Schools and Colleges: Qualification Results and Full Opening Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for International Trade

Schools and Colleges: Qualification Results and Full Opening

Baroness Berridge Excerpts
Wednesday 2nd September 2020

(3 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I was slightly confused because I thought the Minister would start by reading the Statement—I do not quite know what happened, but I have obviously got that wrong.

We welcome the fact that children and young people are returning to school, and we have to do all in our power to make this work successfully—and to make it safe. Naturally, the Government have produced reams of guidance for schools. Head teachers have told me that some of it is quite contradictory. I shall give one example. The guidance says:

“No-one should be excluded from education on the grounds that they are not wearing a face covering.”


Yet it also says that when children are walking down corridors or are in open-access areas in schools they should wear a face covering. However, the guidance says that, no, you should not be excluded or told that you had to wear one. That guidance has to be there—I understand that—but head teachers, schools and teachers are looking for simplified, easy-to-follow advice that they can adhere to.

During this period of school closures, children have fallen further and further behind, particularly disadvantaged pupils and those from BAME communities. Schools should be doing everything in their power to ensure that those children are able to catch up on those lost months of learning. I have seen it floated that the Government are considering doing some formative or summative testing to find out what the gap is and what the loss of learning is and how that can be supported. I welcome that—it is an important initiative that should happen.

I am concerned about three areas. One is that, during the period of school closures, children and young people who were excluded from school—they were not on any register because they were excluded—and those young people in alternative provision were the most vulnerable pupils in our system, and they need extra support and help. I do not know what the Government view on that should be, but alternative providers are concerned that those young people could easily get into further trouble.

Then there is the question of the 60,000 home-educated children. I strongly believe, as I suspect the Minister does, that now is the right time to introduce a policy to ensure that home-educated pupils are registered so that we know what is going on in their learning. However, I was concerned to see that external, home-schooled students have not received an A-level or GCSE grade. Could the Minister shed light on this? I am told that 20,000 students have been informed by their institutions that they will not receive a GCSE grade this year.

Let me give noble Lords the case of a young man from Oxford—I apologise to the Minister for throwing this out now and I will give her the correspondence afterwards. Due to personal reasons, he had to be home educated and do his own learning for biology, chemistry and physics at GCSE and A-level. He had a place at a university, but he has been told—I presume that this is true of other young people too—that he will not get a grade because he was an external candidate, not through a school. That is incredibly worrying. Could the Minister look at this issue?

Finally, I go back to mainstream schools. If, God forbid, a pupil is tested as Covid positive, who tells the school? Who tells the head teacher? Is it left to the parents to inform the school? Who is it left to? I am told by head teachers that there are no processes whereby the testing regime should automatically inform the head teacher. That is crucial for the well-being of schools and pupils, and to making the return to full-time education successful.

Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in thanking young people for their resilience during a crisis this summer that no-one intended them to have to go through. I repeat to your Lordships’ House the apology made by the Secretary of State and in my letter to noble Lords. I thank the noble Lord for his wish to work constructively on these matters.

On schools reopening, the main guidance to put in place the hierarchy of controls, on the need for bubbles or for year groups to be kept separate in secondary schools was issued on 2 July—well in advance of the end of summer term—and enabled schools to prepare. However, for the thankfully very small number of situations where there are additional restrictions, the guidance was issued only recently.

On the noble Lord’s questions about exams, it is important to remember the principle that Ofqual was a body created by Parliament. It was created by statute and is answerable to Parliament. There are good reasons in principle why the regulation of public examinations in this country is not subject to direct government interference. It was Ofqual’s responsibility to have the data to develop the algorithm and then send that algorithm to the various examination boards. There was a reaction at the stages at which the department was made aware of additional concerns and Ofqual met regularly with the department even from before the announcement was made for exams to be cancelled. The department reacted, but Ofqual is the independent regulator.

On sharing data, in the week running up to the A-level results the system was as per any normal year. On the Monday or Tuesday some headline data is given to the department. On the Wednesday that data is shared with schools and is then published on Thursday. To respect the normal division of responsibilities between the department and Ofqual, that long-standing practice was abided by and Ministers did not see the detail of results for individual students or the schools that would have been affected.

