Speech to School Exams Digital Conference

Wes Streeting MP

Shadow Schools Minister

Tuesday 23rd March 2021


Good morning and thanks for having me along.

I’ve been asked to talk to you about the COVID-19 recovery in schools. Given the focus of today’s conference is on exams, I’ll start with talking about the immediate challenges for exams – this year and next, say something about the wider debate on assessment, and then conclude by talking a bit more broadly about what an education and wellbeing-led recovery should look like for children and young people.

On assessment, there are two urgent and immediate challenges: the first is to ensure that pupils receive grades this year that provide a true and accurate reflection of their abilities.

Secondly, the Government needs to urgently set out how it intends to roll out exams next year and learn the right lessons from its disastrous handling of exams over the last 12 months.

‘EXAMS’ 2021

With just days to go until the Easter holiday begins schools are yet to receive the JCQ guidance on assessment materials and grade descriptors.

This is adding to the anxiety facing pupils and the pressure on their teachers.

We do know that Ofqual intends to publish assessment materials online after the Easter holidays, based on past papers and unpublished questions.

Although use of these materials is optional, it does raise serious concerns that those from more privileged backgrounds will have an added advantage over pupils from less well-off backgrounds.

As Stuart Lock, the Chief Executive of Advantage Schools has said:

“If you wanted to design a system that benefits those who already have advantages from birth, you’d start by cancelling exams and end by showing candidates the assessments they will take.”

Then there’s the concern about the potential pressure that we risk inflicting on teachers and headteachers as a result of the appeals system outlined in the guidance from Ofqual. It says:

“To reduce the number of errors made and, in turn the volume of appeals, centres will be expected to tell their students the evidence on which their grades will be based, before the grades are submitted to exam boards. This will allow issues associated with, for example, absence, illness or reasonable adjustments to be identified and resolved before grades are submitted.”

Of course it’s absolutely right that students must understand the basis on which they are being judged. It is also absolutely right that mitigating factors ought to be taken into account, and in a transparent way.

However, head teachers are concerned that pupils or pushy parents with sharp elbows, citing the line in the guidance about ‘reasonable adjustments’ will believe they can enter into negotiations with teachers and headteachers to demand different grades from the ones the teacher has judged to be right.

That puts schools in a really invidious position as I warned the Schools Minister Nick Gibb in Parliament last week.

And while Ofqual’s Chair Ian Bauckham told ASCL’s conference last week that:

“It would […]be quite wrong and fundamentally unfair both for teachers and students for these decisions to be subject to pressure or interference from those with a vested interest”

Simon Lebus, the acting chief regulator, told the Education Select Committee earlier this month, that the guidance allows for an “opportunity for a student to say if they think that the evidence that has been used does not accurately reflect the best of their ability”.

All of this sounds like a lot more pressure on schools and too little attention given to how we ensure that assessments do not put those from disadvantaged backgrounds at an even greater disadvantage, how assessment decisions will be quality assured, and how appeals will be managed.

EXAMS 2022

It didn’t have to be this way. Last year we warned the Government to plan for two scenarios: one in which exams could go ahead and one in which they could not.

By Christmas, we warned the Government lacked a credible Plan A and didn’t seem to be doing any work on a Plan B.

And so it came to pass. Exams were cancelled in January, with no idea about what would replace them.

We even had the shambles of schools and colleges going into lockdown with students and staff left uncertain as to whether their BTECs would be going ahead within the same week.

I’m afraid this pattern of last-minute decision-making has been a feature of Gavin Williamson’s ‘leadership’ at the Department for Education.

The Government’s grading algorithm was an unmitigated disaster. About 40% of teacher A-level predictions in England were downgraded by the algorithm. Pupils from working-class backgrounds were more likely to have seen a bigger downward adjustment from the algorithm than those from more affluent backgrounds, and the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and those who were not got significantly higher in terms of the number of A grades received.

Alternatives to the algorithm were put in place at the very last minute and a so-called ‘triple lock’ announced before Ofqual had signed it off.

Indeed, Ofqual was told about the plan only on 11 August, two days before results day.

Only after several days of chaos and outcry did the Education Secretary relent and revert to using unstandardised centre assessed grades.

We can’t have a repeat of the shambles we’ve experienced in 2020 and 2021.

We already have students on GCSE, A-level and BTEC courses expecting to sit exams in 2022.

Looking at the Department’s own data, we estimated that year 10 pupils have missed one in eight days of GCSE teaching.

The situation may not be quite so severe at A-level because we always expect there to be a greater degree of independent learning, but none the less there will be some degree of learning loss, and we know that the challenges faced by students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds will be greater.

There is simply no good reason why DfE and Ofqual should not be able to tell those students what exams in 2022 will look like.

Indeed, Simon Lebus, told the Commons’ Education Committee last week:

“So far as 2022 is concerned, the thinking at the moment is about adaptations along the line that had originally been contemplated for this year, when exams were still to go ahead.”

Furthermore, Nick Gibb has said:

“We are working now on what decisions we will take for 2022, because we know there has been disruption, but we will have more to say on that later in the year.”

I am afraid that “later in the year” is really not good enough. It is inexplicable—the choices available to exam boards and Ministers about mitigations and adjustments to exams are well known and were debated and discussed ahead of exams potentially taking place in 2021.

