Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams

Jim Shannon Excerpts
Monday 7th December 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
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.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I congratulate my good friend, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), on setting the scene, as he often does. He has brought his knowledge of education to the House, which we all benefit from. Well done to him. I also thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me the opportunity to speak.

Education is clearly a devolved matter, so the Minister has no responsibility for what happens in Northern Ireland. However, I will add my comments, which will replicate the comments of other right hon. and hon. Members on what is important in education and the best way to achieve the safety and education of children. This debate has illustrated that I am not the only MP inundated with parents’ concerns; I believe that much of the mail I receive every day in relation to education will be the same in Strangford as elsewhere. The queries of parents uncomfortable with their child being on the bus to school, in class or taking part in after-school activities are valid, and their concerns are entirely understandable.

However, the other side of that is a letter from an equally concerned parent that their child’s academic and social development is being adversely affected by remote teaching, as the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) clearly referred to. Queries about the focus on home learning and children being prevented from attending normal after-school activities are equally valid and understandable. The Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, Peter Weir, said that schools will remain open right through to the normal school holidays. That is good, because children need a routine; that is important, as has been coming through to me. He is in regular contact with the Education Minister here, and they try to ensure continuity between what happens here and in Northern Ireland.

I hear from teachers concerned for their families. It seems that every day we hear of more community transmission. Although the rate is lessening thanks to the steps taken, it is still in schools, and I hear from teachers concerned for the health of their loved ones at home. There was a covid-19 outbreak in my granddaughter’s school, and year 8s and year 9s had to go home as a precaution. I will not mention which school, but it is good that they are now over that, that there were no fatalities and nothing serious came out of it. All teachers and pupils have recovered.

I hear from other teachers who highlight their concern for children who are unable to learn at home due to a lack of support or the need for enhanced professional support. One teacher told me that their heart was breaking for a child she believes soaks up the kindness from teaching staff; there are children who really need that more than anything else. When she went to call the child’s mother on Zoom to check on the child during the covid lockdown, she was unable to get through. The child returned to school after lockdown ended, but was withdrawn, quiet and uncertain. In the teacher’s own words, her heart “literally ached” for that child.

Let me be quite clear that this child is not in any physical danger; she is fed and clothed in clean clothes. Nevertheless, this teacher urged me to tell the story of all the children who need to be in school for the kindness and encouragement that they receive, even for that little two minutes that the teacher spends with them on a one-to-one basis. Other children look forward to the structure of school, while for many children it is the nutritious lunch they get at school that they look forward to; that is valid to me and it is valid to their families as well.

One teacher highlights the need for an additional week of school holiday, to give the two-week buffer after the five-day Christmas period relaxation. However, another says that she cannot do that:

“I have GCSE and A-level students who need to be in”.

Both views are valid, and there is a balance that education Ministers and even schools themselves are always trying to strike in the education system. But herein lies a problem for schools. What one family needs is not what all children need; what will work for one teacher might not work for another. Are any of those teachers wrong in what they say? No, I do not think they are.

So, what can we do? How do we design a place to satisfy the valid concerns of both sides, who have opinions that are polar opposites? The question is difficult, yet what every teacher and every parent agree on is that there is more riding on this issue than an attendance percentage on a report. For many children, it is about establishing their foundation for learning; for others, it is the difference between excelling and merely attaining.

I got no further than GCSEs at school, or their equivalent at that time; I will put that on the record. I often say to children at exam time that through hard work, determination and working my way up, I ran my own business and managed to make it to this place. Exams are not the be-all and end-all, but education is, and we must do all we can to protect the education of our children, to protect the necessary social interaction between them and to protect a generation of innovation and hope. Are we getting things right? I am not really sure. Do we need to keep listening and reacting to new information and situations? The answer to that is, “Absolutely.”

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.