Gavin Williamson – 2020 Statement on the Education System

The statement made by Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, in the House of Commons on 1 September 2020.

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the full opening of our schools and colleges from this week, but before I do I would like to update the House on the current position regarding exam results for this year’s GCSE and A-level students.

As the House will be fully aware, exams had to be cancelled this year because of the covid-19 outbreak. Students have now received results for GCSE, AS and A-levels, as well as vocational and technical qualifications, which will allow them to progress to the next stage of their lives. 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-level and AS-level students and that it was not reasonable to expect them to be dealt with through even a boosted and enhanced appeals process. Instead, students have been awarded the grades that schools and colleges estimated they would most likely have achieved, or their calculated grades if they were higher.

The 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 that. We took immediate action to provide certainty as soon as it was clear that if we did not, too many students would have received grades that did not reflect their hard work and ability.

For vocational and technical qualifications, the situation was different because most were not subject to standardisation like GCSE and A-level grades. Awarding organisations that used a similar model have, however, also reviewed their results to ensure that each student has been treated as fairly as possible. We recognise, however, that some students may still be unhappy with their summer grade, and that for some—such as home-educated students—there was not enough evidence for any grade to be awarded at all. To support those students, in the autumn we are running an extra exam series in all subjects at GCSE, A-level and AS-level. Additional opportunities will also be provided for some other vocational and technical qualifications that received calculated grades.

We have been working with the further and higher education sectors to manage applications for this year’s places. To ensure that students can progress to higher education, we intend to remove the temporary student-number controls that had been introduced for the coming academic year. We set up the higher education taskforce and are working closely with the sector to create additional capacity and encourage it to be as flexible as possible. Providers have agreed to honour all offers to students who meet the conditions of their offer, wherever that is possible. If a course is full, universities will give students a choice of suitable alternative courses if they are happy to take one, or a deferred place if they would prefer to wait an additional year. This year, many more students have been successful in meeting the grades required to study medicine and dentistry. The Government have removed the caps on student numbers that were in place for both subjects.​

The Ofqual board has agreed temporary arrangements with Ofsted to support the ongoing work on this summer’s GCSEs, A-levels and AS-levels, and on vocational qualifications, including appeals and autumn exams, as well as preparations for next year’s exam season. We are determined that exams and assessments will go ahead next year and are working with the sector to ensure that that is done as smoothly as possible.

The former chief regulator, Sally Collier, decided that the next stage of the awarding process would be better overseen by new leadership. As a result, the Ofqual board has asked Dame Glenys Stacey to act as acting chief regulator until December 2020. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sally Collier for the commitment that she has shown over the past four years and wish her well.

Although none of this disruption is what we wanted for our students, I believe that they now have the 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 them all the very best for their future.

Let me now turn to the full opening of our nation’s schools and colleges. Welcoming pupils back will be a massive milestone for schools throughout the country. On 2 July, we published detailed plans for nurseries, schools, special schools and colleges that set out what was required to deliver full return as safely as possible for all our children. The guidance has been developed with medical and scientific experts and Public Health England and follows regular engagement with the education sector. The recent letter from all four UK chief medical officers, which emphasised the low risk of long-term harm from covid-19 due solely to attending school in comparison with the high risk of long-term harm from not attending school, particularly for more vulnerable children and young people, has, I hope, given parents extra assurance that with the protective measures in place, our pupils are returning to a safe environment, and an environment they will gain so much from.

As they return, pupils will be kept in consistent groups and the older children will be encouraged to distance wherever possible. At a minimum, this will mean keeping whole year groups in schools and colleges separate. This is in addition to the other protective measures, such as enhanced cleaning and hand washing. We have also advised that pupils in secondary schools should wear face coverings in communal areas if there is a local lockdown in place, unless they are exempt.

Strict hygiene protocols are in place and PPE has been distributed to every school to bolster their supplies for use in the unlikely event that a pupil develops covid symptoms on the premises. A small number of home-test kits are also being distributed for anyone who develops symptoms and who would not otherwise have access to testing themselves. All schools will also have access to direct support and advice from local health protection teams to deal with any cases that may occur.

Together with colleagues from the Department for Transport, we have announced an additional £40 million in funding for local transport authorities to ease pressure on public transport. We have also published guidance for local authorities to manage capacity and reduce the ​risk of infection on school transport. We have urged all students and staff to walk or cycle to school or college if this is a suitable alternative for them.

I know that these past few months have been some of the most challenging that schools, parents and, most of all, children have faced. I would like to take this opportunity to applaud all our dedicated education staff for the incredible efforts that they have made to keep children learning at this difficult time. I am confident that we have the necessary preparations in hand to ensure a successful return for all our pupils. I commend this statement to the House.