Education Return and Awarding Qualifications in 2021 - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:28 pm on 1st March 2021.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 2:28 pm, 1st March 2021

My Lords, it is fitting that the Statement emphasises the tremendous efforts of all staff in schools and colleges who have made schools as safe as they can be, at some risk to themselves. I echo these sentiments.

It was obvious before Christmas that there were likely to be problems with grades. Indeed, I and other noble Lords said as much when the ministerial Statement on exams and accountability came to your Lordships’ House on 8 December. Why did the Government sit on their hands and pretend otherwise until it was too late to come up with a genuinely robust proposal? Can the Minister explain why, despite schools closing at the start of January, exam board guidance will not be available until the end of March? That simply increases the uncertainty and anxiety already widely experienced by students, parents and teachers. The proposals for checking and confirming teachers’ grades seem flimsy. It would have been possible to build in much more comprehensive moderation arrangements between schools, using the skills of experienced examiners and exam markers. Without this, there can be no guarantee of consistency and fairness. There is surely a risk that the rigorous will lose out, compared to the less rigorous.

There is also a serious risk that schools, colleges and teachers will be exposed to unreasonable pressure to give students the grades they—or their parents—expect. It must be made clear and emphasised that exam boards, not schools, are responsible for issuing grades and appeals. As things stand, it seems that a school can appeal against a grade awarded by one of its own teachers. This is awkward, to say the least.

The likely volume of appeals and disputes will also present a capacity issue. How can the Government guarantee that the system will be able to cope with these pressures? Faith in the proposals has hardly been enhanced by the very public resignation of Sir Jon Coles from the Ofqual recovery committee just as the new measures were being announced. He was a former DfE director-general and the department’s own nominee to the Ofqual committee. What does this say about the robustness of these proposals?

I turn to the return of schools and colleges. During the first week back, they will be required to carry out three tests for each of the 3.4 million secondary-age pupils. Many schools have lost income or face higher costs because of the pandemic. What support and resources will the Government make available for schools and colleges to deliver the testing, including additional financial support?

In January, the Secretary of State said that he wanted school staff to be in the next wave of vaccinations. Yet, despite the obvious benefits this brings in facilitating the return to school, there has been no commitment since to prioritising school staff. Do the Government no longer believe that teaching staff should be a priority?

Finally, 8 March is also the date on which independent training providers are expected to have the majority of apprentices and trainees back on site. ITPs and their learners seem to be at the back of the queue for receiving Covid home-testing kits. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers says that a general rollout is not expected before April. This cohort includes high levels of vulnerable and disadvantaged learners who are more likely to be affected by Covid-19. It is unacceptable that they should be doubly disadvantaged by a lack of access to testing. Many have little or no access to the technology needed for remote learning, so anything that delays their return to classroom delivery is damaging.

There is an obligation on training providers and employers to provide a safe environment before learning can resume. Already, providers are concerned that they are potentially leaving themselves open to legal action. Can the Minister explain what providers are meant to do in these circumstances?

We all want not simply to see schools and training facilities fully reopened but for it to take place on a sustainable basis. This requires a creditable system, underwritten by a plan B. If the Government have learned anything during the last 12 months, it is surely that a fallback position is necessary to take account of fast-changing events. This Government have been characterised throughout the pandemic by indecision and U-turns. This has had a particularly damaging effect on young people seeking to gain the education and qualifications that will prepare them for the world of work. How can the Minister guarantee that the measures outlined in the Statement will offer a more certain way forward for students, parents and teachers?