two weeks to receive their grades last summer. Are vocational qualifications an afterthought?
Libby’s petition, which goes along slightly similar lines to Ellis’s, is about providing safety for elderly relatives and preventing another spike in cases, as we have recently witnessed. She has asked whether it is possible to move all learning online for the final two weeks of this term. In that way, young people could self-isolate, potentially get tested and ensure that they had no symptoms, so that when they met loved ones they could do so knowing that they were not endangering them.
Libby referred me to Stephen Reicher from Independent SAGE, who has suggested allowing pupils off a week earlier than usual and adding those days back into the school calendar next summer, in order to protect loved ones and the NHS. Libby also referred to Kit Yates, also from Independent SAGE, who has said that if we took year 13 alone as a region, they would be in tier 3. To be clear, Libby is not a teacher. She is a concerned citizen who understands the need to compromise and is willing for her idea to apply only to secondary schools where the spread of covid-19 cases seems much more prevalent. Libby therefore asks this question of the Minister: if schools remain open, will the Government implement the safety measures recommended by Independent SAGE, and if not, why not?
I come to the final petitioner, Alex, who has called for the cancellation of all GCSEs and A-levels in the summer of 2021. His petition has just over 169,000 signatories, with 292 from my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Alex is a year 11 student preparing to sit his GCSEs next summer. A northern lad living in Liverpool, he argues that his local community in his region has been more greatly affected than some in other parts of the United Kingdom. Since September, some of his peers have lost out on six weeks of face-to-face learning. Alex was happy to share that he is a beneficiary of Merchant Taylors’, a private school that he attends in Liverpool. It has the resources and capability to deliver high-quality online learning, but that experience is not fair and not true of many in his community.
Alex referred to statistics showing that during the first lockdown, when most students were asked not to attend school, a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research team concluded that a third of students had not engaged in lessons while at home, 42% had not bothered to return their work, and pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were the least likely to engage with remote learning. Alex feels it is highly unlikely that a level playing field can be created because, as some surveys suggest, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are up to four months behind in their learning, which the three-week delay to the start of exams simply cannot make up for.
All my discussions with Alex predate last week’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Education, but Alex did email me with some thoughts and questions for the Minister. How will the Government and Ofqual ensure that fair marking is applied across all exam boards, as marking can be very subjective? The Government must ensure that the advance notice of topics and additional support materials is announced as soon as possible to ensure that teachers and students can prepare. A U-turn must not happen. Lastly, will the Government pledge to spend any additional money on resources in case of a third lockdown, and use Oak National Academy, BBC Red Button and textbooks suppliers so that schools have all the resources they need?
I hope I have done justice to the petitioners. I will respond with my own views on the petitions. All petitioners have been told in advance, and I am grateful for their trust in me to deliver their views today. For the record, I do not believe that schools and colleges should close, and I believe that exams must go ahead next summer. I am pleased that we now have the details about how that will run. Such large numbers of students being asked not to attend school for six months still saddens and horrifies me. I understand why that was necessary as we tackled and learned about covid-19, but I think many Members will agree that that is something we never wish to see again.
I represent an area with one of the worst level 3 and level 4 qualification take-ups in the country. Students in my area are below average in achieving a pass in English and in maths at GCSE, and far too many lack access to high-skilled, high-quality apprenticeships or job opportunities. Lockdown has meant that we are rocking on our back foot as a local area after taking a right hook from covid-19. I therefore ask the Government to ensure that the last things to be closed in this country are schools and colleges.
I was extremely disappointed to see the National Education Union executive campaign so heavily not to have schools open to all students, and spending time running a political campaign asking for Facebook graphics to be shared, rather than working with the Department for Education. The damaging actions taken by NEU leaders, who I do not believe speak for most of its members, will have negatively impacted the reputation of and respect for some in the teaching profession. I sincerely hope the NEU will pause and think about its conduct.
Since the start of September, 99% of state-funded schools have been open each week, with the rate of face-to-face attendance maintained at close to 90%, although we have seen a drop to 83% as of 26 November, due to an increase in covid-19 cases. This shows that many students are present in school, and there has been an expectation for schools to provide remote learning when students have to self-isolate, with recent guidance about how that must be done.
Of those pupils who did not attend on 26 November due to covid-related reasons, it is believed that only 0.2% had a confirmed case and 0.4% a suspected case, and 7% to 8% were self-isolating because of coming into contact with someone who had covid. UK scientists have constantly demonstrated that children are less susceptible to infection than adults, which has also been shown in studies from South Korea and Iceland. Data from this summer demonstrated that under-18s in the UK accounted for less than 2% of all infections detected, and research led by University College London concluded that children are 50% less likely to become infected than adults. Data has also indicated that schools are a low-risk setting for transmission and that there is no significant transmission among children or from pupils to teachers. Details of a study in the Netherlands that were published by SAGE in April support these claims.
I believe that the Government have worked to create a comprehensive list of measures—including regular hand washing, enhanced cleaning, bubbles and staggered timings of the day—to ensure that school can be an effective place of learning. However, although lots of good work has been done, it is still fair to ask questions and raise concerns.
I note that the Department for Education has announced recently that money will be made available to schools to assist with the costs of cleaning, the provision of laptops, supply teachers and other costs. Although that is welcome, it is not yet clear what the size of the budget will be nor how the money can be applied for. Schools in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, such as St Mary’s Primary School in Tunstall, have lost out, because they have a well-managed budget and therefore were not entitled to claim back for the cost of making sure that they were covid-secure after the first lockdown. Will the Minister say how big the budget will be, whether schools be able to backdate claims and when the money will be distributed?
I acknowledge and welcome the Government’s £195 million to purchase 340,000 laptops and tablets. However, not all children have access to wi-fi, and nor do they or their parents know how to use the internet and online apps properly, as is the case for 44% of residents across Stoke-on-Trent. While the digital divide exists, with 9 million people struggling to use the internet independently, as the Good Things Foundation has found, we can anticipate huge problems. That is why I back the call by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for a digital catch-up scheme.
With regard to exams, I will not revisit the past, as I think we have all learned a valuable lesson from that ordeal. The scheme announced by the Secretary of State for Education seems to take a balanced and detailed approach. I am particularly pleased with the advance notice of topics, as it enables teachers to plan accordingly. Again, I urge the Minister to work with the profession to create accessible online resources and also videos on these topics for TV, accessed via the red button, to aid teachers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, has regularly called for. These additional support materials will give students the support to ensure that they can demonstrate the very best of their ability.
However, the Minister must keep the pressure on Ofqual to ensure that advance notice is given by the end of January, as promised. Contingency plans—additional papers for those who miss the exams and enabling clinically vulnerable students to do tests from home—would also be good news. However, I hope that those with special educational needs and disability will also be taken into account much further, with consideration of home examination adjusted for.
