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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:15 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade) 6:15 pm, 7th December 2020

I am really pleased that we are having this debate, and I am grateful to Jonathan Gullis for introducing the petitions so well. This is a really difficult time for all students and their parents, just as it is for everybody else. We know of the uncertainty and damage that will be done if the right provision is not available. I agree with the hon. Member that it is absolutely right that schools stay open. I point out that all schools, or nearly all schools, have been open all the way through since 23 March for the children of essential workers and for many other children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We should all pay tribute to staff, who have worked incredibly hard, have been on the frontline, are essential workers and have often been infected with covid. Sadly, too many teachers and other school staff have died.

I wanted to take part in this debate because of my constituent, Alex D’Arcy. The hon. Gentleman mentioned him. He lives just around the corner from me, and I have known him on and off since he was about eight. I did not know that he had started the petition in August; I had absolutely no involvement whatsoever in encouraging him to do it, but I am thrilled that he did. When I spoke to him last week, he had not realised how quickly the petition had grown. He had not looked at it for several months, and suddenly 169,000 people had signed it. He was demonstrating his solidarity with many of his friends—people who live on the same street as him—who are not in such a fortunate position as he has been: he is one of only five students in his school who has not had to self-isolate at any time since going back in September.

Many others are not as fortunate, and many go to other schools where it has been much harder. As the hon. Gentleman said, children have not had the online support, and they have not had the in-school support either. That is the context in which Alex launched the petition. Because of the missed hours between 23 March and the end of the summer term last year, he did not see how it was possible for the exams to take place this year.

Much of that still applies, including the point about whether exams should go ahead, because there has been a serious gap between those children and young people who have had very good access, like Alex, and those in the north-west who have had to go home and self-isolate on up to five different occasions since just September. It is hard to see how those children and young people will catch up. The Government announced the national tutoring programme, but the hon. Member pointed out that that funding is over two years, not one, and it is being introduced very late. There are questions about why it took so long, and about where the tutors will come from. How much support will be available? One headteacher in my constituency said that, as far as she can tell, it will be 15 hours for one subject only. For students taking eight or nine GCSEs, that will be a drop in the ocean. I am afraid that having advance notice or support in the exam hall will not make the slightest difference. If a student taking an exam does not understand the topic, it does not matter how much notice they get or how much help they get in the exam hall—they will not be able to answer the questions. I am afraid that setting up a working group, which was the big reveal from the Government, really does not go far enough at this stage. The Government have to answer quickly some serious questions about how this will all work, how the catch-up will be possible and how it will be possible for all children and young people to have a fair chance at their exams in the summer.

The Government need to have a plan B in place. Given the reform, we know it will be difficult to deliver the kind of classroom assessment that the current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster put through when he was Education Secretary, whereas it is possible in Wales. There are alternatives to exams, and the Government will have to come up with an alternative, just in case the infection rate increases and we are not able to see a fair system for exams. We have not heard that so far, and we have yet to see exactly how they propose to make exams work. Unless they do—this is a point that was made to me by Alex—we will have a real imbalance between the nations of the United Kingdom, whereby children in England will face real unfairness and inequality. They will face a system whereby grades are being awarded in Scotland and Wales on a different basis. How will that enable A-level students to compete fairly for university places, and will it be fair to GCSE students? Those are the questions for the Minister and Secretary of State.

I am incredibly proud of Alex for launching his petition. He has done a terrific job in highlighting this issue and he deserves enormous credit. We should encourage our young people to do as he has done. I hope that his getting 169,000 people to join him in signing the petition is the kind of impetus the Minister needs to take the action that all our children and young people need to have a fair crack this year.