Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams

Mark Pawsey Excerpts
Monday 7th December 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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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.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on his introduction and on bringing forward this debate on the impact of covid on schools and exams.

This is an important debate. Few issues are as important as our children’s education, especially in a year when that has been more disrupted than at any time in recent memory. As a principle, I believe that for children’s progress and wellbeing it is vital for them to remain in the education setting for as long as possible. I will therefore focus on the impact of covid on exams and the case for a two-week lockdown in schools before Christmas. I will build on representations I have had over the past week from the headteachers of three schools in Rugby: Siobhan Evans of Ashlawn School, Mark Grady of Rugby High School and Alison Davies of Avon Valley School.

On the issue of exams, I recognise the very great challenge to the Government and Ofqual—I am sure the Minister will explain this—of putting in place a system to treat pupils who will be sitting GCSEs and A-levels next summer. How are we to treat those pupils fairly? Many pupils have lost an awful lot of school time. Ofsted, in its recent annual report, notes:

“While we do not yet have reliable evidence on ‘learning loss’ from the pandemic, it is likely that losses have been significant and will be reflected in widening attainment gaps.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) referred to that.

We know that the amount of home study in this time has varied dramatically according to the circumstances of the children and their parents. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have missed out significantly in comparison with their more fortunate peers. Mrs Evans drew my attention to the fact that her own son, who attends a different school from the one where she is head, missed out on 150 teaching hours during the first lockdown and is on course to miss a further 120 in this academic year—a total of 270 hours. I understand that a GCSE is typically 120 guided learning or teaching hours, so her son is missing the equivalent of two GCSEs’ worth of teaching time. That is a huge amount, even when parents are able to monitor their child’s learning, support them and put additional resource in place—and of course we know that that has not been possible for every child. Many have not had the support at home to make up for that lost teaching time. I have heard accounts from teachers and parents of pupils who have spent that time at home on computers, playing games and staying up late, rather than completing their school work.

There is a range of solutions, varying from cancelling the exams altogether to going ahead and pretending that nothing has happened, but I believe that what the Government have announced is a pragmatic suggestion. It includes delaying exams for three weeks to provide extra teaching time, giving advance notice of the topics that pupils will be examined on, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, and providing appropriate aid to pupils during their exams.

It is essential that exams go ahead, because they are the fairest and most accurate way we have to measure attainment. Of course, pupils themselves deserve to have the opportunity to demonstrate their hard work and show what they know. Today, I spoke to the equality club at Rugby Free Secondary School—a fourth secondary in my constituency—to talk about equality. The Government should take steps to ensure that no pupil is unfairly disadvantaged simply by virtue of having been born in a particular year—in this case, 2003, 2004 or 2005—and sitting exams in either 2020 or 2021. It is imperative that there is a level playing field on applications for jobs and universities for the children who sit exams in these two years as there was for those in the years preceding them and as there will be in the years afterwards, when, we hope, everything will settle down.

I now turn to the case for a two-week lockdown from 10 December, which has been made to me by Mr Grady and Ms Davies. They have told me that, following the announcement of the relaxation of the rules to allow the formation of Christmas bubbles, there should be a two-week school lockdown from 10 December. I understand that that is because if a student is identified as a contact and required to isolate after 10 December, their self-isolation period will have a direct impact on their family’s plans for Christmas—through no fault of their own, a student could cause their family to miss out on a family Christmas.

Any child going to school from Monday 14 December and required to self-isolate will have to do so for the whole Christmas period. The case for closure is that if schools were to close on 10 December, that risk could be eliminated. But I believe that that would be incredibly disruptive to the majority of children and, as with previous school closures, a two-week school lockdown would have a disproportionate effect on students from disadvantaged backgrounds at a time when those students have missed many hours of education already.

My hon. Friend the Minister will tell us that there is a judgment call to be made between the impact on family Christmases and on children’s education. If we had not lost so much teaching time already in the year, it might have been reasonable to close early for Christmas, but I do not buy that. I think it essential that children do not fall further behind, and for that reason I am not supportive of a pre-Christmas school lockdown.

If I may, I will raise one or two issues that have been drawn to my attention by my local headteachers and particularly in respect of Ashlawn School, which is very heavily subscribed because of its outstanding Ofsted rating. A big and busy school, it has done exceptionally well to maintain social distancing on the school estate, but in practice the limitations of the classroom sizes have made it very difficult to meet all the Government guidelines. Mrs Evans has contrasted the reality that schools face on the ground with some of the images that have come through from the Department, showing students in spacious classrooms with plenty of room between them. That is not always the case, particularly in a well subscribed outstanding school. She has also drawn my attention to the cost of maintaining social distancing measures in a big school: she estimates that the cost is £200 a day, with £70 a day spent on hand sanitiser alone.

The Government have done the right thing in prioritising education and ensuring that pupils get the best possible education. They have demonstrated that they have the best interests of the most disadvantaged at heart, and I very much look forward to the remarks of the Minister in summing up the debate this evening.

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.

Break in Debate

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.