Using Ofqual’s special consideration process for those who may sit only one or two of the exams in a subject is also good news, as this is a system that has been in place for decades. However, I ask the Minister to ensure that the system has been stress-tested, because it is highly unlikely that it will have had to handle the numbers in this summer’s exam series, in order to give certainty to year 11 and 13 students across England.
I also urge the Minister to work with me to have the DFE set up an online portal for the volunteer army of retired or ex-teachers to be exam invigilators, an idea that the Secretary of State has supported. This way, the DFE can enable schools to waive the costs of conducting CRB checks and access those stepping up in the national effort.
The Minister also needs to set out how additional exam markers will be hired to ensure that papers can be marked in a shorter timeframe and to ensure the quality of exam board marking.
I welcome the £1 billion catch-up fund, but I am seriously concerned that some schools, such as the King’s Church of England School in Kidsgrove, have not been able to find tutors via the approved suppliers, and by the announcement that the £350 million of funding for the national tutoring programme is not only for the 2020-21 academic year but will now be spread over two years. I have long stated my scepticism that this scheme will deliver for students in disadvantaged areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, as these large, centrally controlled schemes do not always end up where they are intended to.
Will the Minister explain why funding from the national tutoring programme will now be spread over two years, what progress has been made in hiring tutors and how they will be distributed? Lastly, the school holidays are a really important opportunity to catch up. Following comments last week from my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), will the Minister explain how we can use the holiday periods effectively?
I am really pleased that we are having this debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for introducing the petitions so well. This is a really difficult time for all students and their parents, just as it is for everybody else. We know of the uncertainty and damage that will be done if the right provision is not available. I agree with the hon. Member that it is absolutely right that schools stay open. I point out that all schools, or nearly all schools, have been open all the way through since 23 March for the children of essential workers and for many other children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We should all pay tribute to staff, who have worked incredibly hard, have been on the frontline, are essential workers and have often been infected with covid. Sadly, too many teachers and other school staff have died.
I wanted to take part in this debate because of my constituent, Alex D’Arcy. The hon. Gentleman mentioned him. He lives just around the corner from me, and I have known him on and off since he was about eight. I did not know that he had started the petition in August; I had absolutely no involvement whatsoever in encouraging him to do it, but I am thrilled that he did. When I spoke to him last week, he had not realised how quickly the petition had grown. He had not looked at it for several months, and suddenly 169,000 people had signed it. He was demonstrating his solidarity with many of his friends—people who live on the same street as him—who are not in such a fortunate position as he has been: he is one of only five students in his school who has not had to self-isolate at any time since going back in September.
Many others are not as fortunate, and many go to other schools where it has been much harder. As the hon. Gentleman said, children have not had the online support, and they have not had the in-school support either. That is the context in which Alex launched the petition. Because of the missed hours between 23 March and the end of the summer term last year, he did not see how it was possible for the exams to take place this year.
Much of that still applies, including the point about whether exams should go ahead, because there has been a serious gap between those children and young people who have had very good access, like Alex, and those in the north-west who have had to go home and self-isolate on up to five different occasions since just September. It is hard to see how those children and young people will catch up. The Government announced the national tutoring programme, but the hon. Member pointed out that that funding is over two years, not one, and it is being introduced very late. There are questions about why it took so long, and about where the tutors will come from. How much support will be available? One headteacher in my constituency said that, as far as she can tell, it will be 15 hours for one subject only. For students taking eight or nine GCSEs, that will be a drop in the ocean. I am afraid that having advance notice or support in the exam hall will not make the slightest difference. If a student taking an exam does not understand the topic, it does not matter how much notice they get or how much help they get in the exam hall—they will not be able to answer the questions. I am afraid that setting up a working group, which was the big reveal from the Government, really does not go far enough at this stage. The Government have to answer quickly some serious questions about how this will all work, how the catch-up will be possible and how it will be possible for all children and young people to have a fair chance at their exams in the summer.
The Government need to have a plan B in place. Given the reform, we know it will be difficult to deliver the kind of classroom assessment that the current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster put through when he was Education Secretary, whereas it is possible in Wales. There are alternatives to exams, and the Government will have to come up with an alternative, just in case the infection rate increases and we are not able to see a fair system for exams. We have not heard that so far, and we have yet to see exactly how they propose to make exams work. Unless they do—this is a point that was made to me by Alex—we will have a real imbalance between the nations of the United Kingdom, whereby children in England will face real unfairness and inequality. They will face a system whereby grades are being awarded in Scotland and Wales on a different basis. How will that enable A-level students to compete fairly for university places, and will it be fair to GCSE students? Those are the questions for the Minister and Secretary of State.
I am incredibly proud of Alex for launching his petition. He has done a terrific job in highlighting this issue and he deserves enormous credit. We should encourage our young people to do as he has done. I hope that his getting 169,000 people to join him in signing the petition is the kind of impetus the Minister needs to take the action that all our children and young people need to have a fair crack this year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. We had a really good start to the debate from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), and it is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for the first time ever.
Many of our nation’s schools face an unprecedented challenge. The lockdown has had a severe impact on every aspect of education in this country, and many students have fallen behind in their studies. The entire student population, from primary right through to university, has been forced to learn from home for almost a full academic year. Teachers have risen to the challenge of adapting for digital delivery, and many say they want to keep some techniques as we return back to the new normal, but the lack of available equipment and connectivity for disadvantaged young people during the lockdown has widened the educational divides. In my constituency of Southport and many others across the country, there are homes where children simply do not have access to a computer. If we are truly to level up our communities, we must address the problem and ensure that such children are not disadvantaged further by this pandemic.
My second point is about closures and the impact that they have had on examinations and the continuity of students’ grades. Of course, exams were cancelled this year. Thousands of students, who had been relentlessly told for years about the importance of exams, were suddenly left without a conclusion to their studies. Indeed, Ofqual established a system for teachers to estimate grades. Like a great number of MPs present, I received hundreds of emails from constituents after the grades were given out. They were concerned about their son or daughter and the grades that they had been given—they were nothing like what had been predicted. Many students missed out on a place at university. We must ensure that that does not happen again and that integrity is put back into the system.
That brings me to my final point, about the impact of this virus on students’ mental health, an issue that I have raised on numerous occasions since becoming the Member of Parliament for Southport in 2017. We know that the coronavirus pandemic has a profound impact on the lives of millions of children and young people across this country. In some cases, they have been through other traumatic experiences at home as well, such as abuse or death, as well as the direct impact that covid has had on families. Some have struggled with missing friends, others with losing the structure of the school day and no longer having access to the support network that they relied on. Although returning to school is likely to be positive for many young people’s mental health, the readjustment following a long break and the changes that schools are having to make to their environment and timetables will be challenging for some.
