Covid-19: Impact on Education

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Monday 15th March 2021

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Nick Gibb Portrait The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Robertson.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on how he opened the debate. I am sure he will join me in recognising the enormous professionalism and commitment of school staff working in our schools and with their students throughout the lockdown to continue education and progress towards assessments, whether students were being taught on site or remotely.

Today we are debating four petitions and it is worth noting that the context has changed significantly since they were first submitted. Two of them are about school reopening for the majority of pupils and students. One requests a delay to full opening until May and the other requests that schools in what were previously tier 4 areas remain closed to the majority of pupils.

Secondly, there are two petitions focusing on exams. One requests that BTECs be assessed by teacher-predicted grades, while the other requests cancellation of the 2021 GCSE and A-level exams. Finally, I want to outline higher education recovery plans, to demonstrate the further work being developed to help pupils and students to recover any lost learning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich is right that we need to be cautious about over-generalising about how children have fared during lockdown. He is also right to raise the issue of special educational needs and the impact of covid on the most vulnerable children. Special schools, of course, have mostly been open to pupils during lockdown. We have consistently prioritised specialist settings in our recovery premiums. Both special schools and alternative provision will be funded to provide summer schools and the national tutoring programme. We have also announced a £42 million package of continued support for children with SEND and their families during this difficult period.

Both my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich and my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) raised the issue of pupil mental health. We know that the pandemic is impacting children’s mental health and that, for most pupils, time out of school will have limited their social interaction. That is why the Government are continuing to prioritise mental health and wellbeing support for children and staff as they return to school. The Department has convened a mental health in education action group to consider how to support children and young people’s mental health as they return to school. That will build on the support provided through the Wellbeing for Education Return training programme.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) asked about face coverings. We have published a summary of the evidence as schools opened. They are one more measure in a system of controls designed to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus. SAGE has advised that face coverings can be effective in reducing transmission in public and community settings. Their effectiveness stems mostly from reducing the emission of virus-carrying particles when worn by an infected person.

Although some have been anxious about the return to school from 8 March, returning to face-to-face education in schools and colleges is a national priority. The return to school last week was a huge success, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) celebrated in his remarks. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the teachers and support staff who have worked so hard in preparing schools, as well as in providing remote education while most pupils were at home.

I saw first-hand, on the Friday before the schools opened on 8 March, a school in Portsmouth preparing for that return—getting children tested, even in the week before schools opened, in a systematic and organised way. On Monday, I visited a primary school in Streatham and saw the joy on the children’s faces as they returned to school and to being with their friends.

There is clear evidence that time out of education can be detrimental to children’s future prospects and earning potential, with implications also for the long-term productivity of the economy. By February half-term, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that the total loss in face-to-face education time was half a normal school year for children right across the UK. Despite huge efforts across industry and the Government to ensure that all pupils had appropriate technology for remote teaching, such as the 1.2 million laptops and tablets that have been delivered to date to schools, trusts and local authorities, pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were disproportionately affected by the lack of digital equipment and study space to participate effectively.

Younger pupils have also found it more challenging to engage in remote education. Schools, teachers and parents have worked tirelessly to continue the education of their pupils and students, but there is no substitute for time with a qualified teacher. The negative effects are also likely to extend beyond educational attainment, with NHS research suggesting that one in six young people may now have a mental health problem, up from one in nine in 2017.

The vaccination roll-out has been successful: 24 million people in this country have been vaccinated and, as Sam Freedman has pointed out, in countries of over 10 million people we are the world’s leader by a margin in having such a successful roll-out. That success means that infections and hospitalisations are falling, paving the way for the safe and gradual lifting of restrictions. We are also heading into the spring, when we would expect the prevalence of respiratory diseases to fall.

Although restrictions on attendance in schools have been removed, other restrictions remain in place to ensure that transmission rates remain low across the country. It is hugely important, of course, that we all continue to obey those restrictions. In addition, schools will continue to implement protective measures as set out in the system of controls. Regular testing of children further reduces the risk of transmission in schools.

In relation to remaining open in areas previously categorised as tier 4, as mentioned in one of the petitions, I note that we are seeing significant decreases in cases across almost all parts of the country and all age groups. In the absence of significant regional disparity, the Government decided to ease restrictions at the same time across the whole of England. Due to the current, relatively uniform spread of the virus across the country, the four steps out of lockdown set out in the road map are designed to apply to all regions.

We have been clear, however, that the return is dependent on the data against the four tests, as set out in the road map. The road map therefore gives indicative “no earlier than” dates for the steps, which are five weeks apart. Those dates are wholly contingent on the data and are subject to change if those four tests are not met.

