From time to time we publish interesting debates in the house of parliament that is relevant to exams and assessments.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for
requesting this important debate, and I pay tribute to her brave young constituent, Lara, whose battle against cancer inspired it. I think I speak for all hon. Members in saying that our thoughts are with her, and we wish her all the best.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne spoke with passion and empathy about her constituent’s experience, the longer-term implications of the current arrangements, and her constituents’ tireless efforts to bring these issues to this place via the petition and campaign. Of course, Lara is not alone, and I am therefore grateful to the hon. Member for raising these issues with Ofqual, too. No one wants young people to be discriminated against or overlooked, so I thank her for securing today’s debate. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) made a number of helpful points with regard to her constituent’s experiences of cancer. As ever, I thank her for her insight and contribution.
As Members have outlined, the Joint Council for Qualifications sets out rules and guidance for exam boards across the UK on access arrangements, reasonable adjustments and what is known as “special consideration”. The JCQ special consideration guidance says that for enhanced grading in “acceptable absences”, 25% of the total assessment must have been completed. Where special consideration cannot be used, a candidate may be awarded a certificate of recognition, but as we have heard today, this is not a qualification certificate.
At its heart, this is a debate about the need for us to provide an inclusive education system—a system that is fair for all, that does not allow any child to slip through the cracks or be treated unfairly, and that gives every child the opportunity to demonstrate what they are capable of and to succeed. That is particularly important for the most vulnerable children in our country, who too often get forgotten. This has become even more significant in the light of the fact that so many children have lived through so many different challenges in recent years. Evidence shows that children and young people have suffered greatly as a result of the pandemic. The surge in mental health conditions among children is unprecedented, and there have been sharper increases for children than for adults. Paediatric services have not been protected from the growth in waiting lists for hospital care. Vulnerable children, such as those with special educational needs and disabilities, are particularly affected. It is essential that our education system be set up to support the most vulnerable children, and to ensure that the safety net is ready to catch every child in every school in every corner of the country, should they need it.
That is why it was vital to invest in education recovery following the pandemic, to ensure that all young people, particularly the most vulnerable, were given the opportunity to catch up on the learning they had missed. Unfortunately, however, the Government ignored the advice of their own education catch-up tsar; the now Prime Minister said that the Government had “maxed out” on supporting children’s learning. We are only now beginning to see the impact of that decision.
As we have heard, during the pandemic, we saw the use of centre-assessed grades across the country. Although centre-assessed grades work much better for most students than the Government’s botched algorithm chaos, which caused distress for so many young people and their parents, we should note that centre-assessed grades
were not without issues. Teachers worked incredibly hard to produce grades at late notice, but the Government failed to set a level playing field. There was variation between centres, variation in assessment, variation in awarding, and variation in internal appeals processes. Private school grades soared, then fell sharply last year. University College London’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities and the London School of Economics found that pupils without graduate parents were disadvantaged by the centre-assessed grades approach, so serious questions were raised about the lack of moderation that permitted such variation to flourish. Ofqual may be the regulator in this area, but the buck stops with the Government. If we are to consider embedding centre-assessed grades for any students, those issues need to be addressed.
As with all types of assessment, it is essential that the results produced by centre-assessed grades are fair and consistent across the board. On a broader level, it is clear from the stories we have heard today that a degree of flexibility is needed in our assessment system to support children in extremely vulnerable situations. Allowances are made for pupils in exceptional circumstances, but as we have heard, more could be done to make the guidance clearer and more accessible. There are too many examples of vulnerable young children not being aware of the support they need, and being penalised as a result. Also, exam boards must be reachable by those who require assistance, and must be flexible where possible. Schools must ensure that they provide the best possible support and advice for children in severe need.
In his response, I hope the Minister will outline what his Department is doing to ensure that guidance to exam boards, schools, parents and pupils on the options available is as clear as possible on alternative assessment options in exceptional circumstances. I finish by restating my thanks to the hon. Member for Eastbourne for starting this important conversation, and I look forward to hearing updates on her campaign.