Schools need to make wellbeing their top priority as we return to normality, and they need Government support to help them to do that. We know that about a third of schools do not provide school-based mental health support and that many young people who are struggling to cope may not meet the criteria for NHS mental health services in their area. When the Minister responds, I ask her to carefully consider that issue and the campaign of the charity YoungMinds, which calls on the Government to provide ring-fenced funding to ensure that schools can bring in extra support where it is needed to help pupils and parents.
It is vital to ensure that, through no fault of their own, this generation of students do not fall back in terms of the educational support they receive. Let us get them back on top of their studies. I strongly believe that we need to return to full in-person learning and examinations, which are the only way to ensure fairness between year groups and parity between students from low-income and more fortunate backgrounds.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this timely debate, Mr Gray. I am pleased to be discussing the subject again. I congratulate the young people who stand in solidarity with their peers, their teachers and their family members and who started the petition, and those who have signed it. Pupils in Bath and across the UK have responded with remarkable resilience to this challenging year. Our teachers and school staff have also adapted brilliantly; I thank them all for the work that they have done to make sure that our schools can remain open. It would be an insult to their efforts to repeat the exams fiasco next year.
I have said before that I believe a return to exams in 2021, even with a three-week delay, is the wrong decision. It is about fairness, about which we have already heard a lot in the debate. The time that students have spent in school varies massively across the country, and more may need to self-isolate. I am not convinced that the measures announced by the Secretary of State for Education last week will be enough to level the playing field.
We have seen that teacher assessment works. Teachers are fully capable of assessing their students’ ability. The Welsh Government have announced a flexible approach to assessments that will be delivered in a classroom environment. Those assessments will be externally set and marked to ensure consistency across the nation, but they are not national exams as we know them. Most importantly, the Welsh approach gives pupils the chance to use the summer term to catch up on lost teaching time and to continue learning and building the skills and knowledge that they need for the next stage of their lives. Why should pupils in England not be given the same opportunity?
The Government have yet to answer many questions. Moving grade boundaries may help some students to get higher grades, but will it make up for the huge variation in teaching time? When can students expect the list of topics that will be covered in exams? That must be provided as soon as possible so they can make the most of the rest of the school year. Teachers also need to prepare. If we go ahead with exams, how can we make sure that they are fair? Announcing an expert panel to monitor that is all very well, but again, when can teachers and students expect clarity on what it will mean for them? It is completely unacceptable to continue to kick that decision down the road.
There is a real human cost to all this uncertainty for pupils and teachers. We have already heard much about pupils’ mental health.
Behind every exam result is a young person ready to take on the next stage in their life, whether that is an apprenticeship, a place at university or something else. We cannot begin to know the full extent to which this disruption will affect them, but the exam situation is causing them a great deal of stress and anxiety, and the power to reduce it is in the Government’s hands. The Government owe it to those young people to learn from the summer exams fiasco, rather than rely solely on exams at all costs.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on his introduction and on bringing forward this debate on the impact of covid on schools and exams.
This is an important debate. Few issues are as important as our children’s education, especially in a year when that has been more disrupted than at any time in recent memory. As a principle, I believe that for children’s progress and wellbeing it is vital for them to remain in the education setting for as long as possible. I will therefore focus on the impact of covid on exams and the case for a two-week lockdown in schools before Christmas. I will build on representations I have had over the past week from the headteachers of three schools in Rugby: Siobhan Evans of Ashlawn School, Mark Grady of Rugby High School and Alison Davies of Avon Valley School.
On the issue of exams, I recognise the very great challenge to the Government and Ofqual—I am sure the Minister will explain this—of putting in place a system to treat pupils who will be sitting GCSEs and A-levels next summer. How are we to treat those pupils fairly? Many pupils have lost an awful lot of school time. Ofsted, in its recent annual report, notes:
“While we do not yet have reliable evidence on ‘learning loss’ from the pandemic, it is likely that losses have been significant and will be reflected in widening attainment gaps.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) referred to that.
We know that the amount of home study in this time has varied dramatically according to the circumstances of the children and their parents. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have missed out significantly in comparison with their more fortunate peers. Mrs Evans drew my attention to the fact that her own son, who attends a different school from the one where she is head, missed out on 150 teaching hours during the first lockdown and is on course to miss a further 120 in this academic year—a total of 270 hours. I understand that a GCSE is typically 120 guided learning or teaching hours, so her son is missing the equivalent of two GCSEs’ worth of teaching time. That is a huge amount, even when parents are able to monitor their child’s learning, support them and put additional resource in place—and of course we know that that has not been possible for every child. Many have not had the support at home to make up for that lost teaching time. I have heard accounts from teachers and parents of pupils who have spent that time at home on computers, playing games and staying up late, rather than completing their school work.
There is a range of solutions, varying from cancelling the exams altogether to going ahead and pretending that nothing has happened, but I believe that what the Government have announced is a pragmatic suggestion. It includes delaying exams for three weeks to provide extra teaching time, giving advance notice of the topics that pupils will be examined on, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, and providing appropriate aid to pupils during their exams.
It is essential that exams go ahead, because they are the fairest and most accurate way we have to measure attainment. Of course, pupils themselves deserve to have the opportunity to demonstrate their hard work and show what they know. Today, I spoke to the equality club at Rugby Free Secondary School—a fourth secondary in my constituency—to talk about equality. The Government should take steps to ensure that no pupil is unfairly disadvantaged simply by virtue of having been born in a particular year—in this case, 2003, 2004 or 2005—and sitting exams in either 2020 or 2021. It is imperative that there is a level playing field on applications for jobs and universities for the children who sit exams in these two years as there was for those in the years preceding them and as there will be in the years afterwards, when, we hope, everything will settle down.
I now turn to the case for a two-week lockdown from 10 December, which has been made to me by Mr Grady and Ms Davies. They have told me that, following the announcement of the relaxation of the rules to allow the formation of Christmas bubbles, there should be a two-week school lockdown from 10 December. I understand that that is because if a student is identified as a contact and required to isolate after 10 December, their self-isolation period will have a direct impact on their family’s plans for Christmas—through no fault of their own, a student could cause their family to miss out on a family Christmas.
Any child going to school from Monday 14 December and required to self-isolate will have to do so for the whole Christmas period. The case for closure is that if schools were to close on 10 December, that risk could be eliminated. But I believe that that would be incredibly disruptive to the majority of children and, as with previous school closures, a two-week school lockdown would have a disproportionate effect on students from disadvantaged backgrounds at a time when those students have missed many hours of education already.
My hon. Friend the Minister will tell us that there is a judgment call to be made between the impact on family Christmases and on children’s education. If we had not lost so much teaching time already in the year, it might have been reasonable to close early for Christmas, but I do not buy that. I think it essential that children do not fall further behind, and for that reason I am not supportive of a pre-Christmas school lockdown.
