Schools and Colleges: Qualification Results and Full Opening

– in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 1st September 2020.

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Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education 4:43 pm, 1st September 2020

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the full opening of our schools and colleges from this week, but before I do I would like to update the House on the current position regarding exam results for this year’s GCSE and A-level students.

As the House will be fully aware, exams had to be cancelled this year because of the covid-19 outbreak. Students have now received results for GCSE, AS and A-levels, as well as vocational and technical qualifications, which will allow them to progress to the next stage of their lives. The independent regulator Ofqual had put in place a system for arriving at grades that was believed to be fair and robust. It became clear, however, that there were far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for A-level and AS-level students and that it was not reasonable to expect them to be dealt with through even a boosted and enhanced appeals process. Instead, students have been awarded the grades that schools and colleges estimated they would most likely have achieved, or their calculated grades if they were higher.

The situation has, I know, caused a great deal of stress and uncertainty, and I am deeply sorry that those who have borne the brunt of it have been students themselves. I can only apologise to them again for that. We took immediate action to provide certainty as soon as it was clear that if we did not, too many students would have received grades that did not reflect their hard work and ability.

For vocational and technical qualifications, the situation was different because most were not subject to standardisation like GCSE and A-level grades. Awarding organisations that used a similar model have, however, also reviewed their results to ensure that each student has been treated as fairly as possible. We recognise, however, that some students may still be unhappy with their summer grade, and that for some—such as home-educated students—there was not enough evidence for any grade to be awarded at all. To support those students, in the autumn we are running an extra exam series in all subjects at GCSE, A-level and AS-level. Additional opportunities will also be provided for some other vocational and technical qualifications that received calculated grades.

We have been working with the further and higher education sectors to manage applications for this year’s places. To ensure that students can progress to higher education, we intend to remove the temporary student-number controls that had been introduced for the coming academic year. We set up the higher education taskforce and are working closely with the sector to create additional capacity and encourage it to be as flexible as possible. Providers have agreed to honour all offers to students who meet the conditions of their offer, wherever that is possible. If a course is full, universities will give students a choice of suitable alternative courses if they are happy to take one, or a deferred place if they would prefer to wait an additional year. This year, many more students have been successful in meeting the grades required to study medicine and dentistry. The Government have removed the caps on student numbers that were in place for both subjects.

The Ofqual board has agreed temporary arrangements with Ofsted to support the ongoing work on this summer’s GCSEs, A-levels and AS-levels, and on vocational qualifications, including appeals and autumn exams, as well as preparations for next year’s exam season. We are determined that exams and assessments will go ahead next year and are working with the sector to ensure that that is done as smoothly as possible.

The former chief regulator, Sally Collier, decided that the next stage of the awarding process would be better overseen by new leadership. As a result, the Ofqual board has asked Dame Glenys Stacey to act as acting chief regulator until December 2020. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sally Collier for the commitment that she has shown over the past four years and wish her well.

Although none of this disruption is what we wanted for our students, I believe that they now have the certainty and reassurance they deserve and will be able to embark on the next exciting phase of their lives. I hope the whole House will join me in wishing them all the very best for their future.

Let me now turn to the full opening of our nation’s schools and colleges. Welcoming pupils back will be a massive milestone for schools throughout the country. On 2 July, we published detailed plans for nurseries, schools, special schools and colleges that set out what was required to deliver full return as safely as possible for all our children. The guidance has been developed with medical and scientific experts and Public Health England and follows regular engagement with the education sector. The recent letter from all four UK chief medical officers, which emphasised the low risk of long-term harm from covid-19 due solely to attending school in comparison with the high risk of long-term harm from not attending school, particularly for more vulnerable children and young people, has, I hope, given parents extra assurance that with the protective measures in place, our pupils are returning to a safe environment, and an environment they will gain so much from.

As they return, pupils will be kept in consistent groups and the older children will be encouraged to distance wherever possible. At a minimum, this will mean keeping whole year groups in schools and colleges separate. This is in addition to the other protective measures, such as enhanced cleaning and hand washing. We have also advised that pupils in secondary schools should wear face coverings in communal areas if there is a local lockdown in place, unless they are exempt.

Strict hygiene protocols are in place and PPE has been distributed to every school to bolster their supplies for use in the unlikely event that a pupil develops covid symptoms on the premises. A small number of home-test kits are also being distributed for anyone who develops symptoms and who would not otherwise have access to testing themselves. All schools will also have access to direct support and advice from local health protection teams to deal with any cases that may occur.

Together with colleagues from the Department for Transport, we have announced an additional £40 million in funding for local transport authorities to ease pressure on public transport. We have also published guidance for local authorities to manage capacity and reduce the risk of infection on school transport. We have urged all students and staff to walk or cycle to school or college if this is a suitable alternative for them.

