Monday 12th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Nick Gibb Portrait The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb)
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I certainly will, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and to respond to the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). I congratulate her on securing the debate, and on the way she introduced it.

Coronavirus has been causing huge disruption to young people and their families, schools and the wider teaching community. The Government have always made the education of young people a priority and, as we all continue to adapt and to progress through the pandemic, we are determined to make sure that, when the time comes, young people are able to take the next step in their lives with the skills and qualifications that they need. At the same time, we must do whatever we can to reduce the pressure on all those studying at school or college during an incredibly stressful time. As many Members have said in the debate, too much teaching time has been lost in the past few months. We are determined that we cannot risk any child’s education being put on hold. Today’s announcement of a three-week delay is only one component, designed to increase teacher time and help students to catch up. The changes proposed by Ofqual to the assessment process, and the £1 billion catch-up fund, are also part of that process.

I stress that I understand clearly that the grading situation in summer 2020 caused great stress and uncertainty. The Education Secretary and I both understand the distress that it caused young people and their parents. We never wanted to cancel exams. They are obviously the best and fairest form of assessment, but we had to take the difficult decision to close schools and colleges, and cancel summer exams, because of the covid-19 outbreak. We were in uncharted territory in devising an alternative system. The overriding aim was to ensure that all students received just recognition of their efforts and that they would be able to progress to the next stage of their lives in the knowledge that their qualifications would have the same value as in previous years.

We worked closely with the independent qualifications regulator, Ofqual, as it developed a process for arriving at calculated grades through a standardisation model, but it became clear that the model was throwing up far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for students that might not have reflected their hard work or ability. It was not reasonable to expect all those to be dealt with through an appeals system. The outcomes also severely undermined public confidence in the system, so Ofqual and the Government took immediate action. We announced on 17 August the decision to revert to centre assessment grades for all students, or the calculated grade if this was higher. That was the best outcome in the difficult circumstances we were in, and the fairest for students and their families. GCSE results were recalculated on that basis and returned to schools on time and within 48 hours of that decision being made. A-level results were also recalculated and reissued.

Stephanie Peacock Portrait Stephanie Peacock
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The Minister said that students should receive the fairest grade, but 63% of pupils in Barnsley had their grades downgraded, compared with 40% nationally, while many private school pupils’ grades went up. He says the Government acted quickly, but they saw this happen in Scotland and did not anticipate it happening here; they did not take action and waited days. This is genuinely affecting the future of many hundreds of thousands of young people. We need to make sure it does not happen again.

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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That is why the decision was taken on 17 August to revert to whichever was highest of calculated grades or centre assessment grades. It is also one reason why we determined that exams will go ahead this year, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) said, they are the fairest system of assessing pupils’ ability and the work they have done in the two years of their course. Our priority now is to ensure that next year’s exams proceed fairly and efficiently and that students gain the qualifications they deserve. That is the view of the teacher and headteacher unions, including, I say to the hon. Member for Gower, the NEU, as expressed in its letter to the Department on 2 October, which said:

“The government is right, in our view, to pursue a ‘Plan A’ which would enable all students to sit exams in summer 2021. Students in Year 11 and 13 are already more than halfway through their courses, and must be enabled to complete those courses…As these qualifications are mainly designed to be assessed by final examination, it is right that these exams should go ahead if possible.”

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali
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Will the Minister explain the contingency plans in the event that testing and tracing is not as effective as it needs to be and exams are disrupted? What is plan B?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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We are working with Ofqual on viable assessment options based on a number of different scenarios, and we will share further details of those in good time. We asked Ofqual to support the Government in developing these arrangements, engaging closely with schools, colleges, teachers, exam boards, unions and universities. The planning and discussions are ongoing, and once we reach a conclusion, we will publish the results.

The hon. Lady also raised issues about remote education. The vast majority of children are back in school, but if face-to-face education is disrupted, we have made 250,000 laptops available, building on the more than 220,000 laptops already delivered to those in need. We have also made resources available to deliver online education and we are funding the Oak National Academy, which provides hundreds of online lessons for schools, as well as webinars and guidance for teachers on how to deliver remote education in the most effective way.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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The Minister is being extremely generous with his time. Does he accept that it is particularly difficult for many students on reduced incomes at further education colleges to pay for internet access or devices? It is hard to write an essay on a mobile phone. What does he propose to do in those cases?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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As the Secretary of State said today, there is flexibility in the bursaries available to be used for those for those purposes.

We have been working continuously with the exams regulator, Ofqual, the exam boards and groups representing teachers, schools and colleges on the best approach to exams and assessments in 2021, and we will continue to work together to ensure that exams take place next year. However, we recognise that students continue to experience disruption to their education because of covid-19, and we need to take account of that, which we are doing. In July, Ofqual consulted on a range of possible adaptations to GCSE, AS-level and A-level exams and assessments next year on a subject by subject basis, with the overriding priority of ensuring that the exams and assessments are fair. In particular, the consultation proposed a range of ways to free up additional teaching time, including the possibility of a slight delay to the exams timetable, which we have now announced, and to accommodate any public health requirements next year.

On 3 August, Ofqual published its decisions on the changes proposed in the consultation, which include changes to assessments in some subjects: for example, removing the requirement to record the spoken language assessment in GCSE English language, and allowing GCSE students to observe practical science work rather than undertake it. In some subjects with a high volume of content, such as GCSE history, ancient history and English literature, Ofqual has confirmed that exam boards should change how they assess students next year by allowing a choice of topics in the exams. Those changes will reduce pressure on teachers and students in the next academic year; individually, some may appear modest, but we believe they will have a significant impact when combined across subjects, and with the three-week delay and the £1 billion catch-up fund.

As it was this year, the most important principle is that students due to sit exams and assessments next summer should be enabled to progress successfully to the next stage of education or employment. Each of the elements of content that forms the foundation for GCSE, AS-level and A-level qualifications is important, and while the Government were clear that the content of GCSEs and A-levels will not be changed in 2021, allowing a choice of topics in certain subjects with a high volume of content will release teaching time, and support students and their schools or colleges. As the Education Secretary has confirmed, there will be no further subject-level changes to exams and assessments this year. That confirmation gives teachers, school leaders and pupils clarity on what will be assessed in the exams next summer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle was right to raise the issue of lost teaching time, and we recognise that students, including those who will sit exams next year, will have experienced disruption. That is why we have the £1 billion catch-up fund, as well as the tuition fund for 16 to 19-year-olds, from which up to £96 million will be allocated for disadvantaged students. To conclude, our approach next year will ensure that young people can prepare for exams with confidence and receive the extra teaching time and support that students need to enable them to do their best in their exams, so that they can progress on to the next stage of their education.