If I may, I will raise one or two issues that have been drawn to my attention by my local headteachers and particularly in respect of Ashlawn School, which is very heavily subscribed because of its outstanding Ofsted rating. A big and busy school, it has done exceptionally well to maintain social distancing on the school estate, but in practice the limitations of the classroom sizes have made it very difficult to meet all the Government guidelines. Mrs Evans has contrasted the reality that schools face on the ground with some of the images that have come through from the Department, showing students in spacious classrooms with plenty of room between them. That is not always the case, particularly in a well subscribed outstanding school. She has also drawn my attention to the cost of maintaining social distancing measures in a big school: she estimates that the cost is £200 a day, with £70 a day spent on hand sanitiser alone.
The Government have done the right thing in prioritising education and ensuring that pupils get the best possible education. They have demonstrated that they have the best interests of the most disadvantaged at heart, and I very much look forward to the remarks of the Minister in summing up the debate this evening.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this debate. I certainly concur with the comments made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) about the national tutoring programme. I know that school heads across York, who come together in an organisation called YSAB—York Schools and Academies Board—say that the money could be better and more effectively targeted had they got control of the resources. They also have relationships with people who could deliver such a programme. That would make such a difference, and not only in delivering the programme far more quickly, which is something that we would all want to see.
I also concur with some of the comments made in Libby’s petition on looking at closing schools down earlier before Christmas and being able to displace that time to another point in the calendar in order to keep families safe. Every day, we are seeing hundreds of children in our constituencies not at school. In York, 545 children are not in school in one of the lowest areas of infection in the country. We have to hold things in balance: we have to look at how we can put the right measures in place to keep families safe, but also ensure that there is minimum disruption to children’s education.
This has been the most challenging time for teachers and support staff, as well as students. The stress placed on our young people today, who have worked incredibly hard through this time, has had a profound impact on their mental health, which must be recognised. People do not want to be absent from their education: with every single absence, they see their future slipping away, not least because they are still uncertain as to what the end of the year may bring for them. One thing that they are certain of, though, is that those absences have driven greater inequality.
In researching for this debate, I decided to go back to some source reports, drawing on academia in particular and looking at Ofqual reports too, to examine the assertion that Government keep putting forward: that exams are the best form of assessment. From Ofqual’s work and that of others, that is not what the evidence is saying. For instance, an inequality is hardwired into the system: the evidence shows that male students perform better in exam-only assessments than female students, and we therefore need to look at that issue. While female students perform well in exams, they also excel where there is coursework involved, and therefore the hybrid model that Labour championed during its time in government struck the right balance. That is certainly borne out by the evidence put forward by academics.
That evidence has also shown that having proper access to IT and broadband, and a safe and secure learning environment, removes so much of the inequality around socio-economic status that we see. That is why it is absolutely right for the Government to prioritise those things, although sadly that has been lacking throughout this pandemic: there has been greater divergence, particularly for pupils who already have lower attainment, and that growing inequality in our education system is of great concern.
As set out by the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry last year, teacher assessment during compulsory education is as reliable as formal external exams. That journal also found no bias on the grounds of ethnicity or gender in that type of assessment. It did, however, recognise the impact that exams are having on wellbeing, as did the Mumsnet survey of 1,500 parents, who identified the impact exams are now having on children’s mental health. Two in three children experience anxiety and sleepless nights. For one in 10, exams have a severe impact on their mental health, with 9% seeking medical help, one in five pupils in tears, and 31% experiencing exam stress. Research has shown how exams—not least the gold-standard exams—have exacerbated poor mental health, resulting in an increase of a third in medical referrals, as well as panic attacks, breakdowns, crying, fatigue, and children imploding emotionally.
That poor mental health is creating a new disadvantage through exams, where those who are breaking under the system are performing worse in exams. That must be taken into consideration, not least with the escalation of pressure when a pupil knows that they are sitting exams having had many days of absence, while other pupils have been able to attend school. Now, we have a system where four different nations have four different systems and pupils are applying to universities for the same places, and therefore greater inequality is being built into the system. Sadly, while it is welcome to hear about the work that the Government have been doing, their announcements last week have not addressed the deep concerns about inequality in our system. Certainly, most young people still do not know what lies beyond that point.
An extension of only three weeks to the academic year, as needed as it may be, will not address the missed opportunities children have had. I spoke to one parent whose daughter had had only 16 days since March of her A-level biology course, for which she sits the exam next summer. How will she compare with the pupil who has been constantly in education over that time, when she has had no contact with her educational establishment for three months? The gap is so large that it is clear we cannot depend on an end-of-year-exam-only assessment. I am sure that after the Government have sat in their workgroup, they will be coming back to make further announcements.
However, there is one more question that I want to put before Government, which is maybe a bigger question: what is education for? Surely we need to return to the classical understanding that education is the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to apply it. Passing exams has little to do with that, and therefore the Government’s assertion that exams are the best form of assessment and of advancing pupils’ education is not proven by the academic evidence.
We can trust our professional teachers and educators to nurture and assess our young people with centre-based assessments for all—yes, absolutely, nationally moderated—and turn the stress and tears to joy and prove that education is not just about exams. If the Minister fails to do that, I trust that the higher education sector will take control of how it will admit its next generation of students and force the Government to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. First, I thank the petitioners, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and, of course, the around 600 people in my constituency who have signed these petitions, which I am pleased MPs have the opportunity to discuss. I will focus my speech on two main aspects: the call for schools and colleges to close due to covid-19 and the call to cancel examinations.
While I appreciate colleagues’ arguments, I am not supportive of closing schools or colleges. School closures are incredibly damaging to young people—to their education, health and mental wellbeing—so they must be used only as a last resort. I am grateful for the best efforts of teachers and parents to provide high-quality remote learning as well as in-house learning for vulnerable children and children of key workers during the previous closures earlier in the year. We owe our teachers an immense debt of gratitude as they have worked tirelessly right through the year to support students, often going beyond teaching to ensure that emphasis is placed on young people’s wellbeing.
However, the period of partial school closures inevitably led to many children—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds—falling behind. We cannot put the futures of our young people at risk. There is simply no substitute for face-to-face learning for those at a young age, so I will continue to support the Government in keeping schools and colleges open.
While inevitably there have been covid outbreaks in schools, those have often been controlled thanks to the collaboration of national and local government and schools. There is clear evidence that children are much less susceptible to the damaging effects of covid-19 and ONS data identifies teaching as a low-risk profession, in part thanks to the monumental efforts of schools over the last few months to ensure their facilities are covid-19-secure. It has not been easy to implement and maintain new safety measures, so I thank all managerial, administrative and teaching staff for their hard work.
