Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams — [James Gray in the Chair.]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:02 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 6:02 pm, 7th December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petitions 326066, 550846, 316404 and 549015, relating to the impact of Covid-19 on schools and exams.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. This is a timely debate as only last week the Secretary of State for Education laid out the Government’s plan for the delivery of GCSEs and A-levels next summer. I want to put on record my sincere thanks to Libby Harris, Alex D’Arcy and Ellis Rogers, whose petitions we debate today, for giving me time to speak with them at length about their reasons for starting their respective petitions. I also thank Dame Glenys Stacey from Ofqual for giving me her time to explain the processes for exams next summer.

I start with Ellis’s e-petition calling for the reclosure of schools and colleges due to an increase in covid-19 cases, which has been signed by 416,000 people—990 of them are from my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke—as well as Libby’s petition asking the Government to mandate schools to close two weeks before the end of autumn term, enabling students to self-isolate before joining loved ones in their Christmas bubbles.

Ellis began his petition because of his mum and aunt, who both work as teachers—unsung heroes during the global health pandemic—at the same secondary school. When all year groups returned to Parrs Wood High School, where Ellis’s mum and aunt work, it was only a matter of weeks until his mother caught covid-19. Ellis feels that, despite all the measures introduced by the school to be as covid-secure as possible, they simply are not enough, in large part because not all pupils are following the rules of wearing masks in corridors, keeping socially distanced from staff and peers, and not mixing with different bubbles. He also highly doubts the regularity of people hand-sanitising or washing. That causes only more anxiety for Ellis as his aunt was classified as extremely vulnerable via her GP during the first lockdown, and his first concern is—rightly so—the safety and wellbeing of his family.

Ellis has some questions for the Minister that he would like to have answered. Why can we not move back to online learning for all pupils? What have the Government done to invest in technology to enable learning from home since the start of the 2020 summer term? Have they invested in better ventilation in schools, as has happened in some countries across Europe? Lastly, what are they doing about vocational qualifications? Many students felt let down by having to wait an additional two weeks to receive their grades last summer. Are vocational qualifications an afterthought?

Libby’s petition, which goes along slightly similar lines to Ellis’s, is about providing safety for elderly relatives and preventing another spike in cases, as we have recently witnessed. She has asked whether it is possible to move all learning online for the final two weeks of this term. In that way, young people could self-isolate, potentially get tested and ensure that they had no symptoms, so that when they met loved ones they could do so knowing that they were not endangering them.

Libby referred me to Stephen Reicher from Independent SAGE, who has suggested allowing pupils off a week earlier than usual and adding those days back into the school calendar next summer, in order to protect loved ones and the NHS. Libby also referred to Kit Yates, also from Independent SAGE, who has said that if we took year 13 alone as a region, they would be in tier 3. To be clear, Libby is not a teacher. She is a concerned citizen who understands the need to compromise and is willing for her idea to apply only to secondary schools where the spread of covid-19 cases seems much more prevalent. Libby therefore asks this question of the Minister: if schools remain open, will the Government implement the safety measures recommended by Independent SAGE, and if not, why not?

I come to the final petitioner, Alex, who has called for the cancellation of all GCSEs and A-levels in the summer of 2021. His petition has just over 169,000 signatories, with 292 from my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Alex is a year 11 student preparing to sit his GCSEs next summer. A northern lad living in Liverpool, he argues that his local community in his region has been more greatly affected than some in other parts of the United Kingdom. Since September, some of his peers have lost out on six weeks of face-to-face learning. Alex was happy to share that he is a beneficiary of Merchant Taylors’, a private school that he attends in Liverpool. It has the resources and capability to deliver high-quality online learning, but that experience is not fair and not true of many in his community.

Alex referred to statistics showing that during the first lockdown, when most students were asked not to attend school, a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research team concluded that a third of students had not engaged in lessons while at home, 42% had not bothered to return their work, and pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were the least likely to engage with remote learning. Alex feels it is highly unlikely that a level playing field can be created because, as some surveys suggest, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are up to four months behind in their learning, which the three-week delay to the start of exams simply cannot make up for.

All my discussions with Alex predate last week’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Education, but Alex did email me with some thoughts and questions for the Minister. How will the Government and Ofqual ensure that fair marking is applied across all exam boards, as marking can be very subjective? The Government must ensure that the advance notice of topics and additional support materials is announced as soon as possible to ensure that teachers and students can prepare. A U-turn must not happen. Lastly, will the Government pledge to spend any additional money on resources in case of a third lockdown, and use Oak National Academy, BBC Red Button and textbooks suppliers so that schools have all the resources they need?

I hope I have done justice to the petitioners. I will respond with my own views on the petitions. All petitioners have been told in advance, and I am grateful for their trust in me to deliver their views today. For the record, I do not believe that schools and colleges should close, and I believe that exams must go ahead next summer. I am pleased that we now have the details about how that will run. Such large numbers of students being asked not to attend school for six months still saddens and horrifies me. I understand why that was necessary as we tackled and learned about covid-19, but I think many Members will agree that that is something we never wish to see again.

