The week of chaos in England’s schools deepened on Wednesday after education secretary Gavin Williamson was unable to explain how students will be awarded exam grades this summer and threatened teachers with inspections.
The confusion came as heads around the country reported primary schools being inundated with children despite the national lockdown, and urged parents to be honestabout whether they are really key workers and need the emergency provision.
Speaking in the Commons on Wednesday, Williamson said it was “time to trust teachers, not algorithms”, and that school-based assessments would be used to award GCSE and A-level grades to avoid a repeat of last year’s exam disaster.
But in the same breath, Williamson urged parents to report teachers they thought were failing to meet the government’s new targets for three to five hours of remote learning each day, and said inspectors from Ofsted would be called in to investigate their complaints.
School leaders were left frustrated by the lack of support or detail in the statement over how to prepare staff and students for assessing A-level, GCSE and BTec grades, coming after Boris Johnson admitted schools could have to continue remote teaching beyond February.
“It is frustrating that there is not an off-the-shelf plan B ready to go. We have repeatedly called on the government and the regulator to prepare such a plan in the event of exams being cancelled, and have repeatedly offered to work with them in doing so,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
“However, ministers have been so busy insisting that exams will take place that they have failed to ensure that there is a contingency system which can be immediately rolled out. This is, frankly, a dereliction of duty.”
Schools across England yesterday reported a huge rise in demand for places for the children of key workers, with one primary in Manchester saying that the numbers attending had now risen from 30 pupils during the first lockdown in March to more than 200, out of 500 on its roll.
The increase has been partly driven by new guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) widening the expansion of “critical workers” to include university staff and other professions, while the DfE has also allowed pupils without access to digital devices or adequate study space at home to choose to attend school.
University employers in centres including Oxford, London and Nottingham have written to staff this week to highlight their children’s eligibility for school places, including among parents working from home.
Among those encouraged to attend in-person are children classed as vulnerable by the government, with school intended as an important place of safety. Alternative provision and special needs schools are also remaining open.
Williamson’s statement gave schools little hint of how they will be expected to assess grades, claiming that “the department and Ofqual had already worked up a range of contingency options”, but that “the details will need to be fine-tuned in consultation with Ofqual, the exam boards and teaching representatives”.
Government sources say one option being considered would resemble the model being used by Wales, with school assessments “informed” by the sitting of formal assessments for core subjects such as maths and English.
In Wales, the assessments are to be produced and marked externally by the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) examination board.
In answer to a question from an MP, Williamson did announce that Sats – national standardised tests taken by in years two and six at primary schools – would also be scrapped this year. That announcement caught school leaders by surprise, with some suggesting that Williamson had not intended to make it.
The crush of pupils attending school in person has deepened the difficulties faced by teachers having to also provide remote instruction for those remaining at home. Williamson again surprised the profession by revealing a new mandatory requirement for “high quality” remote teaching of up to five hours a day depending on the age of the child.
“If parents feel their child’s school is not providing suitable remote education they should first raise their concerns with the teacher or headteacher and, failing that, report the matter to Ofsted,” Williamson said.
“Ofsted will inspect schools – of any grade – where it has serious concerns about the quality of remote education being provided.”
But Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the government was still failing to provide many schools with devices such as laptops to allow disadvantaged pupils to access remote learning, despite the pandemic being in its 10th month.
“It is therefore nothing short of disgraceful that the government should choose today to start threatening schools about the quality of their remote learning offer,” Whiteman said.
“Schools are keeping going in the most extreme circumstances right now – support is needed to overcome the challenges they face, not threat or sanction.
“The profession has predicted all the difficulties the government has failed to navigate schools through. I therefore appeal again to government to work alongside the profession constructively in place of threats and empty words.
“The announcements today do nothing to redress the damage the government has caused to children’s education.”
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, accused Williamson of leaving “chaos and confusion” in his wake, but the government’s press secretary Allegra Stratton insisted that Boris Johnson continues to support Williamson.
“It’s a huge brief and the prime minister believes the education secretary is doing it to his utmost ability,” Stratton said.
Asked whether the prime minister believes Williamson is the best person for the job, she replied: “Yes.”