Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams

Helen Hayes Excerpts
Monday 7th December 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Jane Hunt Portrait Jane Hunt (Loughborough) (Con)
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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.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
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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.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
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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 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.

Break in Debate

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.