I would like to mention in particular Cobden Primary School in my constituency, where during a recent visit I saw at first hand the lengths gone to so as to keep children and staff safe while ensuring that the impact on education was as little as possible. Rawlins Academy has also done a fantastic job on that, although it has found it more difficult than others due to its limited space and the nature of its facilities. The staff and head especially have done their utmost to reduce the impact on education, but in some cases school bubbles have been out of school for some time, which is far from ideal. I raised that specific case recently with the Education Secretary.
Instead of closing schools, which only hinders social mobility, widens the disadvantage gap and places a burden on working parents, we should continue to work with them to ensure they have the resources and infrastructure they need to accommodate students and teachers safely on site or supplement their current facilities with additional local buildings and resources, should that be necessary. On that, I ask the Minister to look at the specific case of Rawlins Academy in Loughborough.
I am not in favour of cancelling exams, because we would be denying the child their moment of demonstrating all they have worked for and achieved, which gives them confidence to progress further. However, we should look at what adaptations could be made to aid schools in delivering the examination timetable, should social distancing still be in place next summer. I am pleased that the Minister is looking at this matter and ask her to consider what steps can be taken to secure examinations in 2021 and provide consistency and a firm plan for pupils.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this evening, Mr Gray, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this important debate.
I pay tribute to school leaders, teachers and support staff across my constituency, who have worked tirelessly throughout the coronavirus lockdown to keep schools open for the children of key workers, deliver teaching online in difficult circumstances, and reopen schools to all students. Their commitment has been extraordinary, but they have not had the support from the Government that they should have been able to rely on. First, in relation to laptops, tablets and wi-fi provision, it was completely obvious at the very beginning of the coronavirus lockdown that the impact on education would be far worse for students who did not have dedicated access to a laptop or tablet, and reliable wi-fi. Yet across my constituency the number of laptops provided has not come close to meeting the need, and in October the allocation was revised down. One headteacher tweeted that in September the school was promised
“115 laptops for disadvantaged students”,
that on 22 October schools had a
“legal requirement to deliver remote learning”,
and that on 23 October as the school broke up for half term it received 23 laptops. The headteacher added that the children had not “got less disadvantaged” between September and 23 October.
Secondly, in relation to costs, schools have incurred significant extra costs as a result of introducing covid-safe measures. Many schools in my constituency are seeking to reclaim between £12,000 and £20,000 in extra costs—money that they have already spent; but there is no transparency from the Government about reimbursements. Some schools’ applications have been refused entirely, others have had a partial amount, and others have received the full sum for which they applied. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain how she expects schools to balance their budgets in those circumstances, when the Government do not fully account for and reimburse the significant extra costs. Will she commit to reimburse all the additional costs that schools have incurred related to covid-19?
Finally, on exams, it is important that children can be confident that everything possible will be done to ensure that they do not suffer long-term disadvantage as a result of the terrible year of coronavirus. The handling of exam results was a fiasco. It caused deep, lasting distress to many students and their families, not all of which could be repaired by the Government’s U-turn. Even after that U-turn, there was still a widening of the disadvantage gap in results, with private schools seeing the biggest improvements in grades. Applying blanket measures to all students in the coming year will not address the disadvantage gap either. Students who have had good access to online learning will still fare better than students who have not had the laptops or wi-fi that they need, even with knowledge of the subjects that will be on the exam paper.
Coronavirus has scarred our country enough. The Government must ensure that they do not do long-term damage to young people in relation to either the quality of their education or their mental health. Funding laptops, reimbursing schools for additional costs and delivering a fully functioning, comprehensive catch-up programme are the minimum requirements that children should be able to expect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on leading today’s debate.
I thank all the schools in Darlington—the teachers, headteachers and other school staff—for their amazing efforts throughout the last nine months in keeping schools open and continuing to educate our children online and in the classroom. In preparing for tonight’s debate, I have spoken with Nicole Gibbon, the fantastic head of St Aidan’s Academy in my constituency. She said to me:
“Children need to come to school for their mental health, their stability and their routine. They need goals to work toward and I welcome the announcements in respect of next year’s exams although I would have liked them sooner.”
I agree with Nicole and I believe that it is right for schools to be open and children to be at school. It is also right for exams to take place.
We are of course living in unique times, and that is why I welcome the measures that were announced last week, including a three-week delay to exams, more generous grading, advance notice of some topics and exam aids. I am conscious that some of my constituents want schools closed and exams cancelled, with more than 1,000 people from Darlington signing the petitions before us. However, as the chief medical officers of each of the four nations set out, schools are the best place for children to be, while the Children’s Commissioner stated that Ministers should ensure that schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen.
We are all conscious of the risk to children of missing out on education in the long term and of social isolation and the potential damage to their development. I firmly believe that the best place for our children in the future is in school, for their education, their social development and their mental health. I am proud of the work undertaken by schools and colleges right across Darlington, which have responded to the challenges of 2020 and have remained open in a covid-secure manner. To close them now would be a betrayal of their hard work and the trust placed in them. It is right that the Government remain committed to exams going ahead in 2021, and they have responded to the challenge that that poses with a number of sensible measures.
I welcome the steps taken to tackle the digital divide, which needs to cover kit, connectivity and skills. I urge the Minister to continue to send out kit to children in Darlington as soon as it rolls off the production line. While I am issuing a Christmas list to the Minister, will she please commit to the additional costs being reimbursed to all our schools?
I know that schools and colleges right across Darlington have been working hard to ensure that no pupil misses out. I want that to continue, with our schools staying firmly open and vital exams taking place.
I congratulate my good friend, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), on setting the scene, as he often does. He has brought his knowledge of education to the House, which we all benefit from. Well done to him. I also thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me the opportunity to speak.
Education is clearly a devolved matter, so the Minister has no responsibility for what happens in Northern Ireland. However, I will add my comments, which will replicate the comments of other right hon. and hon. Members on what is important in education and the best way to achieve the safety and education of children. This debate has illustrated that I am not the only MP inundated with parents’ concerns; I believe that much of the mail I receive every day in relation to education will be the same in Strangford as elsewhere. The queries of parents uncomfortable with their child being on the bus to school, in class or taking part in after-school activities are valid, and their concerns are entirely understandable.
However, the other side of that is a letter from an equally concerned parent that their child’s academic and social development is being adversely affected by remote teaching, as the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) clearly referred to. Queries about the focus on home learning and children being prevented from attending normal after-school activities are equally valid and understandable. The Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, Peter Weir, said that schools will remain open right through to the normal school holidays. That is good, because children need a routine; that is important, as has been coming through to me. He is in regular contact with the Education Minister here, and they try to ensure continuity between what happens here and in Northern Ireland.
