School return 'massive milestone', says Williamson

Image source, PA Media

The return of pupils to schools in England this week will be a "massive milestone", says Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

But he apologised to students for the "stress and uncertainty" of problems with A-level and GCSE results.

Mr Williamson told MPs the u-turn on results became necessary when "too many inconsistencies" appeared in grades.

Labour's Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green accused him of a "summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion".

Worried parents

This week many pupils in England and Wales are going back to school - after the long disruption caused by the pandemic outbreak, with almost all schools expected to be ready to teach pupils full time.

England's education secretary, speaking in the House of Commons, welcomed that pupils will be returning to a safe environment.

But for students caught up in the exam fiasco he said he "can only apologise to them".

Labour's Ms Green pressed him on how many students might still have missed out on a first choice at university as a result of the confusion.

Media caption,
BBC Health Correspondent Laura Foster explains what schools are doing to keep pupils safe

A survey from YouGov also suggested there were still fears about safety in school - with 17% of parents "seriously considering" not sending back their children.

The polling firm has recorded growing confidence in sending pupils back, but this latest survey, as schools prepare to reopen, suggests a hard core of unconvinced parents.

Parents were more likely to back wearing masks in school, with 47% in favour and 36% against.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, addressing the first Cabinet meeting since the summer break, said there was likely to be more of "this wretched Covid still to come" but he was "absolutely confident" that "we are going to be able to deal with those outbreaks".

The return to school has raised concerns about what will happen to next summer's A-levels and GCSEs, when so much teaching time has been lost.

Mr Williamson told MPs that exams would go ahead next summer - and there were plans being made "to ensure that this is done as smoothly as possible".

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said earlier there would soon be a decision on whether exams would start later next summer - as previously suggested.

'Tinkering at the edges'

In June, Mr Williamson told MPs that he would consult with Ofqual, England's exam regulator, on "how we can move those exams back, giving children extra time in order to be able to learn".

Ofqual has suggested that relatively few changes will need to be made to how much is taught for exams - but heads' leader Geoff Barton criticised this as "little more than tinkering at the edges".

The ASCL head teachers' union has called for a reduction in the scale of the content of exam courses to take account of the amount of teaching time that has been lost.

Media caption,
The PM says workers are going back to the office “in huge numbers”.

There have also been questions about what will happen if schools face local lockdowns - and whether there will have to be a back-up plan for teachers' predictions to be used again.

West Sussex head teacher Jules White said a month's delay for exams would only be "window dressing".

"The idea that all students, especially those who are disadvantaged, will rapidly catch up on vast amounts of subject content is naively optimistic and politicians from all sides must call for urgent and meaningful modifications to exams," said Mr White, who has organised school funding campaigns.

Labour has called for the exams, usually taken in May and June, to be pushed back to mid-summer to help cope with the impact of coronavirus.

This year's exams were dogged by chaos and left teachers, parents and pupils calling for a major rethink of next summer's exams.

Nearly 40% of A-level grades awarded to students using an algorithm were below teachers' assessments, with disadvantaged students particularly badly affected.

Days after the results were announced, and following widespread criticism, the government performed a U-turn and decided to base grades on teachers' recommendations instead.

Conservative MP Tim Loughton said the exam problems had been a "shambles" and that after such a "turbulent" summer when "things have not gone as well as they should have done", the government needed to "get control of the agenda again".

"I think a lot of people will find it surprising that we seem to have had a few heads roll who are civil servants and in charge in quangos but so far there has been no ministerial accountability and I think that is raising a few questions.

"Ministers have lost their jobs for a lot less, including education ministers," said Mr Loughton.

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