I turn to exams. We did not want to cancel exams in either 2020 or 2021. We believe that exams are the best and fairest form of assessment for students to show what they know and what they can do. It was only in the unprecedented circumstances of the outbreak of covid that we had to make the very difficult decision to cancel exams as part of the wider measures to protect public health. This year, under different circumstances, the decision that exams could no longer go ahead as planned was made to ensure fairness among an exam cohort who had received differing amounts of face-to-face education, given the further disruption to students’ education in January and the varying need in different parts of the country to self-isolate during the autumn term. This summer, we will trust teachers’ professional judgment to award grades based on a range of evidence.

We worked on the contingency for exams being cancelled during the autumn term, which is why Ofqual and the DFE were able to consult on the details of the alternative to exams on 15 January, just 11 days after the announcement of the lockdown. Ofqual launched a joint consultation with the DFE on 15 January, with details of how grades would be awarded, the quality assurance approaches that we would be taking and details of the appeals process. We have received more than 100,000 responses to the consultation, over half of which were from students. Students will now receive grades determined by their teachers, with assessments covering what they were taught, not what they missed. Teachers have a good understanding of their students’ performance and how they compare with other students this year and in previous years.

We have given teachers the flexibility to use a range of evidence, including through the use of optional questions by exam boards, mock exams, non-exam assessment for coursework and in-class tests. My hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich and for Stoke-on-Trent North asked for the exam material to be a mandatory part of the range of evidence that teachers will use to support the grade that they submit. We asked in the consultation whether such materials should be compulsory, and the optionality option was the overwhelming response. As I said last week to the Select Committee, we did not want to introduce a mini-exam by the back door, having just cancelled exams because they were not a fair way to assess people’s qualifications.

We want teachers to feel supported while making their decisions and will provide guidance to enable them to make assessments fairly and consistently. There will be internal and external quality assurance processes to identify errors and make consistent judgments. To support students who believe that their final grade is wrong, there will be a right to appeal. We also want to be fair to all students, regardless of the type of qualification they are taking.

We announced on 25 February the arrangements this summer for awarding vocational and technical qualifications that are similar to GCSEs and A-levels and that use progression to further or higher education. External exams for those qualifications are not viable; instead, results will be awarded through similar arrangements to those for GCSEs and A-levels. There will be teacher-assessed grades, and many BTECs will therefore receive teacher-assessed grades as well. Functional skills qualifications are unlike GCSEs and VTQs in their qualification and assessment structure. They are taken by a wide range of pupils and students, including adults. Some VTQ courses are much smaller than those for GCSE and can be taken on demand when the students are ready. Therefore, all efforts should be made to allow pupils and students to take an assessment in line with public health measures or remotely. Where that is not possible, teacher-assessed grades will be made available for awarding.

Where students are taking vocational qualifications to enter employment directly and where technical competence needs to be demonstrated, exams and assessments will continue in line with public health measures. That is so that students can demonstrate the necessary occupational or professional standard and start work in a safe way.

The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) raised the issue of private candidates. We are determined to ensure that private candidates can receive a grade this year. We are capping the fees that centres can charge and subsidising the extra costs that schools will face in assembling the evidence to support a grade. The Joint Council for Qualifications will shortly publish a list of schools and colleges that will provide support to private candidates in being awarded a qualification.

We recognise that extended school and college restrictions have had a substantial impact on children and young people’s education, and we are committed to helping pupils to make up any education lost as a result of the pandemic. No pupil’s long-term prospects should suffer as a consequence of what has happened over the last year. In January 2021, the Prime Minister committed to working with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to support schools and pupils to make up that lost education. As part of this, in February we appointed Sir Kevan Collins as the education recovery commissioner, to advise on the approach to education recovery and the development of a long-term plan to help pupils make up lost education.

As an immediate step, we have made available funding of £1.7 billion to support education recovery. In June 2020, we announced, as part of that £1.7 billion, a £1 billion catch-up package, including a national tutoring programme and a catch-up premium for this academic year. In February, we committed a further £702 million to fund summer schools, expand our tutoring programme and fund a recovery premium for the next academic year. That £702 million is also part of the £1.7 billion. Over this Parliament, as we continue to learn and understand what more is needed to help students to recover lost education, we will ensure that support is delivered in a way that works for young people and for the sector.

The return to school on 8 March was, rightly, the first step in our road map to recovery and it has been successfully delivered, thanks to education staff across the country, with primary attendance high and secondary school attendance rising steadily throughout the week. We will continue to be led by the data when taking each step in the road map, and there are contingencies in place if any actions need to be taken in the event of extremely high prevalence of coronavirus over the coming months. GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels have been cancelled for summer 2021, along with many BTECs and other VTQs, with students instead being awarded grades based on assessment by their teachers.

Education recovery is a firm focus of the Government, with the appointment of the education recovery commissioner and the announcement of increased funding to enable a variety of activities to help with refreshing the academic and social lives of pupils and students. School and college staff have been asked rapidly to become IT experts, health and safety experts, test facilitators and examiners this year. I would like to finish by once again thanking them wholeheartedly for all their work, their commitment and their professionalism.