Labour unveils ‘next step guarantee’ after Covid disruption to students

Elliot Chappell

Labour has called for ministers to introduce a ‘next step guarantee’ to ensure that students who have had their education “disrupted so profoundly” by the pandemic and government policy do not “fall between the cracks”.

Commenting ahead of the release of A-level and BTEC results today, Kate Green congratulated students for working “incredibly hard in extraordinary circumstances” but reiterated the party’s demand for a ‘next step guarantee’.

“Students have worked incredibly hard in extraordinary circumstances and should be proud of the results they are receiving,” the Shadow Education Secretary said.

“They have done this in spite of a Conservative government which has let them down at every turn and shown no ambition for their futures. Labour is calling for all students getting results to be supported by a next step guarantee so no young person loses out on future opportunities because of Conservative chaos.”

The demand for the guarantee comes after reports emerged last month of private schools “playing the system” and taking advantage of the pandemic to lobby prestigious universities to accept pupils who have not met the required grades.

Exams were cancelled for the second consecutive year as a result of Covid. Last year, students had their results downgraded from school estimates with a controversial algorithm before the government U-turned and scrapped the mechanism.

Teachers in England this year submitted their decisions on pupils’ grades after drawing on a range of evidence including mock exams, coursework and in-class assessments using questions put forward by the exam boards.

395,770 students have been accepted on their first choice full-time undergraduate course in the UK, up 8% from 365,500 in 2020, and 6.9% of students in England were awarded three A*s this year compared with 4.3% in 2020 and 1.6% in 2019.

Setting out the demand for a next step guarantee this morning, Labour’s Peter Kyle told Sky News: “The key thing to bear in mind is that the exams, and this moment in time, is a gateway to the next stage. It’s not the destination.

“The key thing we’ve got to get right is making sure every young person has their abilities recognised and they have their aspirations recognised so that they can get to the right place so they can continue their learning.”

435,430 students in total have had places confirmed on an undergraduate course in a UK institution, up 5% on the same point last year, according to data published by the university admissions service UCAS.

Those who missed out on the grades they needed to meet a university offer this year are likely to face greater competition, as a result of fewer selective courses being on offer through the clearing process.

Concerns have been raised that a trend of inflated grades becoming the new normal will make it difficult for universities to select students accurately and fairly, with more deprived students likely to be worse affected.

“We want a next step guarantee, which means that every young person has the guarantee of making sure the next step is the correct one for them,” the shadow minister for schools added this morning.

“The overwhelming number of young people will make that step naturally because the system will do it. For those young people who have been disrupted so profoundly by government policy and Gavin Williamson’s incompetence, plus the disruption of Covid – for those few students, they need to have extra support to make sure their talents are recognised and they’re not just cast aside and fall between the cracks. That would be unforgivable.”

Formal exams for the Highers were also cancelled in Scotland due to the pandemic. The percentage of pupils achieving A to C grades fell from 89.3% in 2020 to 87.3% this year, although it remains above the 75% pass rate achieved in 2019.

Gavin Williamson has been criticised for confusion over the government’s approach to assessing students throughout the pandemic, particularly in light of the algorithm imposed and then withdrawn last year. He defended his approach today.

“We would always rather go through the process of examinations as against teacher-assessed grades,” he said. “But we were always clear and we’ve been working extensively… to have contingency plans there and ready to go, which of course we did.”

Williamson told Sky News that the government is “very much planning on moving back to examinations as a form of assessment” next year, but that ministers may fall back on a contingency plan “largely based around teacher-assessed grades”.

Keir Starmer warned the Conservatives ahead of results day that a second year of results chaos was “not an option”. He called on the government to meet three tests by August 31st, ahead of schools returning:

  • A next step guarantee for pupils – the government must work with universities, colleges, training providers and employers to ensure that all young people can move on to the next stage of their lives. With private schools reportedly already lobbying for their students, Universities must give additional consideration to state school pupils without these advantages.
  • An appeals system that works – the government must ensure all schools and exams boards are equipped to swiftly process appeals so no young person misses out on their place at university, college, in an apprenticeship, or in work, because of a slow appeals system. Students who meet the conditions of an offer on appeal should be accepted to start this year.
  • Support for education professionals – All results being awarded in the same week will put huge pressure on stretched school and college leaders and teachers, who have worked tirelessly this year. The Government must set out the support which will be available to staff so they are equipped to advise and support pupils need urgent clarity on the support available to them throughout results week.”

The Labour leader said: “No young person should lose out because of Conservative chaos, which is why we are calling on the Prime Minister to fix this mess his Education Secretary has created and deliver on our three tests so all young people can move onto the next stage of their lives.”

Asked this morning whether higher education institutions should review their fees if they fail to deliver face-to-face lectures next year, Williamson told viewers that “if universities are not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees”.

Kyle said he was “shocked” to hear the Education Secretary’s comment. “The reason there hasn’t been much face-to-face teaching is because Gavin Williamson has been preventing it for the last period,” the shadow schools minister said.

“Pubs were open, restaurants were open, people were allowed to gather outside, but universities were prevented by government policy from Gavin Williamson from having seminars inside again.

“So up to now, the reason why there’s been so much chaos and ambiguity about the way in which things are taught in universities is because of the policies of Gavin Williamson. There’s still a lot of uncertainty going into this term.

“If class sizes and the way that the classes are taught in universities is disrupted going into the autumn because of government policy, then if there is a financial cost to that to universities Gavin Williamson should be stumping up for it.”

20 out of 24 Russell Group universities have said at least some of their undergraduate teaching will continue online in a ‘blended’ learning approach. Others, such as the University College London, will only be holding lectures online.

Students at universities including Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool have launched petitions for tuition fees be reimbursed if teaching does not return to normal.

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