Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams

Jane Hunt Excerpts
Monday 7th December 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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I am grateful to be able to speak in this debate. I certainly concur with the comments made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) about the national tutoring programme. I know that school heads across York, who come together in an organisation called YSAB—York Schools and Academies Board—say that the money could be better and more effectively targeted had they got control of the resources. They also have relationships with people who could deliver such a programme. That would make such a difference, and not only in delivering the programme far more quickly, which is something that we would all want to see.

I also concur with some of the comments made in Libby’s petition on looking at closing schools down earlier before Christmas and being able to displace that time to another point in the calendar in order to keep families safe. Every day, we are seeing hundreds of children in our constituencies not at school. In York, 545 children are not in school in one of the lowest areas of infection in the country. We have to hold things in balance: we have to look at how we can put the right measures in place to keep families safe, but also ensure that there is minimum disruption to children’s education.

This has been the most challenging time for teachers and support staff, as well as students. The stress placed on our young people today, who have worked incredibly hard through this time, has had a profound impact on their mental health, which must be recognised. People do not want to be absent from their education: with every single absence, they see their future slipping away, not least because they are still uncertain as to what the end of the year may bring for them. One thing that they are certain of, though, is that those absences have driven greater inequality.

In researching for this debate, I decided to go back to some source reports, drawing on academia in particular and looking at Ofqual reports too, to examine the assertion that Government keep putting forward: that exams are the best form of assessment. From Ofqual’s work and that of others, that is not what the evidence is saying. For instance, an inequality is hardwired into the system: the evidence shows that male students perform better in exam-only assessments than female students, and we therefore need to look at that issue. While female students perform well in exams, they also excel where there is coursework involved, and therefore the hybrid model that Labour championed during its time in government struck the right balance. That is certainly borne out by the evidence put forward by academics.

That evidence has also shown that having proper access to IT and broadband, and a safe and secure learning environment, removes so much of the inequality around socio-economic status that we see. That is why it is absolutely right for the Government to prioritise those things, although sadly that has been lacking throughout this pandemic: there has been greater divergence, particularly for pupils who already have lower attainment, and that growing inequality in our education system is of great concern.

As set out by the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry last year, teacher assessment during compulsory education is as reliable as formal external exams. That journal also found no bias on the grounds of ethnicity or gender in that type of assessment. It did, however, recognise the impact that exams are having on wellbeing, as did the Mumsnet survey of 1,500 parents, who identified the impact exams are now having on children’s mental health. Two in three children experience anxiety and sleepless nights. For one in 10, exams have a severe impact on their mental health, with 9% seeking medical help, one in five pupils in tears, and 31% experiencing exam stress. Research has shown how exams—not least the gold-standard exams—have exacerbated poor mental health, resulting in an increase of a third in medical referrals, as well as panic attacks, breakdowns, crying, fatigue, and children imploding emotionally.

That poor mental health is creating a new disadvantage through exams, where those who are breaking under the system are performing worse in exams. That must be taken into consideration, not least with the escalation of pressure when a pupil knows that they are sitting exams having had many days of absence, while other pupils have been able to attend school. Now, we have a system where four different nations have four different systems and pupils are applying to universities for the same places, and therefore greater inequality is being built into the system. Sadly, while it is welcome to hear about the work that the Government have been doing, their announcements last week have not addressed the deep concerns about inequality in our system. Certainly, most young people still do not know what lies beyond that point.

An extension of only three weeks to the academic year, as needed as it may be, will not address the missed opportunities children have had. I spoke to one parent whose daughter had had only 16 days since March of her A-level biology course, for which she sits the exam next summer. How will she compare with the pupil who has been constantly in education over that time, when she has had no contact with her educational establishment for three months? The gap is so large that it is clear we cannot depend on an end-of-year-exam-only assessment. I am sure that after the Government have sat in their workgroup, they will be coming back to make further announcements.

However, there is one more question that I want to put before Government, which is maybe a bigger question: what is education for? Surely we need to return to the classical understanding that education is the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to apply it. Passing exams has little to do with that, and therefore the Government’s assertion that exams are the best form of assessment and of advancing pupils’ education is not proven by the academic evidence.

We can trust our professional teachers and educators to nurture and assess our young people with centre-based assessments for all—yes, absolutely, nationally moderated—and turn the stress and tears to joy and prove that education is not just about exams. If the Minister fails to do that, I trust that the higher education sector will take control of how it will admit its next generation of students and force the Government to think again.

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.