Williamson must take responsibility to ensure there is no ‘autumn of disaster’

Labour has called on Gavin Williamson to take responsibility for ensuring that “a summer of incompetence” over exams does not descend into an autumn of “disaster and dismay”.

Kate Green has demanded that the Education Secretary listens to the concerns of parents, education professionals and MPs as thousands of pupils return to classrooms in England and Wales.

Her comments come as the Tory chair of the education select committee and headteachers’ union leader have both called for students to be assessed in some way in the autumn in case of disruption to exams next year.

Ms Green, the shadow education secretary, said: “Children and their families should have been the government’s top priority.

“But for weeks their interests have taken a back seat while the Secretary of State U-turned on everything from CAGs (centre-assessed grades) to face masks, and left officials to take the blame.

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“He must now take responsibility for ensuring that a summer of incompetence does not descend further into an autumn of disaster and dismay.”

Her comments came after Mr Williamson apologised once again to students who suffered “a great deal of stress and uncertainty” due to “inconsistent and unfair” A-level outcomes from Ofqual’s algorithm.

The Education Secretary told MPs that the Government is determined that exams will go ahead in 2021, adding that they were working with the sector to ensure that “this is done as smoothly as possible”.

England’s exams watchdog Ofqual – which launched a consultation in July which proposed delaying the start of GCSE exams to June 7 – has not yet made a decision on the timetable for the 2021 exam series.

Schools Standards Minister Nick Gibb said on Tuesday morning that there would be a decision “very soon” on whether exams would start later next summer to allow for more teaching time.

Addressing the House of Commons, senior Tory MP Rob Halfon called for an “urgent assessment” of where pupils are at – with data collected by the Department for Education – to inform the decision on when exams should take place after millions of children have missed out during the lockdown.

Responding to the chair of the Commons Education Committee’s request, Mr Williamson said: “This is something we’re looking at and will be doing and working with a broad right across the sector to ensure there’s a clear understanding of where some of the learning gaps that children have, in order for us to best deal with it.

“It will also be absolutely vital in terms of informing policy for the coming year ahead.”

But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he was “surprised” that Mr Williamson did not provide more detail about next year’s GCSE and A-level exams.

He said: “There is still no contingency plan in the event that students are unable to sit exams next summer, or if their preparation is so disrupted that they will be at a significant disadvantage.

“This could be addressed by having some form of assessment in the autumn and spring terms on which grades could be based if students are unable to sit exams.

“However, it is vital that the government and Ofqual set out any plans at the earliest possible date so that schools, colleges, and students are able to prepare accordingly.”

Mr Williamson faced MPs as they returned to Westminster after the summer recess following a series of U-turns – including on exam results and face coverings in schools.

It comes as the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) has written to the Education Select Committee with concerns that poorer pupils are still being “overlooked” due to limited criteria for appealing over grades.

Meanwhile, a YouGov survey suggested one in six (17%) parents in England and Wales is seriously considering not sending their children to school this month over Covid-19 fears.

Approximately 40% of schools are expected to welcome back students for the start of the autumn term on Tuesday, despite concerns about their ability to reopen safely.

It will be the first time many pupils in England have stepped into a classroom since March, when schools were closed except to look after vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for secondary school teachers to be regularly tested for Covid-19 to improve parent confidence that classrooms are virus-free.

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The Commons Health Committee chairman backed a call from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson for “rapid testing” in schools.

Mr Williamson told MPs in the House of Commons that welcoming pupils back will be a “massive milestone” for schools and he ensured that pupils are returning to a “safe environment”.

He said: “I know that these past few months have been some of the most challenging that schools, parents and, most of all, children have faced.”

Mr Williamson thanked education staff for their “incredible efforts”, adding: “I’m confident we have the necessary preparations in hand to ensure a successful return for all of our pupils.”