Government 'determined' for exams to go ahead in 2021

1 September 2020, 17:24

Gavin Williamson was speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday
Gavin Williamson was speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Picture: UK Parliament

The Government is "determined" to ensure school exams and assessments go ahead in 2021, Gavin Williamson has told the Commons.

The Education Secretary addressed MPs in the House of Commons on the day they returned to Westminster following the summer recess and as thousands of pupils went back to school in England and Wales.

Mr Williamson's speech came after the government made a series of U-turns - including on exam results and face coverings in schools - over the last few weeks.

He spoke about the reopening of schools and colleges to all pupils, as well as GCSE, A-level and Btec exams.

The education secretary told MPs: "We are determined that exams and assessments will go ahead next year, and we're working with the sector to ensure that this is done as smoothly as possible.

"While none of this disruption is what we wanted for our students, I believe that they now have a certainty and reassurance they deserve and will be able to embark on the next exciting phase of their lives.

"I hope the whole House will join me in wishing all of them the very best for their future."

Mr Williamson also apologised to school pupils who had their grades unfairly downgraded across England.

He told the Commons: "The independent regulator Ofqual had put in place a system for arriving at grades that was believed to be fair and robust.

"It became clear, however, that there were far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for A and AS-level students, and that it was not reasonable to expect these to be dealt even through a boosted and enhanced appeals process."

Mr Williamson continued: "This situation has, I know, caused a great deal of stress and uncertainty, and I am deeply sorry that those who have borne the brunt of it have been students themselves.

"I can only apologise to them again for this."

It comes as the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) has written to the Education Select Committee with concerns that poorer pupils are still being "overlooked" due to limited criteria for appealing over grades.

Meanwhile, a YouGov survey suggested one in six (17 per cent) parents in England and Wales is seriously considering not sending their children to school this month over Covid-19 fears.

Approximately 40 per cent of schools are expected to welcome back students for the start of the autumn term on Tuesday, despite concerns about their ability to reopen safely.

It will be the first time many pupils in England have stepped into a classroom since March, when schools were closed except to look after vulnerable children and those of key workers.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has called on the Government to temporarily scrap fines for parents who do not send their children back to class due to fears around coronavirus.

The YouGov poll of more than 650 parents found that nearly half (48 per cent) think it would be unfair to fine parents who do not send their children back to school because of the pandemic.

The Department for Education said fines for parents who refuse to send their children to England's schools will only be used as a "last resort".

Schools minister Nick Gibb appealed to families on Tuesday morning to send their children back to school, adding that any pupil with coronavirus symptoms would be sent home to be tested.

Mr Gibb said: "I would urge parents to send their children back to school to help them to catch up on the lost education that they will inevitably have suffered during the lockdown period, and schools are doing everything they can to make sure that their pupils and their staff are safe."

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has backed a call from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson for "rapid testing" to be introduced in schools, using a similar model to that used in Germany.

Mr Hunt said: "If, for example, we said that every secondary school teacher was going to be tested twice a week, then that would really give people confidence that if they were sending their kids back to school, they weren't sending them into a zone where they might pick up the virus."

Asked about the possibility of regular testing in schools, Mr Gibbsaid that schools have been given a "small number" of home testing kits for parents unable to get to a testing centre.

Mr Gibb said the Government will make a decision "very soon" on whether to delay exams in 2021.

He said the time needed for exam marking and the university admissions process is being considered as part of any decision.

"There are a whole range of factors that the exam boards, Ofqual and the Department (for Education) are looking at, but we will form a decision very soon," Mr Gibb said.

The SMF - which supports high attaining students from low-income families who aspire to attend top universities - is calling on the Education Secretary and exams regulator Ofqual to resolve "outstanding issues" to ensure disadvantaged young people are not "penalised" by the grading process this year.

In a letter to MPs, Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the SMF, said: "We are particularly concerned by examples of students who have concerns about racism and discrimination affecting teacher predictions who are having difficulty persuading the school or college to appeal on their behalf, since to do so would be to admit their own institutional failings.

"We would welcome assurance that the lessons will be learned, and planning has already begun, to ensure that disadvantaged students currently expecting to take exams in summer 2021 are better supported and protected."

Mr Williamson previously told the Daily Telegraph that next year's GCSE and A-level exams could be pushed back to give pupils more time to study.

Exam season usually begins in May, but the paper said sources suggested they could be pushed back to June and July.

Downing Street has said it is awaiting Ofqual's recommendation on whether exams should be delayed to help pupils catch up on missed learning.

Ofqual, which launched a consultation in July which proposed delaying the start of the GCSE exams to June 7, has not yet made a decision on the timetable for the 2021 exam series.

Asked whether the Government would step in if it did not agree with Ofqual's decision, the Prime Minister's spokesman said: "We've asked Ofqual to explore with the awarding organisations the scope for altering the timings of the exams. The reason for that is to potentially allow for more teaching time.

"But, as I say, we await a recommendation from Ofqual. Let Ofqual do what we've asked them to do and carry out the consultation."