This government owes A-level students a big apology after Covid

Fewer than one in five 16-19 year-olds have received any support from the Conservatives’ chaotic tutoring programme

Bridget Phillipson
Thursday 18 August 2022 08:32 BST
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<p>Tens of thousands of students will receive their A-level results on Thursday</p>

Tens of thousands of students will receive their A-level results on Thursday

This week, students will receive exam results again for the first time since 2019. In a true sign that the world is back to “normal” there will be no stressing about algorithms, or which pieces of class work have been used to calculate grades. This year, parents, pupils, schools and colleges are back in the familiar world of exams.

These students represent the optimism of the new future we can build, the choices we can once again make. We owe it to these students, who have battled with unprecedented challenges, to ensure we turn that ambition into their reality.

Yet, students in England will understandably be approaching Thursday with trepidation. In the last week, they’ll have seen their Scottish counterparts receiving lower results than over the last two years, with a sharp drop in the pass rate among students from poorer backgrounds. They may have heard about problems with marking and ensuring enough examiners are available to get it all done on time, or of universities making fewer offers this year.

Exams are back – rightly – but with tougher grade boundaries, fewer students receiving university offers, and without the promised education recovery support the Conservatives once claimed students would receive.

Fewer than one in five 16 to 19-year-olds have received any support from the Conservatives’ chaotic tutoring programme. The government’s flagship education recovery offer has wasted time and public money on outsourced contracts that have simply failed to reach students in the numbers needed. They’ve sat their exams, they’re receiving their results now and the government’s realisation that schools are best placed to support additional teaching and learning has simply come two years too late.

The hugely varying access to teaching these students received during Covid, whether through a lack of access to technology when schools were closed to most pupils, or through uneven Covid and isolation rates, risks playing out in these exam results. They’ve had different levels of learning, and they’ve had woefully inadequate support from the government to make up for this.

In November 2020, Labour first called on the government to guarantee a level playing field for students. This month, for the third summer in a row, the government has failed to deliver it. Labour has set out an ambitious, costed recovery plan because that is what children and young people need, and because their success underpins our country’s future success.

We would have delivered tutoring through schools and colleges from the start. We would be delivering funded before-and-after-school activities in a boost to young people’s social development, and we would have enabled schools and colleges to deliver additional targeted support through extending the pupil premium – additional funding attracted by students on free school meals – to post-16 settings to help tackle the attainment gap. Critically we have also pledged to put a mental health counsellor in every school, tackling the growing crisis in young people’s mental health.

This is what ambition for our children and their futures looks like. A comprehensive plan not a pretence that the chaos and disruption of the pandemic would simply disappear.

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There have been seven education secretaries since these children started secondary school, more than most will have had maths teachers. It’s no wonder that they’re worried about the future when their education has been a political football, with no clear focus on the long-term thinking needed to help our children thrive.

Even now the government has no plan to secure young people’s futures. When Labour called on ministers to work with universities, colleges and employers to deliver a next step guarantee, to secure the futures of young people who have worked so hard despite Covid disruption, they’ve simply sat on their hands

When the government’s “education catch-up tsar, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned a year ago, he did so warning that “we risk failing hundreds of thousands of pupils”.

The Conservatives have had 12 years in government, and they have failed to understand that when we fail our children, we fail ourselves, our country and our futures. The government has fallen far short of matching the ambition these young people have for themselves.

Bridget Phillipson serves as shadow education secretary and is MP for Houghton and Sunderland South

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