Covid-19: Impact on Education Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Education

Laurence Robertson Excerpts
Monday 15th March 2021

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and they are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.

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Ben Bradley Portrait Ben Bradley (Mansfield) (Con) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to speak in this debate, covering a number of petitions about both the return to school and this year’s assessments.

Obviously, the impact of covid on our schools, and therefore on our children and young people, has been huge. I would argue that it is perhaps still being underestimated. As I have said before in this place, personally I would not have closed schools. Being out of school for months has had a huge impact on the more than 1,000 vulnerable children in Nottinghamshire—that is just the county, excluding the city, so the number might be twice as high—who are known to children’s services for one reason or another. There was a spike in the number of abuse referrals to children’s services following last summer’s lockdown, and I have no doubt that that will happen again now. We owe it to those children in particular to put them at the heart of our plans for recovery.

This is not just about vulnerable children; the issue has affected all children. I am lucky enough to be the father of two primary aged boys—

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (in the Chair)
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I am sorry to interrupt, Mr Bradley, but your voice is not coming through very clearly. Could you try to speak a little more loudly or move a little closer to the microphone?

Ben Bradley Portrait Ben Bradley
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I will hold the microphone closer to my face.

It is not only vulnerable children who have been impacted by the lockdowns. I am lucky enough to be the father of two primary age boys, and they have been lucky enough mostly to continue to attend school, as my wife has worked on a supermarket shop floor throughout, but even they have missed their social lives and have missed out on a lot of experiences. They have seen both their education and development impacted. This time in the lives of our children and young people is hugely important, whether it is early development as a primary school student mastering the academic basics, learning to make friends, understanding the school environment and how to act around other people, or whether it is a teenager studying for major qualifications while also coming out of their shell and becoming an adult and finding themselves. How much more difficult must it be for them to begin to find their independence and their own self separate from their parents when they are forced to spend every day at home with them and they do not get to go and do anything else?

In terms of what we do about it—this is the key going forward—the Government have talked a lot about academic catch-up and tutoring, which is welcome, but the biggest challenge that parents and teachers have raised with me is a social one, not an academic one. Teachers have told me that children have forgotten what it means to be in school—how to act and behave—and having to relearn all of that after having changed those behaviours as they are not used to being around groups of people, seeing their friends or being in the classroom. They have shrunk back into their shells after having spent so much time on their own, and it is a challenge now to draw them out again. That means we need to focus not only on academia but on the social side of things.

We should offer more support to extracurricular activities, including sport. Let us not forget the health and fitness impact, too, and the inequalities that will have grown as a result of lockdown and the inactivity that came with it. We could start by looking seriously at how we can open up our sports facilities. Some 40% of our nation’s sports facilities remain locked behind school gates at evenings and weekends.

We have to focus on transitioning children back into the classroom when they need it, and supporting teachers to do that. Children moving to secondary school this year, for example, will have missed so much of the transitional process that they normally would get. The Government could promote and support things such as nurture provision at both primary and secondary level to help children adapt and ease into school life at their own pace, rather than being chucked in at the deep end. I hope the Government will be able to support schools to deliver some year 7 transition as much as possible for the end of this year.

A few years ago, the then Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), launched a programme of introducing and expanding mental health support in schools. I spoke to the Schools Minister recently about that. Will he update the House on any discussions about whether that plan, which at the time seemed wide ranging and positive, is considered still to be adequate, or can we speed it up and extend it in the light of the struggles that many will face as a result of the pandemic?

On the issue of academia, the Prime Minister’s idea of one-to-one tutoring could be great if it could be done as an addition to the social support that is needed. It will be important to work across schools, colleges and universities to ensure that there is a recognition of the challenges that young people have faced and of the difference between grades given this year compared with other years, because clearly nobody should be disadvantaged as they seek to move on to the next stage of their lives.

All of that calls into question some of what we do around our assessment. I am no detractor from testing at all—I think it is important—but we saw the major challenges faced as a result of so much of our assessment being built only on exams at the end of the year. In the absence of those, there have been all sorts of problems. Obviously, other countries have different systems. Some have an ongoing system of teacher-led assessment as a matter of course. I wonder how the Minister feels those countries might have compared in terms of the challenges of assessment through this period.

I particularly question whether there is really a need to formally assess year 2 students, for example. Also, in the light of covid, perhaps we should be more willing to trust our teachers and to rely on their ongoing assessment as to what children in their care need. They are better placed to assess the ability and the support needed by children at a young age than an exam paper is, particularly if the needs of those children at four, five or six years old are more social as opposed to academic. Perhaps that is something we could look at. Teachers’ knowledge of what their students need will be more important than ever as we seek to recover from the pandemic. Both teachers and students would benefit from having that trust in their relationship within schools to help support children.

