Exams and Accountability 2021

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:34 am on 3rd December 2020.

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Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education 10:34 am, 3rd December 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding testing and examinations in schools and colleges next year.

The pandemic continues to cause disruption throughout our education communities and, once again, I pay tribute to all our teachers, school leaders and support staff for the enormous efforts that they are making to keep young people of all ages learning. I also pay tribute to the global teacher of the year award winner, which recognises the most outstanding teacher from around the world. Our very own Dr Jamie Frost, maths lead at Tiffin School in Kingston-upon-Thames, has been shortlisted for this after his tuition website went viral during lockdown, helping millions of pupils in the United Kingdom and around the world to continue their studies at home. He has already won the covid hero award, and I am sure that the whole House joins me in wishing him luck with the overall prize. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

We will not let covid damage the life chances of an entire year of students by cancelling next year’s exams. Exams are the best form of assessment that we have, and we are therefore taking steps to ensure that any student preparing to sit them in 2021 has every chance possible to do their very, very best.

We support Ofqual’s decision that, in awarding next year’s GCSEs, AS and A-levels, grading will be as generous and will maintain a similar profile as those grades awarded this year. This is to recognise the exceptional circumstances under which students and teachers continue to work and to make sure that students are not at a disadvantage compared with previous years.

Ofqual is also working with the exam boards to make sure that students studying for vocational and technical qualifications and other general qualifications benefit from the same generous approach. I know that students and teachers are making enormous efforts to catch up with any lost learning. To support those most affected by the continuing disruption, at the end of January, students will be given advance notice of some of the topic areas that will be assessed in their GCSEs and A-levels. That means that they will be able to focus on these areas in more depth and target their revision accordingly. Students will also be given exam aids, such as formula sheets, in recognition of the time lost in the classroom and to give them more confidence and reduce the amount of information that they need to memorise in preparation for exams.

All these measures have been drawn up with the most affected in mind and we will be sharing the advance notice about what exactly the measures will entail with schools and colleges at the end of January. Students taking vocational and technical qualifications or other general qualifications can also expect a number of concessions, including a reduced number of units to be assessed. We want as many students as possible to be able to sit their exams and for that reason we have a contingency package to make sure that they can do so, including spacing exams more widely, as well as enabling vulnerable students to sit exams at home if they need to.

In the minority of cases where students cannot sit all their papers or where a very small number of pupils miss all of them, there will be means by which they can still be awarded a grade, including additional papers available after the main exam series.

The fundamental problem with this year’s exams is that we tried to award grades without actually holding exams. We will not be repeating that same mistake again. With the measures that I have outlined, we are confident that every student who is preparing to sit exams this summer will be awarded a qualification.[This section has been corrected on 6 January 2021, column 4MC — read correction] As the virus continues to be a fact of life for all of us, schools and colleges are making impressive efforts to ensure that education can continue for those students who must remain at home. We have reviewed and updated the guidance for remote education so that schools, parents and pupils all know exactly what to expect from it. Primary schools need to provide an absolute bare minimum of three hours a day on average of remote education, and secondary schools, an absolute minimum of at least four. Schools will also be expected to check and provide feedback on pupils’ work at least weekly as well as informing parents immediately where engagement is a concern. The Department will also ask schools to set out details of their remote provision on their websites so that parents can better understand their schools’ remote education offer.

As levels of covid infection continue to fluctuate, we know that different areas will experience varying levels of disruption to learning. We will therefore commission an expert group to assess any local variations and the impact the virus is having on students’ education.

I turn to the measures we are taking in respect of the school and college accountability framework for 2021. We need to ensure that the arrangements for inspection and performance measures are fair and reflect the current public health situation. They need to take into account the enormous challenges that schools and colleges have been facing, but, equally, we must continue to provide the information and reassurance that parents need about their children’s education. We will not be publishing the normal performance tables based on test, exam and assessment data next year. Instead, my Department will publish data on the subjects that students have taken, how well schools and colleges support their students to their next destination and attendance data, taking account of the impact of covid-19. We will also publish national and regional data on 2021 exams, tests and assessments. Importantly, we will make the exam data available to Ofsted and to schools, but we will not publish it in performance tables.

I will now let the House know how our plans for schools and colleges are affected by inspections. It is our intention that Ofsted’s routine graded inspections will remain suspended for the spring term but will resume in a carefully considered way from the summer term. In the meantime, Ofsted will carry out monitoring inspections in those schools and colleges most in need of support. That will include those currently judged inadequate and some in the “requires improvement” category. Inspectors will focus on areas that are particularly relevant at this time such as curriculum delivery, remote education and, importantly, attendance. There will also be a focus on those pupils who are particularly vulnerable. However, I stress that they will not make graded judgments and any inspection activity will be sensitive to be additional pressures that schools are working under at this time.

As in the autumn, Ofsted will also be able to inspect a school in response to any significant concerns about safeguarding but also about the delivery of remote education by that school. In both the early years sector and the independent schools sector, the intention is also that standard inspections will remain suspended for the spring, with assurance inspections in the early years and non-routine inspections in independent schools taking place in the meantime. I trust that provides the House with reassurance that we are providing the right balance in our accountability and inspection arrangements.

I will finish by outlining our proposal for the curriculum and testing in primary schools, recognising the particular challenges they face. Assessments in primary schools next summer will focus on phonics, mathematics and English reading and writing. That means that for 2021 only, we will remove all tests at key stage 1, the English grammar, punctuation and spelling tests at key stage 2, and science teacher assessments at both key stages. The introduction of a multiplication tables check will be postponed for a further year, but schools may use it if they want to. It is a resource available to all schools, and we encourage them to do so if they can.

We will also add more flexibility to the timetable, so if there is any disruption due to coronavirus in a school, pupils will be able to take the test when they return to the school. These measures will help us to address lost learning time and will give us a chance to support pupils in schools who need help. They will also provide vital information for parents and better help for pupils to make a successful step into the next stage of education—going to secondary school.

Everyone in all of our schools and colleges is working as hard as they can to make sure that no pupils lose out because of covid and that the future they are dreaming of is still very much within their reach. I am determined that the coronavirus will not jeopardise the life chances of this year’s pupils, and I am confident that the plan is the fairest way of doing this. I commend this statement to the House.