I know that these past few months have been some of the most challenging that schools, parents and, most of all, children have faced. I would like to take this opportunity to applaud all our dedicated education staff for the incredible efforts that they have made to keep children learning at this difficult time. I am confident that we have the necessary preparations in hand to ensure a successful return for all our pupils. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education 4:52 pm, 1st September 2020

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement this afternoon, but, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am afraid I must complain that I did not receive advance sight of it until 4.36 pm. You will know that, under the ministerial code, I should have had it much, much sooner.

I welcome the Secretary of State back to his place after a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion that has caused enormous stress to children, young people, their families and their teachers. Ministers must now learn from their mistakes and ensure that keeping schools open and pupils learning is a national priority. Labour is absolutely clear: we want children back in school and we want them to stay there. I will always work constructively with the Secretary of State to achieve that and I hope he will hear my questions this afternoon in that constructive spirit, because while I am delighted that the vast majority of schools will reopen fully in the next few days, there remain many issues of concern.

Let me start with the ongoing situation regarding this summer’s exam results. After days of confusion following A-level results day, the Secretary of State finally heeded calls from young people and from the Labour party and accepted the centre-assessed grades—the CAGs. While that was the right thing to do, it leaves many of the problems created by his previous flawed standardisation model unresolved.

The Secretary of State should have known of the risks. It has been reported that a former senior official of the Department raised serious concerns, so can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when he first knew of the potential problems with his approach and what he did about them? What advice was he given specifically about BTEC students, who faced more uncertainty and delay? Can he now assure us that all BTEC students have received their results?

The Secretary of State alluded to external candidates, who do not have a CAG and who remain in a difficult situation. I do not think they will find the offer of resits sufficiently reassuring, but perhaps he can tell us what support they will receive as they undertake those exams.

There are also significant consequences for higher education, as the Secretary of State rightly noted. Can he tell the House how many young people who missed their first-choice university because of his now discredited approach to awarding grades have now been granted those places? What assessment has he made of the impact on universities that will lose students because they can now take up their original choice? What discussions has he had with the Treasury about providing those institutions with additional financial support?

With the reopening of schools, we are all pleased to see children returning to class. School is the best place for them to be, not only for their learning but for their emotional and social wellbeing, and I pay tribute to the school staff who have worked through the holidays to welcome them back safely. The test now for the Secretary of State is whether pupils continue to receive a full education throughout the year and catch up on the learning they have lost. When will pupils begin to receive support through both the catch-up premium and the national tutoring fund? Why are early years and post-16 providers ineligible for the catch-up premium? Why is the funding available for just a single year, when the impact of any further disruption to education is so significant? Can he guarantee that every child will have full access to learning in the event of a local lockdown?

Parents’ top priority as schools return is the wellbeing of their children. What plans does the Secretary of State have to provide additional pastoral support? What extra support will be available for children with special educational needs and disabilities? Parents will not be able to return to work without childcare and wraparound care. What plans does he have in place to ensure that every parent can access the care they need? Can he tell us a little more about how he will ensure that all children travel safely to school, including respecting social distancing on public transport? Finally, what additional financial support, if any, will schools receive to cover any additional covid-related costs this term?

Looking at the year ahead, I was glad to read this morning that the Secretary of State has apparently once again listened to Labour and will delay exams in summer 2021. Pupils entering year 11 and year 13 have already experienced significant disruption to their learning, and the assessment process must recognise that, but schools, colleges and universities need time to plan. What discussions is he having with the sector and UCAS to ensure that workable arrangements are in place? Can he guarantee that a contingency plan will be put in place this month in case exams are disrupted again?

Children and their families should have been the Government’s top priority, but for weeks their interests have taken a back seat while the Secretary of State U-turned on everything from CAGs to face masks and left officials to take the blame. He must now take responsibility for ensuring that a summer of incompetence does not descend further into an autumn of disaster and dismay. I implore him to listen to the concerns of parents, of teachers and of the Labour party. He must now make the education of our children and young people a national, and his personal, priority.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I apologise to the hon. Lady for her receiving the statement late. I will ensure that it does not happen again.

I am delighted to hear that it is the Labour party’s priority to see all children going back. The leadership the hon. Lady is showing is a refreshing change from that of her predecessor, who was more ambivalent about children returning to school. The Conservatives have continuously argued for children to be back in the classroom at the earliest possible stage.

The hon. Lady raises some important issues about children who are not in school and so were not able to receive centre assessment grades. We always recognised that that situation was going to present challenges. That is why we put forward an autumn series as there was going to be no other viable way to be able to provide the assessment.

The hon. Lady raises important points about higher education, which is vital. I would also like to flag up some of the challenges in the further education sector. As not everyone will be progressing on to university, many youngsters will want to take the opportunity to progress on to further education. We have been working with both sectors to ensure that that is the case. We will be increasing funding for the higher education and university sector through the teaching grant. We have also lifted the cap on medicine and dentistry places to create extra capacity within the system. We have seen a drop-off in the number of students coming from European Union countries who would traditionally have come to the UK to study, and this has obviously created extra capacity within the system as well.

We have already delivered a £1 billion covid catch-up fund that is targeted at helping youngsters from the most disadvantaged and deprived backgrounds. We have used evidence to see how we can help to improve their outcomes, working with the Education Endowment Foundation to ensure that that money is targeted at interventions that will deliver results.