Only a tiny fraction of BTEC examination results remains to be communicated to students. That is where further information is needed. Each year there are normally, unfortunately, a small number of results outstanding. Pearson has assured us that it is working to issue these remaining results as soon as possible.

It is envisaged that the first services from the national tutoring programme, which is being delivered by the EEF and Teach First, will be delivered in the second half of the autumn term.

On the specific questions on early years catch-up, of the £350 million tutoring programme, £8 million has been awarded to Nuffield for early language development and there was an announcement that there will be small-group tuition for disadvantaged 16 to 19 year-olds. They are now included in the catch-up.

On the issue around special educational needs students, as noble Lords will be aware, the Oak Academy’s provision of online lessons has of course included some for those with special educational needs. The guidance and the links to the various resources on the Department for Education’s website include links to these. We have been working closely with the sector. Over the next year an additional £730 million will go into the high-needs budget, meaning that it will have grown by £1.5 billion, or 24%, in just two years. We are responding on special educational needs. The £650 million of main catch-up funding going out to schools has been weighted per pupil for specialist schools, because we recognise the higher per pupil costs in those settings.

There will be a contingency plan for examinations next year. There has already been guidance on the curriculum so that schools knew what they were doing from the moment they came back. For instance, in English literature they know that pupils will potentially be examined on only three of the four set texts and there have been changes to field work in geography, et cetera. The question of whether there will be a delay was part of Ofqual’s consultation on the 2021 series, and that will be confirmed as soon as possible.

There is now a higher education task force, chaired by Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Universities, which meets regularly with Universities UK and other stakeholders to work with the sector on the implications of the change in the awarding of grades for A-levels.

Turning to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I specifically checked and, while it is my personal preference to read the Statement, I was told that in this hybrid situation I do not repeat it. However, I put my view that I want to read it to noble Lords because it helps.

A lot of specific guidance has had to be set out for the sector. Officials and the sector have worked very closely to try to get the right boundary in not being able to be prescriptive, because we have over 20,000 schools in about 70,000 buildings. There must be the framework and the principles for head teachers and other school leaders to make their risk assessments and the changes to their buildings.

Masks are recommended only where we have something such as a tier 2, where there is a local lockdown, but schools can advise their students on that. I hope that the guidance is not contradictory on that matter.

Disadvantaged pupils are of course a concern for noble Lords and for the department. That is why there is the £1 billion catch-up fund. On excluded pupils, many of whom will have been in alternative provision, all schools reopening includes AP schools. At the end of the summer term we announced additional funds for those leaving AP to make sure that they had additional support and did not end up not in education, employment or training. We are working to ensure that they do not fall within the gaps.

On home education specifically, yes, we are particularly concerned. Going back to the cancellation of exams and the work the exam centres did, obviously some home-educated students then register at a school and sit their examinations in that school. As far as possible, we asked those schools to evaluate the performance of that student if they had any data on which to do so, but of course there were situations in which it just was not possible. That is also about the integrity of head teachers and teachers who did not feel they could give a grade. That is why the autumn series of resits in all subjects will be so important, particularly for home-educated students.

There was a recent consultation from the department on whether to have a register with local authorities and whether to pay exam fees for home-educated students, because we are concerned about the rise in the number of home-educated students. The reasons are not, as perhaps they were 10 or 20 years ago, well-meaning parents. Some who are in home education are potentially not getting the education they deserve, but we do not have the data. I will update the House as soon as I can on what is happening with that consultation.

Finally, I thank noble Lords for their support. I hope we can work constructively, going forward.

Lord Lexden Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Lord Lexden) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, we now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief, so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the combined impact of schools’ closure during lockdown and the discriminatory effect of the grading algorithm has further widened the education and attainment gap between pupils from less-advantaged backgrounds and those privileged to attend better-resourced, fee-paying schools. Can the Minister say what discussions are taking place with the independent school sector about its potential contribution to the national effort to help disadvantaged pupils catch up? For example, donating tutoring capacity or access to high-quality outdoor facilities such as sports grounds would not only help the children most in need but would justify the charitable status these schools enjoy.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, forgive me; the noble Lord, Lord Storey, also asked about the attainment gap. At the moment the department is seeking as quickly as possible an assessment of what education has been lost and the effect on the attainment gap. We appreciate the EEF’s work, and there have been other reports. There is a procurement out at the moment so that we can assess not all pupils, obviously, but get a better base as to what has actually happened, allowing the next few weeks for things to settle down in schools. Teachers will be assessing that at the moment.

