I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance copy of it. I also thank the Minister for School Standards for briefing my hon. Friend Wes Streeting and me yesterday. I also join the Secretary of State in congratulating Dr Frost and wishing him well for the finals of the global teacher of the year awards.
I am glad that the Government have finally responded to the pleas of students, their parents and teachers who have been asking for months how next summer’s exams will be conducted fairly. While I welcome measures to help pupils be assessed on what they have learned and ensure that reserve papers will be in place for pupils who might miss out, that performance tables will be suspended and that routine Ofsted inspections will not resume in January—many of them measures that Labour called for —today’s announcement still bakes in fundamental inequities between students who have suffered different levels of disruption to their learning. The Government have known since September that an ongoing pandemic would create huge challenges in schools, and for months they will have heard school leaders, parents and Labour Members calling for a credible plan to address them. It has taken until December to provide one, so can the Secretary of State tell us what took him so long? Why did he leave students in a horrible and uncertain limbo?
The truth is that the delay has limited the Department’s options. Had it acted sooner, it could have done more to make the system fairer. I welcome the decision to make the distribution of grades similar to last year’s to ensure that pupils sitting their exams this year do not feel unfairly disadvantaged, but we know that last year while grades rose across the board, some pupils—particularly those in private schools—were more likely to see a sharp rise. How will the Secretary of State ensure this year that the distribution of grades is spread evenly across schools and postcodes to ensure that the most disadvantaged pupils are treated fairly? Is he not concerned that providing information in advance about subject content will at best benefit pupils at random, with those who happen to have already covered the assessed material benefiting at the expense of those who did not, and at worst in fact mean that pupils who faced the greatest disruption to their learning lose the most?
There is significant support for greater optionality in exams. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s Department has taken exactly that approach with some exams already. It allows pupils to be assessed on what they have learned, with fewer pupils losing out at random. If it works for some subjects, can the Secretary of State explain clearly why it is not part of today’s announcement?
What steps is the Secretary of State taking to address the fact that over a million pupils were out of school this week? He talked about regional disparity, and we know that exam classes in some regions have faced disproportionate levels of disruption. Can he tell us when the expert group will report, why it has been established so late—I understand just last week—and will it include representatives of school leaders and teachers?
On remote learning, I note the Secretary of State’s requirements, but how many laptops have been delivered to students who need them? Why are we continuing to hear reports of schools receiving laptops only after students isolate, wasting valuable time getting them set up and delivered? Why has the national tutoring programme now been stretched more thinly across two years? Can he even guarantee that all students on free school meals will have access to tutoring?
Many students sitting exams next summer want to go on to university or college. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with colleges and universities to ensure that any additional support these students may need will be in place for them next September? Does he believe that any changes will be needed to the timing of university admissions? Can he tell us when pupils taking vocational and technical qualifications will receive further clarity, and what steps is he taking to clear the logjam in the testing of apprentices’ functional skills in maths and English?
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there are likely to be more appeals than in a normal year? How will he ensure that all students can access a fair appeals process? Will he also ensure that there are the markers with the time and resources needed to grade papers in time, particularly in the second exam window?
I want students to have the chance to show what they have achieved in the most challenging of circumstances, but after months of silence these proposals fall short of the fair exams that the Secretary of State promised. At best, this is a “requires improvement”.