Gavin Williamson has promised that a system for teachers to decide exam grades in England this year will be “fair to every student”, but faced challenges from Labour over delays in announcing the plan and how assessments could be made consistent.
The education secretary also faced opposition concern over how schools in England will fully reopen from 8 March, with Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, saying he had not presented a “credible plan” for this to work.
Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons education committee, also expressed concern about the exams system, saying it risked creating a “wild west of grading” and permanent grade inflation.
Williamson was updating MPs in the Commons after the overnight announcement of a system that will replace exams for A-level, GCSE and vocational qualifications, with teachers taking the lead.
“The most important thing that we can do is to make sure the system is fair to every student,” said Williamson, who presided over chaos last summer after an initial algorithm-based grade assessment system was scrapped amid mass disquiet.
“It is vital they have confidence that they will get a grade that is a true and just reflection of their work. This year’s students will receive grades determined by their teachers, with assessments covering what they were taught, and not what they have missed,” he said.
There would be, Williamson added, a fair appeals system: “I can confirm that no algorithm will be used for this process. Grades will be awarded on the basis of teachers’ judgment and will only ever be changed by human intervention.”
He also outlined plans to mitigate infection risks with the reopening of schools, including home testing for older students, and masks worn in secondary schools and colleges until Easter, as well as longer-term support to make up for lost learning.
“All our children and young people have paid a considerable price for the disruption of the past year. It knocked their learning off track, it has put their friendships to one side, and it has put some of the wonder of growing up on hold,” Williamson said.
“This summer’s assessments will ensure fair routes to the next stages of education, or the start of their career.”
But Green questioned both the timing of the assessment announcement, and how it would work.
“This year’s exams were cancelled 52 days ago,” she said. “For seven weeks pupils, parents and staff have faced damaging and utterly unnecessary uncertainty.”
Saying the cause of last year’s turmoil over exams “was not an algorithm, it was his incompetence”, Green expressed concern that a lack of common evidence over exam grades would make overall fairness extremely difficult.
She said: “How will he make grades fair and consistent between and across schools? If the answer is teacher training, why has he not used the last seven weeks to provide it?”
Halfon called for Williamson to set out a plan to make sure the exams system did not create inflated grades, which would be effectively meaningless for employers.
He said: “Whilst I accept that this the least-worst option that the government has come up with, my concern is not so much about having one’s cake and eating it as baking a rock cake of grade inflation into the system.”
On the reopening of schools, Green called for other measures to make them safer, such as teaching via rotas and improved guidance on better ventilation in classrooms.
“It is not enough simply to say that schools will reopen,” she said. “There must be a credible plan that will not only enable schools to open in March, but will keep them open. The secretary of state has failed to use the period when most pupils were not in school to put the necessary measures in place.”