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 Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 2:28 pm, 1st March 2021

My Lords, I am grateful for the support of both noble Lords. We are all waiting with bated breath for next Monday when our children can return to school—I am sure that many parents are as well. I join the noble Lord, Lord Storey, in paying tribute to the staff who have worked tirelessly during this period.

Unfortunately, the new variant at Christmas took us all by surprise with its speed. The levels of community transmission meant that we had to shut down schools for the second time. It was made clear to staff that exams were cancelled and that teacher assessments would be the way ahead, so certainty was given at that point. This is a genuinely robust proposal. As noble Lords will be aware, we had to consult. Ofqual and the DfE put out a joint consultation. There were more than 100,000 responses—maybe the largest ever—the majority of which were from students. It is good that they were obviously interested enough to put forward their views.

Teachers will have been getting on with teaching as much of the curriculum as possible. Whether students are to be assessed by examination or by their teachers, that curriculum has to be taught to those children. There has been no confusion among teachers that that has been their job by way of remote education for the majority of students.

By Easter, the exam boards will issue their guidance. Departmental guidance was issued on the same day as this Statement, so some information is already available about the list of materials and evidence on which teachers can rely in order to assess grades. Grades will be assessed on evidence. There will be both internal and external quality assurance. Internally, the head teacher will have to sign a declaration that they have acted in accordance with the guidance and instructions given by the exam board. There will shortly be a consultation on what should be in that declaration. We are relying on the professionalism of head teachers as to how grades will be assessed within their school.

Externally, the exam boards will be able to inspect a school where they have concerns about the way in which grades are awarded to students. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, this will be random, but it will also be risk-assessed. It has been made clear to schools that a significant misalignment with historical data could be a reason for a school falling within the Ofqual risk profile for assessment. Obviously, we are trying not to peg it to historical data, because certain institutions are improving, but we are making it clear to schools that such data are relevant, though not determinative.

The noble Lord is correct. We need to make sure that we communicate clearly to parents and children that teachers are assessing grades, and grades are awarded by the examination boards. Students will not pay for appeals. An appeal to a school will be of an administrative type. For instance, a child might say, “I’ve got this grade, but have you really taken into account all that assessed artwork that I did?” That kind of appeal is based on process. The examination board comes in if there is a substantive appeal. That is the appropriate boundary between schools and examination boards.

Regarding timing, teachers have until 18 June, so they will get the materials by the end of spring term. They will have to put their assessed grades in by 18 June, and the results dates are 10 and 12 August. That should allow time—we are talking of higher education providers in particular—for any appeals to be put forward, hopefully without prejudicing the transition to the next stage. I just want to pay tribute to the work of Sir Jon Coles, both for the department and for Ofqual. His departure is a matter for himself and Ofqual.

This is an important reassurance on testing, for parents, teachers and students: yes, we are providing support, and have been for the last half term, for the costs of the tests and administering them on school premises. That arrangement will continue. Those schools that applied for expenditure on the basis of full reopening, and have not had to spend that money, can reclaim that cost through, I believe, the NHS Test and Trace service.

It is envisaged that the independent training providers, which will receive tests to do home testing along with everybody else, will use the community testing facilities for that three-week period. As I am sure most noble Lords will know, many local authorities have provided access to asymptomatic community testing sites for those three weeks until they join up with the remote testing system.

Teachers will be assessing, and content will have been taught to, all cohorts—there is no minimum level—such that every student will be able to be assessed with a grade, and students will be assessed on what they have been taught.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, yes, we do trust head teachers to assess these grades, and they have welcomed the guidance. Over this period, the department has had to issue guidance to schools about how to make schools safer for pupils in line with PHE guidance on bubbles, ventilation, sanitation, et cetera.

For the reasons outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the national tutoring programme has been extended to the 16 to 19 year-old cohort. The laptop provisions we outlined have been extended to FE colleges as well. Many have been buying those through the bursary fund, but they can now access the central allocation. Also, £102 million has been allocated to tuition for 16 to 19 year-olds for this academic year. Funds are up on last year because of the expected increase in the size of the cohort. So we do have a rigorous plan.

Mental health and well-being have always featured as part of the guidance, and there has been funding for mental health and well-being in return to education, so there are experienced professionals to advise schools. I can assure noble Lords that there will be no performance tables this year. As I have outlined for the noble Lord, Lord Storey, there will be both internal and external quality assurances—by the school and by the exam board.

Finally, private candidates were one of the cohorts particularly affected last year. We consulted on that, and there will be a number of assessment centres. A list will be put up soon. Multi-academy trusts have volunteered to assess private candidates, so private candidates can look at a list. We are assisting with the cost of this. Private candidates can go to an assessment centre and ask to be assessed on the same basis as for a teacher-assessed grade. Obviously, there are separate lists of materials et cetera for those students. Assessment can be done remotely, so a private candidate is not limited to the provision in their town, which might happen not to include an assessment centre. So we are confident that the method we have outlined will put the assessment of private candidates on a par with that of pupils who are within an exam centre. I am also pleased to say we have this year managed to find a way to get those private candidates who were affected last year assessed. I am just grateful to know, as I am sure we all are, that this time next week school will just be finishing for everybody.