The hon. Lady touches on the potential for moving exams back. Back in June in this House, in answer to my right hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke, I said that that was something we highlighted that we would be doing. On 2 July, Ofqual held a public consultation about potentially moving the exam dates back. I have checked whether the Labour party suggested that it would support this move and found that it did not make a submission supporting the idea. Therefore, I very much welcome the Labour party to our position.

We will continue to work with local authorities in ensuring that we have the transport infrastructure in place. I have touched on the fact that £40 million has been made available. Transport for London and other transport authorities have been working very closely with the Department for Transport and the Department for Education—and, most importantly, with schools—to try to deal with any transport bottlenecks that may occur. We will continue to work with all local authorities to ensure that this is done as smoothly as possible. It is absolutely vital that we do everything we can do to ensure that every child has the opportunity to get back to school. I think we all know, on both sides of this House, how important it is to see all children benefiting from a brilliant education—having the opportunity to be back in the classroom to be inspired by their teachers. That is what we will be delivering. That is what we will see over this week and next week as all schools return and welcome their pupils back.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I thank my right hon. Friend for this statement. In July, our Education Committee report suggested a delay in the date of the exams. Given that we now know that millions of children have not been learning during the lockdown, does he agree that the way forward should be an urgent assessment, or benchmarking, of all children in school, with data collected by the Department for Education and regulators to inform the Government’s decision as to when the exams are to take place next year?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the importance of benchmarking and making an assessment as to where pupils are. We will be doing that, working right across the sector to ensure that there is a clear understanding of where some of the learning gaps are in order for us to best deal with them. It will also be absolutely vital in informing policy for the year ahead.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement; I nearly had time to read it before he started speaking.

Scottish schools have been back for three weeks now, and although there have been cases of covid, track and trace has meant that disruption has been kept to a minimum. May I thank everyone who has helped to prepare our schools for reopening? May I also wish schools in Northern Ireland, England and Wales the very best of success as they start to return?

This has been a summer of confusion for young people across the UK, who found themselves at the mercy of algorithms. When Scotland’s young people received their results on 4 August, it became clear that something had gone wrong. But John Swinney sat down, he listened to the young people, he apologised for the turmoil and, crucially, he took decisive action. Predicted grades were awarded and new funding was found for universities to ensure that any young people with the entry grades would secure their place. Despite what the Secretary of State has said this afternoon, his actions were certainly not immediate. He had both foresight and time on his side, but squandered both, and managed to mess up further over the validity of appeals. By the time of his U-turn on results, university places had been lost.

The schools Minister has maintained that he did not see the algorithm until results day, suggesting that something went wrong with its implementation. So what questions were Ministers asking prior to the publication of results? Did anyone ask for a trial run of the algorithm? Although there are calls to delay next year’s exams, any postponement introduces further issues in terms of marking and certification, so what consideration has been given to rationalising courses, which would allow quality, rich learning, rather than superficially covering everything in a reduced time?

I know the Secretary of State is reluctant to follow Scotland’s lead on anything, but Scottish youngsters have accepted the need for masks in corridors without any great issues. Why is he determined that England will not follow World Health Organisation advice? We do not need local lockdowns for people to wear masks; young people are willingly participating. He has a duty of care to young people and teachers.

In any normal Cabinet, the Secretary of State’s repeated failure to take responsibility would lead to his sacking, but in this blame-passing Government, when the PM himself talks of mutant algorithms, his coat is not even on a shoogly peg. Will he now listen to the scientific advice and ensure that pupils, staff and the wider school community are as safe as possible as their schools return?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady will probably have witnessed the fact that over 1.6 million children returned to school before the summer holidays here in England. It is interesting that she raises the issue of listening to the best scientific and medical advice, which is exactly what we do. We have followed the best scientific and medical advice at every stage. That is something the Scottish Government did not do when they did not listen to the chief medical officer in Scotland, who did not support their proposal on face masks, which was basically a political decision, as against one that was informed by the best science and medicine.

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott Conservative, Sevenoaks

There have been many individual initiatives over the summer to help children to catch up, including the brilliant Invicta Academy, which was started in Kent. Can my right hon. Friend outline the steps that his Department is taking to help all children to catch up, especially the most deprived, who we know have been hardest hit by the gap in education?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

It is great to hear about the brilliant work of the Invicta Academy. We have seen brilliant examples right across the country of schools doing so much to support learning when children have been out of school, but also over the summer as well. The reason for the £1 billion covid catch-up fund is that we recognise that more needs to be done and more assistance and help needs to be available. That is why £350 million of the fund is targeted at children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds—those who need the most support to catch up—to ensure that their life chances are not impacted by this virus. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will receive the benefits of that in Sevenoaks and right across Kent.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Labour, Stockport