There are lessons to take from online learning, too. Although some have struggled, others have loved it and have excelled. They have attended, whereas they might not have done before. There may be a role for using remote learning permanently in some instances. My local college reported excellent attendance among some of the students who had not been engaged or showing up before; it reported excellent work and excellent progress by, for example, many students with autism, who might have struggled in a classroom environment but found online learning really positive. Across the board, but perhaps particularly for post-16 and with SEND pupils, we should review how remote learning could benefit young people. I know that is part of the Prime Minister’s plan for independent and individual tutoring.

Finally, I will touch on skills. I welcome the Government’s further education White Paper, which has some excellent proposals for boosting and supporting further education. The Minister knows my view that many children would benefit from more access to technical and vocational education as part of their curriculum within school or from being allowed out to college earlier in their school life. I have always felt that is an opportunity for the 18% who currently leave school with no qualifications at all to do something different, and to fall in love with education through learning in a way that is directly linked to the world of work or to things they enjoy.

Given the impact on so many children who have been out of education for so long and the challenge of getting them back into the classroom and comfortable in the classroom again, I hope the Minister will give consideration to how that might work, not only as a chance to get young people back into learning after covid, but to complement the FE reforms that have been brought forward by the Government and to help all our young people to get the most out of education in the long term, including that 18% who previously have not managed to get those qualifications through traditional schooling.

With that, I will wrap up. I finish by saying that this is hugely important and, as I said at the start of my speech, we owe it to all our young people and our children to put them at the heart of our recovery plans. Ultimately, they are the ones who will have to deal with this for the longest, for the future of our country, our economy and all of us, and they should be front and centre of every decision we make as we look to recover from this pandemic.

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Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting
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The problem with the BTEC handling back in January was that the Department was saying two things at the same time. It was saying that these BTEC exams were going ahead, but then, following an outcry and concerns about whether that would be safe, it said:

“In light of the evolving public health measures”—

I am quoting from the DFE statement—

“schools and colleges can continue with the vocational and technical exams that are due to take place in January, where they judge it right to do so.”

That just added to the confusion and chaos. The issue was not just pupils sitting at home, trying to prepare for exams that were taking place literally the next day or in the coming days; it was also that their teachers were unable to give clear answers. This goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North raised about the invidious position that school leaders and teachers have been put in by the chaos and confusion and dither and delay that have come out of the DFE. They were not clear on what was going on—the communication was poor for them—so the very people to whom students usually look to provide clear answers and strong advice and leadership simply were not able to provide it, through no fault of their own.

That left us in the absurd situation in which, according to the Education Secretary, about a third of colleges chose to continue with exams in January, while the rest did not. He then backtracked and cancelled BTEC exams in February and March. Again, he eventually got to the right decision, but why did he not see it coming and why could he not take decisive action in a way that told all students and all staff exactly where they stood and what he planned to do about it?

Let me turn now to some of the other challenges facing us ahead of assessments this summer. The first is on private candidates. There has been concern, throughout the changes to examinations, that about 20,000 private candidates not affiliated with schools and colleges this year will be disadvantaged. Many students have been told that they have to pay hundreds or even thousands of pounds for local exam centres and schools to assess them, and schools do not necessarily have the resources to do that. Again, more for the benefit of people watching the debate than people in the Chamber, I point out that we are not talking about privately educated students; we are talking about private candidates, who are entering themselves privately for examinations. Many of these private candidates are students who were not happy with their centre assessed grades last year. They feel that they are being denied the opportunity to take exams and prove that they deserve better grades. They are worried about whether they are even going to get a centre to take them on.

I acknowledge that today there has been an announcement from the Department that schools will receive a subsidy for every private candidate who is entered for a qualification. I think that that will go some way to incentivising centres to take these students on. I am concerned that, in relation to a very small number of subjects but none the less a number of subjects, the fees to enter students for these exams are more than the £200 that I think the Department is offering. Could the Minister speak to that point in particular?

I wonder, because this is the question that we are getting from students, what consideration the Department and Ofqual gave to allowing private candidates to sit some form of exams. The Minister will understand that the concern of these students is that a system that relies on teacher assessment will be inherently disadvantageous or, perhaps, practically impossible if the centre does not have a relationship with the private candidates.

