Department for Education questioned by MPs

16th September 2020

Questions for the Department for Education took place in the House of Commons on Monday, covering a range of issues such as school finances, the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown, the awarding of exam grades, as well as questions around higher education.

The Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, reassured the House of Commons that the department was doing everything in its power to ensure schools could open safely, and that schools are able to put in place measures that will effectively reduce risks.

Nick Gibb, the Minister for School Standards, was asked to give his assessment on the examination system. In response, he said that ‘exams are the best and fairest way of judging students’ performance’, expressing his determination that exams would go ahead next year.

The scandal around the awarding of exams over summer highlighted the flaws in the examination system. Earlier during the lockdown we held a virtual roundtable with Ofqual around a decision for exams in this academic year. Exam reform at secondary and primary is now a key focus for us, which must involve far more effective communication between Ofqual, the DfE, and Government with our schools and teaching staff.

Nick Gibb was also asked by Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah about what financial support schools will receive to deal with costs incurred during the lockdown. She noted that schools in her constituency have had to alter classrooms, buy extra cleaning products, and increase cleaning rotas, all at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. Nick Gibb defended the government by pointing towards the funding increases announced last year, but noted that the priority for funding would be on catch-up.

Gavin Williamson reiterated this focus on catch-up when asked about the disadvantage gap, pointing towards the national tutoring programme. While funding to support schools in addressing the disadvantage gap are welcome, it is not yet clear how effective the government plans will be.

During our regular roundtable discussions with school leaders in the North East, it is clear that little information has been provided on how the tutoring scheme will work, and urgent clarification is also required on how Ofsted will assess how schools use catch-up funding. This lack of communication from central government is creating significant confusion and anxiety for schools. There are also concerns in the region about whether or not catch-up funding will be enough to address the learning gap, and whether or not there is capacity to support the tutoring scheme.

On top of this, the issue of funding to cover the expenses incurred as a result of the coronavirus is increasingly coming up as a matter of concern in our roundtables. The Government needs to work urgently with the sector to ensure the financial stability of all stages, from early years to further education.

It is now crucial that the Department for Education works quickly and with the education profession, to avoid repeats of the scandal around exams over the summer, to ensure schools are able to effectively prepare for what is likely to be an unusual year. This includes financial support, a decision on exams next year (for GCSEs, A Levels, and SATs), and a constructive approach from Ofsted for inspections.