More than 14,000 schools submitted a claim for exceptional costs since schools closed in March. What does the Secretary of State think will happen when that support is simply cut off this term?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we announced last year a £14.4 billion increase in school funding. That was a three-year deal, and we are seeing it rolled out in this academic year, the following academic year and the year after that. It will have a truly beneficial effect on every pupil right across the country.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

I thank the Secretary of State for the statement that he brought to the House today, and I also thank him and all his team for the huge efforts they have put in over the summer in an evolving situation that must have been really difficult to manage. Does he agree with the result of a recent study showing that the risks to children from covid-19 are actually very tiny, and that the benefits children will gain from a return to school far outweigh any risks posed by covid?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I am very aware that my constituency neighbour, who has been out campaigning and doing everything he can to get all children in his constituency back into school, is a real champion of their educational achievements and what children are doing right across Dudley North. He is right to highlight that study, and the fact that there will be more harm done to children by their not returning to school than by coming back to school. We all know the benefits, and this is not just about education; it is also about the physical health and mental health that children gain from being back in school. That is why it was vital to open schools before the summer, and that is why it is so vital to have every child back in school enjoying the true joy of what school is able to offer them.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Deputy Speaker. Watching the A-levels results fiasco from back home in Wales, it seemed that the policy of the Labour Government in my country closely resembled the policy of the Secretary of State’s Department. Can he outline how closely the Governments were working together?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

It is fair to say that the Scottish National party in Scotland, the Conservatives in England, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Wales, and the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland had a very common approach. The Labour party, as well as all parties, has been of the view that calculated grades and moderation within the system were an important part of ensuring fairness within the system. It was a common political consensus across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

I recognise the focus of the Secretary of State and the ministerial teams on supporting pupils, parents and teachers throughout what has been one of the most difficult periods in policy development. I also recognise that these challenges have been equal in all parts of the United Kingdom. My constituents have faced similar difficulties to those in England, as the Secretary of State has just recognised. May I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend for the guidance that has led to so many pupils returning to school? Does he also recognise that guidance is guidance, that it cannot account for every circumstance and that judgments will need to be made at the most local of levels?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. He will know all too well that many schools across the Vale of Glamorgan have different pressures, and we are seeing this right across England as well. Whether a school has 40 pupils or 1,400, it will need to adapt and change to ensure that it creates a safe and secure environment for the pupils and for those who are working in the school. By doing that, it creates greater safety and confidence in the wider community. Guidance is there to support teachers, headteachers and all those who work in schools, and it is leading to all schools returning and the opportunity for all pupils to benefit from a great education.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley and Eccles South

Schools across the country could be spending hundreds of millions of pounds to meet the costs of covid-19. With budgets already at breaking point, many will have to cut spending in other areas, such as support for disadvantaged students, in order to afford these costs. To ensure that no child is left behind, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government could meet the full costs of making schools covid-secure and ensuring that they can return safely?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The Government have outlined increases in school budgets for not just this academic year but the next one and will be increasing school funding further in the academic year after that, in one of the most generous settlements of any Department.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend and his team on all their Herculean efforts to get children back into schools, which is where they need to be. It is estimated that more than 2 million young people are behind in their education, so the additional funding is warmly welcomed. What guidance is he giving, for example, on extending the school day in secondary schools by 30 minutes, which would enable young people to catch up and teachers to catch up with teaching the curriculum, so that we do not have to reduce the impact of GCSEs or A-levels in examining what children have learned?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

As part of the advice that was worked up along with the Education Endowment Foundation, one of the key recommendations was looking at how to extend the school day and at provision on weekends, in order to support children who need that little bit of extra help and have had a real impact on their educational attainment. All these measures can have an enormously positive effect. That is why we developed the £1 billion covid catch-up fund, so that schools have the ability to take such action.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

It is truly shocking that either the Government did not ask to see the A-level algorithm applied to real-world results, or they did ask to see it and did not notice that it hit pupils in disadvantaged schools the hardest. To understand what happened, will the Government publish details of the equality impact assessment that I am sure they conducted during the process that led to the original grading approach?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

One of the key reasons we took the decision to move to moderated grades in March was that many of the studies previously carried out showed that going to purely predicted grades was most likely to disadvantage those from the most disadvantaged communities and those from ethnic minority communities. That is what informed the approach. One of the key elements that I highlighted when I wrote to Ofqual was the need to ensure that those who are disadvantaged were not disadvantaged by any approach that was taken.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

We heard this morning that disadvantaged children and boys were likely to be most behind as a result of missed school. I also saw on the BBC a fantastically articulate child who said that she was anxious about going back school because she was fearful about how she would catch up. Can my right hon. Friend explain in greater detail when the tutorials that he is working so hard on with the Education Endowment Foundation will begin and what benefits children will see?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

We are working closely with the Education Endowment Foundation to ensure that those tutorials are rolled out through this academic year. All the studies point to the fact that the benefits that accrue to children are incredibly rapid, over quite a short period. Having small group tuition can deliver real leaps in learning within four to five months, so there is an immediate benefit from doing it, and that shows the urgency of bringing it forward. My right hon. Friend points to the slight trepidation of a child she saw on TV about returning to school. What we have seen across the board is that when children get to school, their faces light up, and the teachers are there to welcome them and are so keen to see them. That is what we want to see, and that is what we are seeing across the country. The benefits will be truly profound, not just for those children but much more widely in society.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

