Coronavirus: Williamson pledges exams will be 'fair' for pupils

The government is “doing everything to make sure” this summer’s exams are fair for pupils and their efforts are “fairly rewarded” amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gavin Williamson has said.

Addressing the ASCL union conference this morning, the education secretary said concerns about exams were “only to be expected, especially when so much hard work has gone into them”.

It comes after Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, called for clarification on what was being ruled out in terms of the summer exam series.

The prime minister announced yesterday that schools will not be closed en-masse at this stage, but a delay to closures has prompted questions about how exams, due to begin in May, will function.

“I want to reassure you that we are doing everything to make sure that this year’s exams are fair for students, and that their efforts will be fairly rewarded,” Williamson said.

“My department is in regular discussions with Ofqual, ASCL, schools and other unions, and we will continue to work together on these issues. We will ensure students, parents and teachers are kept up to date.”

Williamson said that “in the overwhelming majority of situations, there is absolutely no need to close a school or send pupils or staff home”.

Government medical and science experts have warned that closing schools at this stage could do more harm than good, and there are concerns about the impact closures will have on emergency service workers with children.

Williamson said today that he was “particularly mindful of the strain on public services like the NHS that would be caused by key workers having to stay home to look after their children as a result of school closures”.

“At present we are clear that the best course of action is to keep schools open unless you are advised to close by Public Health England,” he said.

But he added that the government would be “constantly reassessing this position based on what the chief medical officer and the government chief scientific adviser tell us about whether the evidence would require us to close schools in the best interests of children and their teachers”.

Williamson also sought to reassure heads, acknowledging that they will be “anxious about what the outbreak means for you, your schools, your colleges and your wider communities”.

“As headteachers you are having to be steadfast. Children, parents, staff are all relying on you for guidance and leadership.

“So before I say anything else, I would like to thank you for all that you have done. You continue to inspire so many of us with your calm, resilient, optimistic leadership in the face of adversity.”

He also said his department was working “flat out” with Public Health England “to share the latest scientific and medical information and advice with you as and when we get it, so that as soon as we know, you know”.

“Ever since Covid-19 started causing concerns in January, my department has been issuing regular guidance and updates on how you should respond to keep your schools functioning and everyone in them fit and well.

“We have daily updates and have launched a phone helpline and that’s in addition to the guidance you can find from Public Health England and the Foreign Office.”