Schools and Colleges: Qualification Results and Full Opening - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:31 pm on 2nd September 2020.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 1:31 pm, 2nd September 2020

My Lords, my apologies: I thought that the noble Baroness the Minister was going to repeat the Statement.

I start by congratulating young people across the country on their GCSE and A-level results, which have caused them much more anxiety than necessary. Labour is absolutely clear: we want children back in school and we want them to stay there safely. As the shadow Secretary of State said yesterday, we will always work constructively with the Secretary of State to achieve that, and the questions that I put to the Minister should be taken in that spirit.

The vast majority of schools will reopen fully over the next few days. We welcome that, but many issues of concern remain. For example, schools were denied the necessary information to prepare for reopening, with the Government’s guidance for head teachers to plan for tier 2 restrictions only being published last Friday.

Over the past month, we have been presented with the extraordinary saga of the 2020 examinations. Ministers’ fixation on avoiding grade inflation led to the adoption of a statistical approach that was never going to survive contact with real live students. Mr Gove’s reforms to exams meant that there was no back-up to call on. It beggars belief that the Secretary of State was warned of the debacle and yet allowed such flawed results to reach publication before the inevitable retreat, thereby causing not just distress to so many students but chaos in the university sector. It seems that we have a Government that resolutely refuse to recognise problems that are so obviously coming down the road, proclaiming absolute confidence in their ostrich-like convictions until the moment of the screeching U-turn.

With regard to this summer’s exam results, can the Minister say when the Secretary of State first knew of the potential problems with the flawed standardisation approach, and what action he took as a result? The evidence given by Ofqual to the Education Committee today has raised serious questions about the Secretary of State’s role in the fiasco. We welcome the apology in the Statement but not his repeated attempts to blame Ofqual and officials for the exams crisis. It is now clear that he was responsible. The head of Ofqual has gone and the head of DfE is going. As we say in Scotland, Mr Williamson’s jaiket is on a shoogly nail.

In a helpful letter to all noble Lords last week, the noble Baroness the Minister stated:

“The relevant awarding organisations have assured the DfE that students will receive their results by this Friday.”

That was 28 August. Can the Minister say how many BTEC students have still not received their results?

On the national tutoring programme, can the noble Baroness say when it will take effect? Yesterday, the Secretary of State merely referred to “this academic year”, which is, to say the least, open-ended. Is she also aware that there is scope for the independent sector to demonstrate public benefit under its charitable status by becoming registered tutors under the programme? Not all the work should be handed to private tuition agencies, but whoever is involved it must start soon.

Finally on the return of schools, can the Minister say why early years and post-16 providers remain ineligible for the catch-up premium, and what extra support will be available for children with SEND?

Turning to the 2021 examinations, the tinkering around the edges proposed by Ofqual does not begin to address the scale of the problem that Years 11 and 13 have faced this year and will face next year. The call by teaching unions to change the exams more fundamentally is right: we need to address how we can “build back better”.

Two immediate principles should underpin exams in 2021. First, as the noble Baroness may recall, I argued—in response to the Statement of 8 July—that a plan was needed when schools returned, not in desperation as June 2021 approaches, to cope with the disruption that has already happened, and, just as importantly, for what may happen next year. A robust system does that, and it is surely a condemnation of the Government’s approach that there was no such plan this year. Failing to announce a plan that would have gone some way to reassuring students that they will not be penalised because of the possible future impact of the pandemic amounts, essentially, to a head-in-the-sand assumption that the next academic year will run smoothly and exams and progression in 2021 will operate as if nothing much has really happened. That is surely wishful thinking.

Schools, colleges and universities need time to plan. What discussions are Ministers having with the sector and UCAS to ensure that workable arrangements are in place? Can the Minister guarantee that a contingency plan will be put in place this month in case exams are disrupted again? Removing the cap on admissions by individual universities without a strategy for dealing with the fallout from that decision merely pushes the problem into next year.

Children and their families should have been the Government’s top priority over the summer, but their interests have been placed below those of the Government and Ministers. That must now change, for the good of all young people--for their education and their futures.