New research from the National Foundation for Educational Research reported that 98% of teachers believe that pupils are behind where they would normally expect them to be in the curriculum. Across the country, pupils have lost months of learning, and it is clear that many will need sustained support in order to catch up on the time lost. Can the Secretary of State tell me when those pupils will start to receive additional support from the catch-up premium and national tutoring fund?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The national tutoring fund and the covid catch-up premium will be implemented for this coming academic year, so children get the benefit of it immediately.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

I pay tribute to the staff across the Aylesbury constituency for all the work they have done preparing for children to get back to class safely this week. Will my right hon. Friend set out what his Department is doing specifically to help support children with special educational needs and disabilities, particularly those who are in mainstream schools?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I join him in paying tribute to all those who work in the schools, nurseries and colleges across the Aylesbury constituency for the work they have been doing over the summer to welcome children back. We recognise that there are some unique challenges for children with special educational needs not just in the mainstream sector, but in special schools. This is why we have consistently provided targeted advice on how to support them, recognising that some of their needs are going to be extra for them and that schools are in the best position to be able to support them on their return.

Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood

Some BTEC students in my constituency are still to receive their grades. Qualifications such as those underpin the social mobility of some of our most disadvantaged students, 50% of whom got into university with at least one of them in 2018. Can the Secretary of State confirm when every BTEC student will receive their grades and what steps he will take to ensure that the life chances and career prospects of these students have not been fatally undermined?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I know that the awarding organisation Pearson is working very closely with the centres where there are still some students who have not received their grades. This is something that occurs each year, and the number of youngsters who received their BTEC awards was significantly higher than the previous year, but there are some centres where there continue to be some challenges. I know that Pearson is working closely with those centres to resolve those and ensure that those grades and qualifications are awarded as swiftly as possible.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

It has been six months since many of our young children have been in school, and for many of us parents that means witnessing our children losing not just their educational opportunities, but their social development, so I congratulate the Department, the ministerial team and all in the sector on getting our schools open. It is the most important thing. The Secretary of State is aware that I have concerns about the use of face masks, but if that means we get the schools open, then so be it. Can we please keep that evidence under review, because it would be ideal if young children had the message that their school is safe and there is no encumbrance on their education?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend speaks incredibly passionately about the importance of ensuring that youngsters are in the best position to be able to learn in the best and most comfortable environment. We do not believe it is necessary for youngsters or people at school to wear a face mask, except where we have made it mandatory in local lockdown areas. The chief medical officer and the deputy chief medical officer have been consistent in their approach—that this is not something needed in every school right across the country. Where people are not in local lockdown areas, there is no need to wear a face mask, but what is so important is to see all children welcomed back. That is what we will see over this next week, and I think the whole House joins me in thanking all the staff who have made that possible.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip

I think the World Health Organisation might disagree with what the Secretary of State has just said, but I want to reflect on the impact on universities and higher education. They are already feeling the impact of the lack of international students coming in to pay fees, and now funding extra places as a result of the regrading is also going to cost money. He talks about increasing capacity, but what that has to mean is increased funding, which of course, as Barnett consequentials, would be passed on north of the border to allow the Scottish Government to continue to do the same. What discussions is he having with the Treasury to make sure that universities are fully resourced throughout this crisis?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the World Health Organisation. He will no doubt have read the World Health Organisation’s guidance, which mentioned areas of high transmission. I am aware that Aberdeen has had a local lockdown, but I certainly was not aware that the whole of Scotland was an area of high transmission. If World Health Organisation advice was followed, he would probably find that the measures need not have been applied right across Scotland, but that is obviously a devolved decision and I very much respect that. We continue to work right across the university sector with Universities UK. Obviously funding follows English students as they go to university in all four corners of the United Kingdom, but we will continue to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the brilliant university sector continues to prosper in the future.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

I sincerely hope that no school in South Suffolk finds itself in full local lockdown at tiers 3 and 4, but I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has promised that all pupils will have access to remote learning if schools find themselves in that situation. Will he clarify a point? In partial lockdown—tier 2—where there is attendance by rota, would those pupils who were not attending physically also have the chance to participate in remote lessons?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

