Exams are on, but we still need to recognise the time children have lost from school

No matter how little they relish taking exams, teenagers will welcome the clarity in today’s announcement that exams are going to happen next summer. Children have told me that’s the first thing they want – to know for sure what’s going to happen. It should also put a stop to the ferocious testing and assessment some schools have been subjecting their students to, which should now be irrelevant to most students’ eventual grades.

The plea for clarity is followed by children’s second demand: for flexibility and a recognition of the amount of school time that they’ve missed, the impossibility of catching up on all their missed work in time for the summer. This is what the Government needs to be focusing on now. It has left open the critical question of how to recognise in results the differential experiences of children at school this year. We know that some have had an almost full curriculum throughout Covid – especially in the private sector – while others have had virtually nothing. Even today, with more schools gearing up for online teaching, some children are being sent home to self-isolate with just a set of slides to look through on their own, and no teacher available to answer questions. That’s not ‘remote learning’. I welcome the greater specificity from the Government today about what remote learning ought to look like.

The local and regional disparities in learning loss are too big to ignore. In high-Covid areas, many schools are already running rotas: one week on, one week off. Last month, the director of children’s services (DCS) in one of these areas said to me: “When they [the pupils] fetch up for their exams they will have had half the face-to-face teaching time. When that’s moderated nationally our kids are going to tank.” Then there are the social effects of Covid. The same DCS also said it had been “like the 19th century”: thousands of food parcels being handed out, families being pushed over the edge, child protection registrations on the increase and an uptick in serious injuries and deaths from abuse of babies. Some kids have lost multiple members of their close family. These children may also be facing exams next summer; imagine that.

This is a generational threat to children that we haven’t seen since the war. And there will be no easy solution. Within regions, within local areas, and even within schools, children have had such hugely varying experiences. One child in isolation goes home to a warm house, a mother, a quiet room, a desk and a laptop; another to an empty home without an internet connection. You try following a class on a mobile phone with patchy signal. Some children have not returned to school at all since the spring. Teachers are afraid for some of them; they’ve just disappeared from sight.

The impact of missed education during Covid will affect some children sitting exams for years to come. Benchmarking 2021 results against the 2020 results will still leave a chasm between those who barely missed a class and those who have been severely punished by Covid. While adjustments for differential learning loss are still on the table, whatever recommendation the expert advisory group comes up with is only ever going to be imperfect and could be the subject of intense wrangling between ministers, educationalists and school leaders in the months to come. Sadly, I’ve been hearing more from government about the needs of systems and bureaucracies rather than the needs of children; and an alarming level of mistrust between government, schools and local authorities. Children’s interests get lost when communication and confidence between officials, ministers, exam boards and schools collapses.

My plea to them, on behalf of England’s children is this: put children first, agree something quietly, decide sooner rather than later, and move on. Allow for maximum flexibility and generosity, make sure as much support as possible is available and that the children who have missed more learning get more help, then rigorously monitor the outcomes for fairness. My office is exploring with other organisations how we can monitor the impact of the systems put in place for this year’s exams, next year’s, and the year after, to ensure that their effects on children are fair. We need to monitor rates of progression from school to college or sixth form; and on to university, training and apprenticeships – not just by socioeconomic status, but also by region, local authority and even by school. Where progress was being made in opening up higher education to disadvantaged groups, this must not be allowed to stall for want of a grade or two.
Perhaps we will need a national appeal system for children who believe the disadvantage they faced under Covid has prevented them progressing in education.

The stress about exams caused one fed-up Year 11 girl to tell her mum the other day: “I just want to leave.” Her mum was the director of education for the local area. If that’s how helpless that child felt, what chance do others have? We need to work together to make sure this isn’t the story for thousands and thousands of teenagers in the next two years.

Anne Longfield Children’s Commissioner for England

3rd December 2020

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