Monday 12th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this debate. This issue has affected thousands of our constituents, and I thank the more than 1,000 of my constituents who supported both petitions. I also thank the teachers, the other workers in the school system and everyone who has played a part in keeping our young people safe as they returned to school.

That happened despite the Government—despite their failure to prepare over the summer and despite warnings from education unions, parents and Members of Parliament across different parties. The fiasco over the summer demonstrated a level of incompetence that frankly beggars belief. I hope that the Minister, with his colleagues, will ensure that lessons are learned from what happened and went wrong. It is not enough just to blame the institutions—Ofqual and others—and not to take responsibility. If politicians are going to blame such institutions, they ought to ensure that Ministers are responsible. Ultimately, what happens is down to ministerial responsibility.

Teachers, students and their families have faced nothing but anxiety all the way through to the exam period and then through the summer. The Education Secretary had his head buried in the sand. The reactive, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to handling the crisis over the summer—along with others—has damaged young people’s future and left many parents wondering what will happen to their children.

In my constituency, where 55% of children live below the poverty line, although the Government promised that young people would be given laptops and support, many have not received the help they need. Up and down the country, many young people who suffer disabilities have not had the help that they desperately need, and that is no different in constituencies such as mine. It is important for the Minister to address the question of getting the help and the kit that young people need but have not received. I would be grateful if he provided some facts about how many young people are still to receive that. The reports are that, in constituencies such as mine, they do not have the laptops and are not getting the internet access that they need and that would make a big difference.

Findings from the FFT Education Data Lab show that kids from disadvantaged schools are now 22% behind those from advantaged schools, and there is a big differential in the impact, with ethnic minority young people significantly worse off. Those in the SEND category need much more help. I hope the Minister will address that point.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the issue of school results being based on results from previous years, which is a massive problem. I have come across a number of cases in my constituency. In one, a student received three unclassified grades when he was predicted two As and a B. That was to do nothing to do with him; it was the algorithm making judgments based on past exam results. There is an inherent problem with that and there must be an inquiry into what went wrong.

It is scandalous that the Government chose a system that discriminated between private schools and state schools, against minority ethnic groups and, ultimately, between social classes. That is shocking. Nobody ever thought that could happen in this day and age. We must learn the lessons from what went wrong. I hope the Minister will not only give us assurances but demonstrate precisely how he will ensure that that does not happen again.

The National Foundation for Educational Research found that, while the average learning loss was three months for all pupils, it was four months for children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. We have seen the differential impact on different groups, with poorer families made worse off by the both the economic crisis and the health pandemic and its impact. We have seen the differential impact on BAME communities and, as others have said, on those with disabilities, particularly children. We need special initiatives from the Government to support the groups that have been hit very hard. Whatever our analysis of what happened over the summer, that is surely something we can all agree on. We need to ensure that young people are not condemned by what has happened in the pandemic and that their future is protected. What happened this year was avoidable and lessons could have been learned. Action could have been taken faster.

My final point is about test and trace. We need to ensure that it is working properly. I have reports from schools in my constituency of whole year groups being sent home because test and trace is not adequate. That cannot be good for ensuring that young people get the education they deserve and need. The Government need to get a grip on that, otherwise it will get worse and become an even bigger problem during the exam period.

I will conclude, because I am conscious that the Front-Bench speakers need to come in, but I hope that the Minister will have clear answers and give assurances to our constituents that lessons will be learned and that there will be an inquiry into what went wrong, so that we have a proper line of sight on that. The Government can then be held to account properly, to ensure that the young people with exams coming up next year get a better outcome.

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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.