I hear from teachers concerned for their families. It seems that every day we hear of more community transmission. Although the rate is lessening thanks to the steps taken, it is still in schools, and I hear from teachers concerned for the health of their loved ones at home. There was a covid-19 outbreak in my granddaughter’s school, and year 8s and year 9s had to go home as a precaution. I will not mention which school, but it is good that they are now over that, that there were no fatalities and nothing serious came out of it. All teachers and pupils have recovered.
I hear from other teachers who highlight their concern for children who are unable to learn at home due to a lack of support or the need for enhanced professional support. One teacher told me that their heart was breaking for a child she believes soaks up the kindness from teaching staff; there are children who really need that more than anything else. When she went to call the child’s mother on Zoom to check on the child during the covid lockdown, she was unable to get through. The child returned to school after lockdown ended, but was withdrawn, quiet and uncertain. In the teacher’s own words, her heart “literally ached” for that child.
Let me be quite clear that this child is not in any physical danger; she is fed and clothed in clean clothes. Nevertheless, this teacher urged me to tell the story of all the children who need to be in school for the kindness and encouragement that they receive, even for that little two minutes that the teacher spends with them on a one-to-one basis. Other children look forward to the structure of school, while for many children it is the nutritious lunch they get at school that they look forward to; that is valid to me and it is valid to their families as well.
One teacher highlights the need for an additional week of school holiday, to give the two-week buffer after the five-day Christmas period relaxation. However, another says that she cannot do that:
“I have GCSE and A-level students who need to be in”.
Both views are valid, and there is a balance that education Ministers and even schools themselves are always trying to strike in the education system. But herein lies a problem for schools. What one family needs is not what all children need; what will work for one teacher might not work for another. Are any of those teachers wrong in what they say? No, I do not think they are.
So, what can we do? How do we design a place to satisfy the valid concerns of both sides, who have opinions that are polar opposites? The question is difficult, yet what every teacher and every parent agree on is that there is more riding on this issue than an attendance percentage on a report. For many children, it is about establishing their foundation for learning; for others, it is the difference between excelling and merely attaining.
I got no further than GCSEs at school, or their equivalent at that time; I will put that on the record. I often say to children at exam time that through hard work, determination and working my way up, I ran my own business and managed to make it to this place. Exams are not the be-all and end-all, but education is, and we must do all we can to protect the education of our children, to protect the necessary social interaction between them and to protect a generation of innovation and hope. Are we getting things right? I am not really sure. Do we need to keep listening and reacting to new information and situations? The answer to that is, “Absolutely.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I begin by thanking all those who signed the petition and in particular the two people who started it, and I echo what we have heard already around the Chamber, namely that it is particularly encouraging to see so many young people engaging in the democratic process and making their voice heard in this year of all years.
For all the reasons that we have heard during the debate, Labour Members believe that it is absolutely essential that we keep pupils learning. In fact, the big challenge that our pupils face this year—and I fear that it will be the big challenge that our country will face for many years to come—is that pupils have spent so much time out of school. So, we certainly cannot support a proposal that would take pupils out of school for even longer.
We also believe, not least because of the experience last summer as well as because of other well-known and well-recognised concerns about the potential for bias outside of examination conditions, that it is in the best interests of pupils for examinations to go ahead. Our argument has been that the Government need to take action to ensure that exams go ahead in a way that is fair and accessible to all pupils, and that takes into account the levels of lost learning this year. I am afraid, however, that the Government have failed England’s school pupils. They have failed on exams, failed on attendance, failed to protect the vulnerable, failed on home learning and failed on funding.
Let me take exams first. We all saw the unmitigated disaster that was last year’s exam results; 31.9% of teachers’ A-level predictions in England were downgraded by the algorithm and pupils from poorer backgrounds were more likely to have received a bigger downward adjustment. Indeed, under the original algorithm, the subject in which students did best relative to their predicted grades was Latin.
That information was known by Ministers in advance of results day. They were presented with evidence of the inequities but proceeded anyway, into a results day where the disaster was not just foreseeable but actually foreseen. I cannot imagine any Labour Education Secretary over the years being presented with such evidence and not taking immediate action ahead of the disaster.
Even then, the current Education Secretary mishandled the fallout. Alternatives to the algorithm were put in place at the last minute. The Education Secretary announced that the system would switch to a triple lock before Ofqual signed it off. Ofqual was only told about the plan on 11 August, just two days before results day.
With the lessons of last summer’s disaster not having been learned, we have seen dither and delay. Surely, the one lesson we should learn from the exams debacle is to ensure that preparations are made for the coming set of exams, and that those positions are well understood by pupils, parents and schools alike. Instead, the Government have dithered and delayed, announcing only a three-week delay in October as the grand sum of their package, until last week, when the Education Secretary came before the House and presented a range of measures, many of which we could support, but which did not go far enough.
The measures are not targeted. We know that lost learning is disproportionately impacting pupils from different backgrounds and schools in different communities, yet we saw a blanket approach with standard measures put in place for all schools and pupils regardless of their circumstances. There was no real focus on tackling the severe disadvantage that some have faced disproportionately.
The big announcement was the proposal to establish
“a new expert group to look at differential learning and monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country.”
This is really obvious stuff. We know there has been a differential impact. We know that pupils and schools have been affected differently. Why was the Education Secretary not announcing the outcome of such a review last week, rather than simply commissioning one just before Christmas? It is absolutely unacceptable.
Despite measures announced such as providing schools and pupils with topics in advance of exams, and proposals around revision aides and written materials to take into exams, the Education Secretary has not said when that information will be available. We were given a commitment of late January, but there is such little teaching time left this academic year before pupils are meant to be revising that he really ought to have that information out to schools by the beginning of term in January at the latest.
On attendance, we have all talked about the importance of getting pupils to school, but in recent weeks we have had as many as 1 million children missing school each week. Worse still, the Government are hiding the extent of the crisis by refusing to publish a regional breakdown of data. Finally, we have a commitment from the Department to publish that regional breakdown before the end of December. If we do not know the extent of the problem, how on earth can we work to tackle it?
On vulnerable children, we know that rates of absence for children with social workers and special educational needs are even higher than the general figures. We also know that prolonged absences have been a disaster for the most vulnerable children. Only last week, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector said:
“Covid-19 has exposed an already crumbling infrastructure that fails to meet the needs of our most vulnerable children all too often”.
That would be shameful enough, were it not that the Education Secretary and the Department were dragged before the courts to be held to account for their failure in their statutory duty to protect the most vulnerable children. That is not to say anything of the reprehensible decision by this Government not to provide the necessary support to feed vulnerable children over the October half-term. If Treasury sources are to be believed, the Education Secretary and the Department did not even ask for the money to provide that support.