In what we would certainly hope to be a very unusual situation—whereby there was a local lockdown and where every other measure had been taken, including extra social distancing, and the closure of other businesses and facilities—we would then move to a tier 2 level. There is a clear expectation that in those circumstances, as was set out in the guidance on 2 July, there will be continuity of education, and youngsters—even if they are not in school, on a rota basis—would still be expected to be learning at home.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The Secretary of State mentioned in his statement that there were far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for A-level and AS-level students, and that it is not reasonable for these all to be dealt with, even through a boosted appeals system. Will he outline how he intends to provide additional support for students who wish to sit their exams to bring their grades up through no fault of their own, and will he cover the exam fees for those students?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I can confirm that that is the case; we will cover those exam fees. We are looking at running the series in the autumn. Obviously, these are GCSE and A-level papers, some of which will be taken by Northern Ireland students, who use a number of the English boards to take more specialist subjects. We will be running this series in the autumn, and it is an important opportunity for young people if they want to take it up.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Some parents have raised issues about the quality of online learning for their children during the summer. Although I know that all schools in Gloucestershire are doing their best, I am struck by the campaign group “Sept. for Schools”, which has highlighted the discrepancies in online learning. Does my right hon. Friend agree with them and with me that it would help to create minimum quality thresholds for remote learning in all schools, with additional funds for digital disadvantage, so that pupils from whatever school—in Gloucester or elsewhere—will all get quality online learning whenever it is needed?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is why we set out in guidance a clear expectation of what is a minimum. As part of Ofsted’s inspection regime, it will be looking at the evidence to see what has been put in place to ensure continuity of education for children when there has been disruption to normal classroom learning.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

The postcode of where people are born should never limit where they end up in life; yet that is exactly how young people in Luton North felt when their results were downgraded. Some BTEC students are yet to receive their grades. Does the Secretary of State truly understand the level of hurt that he has caused? And I will ask again, because I did not hear an answer earlier: when will BTEC students get the grades?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady tries to imply it was about postcodes. At no stage has the system been anything to do with postcodes, and it is misleading to imply otherwise. As one would expect, we have always aimed to ensure as much fairness in the system as possible; we have done that at every step of the way. On BTECs, I allude to the answer I gave a few moments ago. Where colleges are still awaiting final qualifications, it is usually because there is a gap in the final information that Pearson, the awarding organisation, needs to make the awards, but it has assured us it is making every effort to close that circle and ensure that all youngsters due a qualification receive one, once it gets all the information required.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

As many children and young people head back to school across Keighley and Ilkley in the coming days, they and their teachers, who have done an excellent job over the last few months, may naturally be concerned and have higher anxiety levels about going back. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to support the mental health and wellbeing of children as they go back to school in the coming days?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I touched on it earlier in answer to another hon. Friend about the importance of going back to school not just for the educational benefits, but for physical and mental health. We recognise, however, that we have been living in extraordinary times, and that is why we have established a £9 million fund to help those youngsters and people who work in the sector to deal with mental health issues.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

As the furlough scheme comes to an end, there will almost certainly be a sharp rise in unemployment. Has the Secretary of State considered using this as a one-off opportunity to get a new generation of mature students into further and higher education so that when the economy does recover from the covid crisis, our workforce is fully skilled for the challenges that lie ahead?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Sadly, some people will be out of work as a result of this crisis. How do we retain that human capital and give them more skills to open up new opportunities, whether through the higher education sector or our further education colleges? Measures such as the skills toolkit we introduced for furloughed workers and the skills package the Chancellor announced before the summer recess are an investment in ensuring that not just young people but people of all ages can get the skills they need to succeed, skill up and get the best opportunities and jobs in the future.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

As I understand it, from what is reported, the overall results this year are 10% to 12% higher than they might have been if people had sat exams. I am thinking of next year’s cohort and particularly of those who have slipped their university place to next year on their exam results this year. This will make it very difficult for people who might have got an A under this year’s rules but get a B next year. There seems to be a measure of unfairness there that will have to be sorted out by universities and employers. Does the Secretary of State have any idea how we can equalise this apparent unfairness?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend highlights the challenges of competition between year groups and ensuring fairness across year groups. We will work with Ofqual and the whole sector to achieve that fairness because we do not want youngsters taking exams in 2021 to be disadvantaged in any way.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee

What does the Education Secretary have to say to his friends the Scottish Conservatives? Just when he was copying the Scottish Government’s approach to resolving the exams crisis, they were supporting a motion of no confidence in the Scottish Education Secretary, who was just doing what the Education Secretary was about to do. At any point, did they come to him and similarly ask him to consider his position? If they did not, would he like to comment on their consistency?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

One of the great pleasures that I have had over this period is working very closely with the Education Minister and Deputy First Minister, Mr Swinney. We have always tried to work together in a collaborative manner. We do recognise that there are some real shared challenges right across all four nations of the United Kingdom. What is clear is that, as a United Kingdom, we are so much stronger together, because the support that is there—whether it be job retention schemes or the extra £6 billion-plus towards universal credit—shows that every one of the four nations of the United Kingdom is richer and stronger as a result of a Union, which, sadly, the hon. Gentleman always wants to break up.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

