Exams: Covid-19 Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Exams: Covid-19

Tonia Antoniazzi Excerpts
Monday 12th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 306773 and 320772 relating to exams during Covid-19.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

This debate has been triggered by two petitions: one started by Jakia Ali to review the decision to use previous data to calculate exam grades, which received 148,880 signatures; and Rafia Hussain’s petition to reduce the curriculum content for years 10 and 12 students who will sit exams in 2021, which received 147,099 signatures. The debate is very timely today, in light of the Government’s written statement. In what has been a worrying time for everyone, and in spite of the furore over the summer about the exam results, many students still feel as if they have been abandoned in this crisis.

At the outset, I put on the record my thanks to all the students, parents and teachers who have had to deal with this unprecedented situation. Students have shown a resilience that has surprised many, and dealt with the impact of covid-19 better than the majority of adults I know. Having been a teacher myself, that did not surprise me, but I am proud of them all none the less. From now on, however, we must ensure that our students, our future generations, are supported properly in their efforts.

Since my name was announced as leading on this debate, a number of students have got in touch me with about how the uncertainty is affecting their mental health. The issue has much wider impacts for many of them: it could affect their entire life. Having spoken to the authors of the two petitions, listened to teachers and students and drawn on my own experience as a teacher, I am clear that clarity is paramount for everyone involved.

Today’s announcement from the Government will, I believe, do nothing to allay the fears of most students, parents and teachers. This Government are keen to say that they are “levelling up” the country, but this debacle has shown that they are not interested in helping the most disadvantaged pupils. That is what I find most striking.

All students lost five months of in-school teaching and, as we know, many of them have not had access to the internet or IT. Efforts to address that have not reached everyone. For the five months of missed school, students will now be given three weeks of extra time—I can hear the guffaws of my teacher friends in Wigan from where I am now.

As we face further uncertainty from a second wave of covid, those disadvantages could be further exacerbated. Far from levelling up, this is treading down students who do not have afforded to them all the advantages that the two thirds of the Cabinet who went to private school had.

Unlike the UK Government, the Welsh Government have commissioned an independent review into what happened with exams over the summer, which will look at what improvements can be made for next year. In the summer, when the A-level results came out and students and families were rightly upset, all I could think, as a parent of a child awaiting GCSE results, was, “It didn’t have to be like this.” Where was the debate? Where were the conversations with students, teachers and parents? There was none—or very little. The views of the unions were readily ridiculed and silenced by those who have no idea what it is like to teach in a comprehensive school system.

I would like to thank both of those behind these important petitions, Jakia Ali and Rafia Hussain. The sheer number of signatures on both petitions demonstrates the strength of feeling across the country about this issue. Jakia started her petition in March. It was great to speak to such an eloquent and determined young woman, who was meant to be sitting her GCSEs this summer, like my son. She felt the stress and frustration at first hand, and I can relate to that. Moreover, Jakia had little to focus on when she knew there would be no exams, and she had a long wait until her A-levels. What is notable about her petition is that indeed it was on A-level results day that it gathered momentum: a true reflection of how unhappy young people were. She was worried and concerned about how her results would be calculated and understandably wanted to ensure that she and her friends received grades that reflected their true potential. Is that not what we want for all our children?

When I spoke to Rafia, who is herself a teacher, we found that we had quite a lot in common. Last week, she still felt that the Government were doing nothing. She found it very difficult to engage with her learners through remote learning, and she said that was the experience of many of her fellow teachers. We know that it is not the same as face-to-face learning. She had experience of that, especially with a family member in year 10. The situation had a huge impact on his self-esteem and engagement with the GCSE curriculum.

Rafia set up the petition in frustration in the early hours of the morning so that the Government would hear her call to debate the petition and put into action a plan to reduce the content of GCSEs and A-levels so that students could achieve their full potential in a limited time. The hard fact is, as the National Education Union has stated, that the only route to fairness would be a complete cancellation of exams and use of robustly moderated, externally quality assured teacher judgment. We relied on teacher judgment this year. I found it very difficult listening to my friends in the teaching profession and hearing their concerns, not just in England but in Wales as well. They need to be listened to. This is my plea, and it is the plea of the petitioners: listen to the people at the chalkface. Listen to the teachers, pupils and students at GCSE and A-level. It is very important for them to have their voices heard. That is why I am proud to talk to speak to the petitions, because petitions give people a voice. The Government should do more and should be listening to them.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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--- Later in debate ---
Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his response, and say for the sake of correctness that I took my comments from an immediate email that was received from the NEU this afternoon.

To point out a couple of things, I know that the petitioners, Jakia Ali and Rafia Hussain, will be very pleased that we have discussed this today and that they have seen some action, although maybe not exactly what they wanted. I also say to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) that I am sure my son would also have done better if he had sat the exams—it is matter of learning style, I think—and exams are important, but we have to remember that we are in a pandemic. It is important that we have a contingency, and the feeling behind this petition was not to have a go at the private education system, but to call for transparency and equality across all education. That did not happen this summer, and we and the Government have to ensure that it does not happen again; also, the buck stops with the Government, not with Ofqual.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 306773 and 320772 relating to exams during Covid-19.