Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams

Damien Moore Excerpts
Monday 7th December 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Education
Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Damien Moore Portrait Damien Moore (Southport) (Con)
- Hansard - -

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.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.