The chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, has expressed her disappointment that primary schools will not be reopening before the summer, amid continuing concern about the government’s failure to prioritise children’s education in the coronavirus crisis.
The head of Ofsted said she was saddened that people are “perhaps more frightened than they actually need to be” and called for as much preparation to be done for September reopening as possible before the summer holidays, which start next next month.
Giving evidence to the Lords public services committee, Spielman said: “So many people perhaps have been looking at this from the point of view of what they can’t do, rather than what they can.
“I would love to see more people in local areas really stepping up and saying – I could make this happen – and getting as much on the road as possible this side of the summer and real ambition for what happens in the autumn.”
Spielman said the scale of the medical and care home crisis meant the focus had been on adults and mostly older adults during the pandemic, and children’s interests had been deferred.
“And yet there’s a really, really big and serious issue here that I would very much like people to be bringing to the forefront of their minds because children’s lives have been disrupted a lot for a long time already.”
Earlier, one of her predecessors, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said the government’s failure to plan to get children back to school safely was “absolutely astonishing” and must be remedied before September.
Wilshaw, who led Ofsted from 2012 until 2016, said schools will need to put in place recovery programmes, appeal to teachers to run catch-up classes over the summer and even allow some of the most affected to repeat their school year.
The government has been criticised by MPs from all parties and unions for lacking a coherent plan, after announcing that primary schools in England would return in June before backtracking this week.
Speaking at the No 10 daily press conference, Boris Johnson made a new promise that there would be a “huge amount of catch-up over the summer months”, insisting he would like to be in a position to get all schools back by September.
“It’s going to be a big summer of catch-up. We are going to continue to make sure kids get the remedial help that they need,” he said, pledging more details next week.
But he acknowledged that the infection rate and new cases were not down far enough to make it safe for schools to operate without social distancing, which means class sizes of 15 and keeping pupils 2 metres apart.
Earlier, Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, repeatedly accused the government of having no coherent plan for the return of all pupils.
“What it required for that to happen was a robust national plan, consensus among all key stakeholders and strong leadership from the top,” Starmer told the Commons. “All three are missing. The current arrangements lie in tatters. Parents have lost confidence in the government’s approach. Millions of children will miss six months’ worth of schooling, and inequality will now go up.”
In response, Johnson accused Starmer of inconsistency on the subject, saying Labour had previously suggested the plan to get primary schools fully back in June was going too fast.
The government is also facing controversy over its plans for exam results, as teachers’ leaders in England called for GCSEs and A-levels grade boundaries to be relaxed this summer to ensure pupils are not unfairly disadvantaged.
Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told MPs on the Commons education committee that the qualifications regulator, Ofqual, should consider relaxing the boundaries so more pupils receive higher grades.
“Where there is doubt, somebody should move up a grade mark rather than moving down a grade,” he said, “and that will mean exams are regarded as not having the same rigour as the previous exam series, but I don’t see how else we’re going to get through this.”
He made the call following the cancellation of summer exams, which have been replaced by predicted grades based on teacher assessment. There are fears that some groups, including black and minority ethnic pupils, may be penalised unintentionally and will not receive the results they deserve.
There are also concerns that exam boards and Ofqual will be inundated with appeals once results are published this summer, and that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to access the appeals system.
Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, told MPs that this year’s results should be closely monitored to assess the impact on poorer pupils. “I think the worry is that unintentionally teachers will underestimate, sometimes, the academic potential of poorer pupils, potentially those from black backgrounds, and potentially boys as well.”
He said students who leave their revision until the last minute – often boys – and summer-born children were also likely to lose out in a grading system based on teacher assessment. And he suggested universities may need to consider if they should lower their offer to disadvantaged applicants who have faced particularly difficult circumstances during the crisis.
Zubaida Haque, the interim director of racial equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust, told MPs that the Department for Education had not responded to three letters from the trust calling for the government to ensure BAME pupils were not disadvantaged.
MPs were also told there was a “tsunami of anxiety” facing students preparing to sit their exams next summer, having missed so much of the curriculum this year, and continuing uncertainty about what school will look like from next September.
Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, told MPs that schools and teachers needed to know what the plans were for exams in 2021 as a matter of urgency. “Schools and teachers need to know very quickly, and exam boards, before the summer break ideally, as to what’s going to happen in September.”
Separately, a TUC poll of 3,400 women reveals that a quarter of pregnant women say they have faced discrimination at work during the coronavirus outbreak – including being singled out for redundancy or furlough.
Of those surveyed, 28% of low-paid pregnant women (earning less than £23,000 a year) had faced discrimination compared with 17% of women on higher salaries.
Pregnant women told the TUC they were required to take sick leave when they were not sick, to take unpaid leave, to start their maternity leave early or to leave the workplace, because their employer did not act to make their workplace safe for them.
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