Exams: Covid-19 Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Exams: Covid-19

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Excerpts
Monday 12th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

It is a privilege to take part in this important debate, which, if I may say so, has been very ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). It has been triggered by a summer of chaos in our schools and colleges. Hundreds of people in my Slough constituency have signed both the petitions that we are considering today, which shows that there is real concern and anger among the people I represent.

Like every hon. Member here, over the summer I was contacted by parents, teachers and young people themselves about their concerns, and about the confusion and chaos, surrounding this year’s exam results. There were heartbreaking stories of university places being withdrawn and people’s futures being stolen. I think that even the Government’s greatest supporters would acknowledge that things did not go well.

In March, the Education Secretary cancelled exams, saying that this year’s students should not face

“systematic disadvantage as a consequence of these extraordinary circumstances.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2020; Vol. 670, c. 1WS.]

In July, the Education Committee sounded the alarm that groups of pupils—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds or from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds—would be penalised. On 13 August, the number of pupils being awarded A or A* at A-level increased to an all-time high in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with 27.9% of A-level students securing top grades; I congratulate all those students for that.

However, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were hit hardest by the algorithm that was used, with Ofqual itself showing that such pupils were most likely to have the grades proposed by their teachers overruled and downgraded, while children from affluent backgrounds were most likely to do well. The same pattern was evident a few days later with the GCSEs. Although Ministers started the summer by saying they wanted to avoid “systematic disadvantage”, by the end of the summer it was plain that Ministers were responsible for the exact opposite, hardwiring disadvantage into the system.

Where was the Prime Minister? Like Macavity, the mystery cat, the Prime Minister is not there. A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research last month revealed that school pupils were on average three months behind where they would normally have been without the lockdown, with more deprived students and schools being worst affected.

I have a rather famous top school near me, down near Slough and Windsor, but why should pupils at that particular college get enhanced opportunity, on top of the huge opportunities that they already have, at the expense of pupils at Wexham School, at Beechwood School, at Ditton Park Academy or other such great schools in Slough? It is especially cruel for those pupils who had worked hard and were on track to do well—simply because they attend a school that historically had struggled they were punished. As the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Mary Bousted, said:

“Grades were initially awarded, for the vast majority of students, with no reference to, or evidence of, their individual achievements.”

We tell people that their children can do better than they themselves did and we tell the next generation that if they work hard they can get on. If we as a society break that fundamental promise, we risk far more than one summer of chaos; we risk there being a breakdown of trust in our institutions and a generation held back by injustice. We are storing up troubles for decades to come.

The petitioners point to two key areas where we can try to get things right next year: first, to review in forensic detail what went wrong this summer, despite the warnings from education unions, schools and the Education Committee; and secondly, to make plans for, and give much-needed clarity to, those who are taking exams next year. I am glad the Government have addressed the exams timetable for 2021, but since August, the Labour party has been calling for exams to be delayed until June to give pupils more time to catch up on lost teaching time. It is unacceptable that it has taken until today, more than a month after schools returned, for the Government to finally commit to that.

Until now, parents, pupils and schools have been left in the dark regarding the timing of exams, making it more difficult for them to plan for the academic year. Additionally, although a delay to exams is necessary, other measures must be considered by the Government to ensure that exams are fair. Perhaps the Minister can address the following three points. First, what guarantees can he give parents, pupils and teachers in Slough schools that we will not see a 2021 summer of chaos? Secondly, what measures will Ministers put in place to ensure that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have their dreams stolen by hard-wired injustice? Finally, what can he tell us about thousands of taxpayer pounds going to public relations agency Public First, which was paid by Ofqual in the summer to clear up its PR disaster?

Money was paid out of the public purse to a PR agency run by Rachel Wolf and James Frayne, former special advisers to the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), on a contract awarded without competitive tender. Does the Minister consider that a good use of public money?