On home learning and catch-up support, we have seen a failure to provide enough laptops. Only this Department for Education led by this Education Secretary could be so incompetent as to provide schools with a new statutory duty to provide home learning on one day and to cut the provision of laptops by 80% the next. Of course, some people are doing very well out of this incompetent and overly centralised means of providing laptops. Computacenter founder and director, Philip Hulme, has given thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. His wife gave £100,000 to the Tories during last year’s general election. Of course, companies like Computacenter just happen to have been given lucrative contracts by the Government.
Even where the Government could have exerted some influence, we have seen some pathetic attempts to make sure that pupils can access learning from home. If there is one thing that we have come to understand from the pandemic, it is that devices are only part of the story. Without internet access, they are as good as useless for home learning.
We asked the Department for Education what work had been done to encourage mobile internet providers to zero rate educational websites. In a reply to a written question, it said:
“To further support disadvantaged households who rely on a mobile internet connection, the major telecoms companies have zero rated the Hungry Little Minds site.”
No doubt the Hungry Little Minds site is great, but it is just one site. What about the BBC? What about the Oak National Academy? We asked if any other websites had been zero rated and the Government could not list any. It is absolutely outrageous.
As we have heard, there has been a £350-million intervention this year to fund the national tutoring programme. Although that is not sufficient, we had hoped that it would give some support to those who need it. Last week, however, we found that the Department is fiddling the figures, so £350 million is not £350 million for this year; it is £350 million over two years, which is effectively half the funding. One big overriding problem with the Department and its Secretary of State is that they are not focusing on or targeting the most disadvantaged enough, so to find an already limited pot cut in half is deeply disappointing.
As we heard from many hon. Members, it is a cross-party concern that schools have been seriously short-changed, and so have their pupils as a result, because the Department is not covering the true cost of covid and all those measures. Headteachers have enough to worry about. They need to be able to put in place safety measures in the certainty that they, their schools and, most importantly, their pupils are not going to be short-changed by the Government. What we have heard so far is simply not enough.
I am sorry that, for the second time that I can recall in recent weeks, the poor Minister has been sent along to take a brickbat for other people. She had to take brickbats on the disgraceful decision to scrap Unionlearn, which no doubt came from the Secretary of State and some of his bizarre ideological hobby-horses, and now she is having to take brickbats for the Minister for School Standards, no doubt because he is absolutely sweating it ahead of appearing before the Education Committee and its difficult questions. I welcome the Minister, but I am sorry that she has to account for it all.
We want to hear from the Minister, so I will conclude by saying an enormous thank you to all the staff—school leaders, teachers and support staff—in our schools who have been busting a gut to keep pupils learning. When I compare their efforts with the work of the Secretary of State for Education, they are truly lions led by donkeys.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate. I am also grateful to the petitioners, Ellis, Libby and Alex, and to the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss these important topics of opening schools and colleges and ensuring that exams can fairly take place in 2021.
I offer my thanks, as I am sure all hon. Members would, to teachers and educational leaders for their phenomenal efforts in recent months as they have adapted to the changing environment we all live in. The work of schools and colleges has been critical to ensuring that students have continued to access education in some way, and have continued to feel connected to the classroom and their peers. We accept, however, that that has not been an equal experience across the whole country.
When developing our approach, the interests of students and teachers have always been our priority. Since the pandemic began, we as a Government have rightly put education first, and we will continue to do so. We cannot and must not let covid destroy this year of education, which is why we have taken steps to keep schools and colleges open and exams on track.
The return to school in autumn was driven by the clear benefits to young people and children of a return to educational settings. Those benefits remain unchanged. As many hon. Members said, keeping schools and colleges open is important to mitigate some of the largest risks that have materialised during this period for children and young people who have spent time away from educational settings.
There is clear evidence of the negative educational impact of missing school for all students, but particularly younger children, as investments in children’s learning tend to accumulate and consolidate over time. School and college closures put educational outcomes at risk, especially for disadvantaged students, due to existing inequalities and attainment gaps being exacerbated. The opportunities for early identification of things such as emerging learning problems are also missed when pupils are not in school.
As was mentioned by many hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), school closures have been found to cause a deterioration in children’s mental health. Evidence suggests that the mental health of adolescents is particularly affected and that their cognitive, social and emotional development outcomes are at risk, as is their physical health. For vulnerable children, the impact of school closures has had an adverse effect on their wellbeing and educational outcomes due to reduced access to essential services. One regional study presents evidence that schools have been the source of 40% of child protection and safeguarding referrals.
Keeping settings open remains the Government’s priority, and we have taken other steps across society to manage down virus prevalence by closing other sectors in order to allow schools to remain open at full attendance. We have prioritised education at all local restriction tiers. The Government’s policy is that education settings will remain open, and parents should therefore continue to send their children to school. Schools have implemented a range of protective measures to minimise the risk of transmission. The risk of children becoming severely ill from coronavirus is low, and there are negative health impacts from being out of school. Senior clinicians, including the chief medical officers of all four nations, still advise that school is the best place for children to be.
To respond to Libby’s specific question—several hon. Members have raised the issue of finishing school two weeks earlier—we will provide guidance to schools and colleges on the end of term and on how to manage the short period afterwards, when their support might be required with contact tracing. Further guidance will be issued, but let us be clear: this will not be a typical Christmas for any of us, and we will all need to take extra care, as the Prime Minister has said. We want to maximise the time in school as much as possible. Young people have missed simply too much of their education.
Let us turn to some of the support that we provide to schools, particularly on their use of technology and on whether they have been able to access technology. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), who is no longer in his place, mentioned that. We have taken access to technology very seriously. By the end of this year, over 500,000 laptops, as well as 50,000 4G wireless routers, will have been provided by Computacenter, which has always been on the procurement framework. We have also introduced a service to provide more flexibility and to make sure they get to the right places, if there are specific lockdowns or large areas where kids need them. People can call that service and receive a laptop in just two days—I am sure the people of Darlington will welcome that.
The EdTech strategy, which we published in April last year, set out the Government’s commitment to support and enable schools and colleges to use technology more effectively. Of course, that has been really important, as we have all had to go and do pretty much everything online. The strategy set out the building blocks for effective use of technology in education: good digital infrastructure, capacity building, capability building across the sector, and a better understanding of the things that work in practice.
The same building blocks from the strategy have been an essential part of our response, but at a greater pace than we could have ever anticipated, to ensure that both schools and parents feel supported and that young people continue to thrive. That includes a whole host of measures, such as the introduction of the EdTech demonstrator network, which is a peer support network of schools and colleges that aims to increase expertise in their use of technology. That includes targeted support, weekly webinars and an online library of resources that can be shared. That is to help schools that are not as comfortable or familiar with the technology, so that those that are further ahead on the tech journey can help others in need.
