Coronavirus: Scrap primary school exams if virus spreads, headteachers say

Pupils should not have to sit SATs tests amid widespread closures, union warns 

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Thursday 05 March 2020 20:13
England's chief medical officer says UK has moved to 'delay phase' of tackling coronavirus

Primary school exams should be scrapped in the event of a widespread coronavirus outbreak in the UK, heads have said.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has called for league tables to be suspended and for Ofsted inspections to be postponed if schools have to close to stop the spread of the virus.

Schools in the UK have begun preparations to best minimise disruption to pupils’ learning and exam preparation as they brace for potential widespread closures similar to in Italy.

UK health officials are moving towards the “delay phase” of their response to the outbreak. Measures, like school closures, can be ramped up to slow the spread of the virus.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said it would be “prudent” to scrap the SATs exams in primary schools if they were heavily disrupted by coronavirus.

“The purpose of these tests is primarily to provide a measure of school performance and this would make no sense if large numbers of children were either unable to take these tests or were away from school in the run-up to them,” Mr Barton said.

His comments came after Italy announced it would close all schools for a week and a half to contain the spread of coronavirus. Schools in Hong Kong, China and Japan have already been shut for weeks.

Mr Barton added that performance tables, which hold schools to account on their SATs, GCSE and A-level results, should be suspended if the outbreak results in UK schools being closed for an extended period.

Statutory exams begin in the middle of May but schools will have already begun ramping up exam preparation with students with additional revision classes planned for the Easter holidays next month.

Mr Barton has said suspending performance measures in the event of closures would allow heads to focus their efforts on managing disruption and ensuring students taking exams are not disadvantaged.

He added: “We obviously hope that closures do not happen, but if this scenario did develop the priority would clearly need to be in supporting students first and foremost, particularly those taking GCSEs and A-levels which are such important qualifications.

“School and college leaders should be able to focus on this task without also having to consider how an unprecedented situation might impact on their performance data.”

Exams regulator Ofqual has said it is considering with exam boards and the Department for Education (DfE) whether any additional measures might be needed to ensure GCSE and A-level tests run smoothly.

In a letter to headteachers this week, Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said schools need to be prepared to “deal with disruption” amid the coronavirus outbreak in the UK.

But she added that students should continue to prepare for the summer exams as usual.

At least 10 schools have been closed over the past week amid coronavirus fears.

On Thursday, Professor Chris Whitty, the country’s chief medical officer, suggested that mass school closures may only have a limited impact on the spread of the virus.

But he said it would be for ministers to make the judgement on whether to order heads to shut down.

Earlier this week, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), the largest teaching union in the UK, criticised the government’s handling of issues relating to the outbreak.

He said: “The NEU has a number of concerns about contingency planning and support for schools around the coronavirus.

“These range from the impact on school trips and the exams season, to the very worrying victimisation of Bame staff and students.

“Government has a responsibility to set a tone in their handling of the coronavirus, but unfortunately these issues have not been addressed in their action plan.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “The government’s advice continues to be for schools to remain open unless Public Health England advise otherwise, and to continue preparing for summer tests and exams as normal, which is in the interests of both pupils and schools.

“We are working with exams regulator Ofqual, exam boards and our suppliers to make sure appropriate contingency plans are in place for primary assessments and exams.”

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