Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams

Gillian Keegan Excerpts
Monday 7th December 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)
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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.

Gillian Keegan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
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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.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
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Despite having claimed for costs incurred over the summer, some schools in my constituency have received no reimbursement from the Government. Will the Minister explain why that is happening and how those schools can be expected to balance their books this year?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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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.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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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?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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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.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey
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Will the Minister give way?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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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.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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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.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 326066, 550846, 316404 and 549015, relating to the impact of Covid-19 on schools and exams.