Robin Walker – 2022 Speech on Educational Assessments

The speech made by Robin Walker, the Minister for School Standards, in the House of Commons on 17 March 2022.

I genuinely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) on securing this debate and on the enthusiasm with which she has put her case. She has written extensively about examinations and assessment and she is a passionate advocate for children and young people.

There is a great deal on which we can agree, such as understanding the importance of young people’s mental health, the importance of skills as well as academic rigour in the system, and the importance of balancing opportunities across vocational and academic routes. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we do not want schools to be teaching to the test and that we want pupils to be engaged in activities as well as learning from which they can benefit.

I fear that we are fated to disagree, however, on exams and assessment reform. We stood on a manifesto that promised to ensure that

“every pupil gets the qualifications they need for a prosperous future, while learning in an environment where they will be…fulfilled.”

It is vital to me that qualifications align with our broader vision for education. The Government are clear that young people should be able to access a broad and balanced academically focused curriculum up until the age of 16. We believe that pupils should be introduced to the best that has been thought and said to familiarise them with the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens and to ensure that as many children as possible can lay claim to a rich intellectual inheritance.

Key to that, of course, is ensuring that they have the numeracy and literacy skills to access that broad and balanced curriculum by the time they finish primary school. GCSEs provide the basis for an academically focused curriculum from 14 to 16 and it is our ambition that, by 2025, 90% of pupils will sit a core set of academic GCSEs known as the EBacc.

We have taken steps to ensure that pupils have the opportunity to study high-quality vocational and technical qualifications alongside that core from 14 to 16. We have improved the quality of non-GCSE qualifications at key stage 4 by introducing a new approvals process for technical awards. Only those that meet our stretching requirements and are reviewed by Ofqual will be recognised in key stage 4 performance tables alongside academic qualifications.

With that broad grounding, all students, regardless of background, are prepared to fulfil their aspirations post 16. Pupils can specialise by choosing from a range of high-quality academic and technical qualifications and routes that then become open to them. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the academic route is not the only path to success, which is why it is important that a range of assessment types and pathways is available, drawn from our rigorous and evidence-informed blend of qualifications, to ensure that all students can achieve their full potential.

Alongside A-levels, we have introduced T-levels. Our 10 new T-levels are being taught, including digital, construction, education and childcare, and healthcare science. More than 20 will be available from 2023 and they give students a clear path from their studies to their chosen career. We are also streamlining and improving the quality of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below.

Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

The Minister is both diligent and thoughtful about these matters. The key thing is that many people’s tastes and talents take them down a practical route, yet we are still labouring under the illusion that the only way to gain accomplishment comes through academic prowess. The simple fact of the matter is that, as he suggested, we need to recognise that fewer people should be studying those degrees that confer neither intellectual rigour nor economic value. People should be studying practical, vocational, technical subjects for their own benefit and fulfilment and for the national interest.

Mr Walker

I do not disagree at all with my right hon. Friend, and he will see that some of the work our right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher and Further Education is doing with the university sector is about recognising precisely that, but I do not think that is an argument for removing GCSEs at the age of 16; it is an argument for ensuring that those vocational routes are available.

As we all know, the past two summers have seen unprecedented disruption to the familiar routine of exams and assessments. Teachers and school and college leaders across the country have coped amazingly well with the pandemic and with its associated disruption to exams—and I want to take this opportunity to again thank them from the Dispatch Box for their herculean efforts—but we know that exams are the best and fairest way of judging students’ performance.

Exams provide a shared understanding of what students know and can do—an even playing field with everyone being assessed on the same thing at the same time, independently. We know that exams and the preparation leading up to them can be motivating and lead to improved learning. Beyond that, exams provide students with an objective and accurate gauge of their progress and understanding of subject matter, which can inform their choices about where to go on to next. Exams are the most objective measure, which is why non-examined assessment and coursework is used only where knowledge, skills and understanding cannot be tested validly by an exam. Examples of this would include coursework in GCSE and A-level art and design. For all those reasons we are committed to exams continuing to play a crucial role in our education system, and we are firmly committed to their reintroduction this summer as we emerge from the effects of the pandemic.