Independent schools are very keen to engage. I personally have been engaging with them through the Independent Schools Council and the Boarding Schools’ Association. They offered some summer clubs over the school holidays, but in my next meeting with them I will take to them how we can structure more their desire to help.

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, given that examinations are by their very nature socially distanced and that most schools broke just before the exam period, some of us wonder whether the wholesale cancellation of all exams was absolutely necessary. On postponing next year, the Schools Minister yesterday highlighted the need to consult the devolved Administrations. What formal structures are being considered to ensure that in future there is a properly co-ordinated approach to these matters across the whole of our United Kingdom?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, on the cancellation of exams, I think we need to cast our minds back. At the time exams were due to start, no secondary school pupils had been back in the building and the confidence was not there among parents. I hate to think of the trauma we could have caused by children going straight from lockdown into an invigilated situation. It just was not possible, and the department was commended on a decisive decision at that moment that exams were cancelled. So, with the best will in the world, that was the right decision and we stand by it.

On communication with the four nations, only yesterday officials were in a four-nations meeting. There is regular dialogue at both ministerial and official level with the four nations. For instance, the direction letters sent by the Secretary of State to Ofqual were copied to each of his three counterparts in the nations. We are working closely. It is unfortunate for all young people that none of the four nations managed to deliver the standardisation that we had intended to deliver and believed was best for children.

Baroness Morris of Yardley Portrait Baroness Morris of Yardley (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It makes sense to have a back-up plan for the examinations next summer, and the Minister mentioned contingency plans. I am not clear whether the Government are considering anything other than a delay of four or so many weeks. There is gathering support for the idea of moderated assessments throughout the school year. Is something like that being considered by the Government? If so, why have details not already been announced? Term has started and teachers need to know how their children might be assessed before they start the academic year.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, yes, there will be a 2021 contingency plan. As I have mentioned, Ofqual has already consulted in relation to 2021, and one of the suggestions in that consultation was a short delay to the sitting of exams. I cannot remember offhand whether moderated assessments were part of that consultation, but this highlights again the issue of what form the examinations will take. There is the direction of government policy, but then it is for Ofqual to run that. I will make sure that the idea of moderated assessments is put forward. As the noble Baroness will probably be aware, Ofqual has delegated to a sub-committee of its board chaired by Amanda Spielman, who will take forward what the system will be for examinations next year. We recognise that decisions need to be made as soon as possible.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I refer to the register of interests; I am a Cambridge academic. The Statement the Minister did not have the opportunity to read to the House states:

“To ensure that students can progress to higher education, we intend to remove the temporary student-number controls that had been introduced for the coming academic year.”


There is then also a discussion about deferring places for students who got their grades this summer. What impact do the Government expect these changes to have on students just entering year 13? They have had their year 12 education damaged or impeded and will potentially face a challenge for places next year.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, until students enrol at the end of this month—clearing is still going on at the moment—we will not know the enrolment for this year and the implications for higher education institutions. Obviously, the process is beginning for next year’s students, and I know that some schools used the one-on-one contact with students at the end of last term to talk to them about that process and their personal development statements. Of course, there are offers of deferral to next year for this year’s students, as an option when courses are full and they do not want to be on a substitute course this year. Further details of the impact on next year and the decisions that need to be made will be given as soon as possible.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I ask the Minister to define conceptually for education—and indeed for other Whitehall departments—where power, responsibility and accountability begin and end, both for the now-misnamed Permanent Secretaries and for Secretaries of State.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, in this sector I have outlined where the responsibilities of Ofqual and the department are in relation to this matter. I myself am bound by ministerial responsibility. On this matter, the Prime Minister made clear that it was time for new leadership at official level, and sadly the Permanent Secretary agreed to stand down.

Lord McFall of Alcluith Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord McFall of Alcluith)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I call the noble Baroness, Lady Verma. No? I call the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth.