The Government did the right thing in lifting the cap on places at medical and dental schools, but there is still a practical problem. Constituents like a number of mine are still waiting to know whether they will get places this year or have to defer. That is because the negotiations on funding have still not apparently been resolved between the schools and the Department of Health. Will my right hon. Friend tell his colleague the Secretary State for Health as a matter of urgency that we need to give these young people, who are embarking on lengthy professional qualification courses and whose skills we desperately need, some certainty as to when they are able to start their courses? It is a huge stress for them and their parents and hardly in the country’s long-term interest.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I would be more than delighted to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to discuss this matter and ensure that we get as many young people as possible taking medical and dentistry degrees. We also want to consider how, if there is some expansion in the area, this can be something that is long term, by which I mean actually growing the talent as much as possible within our own country in order to support the NHS long into the future as against bringing doctors from abroad in order to support the brilliant work of our NHS, which has so often been the case in the past.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Secretary of State will be aware that research from the National Foundation for Educational Research shows an increase of 46% in the gap between children from wealthy households and children from more deprived households. The Children’s Commissioner estimated that 540,000 children would require a laptop because they did not have provision at home, but only 200,000 were supplied. In my question to the Secretary of State on 2 July, I asked why there were so few; why they were so late; and why there was a discrepancy between the date I received in a written answer, which was mid-April, versus mid-May, which is when it was claimed that those laptops were actually ordered.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman because I do not quite recall the answer that I gave him in mid-April to his written question, but I will write to him with reference to that if he will be so gracious as to accept a letter. We saw the dispatch of more than 200,000 laptops, as well as additional devices for internet connectivity. We have ordered an additional 150,000 devices to support those communities that are most disadvantaged in terms of local lockdowns. This is one of the biggest purchases of computing equipment that the Government have undertaken, and I am sure he will understand that it is not feasible to procure that number of laptops and have them arrive within a week. They have to be procured and ordered and, as I am sure he will understand, there are some shipping delays. None the less, we have done it in good order and on time and when we said that we would do so.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys

The Secretary of State rightly made mention of Ofqual’s consultation over next year’s exams that took place this summer. One idea that emerged was to increase optionality in written exams to help those students who would not have completed the full syllabus. Ofqual rejected that, arguing that students were “independent learners” and therefore did not need that assistance. Can he revisit that particular decision by Ofqual, because, in my view, it is far better to adjust the start of the exam process than the end of the exam process with the consequential impact on both college and university admissions?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

We have been looking at ways of reducing assessment burdens, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss in greater detail some of this thoughts and ideas.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Education is rightly a devolved matter across the UK, but the past few weeks have shown that even good decisions taken in one jurisdiction can have knock-on effects on the others, on student flows across the UK and on the balance between higher and further education. Will the Secretary of State consider a more formal structure in order to engage the four education Ministers across the UK to ensure that lessons are learned and we can better prepare for other crises?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He refers to the strength of the United Kingdom and of working together. I pay tribute to Peter Weir, the Northern Ireland Education Minister, who worked incredibly closely on some of the issues that all four nations of the United Kingdom have had to tackle. A co-ordinated approach across all four nations is important. What happens in one area has an impact on the other three. Ensuring that there is as much collaboration as possible, as is the tradition in the education sector, is vital if we are to get the best outcomes for all children and students in each of the four nations.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Conservative, Kensington

My constituency has significant disparities in wealth so I am concerned about the attainment gap that appears to be emerging between the affluent and the disadvantaged. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that we are doing everything to level up pupils from poor backgrounds?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is right to highlight this. It is why we made the unprecedented move of announcing the £1 billion covid catch-up fund back in June, recognising that there are some real challenges in communities, especially the most disadvantaged. We believe that it will have a direct impact on many of the youngsters in schools right across my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Given the surge in demand for testing in Scotland related to the recent return of all children to full-time education there, which incidentally my family and I were part of last week, what engagement has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government to inform and mitigate a likely similar situation in England and support a successful safe return to learning?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

We are always learning right across the spectrum about some of the challenges that can occur. We had more than 1.6 million pupils back into school before the summer recess, and I am sure that that provided many lessons and benefits for the devolved nations in terms of what a safe return looked like for children.

The hon. Lady highlights the importance of having testing readily available. We have worked incredibly closely, hand in glove in fact, with Public Health England. The guidance that was developed, especially scientific and medical advice about how we ensure a safe return, has been informed by Public Health England, and it has collaborated with the public health authorities in Scotland. It is why we have test kits in every school. We recognise that not all youngsters—especially some of those from the most deprived families—will necessarily be in a position to access testing easily. We recognise how important it is that they have a test and return to school at the earliest moment possible.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

Last week I visited Inspire Suffolk in Ipswich with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Vicky Ford, the Children’s Minister, to see the excellent work that they have done for their school holiday programme to help disadvantaged pupils stay engaged and motivated throughout the summer holiday. I welcome the significant DFE funding that is enabling Inspire Suffolk to run 1,700 sessions across Suffolk.