Over the course of the last 10 years our reforms to secondary and further education qualifications have created a gold-standard exam system that is respected around the world. Our qualifications exports in 2018 were worth £3.3 billion to the UK economy; this points to a model of success of which we should rightly be proud.

My predecessors in the Department reformed and strengthened GCSEs from 2013 to address concerns from higher and further education institutions and employers that the previous qualification did not adequately prepare young people for the demands of the workplace and higher studies—points my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley made. Our reformed GCSEs rigorously assess knowledge acquired by pupils in key stage 4 and are in line with expected standards in countries with the highest-performing education systems.

Our reforms strengthened GCSEs in a number of ways. Qualifications became linear, with exams sat at the end of a two-year course so that less time is spent preparing for modules and resits and more time is spent on teaching and learning. My hon. Friend raised the point about teaching for tests. I have frequently discussed that with Ofsted, which takes it very seriously; its new inspection framework encourages schools to keep a focus on the breadth of curriculum, particularly at key stage 3 and earlier, and discourages teaching to the test.

Ofqual was formally established as the new independent regulator in 2010, with a statutory responsibility to maintain standards. It put in place robust arrangements to maintain standards, which led to year-on-year stability in grades over a long period. Ofqual also introduced a new grading scale, from 9 to 1, with 9 the highest and 1 the lowest grade, in place of A* to G, to signal that the standard of qualifications had changed and to allow greater differentiation of performance at the top end. In 2017 Ofqual also introduced a national reference test to capture improvements in attainment in English and maths so that these could be reflected in grading.

GCSEs serve a critical function as a measure of attainment and a vehicle for progression, and they do so because they are recognised and trusted. They have strong public recognition, with support from 75% of those surveyed as part of Ofqual’s most recent public perceptions and confidence study. That trust stems from a long history in this country of assessment at age 16, which has existed since at least 1918 when the school certificate was introduced, through to the introduction of O-levels in 1951, CSEs in 1965 and GCSEs in 1988.

Mrs Drummond

That was fine when young people were leaving at 16 because they needed some qualifications to take into the workplace, but we are now expecting all young people to stay in education or training until 18, so does it not make more sense to shift that exam at 16 to 18?

Mr Walker

That training can of course include the workplace, such as through apprenticeships and the vocational route, so I have to disagree fundamentally. It is important that young people have those opportunities to continue studying in school or, for those who are not suited to school, to go on to a vocational route to pursue further study and development of their careers in the workplace.

We know that half of students change institution at the age of 16, and it is because they have a shared and recognised qualification that they can transition easily post-16. GCSEs equip students to move directly into employment or apprenticeships at that age with a qualification in hand. GCSEs are long-standing, credible and well respected. At the same time, as I mentioned, we have worked with higher education providers and employers to reform A-levels to ensure that they better meet the needs of higher education. That includes decoupling the AS-level to reduce the assessment burden and enable A-level students to spend more time learning and developing their depth of understanding of subjects. Reformed GCSEs support reformed A-levels, and reformed A-levels support higher graduation rates in three-year degrees from our internationally recognised universities, with four British universities currently in the top 10 globally and 17 in the top 100.

I turn to vocational and technical qualifications, which we all recognise are important. From our reforms to the way in which grades have been awarded in the context of the covid-19 pandemic, we have sought to ensure parity between those receiving vocational and technical qualifications and those receiving GCSEs and AS and A-levels. As I mentioned, the new T-levels have been developed in collaboration with employers so that students can get the specific training, knowledge and skills required for their chosen career. Not only that: they include a nine-week high quality placement in a relevant industry, giving students first-hand experience of work during their studies.

Alongside the introduction of our T-levels, we are streamlining and strengthening the quality of all other post-16 qualifications at level 3, making the system easier to navigate and more responsive to employers’ needs. The changes that we are making will give students a clear route map to the high-quality technical and academic choices available—choices that they can trust to lead to rewarding careers.

My hon. Friend mentioned the role of UTCs. The Government are committed to providing young people with technical skills and knowledge to progress into further and higher education, apprenticeships and employment. Indeed, strong university technical colleges such as the outstanding UTC in Portsmouth to which she referred are succeeding in equipping their students with those vital skills.