I represent an area with one of the worst level 3 and level 4 qualification take-ups in the country. Students in my area are below average in achieving a pass in English and in maths at GCSE, and far too many lack access to high-skilled, high-quality apprenticeships or job opportunities. Lockdown has meant that we are rocking on our back foot as a local area after taking a right hook from covid-19. I therefore ask the Government to ensure that the last things to be closed in this country are schools and colleges.

I was extremely disappointed to see the National Education Union executive campaign so heavily not to have schools open to all students, and spending time running a political campaign asking for Facebook graphics to be shared, rather than working with the Department for Education. The damaging actions taken by NEU leaders, who I do not believe speak for most of its members, will have negatively impacted the reputation of and respect for some in the teaching profession. I sincerely hope the NEU will pause and think about its conduct.

Since the start of September, 99% of state-funded schools have been open each week, with the rate of face-to-face attendance maintained at close to 90%, although we have seen a drop to 83% as of 26 November, due to an increase in covid-19 cases. This shows that many students are present in school, and there has been an expectation for schools to provide remote learning when students have to self-isolate, with recent guidance about how that must be done.

Of those pupils who did not attend on 26 November due to covid-related reasons, it is believed that only 0.2% had a confirmed case and 0.4% a suspected case, and 7% to 8% were self-isolating because of coming into contact with someone who had covid. UK scientists have constantly demonstrated that children are less susceptible to infection than adults, which has also been shown in studies from South Korea and Iceland. Data from this summer demonstrated that under-18s in the UK accounted for less than 2% of all infections detected, and research led by University College London concluded that children are 50% less likely to become infected than adults. Data has also indicated that schools are a low-risk setting for transmission and that there is no significant transmission among children or from pupils to teachers. Details of a study in the Netherlands that were published by SAGE in April support these claims.

I believe that the Government have worked to create a comprehensive list of measures—including regular hand washing, enhanced cleaning, bubbles and staggered timings of the day—to ensure that school can be an effective place of learning. However, although lots of good work has been done, it is still fair to ask questions and raise concerns.

I note that the Department for Education has announced recently that money will be made available to schools to assist with the costs of cleaning, the provision of laptops, supply teachers and other costs. Although that is welcome, it is not yet clear what the size of the budget will be nor how the money can be applied for. Schools in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, such as St Mary’s Primary School in Tunstall, have lost out, because they have a well-managed budget and therefore were not entitled to claim back for the cost of making sure that they were covid-secure after the first lockdown. Will the Minister say how big the budget will be, whether schools be able to backdate claims and when the money will be distributed?

I acknowledge and welcome the Government’s £195 million to purchase 340,000 laptops and tablets. However, not all children have access to wi-fi, and nor do they or their parents know how to use the internet and online apps properly, as is the case for 44% of residents across Stoke-on-Trent. While the digital divide exists, with 9 million people struggling to use the internet independently, as the Good Things Foundation has found, we can anticipate huge problems. That is why I back the call by my right hon. Friend Esther McVey for a digital catch-up scheme.

With regard to exams, I will not revisit the past, as I think we have all learned a valuable lesson from that ordeal. The scheme announced by the Secretary of State for Education seems to take a balanced and detailed approach. I am particularly pleased with the advance notice of topics, as it enables teachers to plan accordingly. Again, I urge the Minister to work with the profession to create accessible online resources and also videos on these topics for TV, accessed via the red button, to aid teachers, as my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, the Chair of the Education Committee, has regularly called for. These additional support materials will give students the support to ensure that they can demonstrate the very best of their ability.

However, the Minister must keep the pressure on Ofqual to ensure that advance notice is given by the end of January, as promised. Contingency plans—additional papers for those who miss the exams and enabling clinically vulnerable students to do tests from home—would also be good news. However, I hope that those with special educational needs and disability will also be taken into account much further, with consideration of home examination adjusted for.

Using Ofqual’s special consideration process for those who may sit only one or two of the exams in a subject is also good news, as this is a system that has been in place for decades. However, I ask the Minister to ensure that the system has been stress-tested, because it is highly unlikely that it will have had to handle the numbers in this summer’s exam series, in order to give certainty to year 11 and 13 students across England.

I also urge the Minister to work with me to have the DFE set up an online portal for the volunteer army of retired or ex-teachers to be exam invigilators, an idea that the Secretary of State has supported. This way, the DFE can enable schools to waive the costs of conducting CRB checks and access those stepping up in the national effort.

The Minister also needs to set out how additional exam markers will be hired to ensure that papers can be marked in a shorter timeframe and to ensure the quality of exam board marking.

I welcome the £1 billion catch-up fund, but I am seriously concerned that some schools, such as the King’s Church of England School in Kidsgrove, have not been able to find tutors via the approved suppliers, and by the announcement that the £350 million of funding for the national tutoring programme is not only for the 2020-21 academic year but will now be spread over two years. I have long stated my scepticism that this scheme will deliver for students in disadvantaged areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, as these large, centrally controlled schemes do not always end up where they are intended to.

Will the Minister explain why funding from the national tutoring programme will now be spread over two years, what progress has been made in hiring tutors and how they will be distributed? Lastly, the school holidays are a really important opportunity to catch up. Following comments last week from my hon. Friend David Johnston, will the Minister explain how we can use the holiday periods effectively?