Exams must take into account regional learning loss or children will have their results “decided by the fortune of their postcode”, ministers have been warned.
Academy trust leaders as well as senior local authority figures from across the country have urged the Government to recognise the fact that some pupils are far worse prepared for their GCSEs and A-levels than others due to the pandemic.
In a letter to The Telegraph, over 40 heads of academy chains in England and council education chiefs say that students from areas worst hit by Covid-19 have faced far more disruption to their schooling due to “repeated episodes of self-isolation”.
Their intervention comes as ministers prepare to announce the changes that will be made to exams next summer to address the amount of school that pupils have missed.
Earlier this week, The Telegraph revealed that students will be told in advance which topics will appear on 2021 exam papers, under plans being considered by the regulator.
The proposals would involve exam boards telling schools which subject areas will be covered in GCSE and A-level papers, meaning that teachers can prepare pupils to answer particular questions.
But in a letter to this newspaper, academy chiefs have warned that exams must also be amended to reflect disparities in pupil’s learning depending on their region.
The trusts and councils, which together teach roughly three quarters of a million secondary school children, said that pupils from the most deprived backgrounds in particular risk being subjected to a “Covid penalty”.
“However sophisticated online lessons may be, they are less effective than face-to-face teaching at school," the letter said.
“Furthermore, the disadvantaged pupils most likely to be self-isolating are the least likely to have access to the quiet learning environment, reliable technology and additional resources needed to make remote learning a success.”
They said ministers must guarantee that students are not punished for living in a part of England with high rates of coronavirus.
"Hundreds of thousands of young people risk having their results decided by the relative fortunes of their postcode," the letter said.
"Steps must be taken to ensure exam grades are issued fairly and to guarantee there will be no difference in the proportion of good grades awarded in areas blighted by Covid and those far less disrupted."
The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) has spent the past month drawing up “contingency plans” for next summer’s GCSEs and A-levels.
These are believed to include scheduling extra exams so that if students miss one due to self-isolation, they are able to take it at another time instead.
Downing Street has insisted that exams in England will go ahead next summer with a three week delay to allow for more teaching time.
Officials at the DfE have insisted that they are the “fairest way” to judge a pupil’s performance. An Ofqual spokesman said that they recognise that the loss of learning varies across the country and that this is “no doubt worrying many parents and teachers”.
They said they are “determined” to do what they can but added that it is “not at all straightforward” to address this in a fair way.
“We are working hard with the Government and with school leaders, and listening to parents and students themselves, to come up with the best possible solution,” they said.
The letter in full
Dear Sir, We write to express our growing concern about the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on young people in our schools, particularly those preparing for public examinations in 2021. Pupils in areas most ravaged by Covid-19 face significantly greater challenges than those who have avoided repeated episodes of self-isolation, and many of these are in less advantaged areas of the country. The link between poverty and infection rate is evident.
No examination can be considered fair unless it takes into account the inequality exacerbated by this pandemic. The Government’s mandating of remote education for pupils unable to attend school means school leaders must provide continuity of learning but does not bridge the gap. However sophisticated online lessons may be, they are less effective than face-to-face teaching at school; furthermore, the disadvantaged pupils most likely to be self-isolating are the least likely to have access to the quiet learning environment, reliable technology and additional resources needed to make remote learning a success.
Recognising the unique pressures on the 2021 cohort, Ofqual has reduced subject content a little but this will not level the playing-field. Catch-up provision and access to tuition are also welcome, but account has not yet been taken of inequality deepened by coronavirus in the allocation of funding.
We can’t allow those young people already disadvantaged by an educational gap caused by deprivation to have their prospects further limited by a ‘Covid penalty’.
Examinations are competitive. Grade boundaries are adjusted to ensure parity of results between years, not to compensate for factors beyond pupils’ control. Our disadvantaged pupils, solely because they are being subjected to disruption in their schooling far greater than their peers, are increasingly less likely to achieve the high grades that will pave their progression path to prestigious sixth forms, apprenticeships and universities. This matter requires urgent mitigatory action.
Ministers have been clear that examinations will take place in 2021. We agree. However, hundreds of thousands of young people risk having their results decided by the relative fortunes of their postcode. Steps must be taken to ensure exam grades are issued fairly and to guarantee there will be no difference in the proportion of good grades awarded in areas blighted by Covid and those far less disrupted.
We believe that the Government, which has expressed a commitment to levelling-up, will take this differential loss of learning into account. For the sake of children, their families and their teachers, this confirmation is needed soon. Otherwise there will be another summer of huge upset and the futures of thousands of young people from our most vulnerable communities will be unfairly damaged.
Cathy Anwar, Chief Executive, Summit Learning Trust
Peter Ashworth, Chief Executive, Cidari Multi Academy Trust
Lynne Blomley, Chair of Lancashire Association of Secondary School Headteachers
Diane Booth, Director of Children’s Services, Blackpool Council
Tim Boyes, Chief Executive, Birmingham Education Partnership
Jon Chaloner, Chief Executive, GLF Schools
Stephen Chamberlain, Chief Executive, Active Learning Trust
Debbie Clinton, Chief Executive, Academy Transformation Trust
Tim Coulson, Chief Executive, Unity Schools Partnership Carol Dewhurst OBE, Chief Executive, Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust (BDAT)
Mark Douglas, Strategic Director of Children’s Services, Bradford Council
Julian Drinkall, Chief Executive, Academies Enterprise Trust
Anita Ghidotti, Chief Executive, Pendle Education Trust
Richard Gill CBE, Chief Executive, Arthur Terry Learning Partnership
Nitesh Gor, Chief Executive, Avanti Schools Trust
Lesley Gwinnett, Chief Executive, Endeavour Learning Trust
Sajid Gulzar, Chief Executive, Prince Albert Community Trust (PACT)
Rowena Hackwood, Chief Executive, Astrea Academy Trust
Nick Hudson, Chief Executive, Ormiston Academies Trust
Antony Hughes, Chief Executive, The Harmony Trust
Lorrayne Hughes, Chief Executive, Cumbria Education Trust
Mubaaruck Ibrahim, Chief Executive, Feversham Education Trust
Jayne Ivory, Director of Children’s Services, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council
Rob McDonough, Chief Executive, East Midlands Education Trust
Amanda Melton, Principal and Chief Executive, Nelson and Colne College
John Murphy, Chief Executive, Oasis Community Learning
Martyn Oliver, Chief Executive, Outwood Grange Academies Trust
Helen O’Neil, Chief Executive, Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust
Adrian Packer CBE, Chief Executive, CORE Education Trust
Hamid Patel CBE, Chief Executive, Star Academies
Sharon Roscoe, Chief Executive, Education Partnership Trust Paul Smith, Chief Executive, Future Academies
Dr John Stephens CBE, Chief Executive, Bright Futures Educational Trust
Neil Strowger, Chief Executive, Bohunt Education Trust Rob Tarn, Chief Executive, Northern Education Trust
Stephen Tierney, Chair, Headteacher’s Roundtable
Sir John Townsley, Chief Executive, The GORSE Academies Trust
Chris Tomlinson, Chief Executive, Co-op Academies Trust
Sir Nick Weller, Chief Executive, Dixons Academies Trust
Paula Worthington, Director of Education, Warrington Borough Council
Adrian Ball, Chief Executive, Diocese of Ely Multi Academy Trust (DEMAT)