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

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

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 7:02 pm, 7th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

I begin by thanking all those who signed the petition and in particular the two people who started it, and I echo what we have heard already around the Chamber, namely that it is particularly encouraging to see so many young people engaging in the democratic process and making their voice heard in this year of all years.

For all the reasons that we have heard during the debate, Labour Members believe that it is absolutely essential that we keep pupils learning. In fact, the big challenge that our pupils face this year—and I fear that it will be the big challenge that our country will face for many years to come—is that pupils have spent so much time out of school. So, we certainly cannot support a proposal that would take pupils out of school for even longer.

We also believe, not least because of the experience last summer as well as because of other well-known and well-recognised concerns about the potential for bias outside of examination conditions, that it is in the best interests of pupils for examinations to go ahead. Our argument has been that the Government need to take action to ensure that exams go ahead in a way that is fair and accessible to all pupils, and that takes into account the levels of lost learning this year. I am afraid, however, that the Government have failed England’s school pupils. They have failed on exams, failed on attendance, failed to protect the vulnerable, failed on home learning and failed on funding.

Let me take exams first. We all saw the unmitigated disaster that was last year’s exam results; 31.9% of teachers’ A-level predictions in England were downgraded by the algorithm and pupils from poorer backgrounds were more likely to have received a bigger downward adjustment. Indeed, under the original algorithm, the subject in which students did best relative to their predicted grades was Latin.

That information was known by Ministers in advance of results day. They were presented with evidence of the inequities but proceeded anyway, into a results day where the disaster was not just foreseeable but actually foreseen. I cannot imagine any Labour Education Secretary over the years being presented with such evidence and not taking immediate action ahead of the disaster.

Even then, the current Education Secretary mishandled the fallout. Alternatives to the algorithm were put in place at the last minute. The Education Secretary announced that the system would switch to a triple lock before Ofqual signed it off. Ofqual was only told about the plan on 11 August, just two days before results day.

With the lessons of last summer’s disaster not having been learned, we have seen dither and delay. Surely, the one lesson we should learn from the exams debacle is to ensure that preparations are made for the coming set of exams, and that those positions are well understood by pupils, parents and schools alike. Instead, the Government have dithered and delayed, announcing only a three-week delay in October as the grand sum of their package, until last week, when the Education Secretary came before the House and presented a range of measures, many of which we could support, but which did not go far enough.

The measures are not targeted. We know that lost learning is disproportionately impacting pupils from different backgrounds and schools in different communities, yet we saw a blanket approach with standard measures put in place for all schools and pupils regardless of their circumstances. There was no real focus on tackling the severe disadvantage that some have faced disproportionately.

The big announcement was the proposal to establish

“a new expert group to look at differential learning and monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country.”

This is really obvious stuff. We know there has been a differential impact. We know that pupils and schools have been affected differently. Why was the Education Secretary not announcing the outcome of such a review last week, rather than simply commissioning one just before Christmas? It is absolutely unacceptable.

Despite measures announced such as providing schools and pupils with topics in advance of exams, and proposals around revision aides and written materials to take into exams, the Education Secretary has not said when that information will be available. We were given a commitment of late January, but there is such little teaching time left this academic year before pupils are meant to be revising that he really ought to have that information out to schools by the beginning of term in January at the latest.

On attendance, we have all talked about the importance of getting pupils to school, but in recent weeks we have had as many as 1 million children missing school each week. Worse still, the Government are hiding the extent of the crisis by refusing to publish a regional breakdown of data. Finally, we have a commitment from the Department to publish that regional breakdown before the end of December. If we do not know the extent of the problem, how on earth can we work to tackle it?

On vulnerable children, we know that rates of absence for children with social workers and special educational needs are even higher than the general figures. We also know that prolonged absences have been a disaster for the most vulnerable children. Only last week, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector said:

“Covid-19 has exposed an already crumbling infrastructure that fails to meet the needs of our most vulnerable children all too often”.

That would be shameful enough, were it not that the Education Secretary and the Department were dragged before the courts to be held to account for their failure in their statutory duty to protect the most vulnerable children. That is not to say anything of the reprehensible decision by this Government not to provide the necessary support to feed vulnerable children over the October half-term. If Treasury sources are to be believed, the Education Secretary and the Department did not even ask for the money to provide that support.

On home learning and catch-up support, we have seen a failure to provide enough laptops. Only this Department for Education led by this Education Secretary could be so incompetent as to provide schools with a new statutory duty to provide home learning on one day and to cut the provision of laptops by 80% the next. Of course, some people are doing very well out of this incompetent and overly centralised means of providing laptops. Computacenter founder and director, Philip Hulme, has given thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. His wife gave £100,000 to the Tories during last year’s general election. Of course, companies like Computacenter just happen to have been given lucrative contracts by the Government. Even where the Government could have exerted some influence, we have seen some pathetic attempts to make sure that pupils can access learning from home. If there is one thing that we have come to understand from the pandemic, it is that devices are only part of the story. Without internet access, they are as good as useless for home learning.

We asked the Department for Education what work had been done to encourage mobile internet providers to zero rate educational websites. In a reply to a written question, it said:

“To further support disadvantaged households who rely on a mobile internet connection, the major telecoms companies have zero rated the Hungry Little Minds site.”

No doubt the Hungry Little Minds site is great, but it is just one site. What about the BBC? What about the Oak National Academy? We asked if any other websites had been zero rated and the Government could not list any. It is absolutely outrageous.

As we have heard, there has been a £350-million intervention this year to fund the national tutoring programme. Although that is not sufficient, we had hoped that it would give some support to those who need it. Last week, however, we found that the Department is fiddling the figures, so £350 million is not £350 million for this year; it is £350 million over two years, which is effectively half the funding. One big overriding problem with the Department and its Secretary of State is that they are not focusing on or targeting the most disadvantaged enough, so to find an already limited pot cut in half is deeply disappointing.

As we heard from many hon. Members, it is a cross-party concern that schools have been seriously short-changed, and so have their pupils as a result, because the Department is not covering the true cost of covid and all those measures. Headteachers have enough to worry about. They need to be able to put in place safety measures in the certainty that they, their schools and, most importantly, their pupils are not going to be short-changed by the Government. What we have heard so far is simply not enough.

I am sorry that, for the second time that I can recall in recent weeks, the poor Minister has been sent along to take a brickbat for other people. She had to take brickbats on the disgraceful decision to scrap Unionlearn, which no doubt came from the Secretary of State and some of his bizarre ideological hobby-horses, and now she is having to take brickbats for the Minister for School Standards, no doubt because he is absolutely sweating it ahead of appearing before the Education Committee and its difficult questions. I welcome the Minister, but I am sorry that she has to account for it all.

We want to hear from the Minister, so I will conclude by saying an enormous thank you to all the staff—school leaders, teachers and support staff—in our schools who have been busting a gut to keep pupils learning. When I compare their efforts with the work of the Secretary of State for Education, they are truly lions led by donkeys.