Lord Knight of Weymouth Portrait Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I remind noble Lords of my educational interests. The Education Select Committee warned Ministers in May that the model used for exam gradings may be biased against young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The former director-general for schools, Sir Jon Coles, warned them again in July, and so did Tim Oates from one of the exam boards, also in July. What happened in Scotland with Highers previewed the chaos in England. The Minister of State for Schools has Ofqual in his list of responsibilities. Did he ask questions of Ofqual following those warnings? When did he know that the model was not going to work?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, in relation to the situations the noble Lord outlined, yes, there were meetings between Ofqual and the department. We always knew that there were limitations within the system, but the department was reassured that those limitations could be dealt with by an appeals system. As evidence that there were discussions, shortly after the situation arose in Scotland, we introduced the ability for students to appeal on the basis of mocks. When it became apparent after the issuing of the A-level results that the anomalies between grades were such that it was more just to award on the basis of assessments by teachers, the scales tipped and the grades were awarded on that basis. But at every stage, when those warnings were issued, the department reacted, responded and was reassured.

Lord Addington Portrait Lord Addington (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, when it comes to the taking of exams—the gong that has clanged loudest over this—some with special educational needs take exams slightly differently, such as those who have to dictate to an amanuensis. Are we establishing a process where we know what will be required of that person? Many people—for instance, someone with severe dyslexia or even a damaged hand—will dictate their exam to some other person. That means sitting close to them in a confined room. Are we looking into how this will be done? Is there a testing process? Or, are we going to take the revolutionary step of saying that you can use assisted technology in public examinations on a mass scale? I wonder whether the Government have any idea about this for the autumn.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I always try to come very well prepared, particularly on special educational needs and disabilities, but on that issue, which I think may be within the province of Ofqual, I do not have a detailed answer for the noble Lord. But I will write to him, since it is important, with social distancing, to enable all students to sit examinations in the autumn.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I, too, welcome children’s return to school. But I rise to express my considerable concern about parents with severe underlying conditions, who received letters from the department earlier this year warning them not to leave their homes because they were at such risk from Covid-19. These parents are now risking their lives to send their children back to school. The Minister mentioned that there will be a small number of home test kits for anyone who develops symptoms. What plans do the Government have to provide home test kits to enable daily testing of children of the most vulnerable parents? These kits would need a rapid return of results—ideally, within about 10 minutes. Only then could these families hope to continue to lead normal lives. I think this is urgent.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, it is my understanding that, although people received those letters earlier in the year, shielding ended on 1 August. In relation to the test kits, there are initially 10 per school for school leaders to distribute to families or support staff who might have difficulty accessing a test either by post or by attending one of the mobile centres. Test results should be received within 24 hours and unfortunately not within the 10 minutes the noble Baroness suggested.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I welcome the assurance from the Minister in response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, that moderated assessment will be considered for next year. But is this not an opportunity—given that in our age of shocks, there could be a more resilient and secure method of testing—to allow students to show what they can understand and think critically about in coursework, rather than relying on the 20th-century, old-fashioned idea of testing what people can regurgitate in exams?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, although I agree to take back the suggestion to see whether it was in train or any one of the processes, the Government stand by their view that, as this year has shown, the fairest way to assess student attainment is by public examinations, and that is what we expect to do next summer.

Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I declare my interest as editor of the Good Schools Guide. We review tutoring companies, and private tutoring has been one of the great successes of independent education in the last 10 years, with an enormous increase in both quantity and quality. I congratulate the Government, therefore, on the introduction of the National Tutoring Programme, which I believe will be a great support to those children who can access it. But I am surprised to be told that many of the most successful tutoring companies with the highest reputations are to be excluded from competing for part of that contract. Can my noble friend tell me what is going on?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, it is an integral part of catching up for disadvantaged students to have access to small-group tuition. We hope that this will be one of the changes that Covid-19 brings about, through the use of remote education, for example. In relation to the programme, Teach First is providing it where there must be a person physically in the building—certain schools will need one person to devote themselves to their cohort—but other tutoring will be delivered remotely. That is being delivered through the grant to the Education Endowment Foundation. If the noble Lord could send me details of those companies, the foundation is seeking to make sure that the best tutoring out there is made available to disadvantaged students.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to press the Minister on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, because, regrettably, I do not think her answer was satisfactory. Was it not the Secretary of State who decided not to follow the example of the Scottish Government to bring back teacher assessments instead of Ofqual’s algorithms, which were leading to gross injustices to many students? In these circumstances, why did the Secretary of State not resign, when the Permanent Secretary was shown the door? Surely, this is an abrogation of our constitutional principle that Ministers take responsibility in the end.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I have outlined to noble Lords that once issues were raised about the Scottish results, there were concerns that they should not be repeated in England. That was the moment at which that could be compensated for by the introduction of an additional appeal based on a valid mock. There was a response; it is not that nothing was done once we were aware. When issues were brought to our attention, matters were dealt with.

Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this summer’s debacle threw up a massive disadvantage gap between state and independent schools. The latter continued with online teaching and learning to far greater effect than the former. Following the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the Minister’s answer, independent schools are always ready to play their part, so can the Minister say why the National Tutoring Programme has a minimum of 500 students to access, when most independent schools have only about 390? They would be asked to tutor more pupils than they actually teach.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, the National Tutoring Programme is to deliver small-group tutoring, envisaged to be for groups of about four or five pupils. I will have to write to the noble Baroness about the details of the disparity and the numbers she outlines.

Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, given the scientific evidence that schools are extremely low-risk environments for the spread of Covid-19, and the harm already suffered by children from not being in school, I am delighted that the Government are now getting on with seeing children back into school. I will ask my noble friend two questions, if I may. First, could she reassure the House—she may have just done so—that the Government intend that exams will be sat by years 11 and 13 next year, given that that is so important? We do not want to see another cohort disrupted like this year’s. Secondly, could she help us understand the criteria the Government want to use to decide which children receive the special remedial help for disadvantaged children, and by whom these decisions will be made?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, it is wonderful that we are all in agreement that it is great to know that, as we stand here, so many children are back in school today, where they belong. It is the expectation that exams will be taken in 2021. In relation to the delivery of catch-up support, the majority of the £1 billion has gone out through the normal system of core funding for schools, because it is the schools on the front line that know which of their students have fallen furthest behind during the lockdown period. They have been given information from the Education Endowment Foundation on how best to use that money to support students. We trust the professionals to make those judgments and we are aiding them to do that.

Tutoring support will be offered with about a 25% cost reduction. We have given guidance that some of the £650 million will be spent on buying in the tutoring that we are providing at this heavily subsidised cost. We have confidence in the head teachers who, today and tomorrow, will know how their pupils have fared—some of whom they, sadly, will not had any contact with for many months.

Lord Holmes of Richmond Portrait Lord Holmes of Richmond (Non-Afl) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Does the Minister agree that education is one of the few means by which we can go beyond our circumstances and achieve our potential? To this end, is the department considering an equality impact assessment into what happened this summer, not least the impact on white working-class young men and indeed all other protected characteristics?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I am sure I am not alone in saying that education has enabled me to go way beyond my circumstances. It is vitally important that we know the impact that policies have on different communities. Ofqual published an equality impact assessment when it launched its consultation on the 2020 exams and it will publish a similar document in relation to the examinations next year.

Lord Wood of Anfield Portrait Lord Wood of Anfield (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I want to take the Minister back, I am afraid, to the process leading up to the announcement of A-level results, because the process that she described is really quite extraordinary. It is not that there was no consultation between the Minister and Ofqual, it is that there was consistent regular dialogue, with questions asked and answers given, and yet the fiasco that we now know about still unfolded. It does not say much for the competence of the Minister that, despite intense scrutiny, conversation and demands for answers, we still ended up with the scale of the discriminatory fiasco that emerged. I ask again: how can it possibly be justified that the accountability and responsibility principles applying to the Permanent Secretary and the Ofqual head do not also apply to a Minister who was so embroiled in the process for weeks and months in the run-up?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, as I have outlined, during that process, reassurances were given that the limitations of this system could be dealt with through an appeals process. Noble Lords will have seen the incremental changes in that appeals process. I have outlined the introduction of mocks after the Scottish results. When the balance changed, the most just of the two systems became the use of only teacher assessments. That is when the decision in relation to using only teacher assessments was taken, but that decision was for Ofqual, in agreement with the Secretary of State.