Why are these decisions not ready to go? Why are we not providing clarity and certainty to schools, teachers and students?

So we’re keeping the pressure on the Government to set out their 2022 plans urgently to give pupils, parents and teachers the clarity and certainty they’re crying out for.


Our experience over the past 12 months should serve as a gentle warning to those who regularly make demands for a whole series of exams to be scrapped that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. But assessment goes hand-in-hand with curriculum and accountability.

Done badly, reforms that centre on assessment can create a whole series of unintended consequences.

We’ve already seen how the introduction of the English baccalaureate has led to a serious decline in non-EBacc subjects.

And the abolition of SATS at Key Stage 3 without replacement has seen many schools put pupils on to GCSE programmes in year 9.

Far from promoting a broad and balanced curriculum, these reforms have pulled in the opposite direction, with curriculum breadth squeezed into years 7 and 8, before narrowing into the EBacc strait-jacket from years 9 to 11.

Similarly for all the claims about pupils in England being the most over-examined in the world – a claim that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny – we have a five year gap between SATs at age 11 to GCSEs at 16. As Ofsted has noted, head teachers acknowledge that when staffing classes, they prioritise key stage 4 and key stage 5 above key stage 3, for fairly obvious reasons.

So when I’m asked if Labour will scrap GCSEs or abolish SATs, it isn’t that we’re disinterested in the case for reform.

Indeed, it’s hard to ignore the architect of GCSEs – Lord Baker – calling for their demise.

And we also know that we could grab some headlines with big bang changes to the system.

But as a Party that seeks to govern – and to govern well – we have to think through the consequences of reform in a way that, with the greatest respect, someone writing a though-provoking oped in a newspaper doesn’t have to.

That’s why Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, and I have been meeting a wide range of experts on curriculum, assessment and accountability since we were appointed to our respective posts.

We’re keen to listen and to receive advice.

And you can expect us to offer the country a lot better than the status quo offered by the present Government.

But you can also expect, and actually ought to demand of politicians, ideas that have been thought through and focused on our guiding mission, which is to raise standards across the board and to re-write the story of educational disadvantage in our country.


This brings me on the final section of my remarks, about the kind of recovery we should look to build in the aftermath of covid-19.

We owe it to this generation of children and young people to make sure that the story of this pandemic isn’t one of lasting damage, disappointment or missed opportunities – and to make sure that they’re not written off simply as ‘generation covid’.

That’s why, as pupils returned to school following the latest period of lockdown, the focus of political debate has shifted towards ‘catch up’.

The exam question being: ‘what do we need to do to undo the damage of the last twelve months?’.

But the challenge we face is so much bigger than that.

Because for all the understandable concern about the impact of the pandemic on young people, we went into this pandemic with:

  • rising child poverty
  • progress to close the attainment gap stalling, in some cases even widening
  • and school funding lower in real terms today than it was when Labour left office more than a decade ago.

Indeed, the Education Policy Institute, in their annual report last year, estimated that on the basis of the previous five-year trend it would take 500 years to close the attainment gap.

500 years.

Almost as much time as has passed since England last did Brexit when Henry VIII broke from the Church of Rome.

That’s why Labour has launched our Bright Future Taskforce, to look, not only about how we can have an education and wellbeing-led recovery from covid-19, but most importantly at how we close the attainment gap that’s holding Britain back.

We have to recognise that kids don’t leave their problems at the school gate when they arrive in the morning and so much of what happens within school is determined by what’s going on at home.

It is no coincidence that progress to close the attainment gap has stalled as child poverty has risen.

They are inextricably linked.

If we want schools to get the very best out of our children, we need to attack the poverty that holds them back.

We also need to focus on what really gets the best out of young people within the school gates: high quality, expert teaching, supported by strong, expert leadership.

Amidst all the talk of longer school days and shorter school holidays, the Government hasn’t been talking about the thing that matters most: teaching.

In fact, over the course of the last decade class sizes have risen.

You’ll probably have seen the criticism of the National Tutoring Programme last week from the National Audit Office about the insufficient focus it has on the most disadvantaged. But even when they’re fully rolled out, the numbers reached by the National Tutoring Programme and academic mentors would still reach barely half of all kids on free school meals, let alone the many more that would benefit from additional support.

All the evidence shows that, if we want to make the most difference to children’s life chances and opportunities, and close the attainment gap, investing in teaching, more teaching, and high-quality teaching is the best way to do it.

That means recruiting the very best teachers we can, investing in their ongoing professional development, and empowering them as professionals to drive school improvement.

We should be trying to attract the very best, experienced, teachers, support staff and school leaders into schools serving the most disadvantaged communities and we should also be working to recruit and develop home grown talent within those communities.

And because we know that strong, expert leadership makes such a difference, developing emerging leaders and supporting existing school leaders should be a priority, too.

We’re up for fresh thinking about the curriculum, assessment and accountability, but we mustn’t lose sight of what it’s all about.

As one head teacher put it to me recently:

“By fronting the concern on assessment, we duck the scale of present injustice. Too many of our children and specifically the most disadvantaged are ill-served by their daily classroom experience. Not by that single final day in an exam hall.”

That’s where our focus should be.

That’s where Labour’s focus is.


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