Monday 12th October 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I went to a tough south-east London comprehensive, which was big on pastoral care but not so big on academic results. If I had been graded in 2020, I am sure that I would not have been graded my three As by the algorithms and my life would have taken a very different path, so I feel strongly about this issue.

The pandemic has presented schools with a range of complex problems, but schools up and down the country, not least in my constituency, did a brilliant job staying open for the children of key workers and for vulnerable children, providing lessons for home-schooling and preparing for the wider reopening in September. However, the summer exams fiasco, the failure to get an adequate testing system in place and a complete lack of specific guidance for schools have made it apparent that our schools are being let down by the Government.

I recently invited all the headteachers in my constituency to a virtual meeting to discuss the current situation and to listen to their concerns. One of the most pressing issues that they raised was clarity and guidance around how exams will be conducted this academic year. Their demand is completely acceptable. It is staggering that it has taken the Government until today to respond to it, particularly given what happened over the summer.

While today’s announcement of a three-week postponement is necessary, it does not do anything to make up for a term or more of missed classes. It also does not recognise that students have been disrupted by the pandemic to varying degrees. Those impacted the most by coronavirus are at the greatest disadvantage. More must be done to take that into consideration and make this year’s exams fairer.

Pupils set to sit those exams were in the final stages of years 10 and 12 when schools closed in March. As a result, they have missed out on months of face-to-face learning. Additionally, the wide range of safety measures in schools, the risks of periods of self-isolation and other external disruptions are preventing teaching as usual for now. Further, it is possible that the development of the pandemic could prevent many from physically sitting the exams of summer 2021.

In these difficult times, we look to the Government to set a direction and bring a degree of certainty to the uncertain, but it has taken until today to get an answer, and questions and uncertainty remain. This uncertainty does not help anyone. We should not underestimate the impact of lockdown on young people’s mental health. The pandemic has further exacerbated inequalities in society. Schools need to be able to focus on pastoral care and support after many months out of the classroom. A recent survey by the charity Parentkind found that 88% of parents surveyed thought that the lack of clarity about arrangements for exams had negatively affected their child’s mental health or wellbeing.

Several questions are omitted from today’s announcement. How will exams ensure that pupils, who have faced different levels of disruption, will be treated equally? What will the contingency plans be if future lockdowns occur? What information should schools be gathering in case exams are cancelled again and grades have to be estimated?

Serious consideration also has to be given to the impact that self-isolation of pupils and teachers will have, given the issues with the lack of access to tests that schools have told me about. Five education unions, including the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers, have put forward a detailed proposal to help remedy these problems. They suggest mechanisms such as reducing the content in qualifications, or introducing greater optionality by which students could choose to answer questions on, for example, three out of five possible topics. That would help to ensure that the grades received were as fair as possible and recognise the different experiences pupils may have had over the year. The proposal also suggests contingency plans, so that students who were significantly impacted by the pandemic would still be able to receive a fair grade. Suggestions include reserve papers for students unable to sit exams on a particular date, but able to sit them shortly afterwards, and staged assessments before the summer exams, which could then be used if those exams had to be abandoned altogether.

I hope that we can get clarity from the Minister and his Department today, and that, going forward, they will be discussing with schools and unions how best to design the summer exam system. The Government’s approach to negotiations with the unions about the wider reopening of schools was wholly lacking; I hope they do not make the same mistake again when it comes to exams. I do not doubt the scale of this challenge, but given the Department’s recent performance and the lack of urgency with which it has treated this issue, it is more important than ever that the Department engage with schools and unions. By doing so, I believe a fair system could be delivered that would give the young people who have already been impacted so much by this pandemic a fair chance at future attainment, but that requires the Government to listen and to work with all those involved.