Covid-19: Impact on Education Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Education

Wes Streeting Excerpts
Monday 15th March 2021

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson, and it is great to be back in a Westminster Hall debate, even if we are not back in Westminster Hall. These are great opportunities not just to discuss in usually a more collegial and convivial way some of the big challenges facing our country but, as we are seeing now, for members of the public to get their voice heard on issues that concern them.

Clearly, lots of water has gone under the bridge since the petitions reached the threshold for debate. Some of the issues that I will touch briefly on before focusing my remarks mainly on exams will be familiar to Members right across the House, but I will repeat them none the less for the benefit of the petitioners. Obviously, lots of people were concerned about the safety of schools and the safe opening of schools. We saw in a number of petitions, not least these, a clamour for schools to be closed. I have to say, particularly in the light of the lived experience of children and young people during the course of lockdown, closing schools ought to be the very last resort, and they should be the last thing to close and the first to reopen. We know that any time out of school, let alone the significant time out of school that children and young people have had, can have a detrimental impact in terms of both learning and their mental health and wellbeing.

Despite the best efforts of schools to keep children learning from home, we know that none the less some children from certain backgrounds and with certain challenges have faced a much more difficult time in accessing online learning, not least because even as schools returned last week the Department for Education was just about scraping in with its own target of getting laptops and devices out to children and young people. Tens of thousands of children are still without the devices they needed, and hundreds of thousands of children are receiving the devices far later than they should have.

None the less, there have been some concerns about safety in the classroom, both from children and young people and from staff working in schools. We believe that the Government really should have done a lot more a lot sooner on that front. I am delighted to see mass testing being rolled out and I hope that it continues to be a success in the way that we have heard described in this debate. Indeed, we called for mass testing to be rolled out late last year, so it is disappointing that it took until this point in 2021 for mass testing to be rolled out.

We also think that the Government missed a significant opportunity to vaccinate all school staff during the half-term. President Biden’s Administration are currently in the process of vaccinating teachers. We were pushing for that not simply on the grounds of safety but because, as I think we are already beginning to see, there is still a challenge of keeping children in school learning. One of the biggest challenges that headteachers had, particularly when schools returned in September, was staff shortages, with teachers going off sick themselves. We think that the Government ought to have vaccinated all staff, and we regret that that has not happened.

I am afraid to say that we still see too many examples of schools being short-changed when it comes to safety measures. Indeed, schools in my constituency have written to me because the funding that they have shelled out for personal protective equipment and other safety measures is not being reimbursed by the Department for Education. What does that mean? It means headteachers robbing Peter to pay Paul—taking funding from one area of the school budget and putting it into these extraordinary safety measures. That is a source of deep regret.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the schools that were in sound financial places pre-pandemic have been hit hardest when it comes to the financial support that they have received, which has been very little. That has meant that a lot of them have ended up eating into their reserves and their positive bank balances. Does he agree that those schools, which will now be judged by Ofsted and could potentially receive an inadequate rating for their finances, need to be reimbursed, particularly when cleaning costs in some schools are up to £4,000 a month?

Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting
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I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. The fact that these are cross-party concerns should tell the Minister that there is a problem here that still needs to be addressed. These are extraordinary, one-off costs. I want to see every penny of schools’ budgets being directed to learning and teaching, and providing the support that pupils need, not least given the disruption to their education over the last year. It is regrettable if headteachers are having to raid budgets that would normally be going towards pupils’ education to fund safety measures. I hope the Minister will take that point away and reconsider.

I want to address the points about exams. Before I do that, I am afraid I have to start disagreeing with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). He made a number of partisan attacks on the National Education Union, which was not helpful. We are in the middle of a national crisis and education unions, whether they are representing teaching staff, support staff or staff in leadership positions, have a responsibility to speak up for the concerns of their members.

Whether it is the National Education Union, the Association of School and College Leaders, the National Association of Head Teachers, NASUWT, the Voice section of Community, Unite, Unison or the GMB, all of whom represent staff in schools, they have tried to convey the concerns of their members in a responsible way, to which we, as policy makers, should pay attention. That does not mean that we always agree with them; indeed, there have been points during the pandemic when we have not been on the same page as the National Education Union and where the unions have not been on the same page as each other. That is the nature of representative trade unions representing the concerns of their members.

Given the extraordinary challenges we have seen and the level of stress and anxiety faced by staff, what we have had from the education unions during the pandemic has been measured—sometimes robust, but none the less measured—reflections of their members’ concerns. I do not think it is helpful to attack them in the way we have just seen.

I turn to the issue of exams and what needs to be done. The overarching message is that the Minister and the Department have to learn lessons from the mistakes that they have been making throughout the pandemic. First and foremost, we want to avoid a repeat of last year’s shambles. The Government’s grading algorithm was an unmitigated disaster. About 40% of teacher A-level predictions in England were downgraded by the algorithm. Pupils from working-class backgrounds were more likely to have seen a bigger downward adjustment from the algorithm than those from more affluent backgrounds, and the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and those who were not got significantly higher in terms of the number of A grades received.

There is something to learn from that whole miserable experience in terms of how the Secretary of State for Education himself handled it. He put alternatives to the algorithm in place at the very last minute and announced that the system would be switched to a triple lock before Ofqual had signed it off. Indeed, Ofqual was told about the plan only on 11 August, two days before results day— talk about lastminute.com. Through his triple lock, the Education Secretary said students could use a valid mock, but he did not direct Ofqual to consider what might constitute a valid mock until results day itself. Again, that is not just last minute, but after the event. Only after several days of chaos did the Education Secretary relent and revert to using unstandardised centre assessed grades.

Having had that awful experience and put young people and their teachers through real chaos and anxiety after A-level results day, the Government have been slow again to plan for this year’s exams, even after last year’s shambles. It was not until October last year that the Government announced a three-week delay for exams in 2021. We said then that the Government ought to have a plan B in place just in case exams could not take place—if the spread of the virus was such that exams as usual could not happen—but the Government did not act. Even when the Government cancelled exams in January, they still did not have a plan B. That should have been done months before, as we had called for.

There was also the BTEC fiasco. We had just an appalling situation in which, even as the Education Secretary announced that all schools were to close at the beginning of January—having just summoned millions of children back into school for the day—he caused additional stress and confusion by insisting that BTEC exams to be taken that month, and indeed some that week, ought to go ahead.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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With regard to BTECs, will the hon. Gentleman not agree that even though students were brought in for those exams, they were actually for courses and subjects in which exams are required to have been taken in order for them to get the qualification and therefore give employers the confidence that they have the necessary skills to carry out their duties? It is something that they legally have to do. A subject such as English or maths is obviously a very different thing altogether.

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.