I turn to the immediate arrangements for qualifications. We recognise that students taking exams this year will have experienced disruption caused by the covid pandemic, so we have rightly worked closely with Ofqual to put in place a package of measures to recognise that. The measures will include unprecedented support to ensure that students can fairly demonstrate what they know and can do. They offer the right balance to account for the disruption students faced while providing students, teachers, schools and colleges with the consistency and independence of assessment and familiarity that exams deliver. The package of measures this year includes advance information on the focus of exams in most subjects for GCSE and AS and A-level students; a choice of topic or content in some GCSE exams where advance information is not provided; exam aids for use during some GCSE exams; and a range of adaptations for students taking vocational and technical qualifications depending on the purpose of the qualification.

In balancing public confidence in qualifications with fairness, Ofqual has also confirmed that 2022 will be a transition year to reflect the fact that we are in a pandemic recovery period and that students’ education has been disrupted. In 2022, the aim will be for grades to reflect a midway point between 2021 and 2019, with national results likely to be higher than pre-pandemic levels, providing a safety net for those of this year’s students who might otherwise have missed out on a grade. We are confident that those measures, alongside the direct investment of nearly £5 billion in education recovery, provide a pathway for a successful return to normal exams and assessments in the academic year 2022-23.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the importance of mental health. Exams and other assessments are an essential part of ensuring that young people have acquired the knowledge and skills that they need to study. The Government are clear that education providers should encourage pupils and students to work hard, but not at the expense of their wellbeing. I recognise that exams, like other things in life including job interviews, moving house or having a first child, are by their nature stressful, but when pupils receive the right support, many find the level of stress from exams manageable—and actually a certain level of stress can be a motivating factor. Schools and colleges should be able to identify signs of exam-related stress whenever they emerge and be in a position to respond appropriately.

Research shows that there is a clear difference between exam stress, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and anxiety, which is a cause for concern. Clearly, we do not want young people to be in a situation where pressure tips over into mental health problems. That is why we have provided schools with a wide range of training and resources to help them support pupils and students’ wellbeing. Our recent £15 million wellbeing for education recovery and wellbeing for education return programmes have provided free expert training, support and resources for education staff, helping to promote and support the wellbeing and mental health of pupils and students as they recover from the impacts of the covid pandemic. Ofqual has also issued guidance on coping with exam pressure. The information provides some techniques that students can use to help to alleviate or lessen anxiety they might have about exams, and it can be accessed through Ofqual’s website.

My hon. Friend mentioned primary assessments. We think it is vital that primary assessments go forward this year, not least because we want to ensure that that data is available to look at the impact on learning from the pandemic and that we can work across the system. However, I can confirm to her that we will not be publishing comparative data between schools this year, which I know has been a concern for the sector. Recognising that school tests and assessments will be returning for the first time since 2019 without the adaptations we have in secondary, the results will not be published in league tables.

Mrs Drummond

If that is successful, will the Minister continue it in future years? One of the problems that make the stakes high is that schools are put in league tables. That is why they are teaching to the test, because, obviously, they want to appear higher up in the league tables. If it is a success this year, will it be carried on so that we do not have league tables anymore?

Mr Walker

The specific measures we are taking this year are in recognition of the pressures the sector has faced. We will, of course, review their impact as we go forward.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to debate this very important issue this evening. I must be clear that there are no plans for new wholesale reform of GCSEs and A-levels, which are internationally respected and enjoy high levels of public support. I am proud of the strides that this Government and previous Governments have taken to boost the quality of our technical and vocational qualifications. Our reforms since 2010 have already made a lasting improvement to qualifications, ensuring that they reflect the knowledge and skills pupils need to progress. Our GCSE and A-level reforms were substantial and designed to last, but some of the reforms to qualifications were quite new when the pandemic started. I am determined to continue the great work of my predecessors and embed them into our system. I am also acutely aware that schools, colleges and our brilliant teachers will benefit from a period of stability as we recover from the effects of the pandemic.

As we gear up for the return of exams this summer, I will close with a reflection on what that will mean for students across the country who are preparing for them. For the first time in two years, students in my constituency of Worcester, as well as in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Meon Valley and along with those up and down the country, will have the chance to demonstrate what they have learned through public exams. I am pleased that through their hard work and the hard work of their teachers, they will have the opportunity to secure the valuable qualifications they need to progress to the next stage of their careers.