In recent months, the network’s support has included how to maximise the investment that the Government have made to freely access Microsoft 365 or the G Suite for Education digital platform; how to ensure that pupils are safe online, including anxiety-busting strategies and activities; and how technology can help better support pupils with complex needs. There is a lot of work going on in this area. Crucially, that support also considers how our investment in technology can offer long-term benefits for pupils and teachers, as disruption to education could continue. Even after it reduces, there will be a legacy of blended learning.
On 27 November, the Department announced a new covid workforce fund for schools and further education settings to help them remain open. It will fund the cost of teacher absences over a threshold in schools and colleges for those with high staff absences that are facing significant financial pressures. The fund will help schools and colleges meet the cost of the absences that they have experienced from the beginning of November until the end of this term.
A number of Members mentioned budgets and additional costs. Schools have already received payments of £102 million for exceptional costs during the summer months, and there will be a further opportunity later in the year for schools to claim any costs that fell between March and July in the same approved categories for which they did not already claim in the first window. We will continue to review the pressures that schools and colleges are facing in the next term.
Obviously there are criteria for each of those funds—I do not know the particular situation, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady—and those schools may not have met them. One of them is to look at the whole of the school budget, and reserves in particular.
Let me turn to exams and Alex’s petition to cancel GCSEs. I understand Alex’s concern and it is admirable that he is concerned, on behalf of others, about the unfairness due to unequal access to education. We are continuing to do everything in our power to ensure that young people are evaluated fairly in the coming year. We have to realise that there is no perfect system. All the other systems have flaws and downfalls. In the current climate, the decision to hold exams demonstrates our commitment to ensuring the fairest possible outcome for all students.
As the Secretary of State set out last week, the fundamental problem with this year’s exams is that we tried to award grades without actually holding exams, and we are not going to repeat that mistake. This is really difficult to do. It got me, like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), thinking back to my own experience. I come from the same area as Alex—Liverpool. I passed 10 O-levels, and I am sure there was not a single teacher in my Knowsley comprehensive school who would have thought that I would do that. The culture of education was such that we had to hide our homework and what we were doing. I am pretty sure that if I had been in school during this period, I would have been lucky if I had passed four. I was not confident enough to think that I could have passed 10. Exams are a really important way of enabling people to show just what they can do.
Holding a successful exam series in summer 2021 remains a vital component of our strategy to maintain continuity of education and support our young people to ensure they can progress with their qualifications, fairly awarded. We will ensure a successful delivery of the 2021 exams. We will consult with key stakeholders, such as schools, unions and exam centres, to discuss the logistics of the series, in terms of venues, invigilators and so on.
We support Ofqual’s decision that, in awarding next year’s GCSEs and AS and A-levels, grading will be generous and aligned with the overall standards awarded this year. Ofqual is working with awarding organisations to ensure that vocational and technical qualifications—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North—lead to similar progression opportunities as A-levels and GCSEs, and that students studying them are not advantaged or disadvantaged.
To help students target their revision, at the end of January they will be given advance notice of some of the topic areas that will be assessed in their GCSE and A-level exams. We will also provide exam support material, such as formula sheets, in some exams to give students more confidence and reduce the amount of information they need to memorise for exams. We really are trying to reduce the stress that students feel when taking exams by narrowing what they know to expect in exams and providing aid so that they do not need to worry about memorising the formulas and so on.
The announcement that the Government are going to give pupils advance notice of topics at the end of January hardly gives them an opportunity for their mock exams and to experience this new world of exams. How will the Minister ensure that young people will have confidence going into that new environment?
On the point about the end of January, the objective is not to reduce the amount of teaching, but to provide an aid so that pupils can focus their revision and catch up if required. It is not to narrow the curriculum or what is being taught, but to enable catch-up—we have all mentioned catch-up—and to enable them to focus their revision on those areas. That is the point and that is why the end of January is deemed the right date.
Students studying for vocational and technical qualifications can also expect additional flexibilities, including the reduction of assessment for optional units. We want as many students as possible to be able to sit their exams, so we have also got a contingency package if they miss an exam because of self-isolation, illness and so on. In the minority of cases where they cannot sit all their papers, there will be additional means by which they can take a future exam or still be awarded a grade, including additional papers available after the main A-level and GCSE exam series. It is the same for VTQ students who have not been able to complete all their necessary assessments.
This is not easy and not perfect. We are dealing with a situation where there has not been equal access to education. The catch-up is happening right now, but we have taken steps to make sure that students and teachers do not lose out because of covid. We have taken them to make sure that they can still achieve their aspirations and to make sure that coronavirus does not drag down educational standards. Instead, we continue to try to level up across the country.
I am sorry, but I cannot. I would love to, but I want to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North.
I want to thank all of our dedicated teachers and support staff for their continued commitment to supporting children and young people. We all know, when we go to schools, how much young people love being back in school. Even if they are trying to catch up, they still want to be back there. I remain confident that the measures we have put in place, together with the continued dedication of educators and support staff, will suffice. I thank all hon. Members for taking part and the petitioners for raising the subject.
I want to place on the record my thanks to all right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House who have taken part in this very important debate.
Some really strong points were made about fairness in the United Kingdom by the hon. Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I completely concur with their comments. I am concerned about the fact that we have different systems in different parts of our United Kingdom. This would have been a good opportunity for all regions of the United Kingdom to come together as one to agree a system to ensure fairness.
I also have concerns—this was raised by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)—about the deferment of students from 2020 going into this year along with the students who will apply for university at the end of their summer exams in 2021, and whether universities will be able to handle that and whether students will miss out on their first choices.
I should mention my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey). I was a teacher at Ashlawn School, which he named, so I suppose I should put that on the record in the interests of fairness. I brought him to the school to speak to students on numerous occasions.
I want to go back to the hon. Member for York Central, because she made excellent points about how it would be far better for the £350 million for tutoring to go to local areas to make local decisions to hire local tutors, or for local university or student tutors or ex-teachers like me to go out there and actually do the work. Before I get the Twitterati trolling me, I place on the record that I would not expect to be paid if I did volunteer.
I thank all teachers, supply staff and exam officers from across Stoke-on-Trent North and the UK. I look forward to sparring with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), on education. He referred to the Government’s handling of exams last summer, but I remind him that Labour-run Wales and the Scottish National party, which runs Scotland, also had to realise that their algorithms had gone wrong. He talked about the issues with advance notice. There are 1,000 exams that need to be written, so there is obviously an issue because exam boards need time to work with Ofqual to make sure the topics are fair and balanced.
When it comes to lions led by donkeys—I do enjoy that old line from when I taught history—I thought at one moment that we were talking about the NEU leading the Leader of the Opposition with regard to his constant non-committal in June over whether schools should be open or not. Perhaps I misheard or misunderstood.
I thank all Members for taking part in this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 326066, 550846, 316404 and 549015, relating to the impact of Covid-19 on schools and exams.