Will my hon. Friend commit to support charities such as Inspire Suffolk so that in future, as we tackle these challenges, we back charities that have a key role to play, in partnership with schools, in ensuring that our kids can catch up and get the support that they need?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend has raised this issue in the House before and has championed the work of holiday activity programmes across his constituency and more broadly. We have rolled out the holiday activity programme for a second year. We are looking at how we can do more and build on an incredibly successful programme. I would be happy to work with him and other organisations to see that delivered.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Regarding the departure of both his permanent secretary and the chair of Ofqual, when did the Education Secretary first realise that his handling of the examination debacle was so useless that other people’s heads had to roll?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

At every stage, everyone, whether in Ofqual or the DFE—across the whole education sector—has been looking at how we ensure fairness and the very best for every child in this country. That is what we would all expect to see and that is what we have been doing. Yes, we did have to make changes, but the right thing to do was to make those changes, because fairness for young people is the most important thing for me and all those who work in education.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

May I join my right hon. Friend in commending everybody in schools and all they have done to ensure a full return this week and welcome the clear message that, if there were to be future localised outbreaks, all possible measures would come before restricting attendance in education? Will he outline some of the contingency planning going into that so that, even if there were to be disruption, education would still continue? Will he confirm that although IT and online lessons may be a part of what needs to be considered, it certainly is not all?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about how this is not just about IT; it is about ensuring that youngsters are supported at home in their learning and that can be done through so many means other than just through a laptop. However, we have made the commitment of rolling out and increasing the purchase of laptops by another 150,000 to ensure that, where communities are in local lockdown, schools who have children from the most deprived backgrounds have access to that resource. But that has to be an absolute last course of action we take, because we know that nothing substitutes for the learning a child gets through being in the classroom with their teachers and being inspired by those teachers, who are giving the enthusiasm to learn. That is why this Government will do absolutely everything they can do to ensure that schools remain open at every stage of our response to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I am afraid that this is just not good enough; the Secretary of State cannot wash his hands of responsibility for this summer’s fiasco. I am afraid that it is worse than incompetence; it stems from his Government’s obsession with testing and grade inflation, and their profound aversion to teacher assessment and coursework. So does he not agree that these are political, ministerial decisions, not bureaucracy? When will he take responsibility?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

I hate to remind the hon. Lady, but a Labour and Lib Dem Administration in Wales took the exact same policy decision on moderated grades, because of a belief that this was the fairest approach to ensure that there was a good standard of assessment and that youngsters got the grades they had worked for over the previous 11 or 13 years.

Photo of Nicola Richards Nicola Richards Conservative, West Bromwich East

From speaking to teachers across my constituency this summer, I know that they share my passion for narrowing the attainment gap for children from more deprived areas. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend share his plans for ensuring that every child is given the best possible chance to achieve, regardless of where they are from?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend, who represents West Bromwich East, highlights exactly why we had to have the covid catch-up fund. It was because in so many constituencies such as hers youngsters from really deprived areas really need that extra support. That is why we have targeted that support in the way that is best going to assist them to do that catch-up. That is not just for years 10, 11, 12 and 13, but for youngsters right through the education system, in order to make sure they are in the best place to be able to succeed and to make sure that our agenda and our commitment to level up right across the country, on which we got elected back in December 2019, is something we deliver on.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Coming from the constituency that had the highest attainment gap, it is deeply troubling for me that research published today highlights the fact that the gap has increased by 46% in an education system in which disadvantaged young people already experience significant detriment. Does that not indicate that for this academic year and the next, a recovery curriculum should be put in place and end-of-year assessments adjusted away from exam-only assessment, so that inequalities are not entrenched and no young person is further disadvantaged?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

That is why we have introduced the covid catch-up fund: we recognise that there are challenges for youngsters who have missed out on learning and we need to make sure that we give schools and those youngsters the maximum amount of support so that they are able to catch up. One thing that is clear is that the best form of assessment is always examination. Any other route is certainly less good than an exam route.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Transport)

I welcome the fact that there is money in the tutoring fund for 16-to-19 providers, but sixth-form colleges such as St Brendan’s in my constituency get less for pupils if they have to stay on for three years—perhaps because they are retaking GCSEs—than for pupils who just do the two years. Is it not time to rectify that anomaly and make sure that all pupils get the same funding, so that providers can give extra attention to those pupils who need it?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

The aim of the covid catch-up funding and the reason why we are covering across 16 to 19-year-olds is because we recognise the fact that youngsters of all ages have suffered as a result of coronavirus. I will take up the hon. Lady’s point and write to her separately on her particular concerns about those youngsters who have to have a resit year and therefore do three years of study as against two years.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I had the pleasure of visiting Marshlands School in my Stafford constituency earlier this summer and was very impressed by the efforts of staff and Staffordshire County Council to support students during the pandemic. Will the Secretary of State outline today the steps that his Department is taking to assist children with special educational needs and disabilities, to ensure that they can return to school?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

First, I congratulate the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency and, of course, Staffordshire County Council on their work to ensure that there is a smooth opening of schools right across Staffordshire, as we are seeing throughout the country. We have been particularly careful to ensure that there is specialist guidance for special school settings because it is vital to ensure that every child has access to education. One decision that we took early on—we were one of the first nations in the world to do so—was to make sure that children who are vulnerable, including those with education, health and care plans, had access to continuity of education all the way through this crisis, because we recognise that some children with acute special needs, and their families, need support at every stage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Will those who are leaving the Chamber please take care? The sitting is suspended for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.