Update 9/12/2020: I have recieved the response below to my recent "Written question". Furthermore, it is good to see that the government has acknowledged that there is an education gap and, among other actions taken, will be consulting on the best way to breach it. I have written to local headteachers to ask them for their input.
For schools this is very much an unprecedented situation and I think we can all agree that there is no perfect answer to how we assess children this year.
On the one hand, our education system is reliant on exams to impart a sense of "fairness" in the academic process. Grades obtained through exams are usually the best and most universal way for schools and universities to decide on intake allocation, and in my view, the use of Teacher Assessed Grades has to be an absolute last resort.
I worked closely with local students following this year's A-levels result release - in addition to mistakes caused by clerical error and subjective disputes on grade assessments, there were many who, after our long fight to get them to their preferred university, have had to defer their year. This is due to universities being at their physical capacity - another year of Teacher Assessed Grades may just mean that fewer students with qualified grades will get access to their preferred university.
On the other hand, we cannot dismiss the obvious education disparity caused by covid. Having consulted local headteachers I know that despite our teachers' exceptional efforts to facilitate remote learning there is no denying that face-to-face learning is far better for our children. With that in mind, students in high covid prevalence areas such as ours, where children are more likely to self-isolate, would lose out more. This creates an inequality which we need to work to address. It is also important to note that these problems are not exclusive to exams - the damage caused by the lack of face-to-face teaching time will also negatively impact Teacher Assessed Grades.
This is why I have asked North Lincs Council to provide our schools with a "direct line" to public health advice. Since its implementation in September, it has helped our schools follow public health guidelines to prevent the spread of the disease, and has kept as many classes open as safely as possible.
Nationally, there are schemes such as the "Catch-up Fund" and the "National Tutoring Fund" which our schools have made use of. However, I believe that we needed a more prescriptive way of dealing with this "covid education divide" caused by some student's need to self-isolate more frequently.
In September I asked the government to look into the merits of having Teacher Assessed Grades as a “contingency” plan if exams can not go ahead as planned. Last week I brought the issue of the “covid education divide” to the government's attention by tabling a "Written Question" asking the Education Secretary to "ensure that students in high covid prevalence areas asked to self-isolate on multiple occasions will not be disadvantaged academically".
Furthermore, I have discussed this issue at length with the Education Select Committee Chair, who was able to push the Education Secretary for an answer earlier this week in which he acknowledged that there is an issue with "fairness" and that the government "will announce further measures to ensure absolute fairness in our exam system, so that young people have the best opportunity to prove themselves when they have the opportunity to take their exams."
This is, of course, an ongoing campaign and I have actively engaged with our headteachers. Many of them were broadly supportive of exams and agreed that actions have to be taken to acknowledge and address the underlying issues discussed above. They also provided extremely useful insight and perspective on what can be done to make exams fairer that I will raise in Parliament. I have since tabled another follow-up after feedback from our headteachers to ask the government to consider making further adjustments to the curriculum so that students are measured by ability rather than the ability they were able to cover before the exams.
As I have said above there is no easy answer to this issue - it is a matter for us to find the best solution for our students. We are largely in agreement in what the problem is but may have different views on what is the best solution available. What is important is that the steps that are being taken to deal with education inequality caused by covid.
As it stands, I am still inclined to believe that exams are still the best way for students to be able to move forward, and there are things that we can do to make sure that we don't have to resort to using Teacher Assessed Grades unless absolutely necessary. I will continue to push for what I believe is the best outcome for our students, and I look forward to seeing what measures the government will bring forward.