These are just some of the quotes that I have from private candidates expressing their concerns. One told PoliticsHome:

“With the promise of 2021 exams, I was hopeful that I could redeem myself in my other two A Levels…It’s clear that the government thinks of us as afterthoughts…We’re not just going to sit back whilst they toy with our futures. We want a solution that works for everybody.”

Another student who was downgraded last year said:

“I decided to put my life on hold for another year and resit my exams this summer as the university kindly reinstated my offer. I made the decision not to give up on my dreams and not settle for a grade I strongly believed was too low. I put an extreme amount of effort into revising everyday so that I am able to move on…I am absolutely devastated for private and resit candidates that exams have been cancelled again this year as they are, in vast majority of cases, not able to get a [teacher-assigned] grade.”

Will the Minister explain to those students the practical challenges of their being able to sit an exam? What reassurance can he provide that they will be able to sign up with another school, college or assessment centre and receive a properly validated grade that reflects their abilities and efforts in the way that they hope, as students who are resitting?

My final point about this year’s exams is about the immense pressure that we are already beginning to see inflicted on teachers and headteachers as a result of the appeals system that seems to have been outlined in the guidance. One of my own secondary schools wrote to me quoting the guidance, which says:

“To reduce the number of errors made and, in turn the volume of appeals, centres will be expected to tell their students the evidence on which their grades will be based, before the grades are submitted to exam boards. This will allow issues associated with, for example, absence, illness or reasonable adjustments to be identified and resolved before grades are submitted.”

There is something to commend in the approach that students must understand the basis on which they are being judged—of course, that is absolutely right. It is also absolutely right that mitigating factors ought to be taken into account, and in a transparent way. However, I think we are all concerned about the implication that pupils or pushy parents with sharp elbows will be able to—picking up on reasonable adjustments in particular—effectively demand from teachers and headteachers different grades from the ones the teacher has judged to be right. That puts schools in a really invidious position.

By the way, this should be regarded as a gentle warning to those who regularly make demands for a whole series of exams to be scrapped that the grass is not always greener on the other side. This is not to say that teacher judgment cannot play a role, but leaving a system significantly to teacher judgment in the way that this has been puts enormous pressure on teachers. My concern is that it will also bake in deeper disadvantage because sharp-elbowed middle-class parents will be in there demanding adjustments to grades, and other parents will not. I wonder what the Minister might say in response to that, in terms of the approach to this year’s exams.

Finally, on next year’s exams, if the Education Secretary has not learned from the absolute fiasco last summer and the absolute fiasco in January, and the completely last-minute way in which he made a decision about exams in 2021, please, for the love of God, I hope he has made some judgments about exams in 2022. We already have students on GCSE, A-level and BTEC courses expecting to sit exams in 2022. There is simply no good reason why the Department for Education and Ofqual should not be able to tell those students what exams in 2022 will look like.

Indeed, Ofqual’s acting chief regulator, Simon Lebus, told the Education Committee last week:

“So far as 2022 is concerned, the thinking at the moment is about adaptations along the line that had originally been contemplated for this year, when exams were still to go ahead.”

Furthermore, the Minister for School Standards said:

“We are working now on what decisions we will take for 2022, because we know there has been disruption, but we will have more to say on that later in the year.”

I am afraid that “later in the year” is really not good enough. It is really inexplicable—these issues and the choices available to exam boards and Ministers about mitigations and adjustments to exams are well known and were debated and discussed ahead of exams potentially taking place in 2021. Why are these decisions not ready to go? Why are we not providing clarity and certainty to schools, teachers and students, who are crying out for them? I find it unfathomable that we are not providing clear instruction and guidance to students who are on these courses right now, wondering what they should be studying for and towards, and what their exams will look like.

Of course, adjustments are necessary. Looking at the Department’s own data, we estimated that year 10 pupils have missed one in eight days of GCSE teaching. The situation may not be quite so severe at A-level because we always expect there to be a greater degree of independent learning, but none the less there will be some degree of learning loss, and we know that the challenges faced by students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds will be greater.

Last week, I met school leaders from Newham sixth forms. Both the principals present were very clear that scant information is coming from the Government and that they need certainty now. Uncertainty is piling on the pressure facing pupils and their teachers. The longer Ministers dither and delay, the harder it will be to make meaningful adjustments for exams to go ahead in a way that is fair to all pupils.

Ministers need to learn from their mistakes and act sooner, rather than later. If the Education Secretary did not feel battered and bruised from his previous encounters with exams, and motivated to do something different, something earlier and something decisive, there really is no hope for him.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (in the Chair)
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Minister, you will need to leave a couple of minutes for Mr Hunt to wind up.