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Exams ‘unfair’ due to school absences over Covid-19, warns ex-minister

By Nick Lester, PA Political Staff

Exams should be ditched next year due to student absences caused by a lack of coronavirus testing, a Tory former education secretary has said.

Raising concerns over the number of pupils off school and the variation in school attendance amid the resurgent Covid-19 pandemic, Lord Baker of Dorking argued it would be “unfair” to test pupils by written papers.

Highlighting the “failure” of this year’s discredited algorithm, he urged the Government to again use teacher assessment.

The Conservative peer made his call following the fiasco around grading GCSE and A-level students this summer when exams were cancelled due to the pandemic.

Thousands of A-level students saw their results downgraded from their schools’ estimates by an algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn allowing them to use their teachers’ predictions.

The debacle led to pressure for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to resign.

Speaking at Westminster, Lord Baker said: “Algorithms were a failure this year – they will not happen next year.”

“Today, there are thousands of students – possibly even hundreds of thousands of students – who are not at school because of the lack of testing.”

He added: “There will not be a level playing field of attendance records for students, and it will not be their fault. It is therefore very unfair to test them by written exams next year, because each student will have a different level of attendance.”

“The Government should recognise that teacher assessment will be needed this year, in which case they should issue guidance to teachers now on the state of reports they will have to keep on each student, not only on attendance but on progress.”

“If written exams happen next year, the brightest children will do well and the disadvantaged will do very badly. That is simply not fair.”

Responding, Education Minister Baroness Berridge pointed to latest figures that showed nearly 88% of students in state education were in school.

She said: “The guidance published before the summer holidays made it clear to schools that by the end of this month they must be able to stand up remote education in the eventuality that pupils are sent home in these circumstances.”

“We are working with Ofqual, which is looking at the arrangements for next year’s examinations.”

Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Garden of Frognal said: “Expert advice early on identified the algorithm as flawed and particularly damaging for state school and disadvantaged pupils.

“We have been told that the Secretary of State was fully in charge of his department throughout this debacle, yet two senior officials have resigned, which is outrageous.”

“I thought that he might have fallen on his sword by now – but no.”

Lady Garden added: “So can the minister confirm that the Conservative Government, with the exception of Lord Keen, have abandoned the principles of ministerial honour and responsibility?”

This was a reference to the recent resignation of senior law officer Lord Keen over controversial plans to break international law by overriding the Brexit divorce deal.

But Lady Berridge told her Ofqual was a non-departmental body.

She said: “It is important in principle that our examinations are not subject to government interference. While the department was in contact with Ofqual during this process, the decisions made on the algorithm were Ofqual’s. That respects the appropriate relationship between a department and independent bodies such as Ofqual.”

Labour former education secretary Baroness Morris of Yardley said: “The most frustrating element of the algorithm was that it assumed that schools could not improve on previous years’ best performance.”

“That seems contrary to what any education minister should believe about the power of schools to improve and change children’s lives.”

Lady Berridge said: “Ofqual consulted on the methodology and what aspects to include in the algorithm.”

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