The schools minister Nick Gibb faced questions about exams in 2020 and 2021 when he appeared in front of the Parliamentary education committee this week.
The hearing followed the announcement last week of a package of measures that are meant to make exams in 2021 fairer.
Here’s what we learned.
1. Lack of transparency is to ‘protect civil servants’
Gibb was grilled about the government’s failure to provide the committee with details of key meetings the DfE held with Ofqual in the run-up to the exams fiasco, after Schools Week revealed last month that the request had been snubbed.
Halfon said it was “disappointing” that the documents were not forthcoming, despite “assurances” from ministers that the committee would receive them. Ian Mearns went further, saying some committee members were “quite angry”, and ask Gibb what he has to hide.
The schools minister claimed the government wanted to be “as open and transparent as we can be”, and said the committee had been offered “a summary of all the contents of all the different meetings that were relevant”.
“The issue for the Department is the protection of civil servants in taking informal notes of meetings and that they can give candid and free advice to ministers without worrying that what they say and write will then be published.”
2. Grade inflation is about ‘fairness’ …
The minister appeared following a hearing with interim Ofqual chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey, who was questioned, among other things, about plans to maintain grades at around 2020 levels next year.
Gibb said he agreed with Stacey that the grade inflation planned would “help the least prepared who’ve suffered the most disruption”, but said it “isn’t the main measure with which we’re going to address that issue”.
However, he said keeping grades at around 2020 levels in 2021 was an issue of “fairness”.
“This is a cohort that has actually suffered from the pandemic in a greater way than the 2020 cohort, who will have completed most of their course by the time schools closed to most pupils in March.
“This cohort has seen a large proportion of the first year of their course disrupted, and so we do need to make sure they’re treated fairly.”
3. Pre-pandemic grades ‘will need to return at some point’
Gibb was asked why grades in 2021 aren’t going to be pegged to pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019, but with grade boundaries changed. He said this would be “seen as unfair”.
However, the minister said he accepted the point “that we will need to return at some point, and take a view about what the long-term impact of this will be. And that’s some work that’s already started”.
He also said the government had considered the idea of pegging them between 2019 and 2020 levels, but that “this is the wrong cohort with which to start that process, given everything they’ve suffered”.
4. …but grades may be affected again in 2022
The DfE announced last week that although overall grading would be similar in 2021 to 2020, each subject will be given the same level of generosity so pupils aren’t disadvantaged.
Gibb said that work on “smoothing the subjects” was “a small step towards getting to the grading that we had before 2020”, adding that it was “important that the general grading is similar in 2021 to 2020”.
But he said the government would have to “look again, as the pandemic proceeds, to see what happens about what we do in 2022, because again, the 2022 cohort will have suffered some disruption to their education as well”.
5. New expert group won’t be transparent
During the hearing, Gibb resisted calls to make a new expert group being formed to look at differential learning loss transparent.
The group was announced as part of the package of measures last week, and isn’t expected to report until the spring.
When asked whether minutes of meetings would be published, Gibb said the experts would want to be able to have a “full and frank discussion”.
“This is an advisory group to the secretary of state. It’s not an independent commission reporting publicly. It is an advisory group of experts who want to be able to give advice freely to the secretary of state, and upon that advice the secretary of state will then make decisions which will be published.
“If you’re asking people to give up their time, experts to come in and give advice to the secretary of state, you need to give them the space to be able to do that without each of their meetings being a public meeting, and I think that’s very important.”
6. DfE exams service will return in 2021
The DfE’s exams service, formed to help schools find invigilators or extra exam halls, will be available in 2021, Gibb said.
Although there was “low uptake” of the service during the autumn exam series, which Gibb said was “probably” due to low numbers taking the exams, the facility “is also available for next summer as well”.
“We will provide further details on this in the new year,” he added.
7. Laptops scheme a ‘phenomenal success’
Pressed on issues with the government’s laptops scheme, Gibb defended the programme and denied there was a shortage.
“This has been a phenomenal success story, the way this country has procured vast numbers of computers on the global market,” he said.
The government recently came under-fire after it slashed schools’ allocations by around 80 per cent.
Gibb said this was done to ensure devices were available to pupils who were actually self-isolating.
“They were promised 100 per cent. They were promised a computer for every disadvantaged child in their school who we estimated would not have a device. They were given a figure. And subsequently we then said ‘no you’re going to get 20 per cent of that figure’ and we then sent the computers representing 20 per cent of that figure.
“But those children are in school. They do not need those computers at that point. At the point when they do need them, when they are self-isolating, and if that allocation is not enough for those pupils, we will within 48 hours send them the relevant computers that they need.”