August Bedford Independent Column: Government’s A-level results U turn was welcome, but questions remain

After a weekend of growing outrage and pressure from A-level students, teachers and the Labour Party, the inevitability of the Government U turn was clear by Monday lunchtime.

Students, put through agonies thanks to Ofqual’s remarkably unjust algorithm, would indeed be able to use their teacher-assessed grades.

The current pandemic crisis would have understandably put any Government through its paces, but it’s hard to fathom how any could be as unfit for the job than this one.

The latest of Boris Johnson’s inner circle to fail, whilst also failing to take any responsibility for his failure, is the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

Whilst I’m relieved that these students’ futures are no longer at the mercy of illogical downgrading, not only was the Government’s U turn once again inevitable despite resolutions to the contrary over the weekend, there are serious ramifications.

The announcement of A-level results sets off a chain reaction of time-sensitive processes and will have consequences even further down the line.

Under Gavin Williamson’s watch Ofqual used an algorithm to standardise A-level results despite statisticians and experts’ warnings of its inherent weaknesses.

Defaulting to the teacher’s assessments was the only other route possible after results day, hence the U turn, as it’s far too late to implement a fairer method of standardisation.

I’m pleased at the U turn for the sake of the students, but will this Government learn from their mistakes and act fast to minimise negative consequences?

Universities filled spaces on courses last week after the results were announced, so those students whose grades were upgraded may now miss out on a place this year. University admissions teams – at what is always an incredibly busy time– are having to pull out all the stops to work through several challenges presented by the Government’s policy change at this late stage of the admissions process, and still require urgent clarification and advice from government.

Universities with lower admissions criteria, already struggling for many reasons due to the pandemic, will face even more pressure if their classes aren’t filled.

Furthermore, the Government have ignored an entire group of students. Over the past week BTEC students have largely been overlooked amongst the furore, with thousands still waiting for their results, again potentially losing out on opportunities for their next steps.

I have been contacted by year 12 students, rightly wondering what all of this is going to mean for their own prospects when it’s time for their results next year.

Students will not return to school in September having experienced equal levels of education since schools first closed their doors in March, and yet the Government wishes to deny this is the reality.

Once again, the door is wide open to inequality – how can a pupil with access to a laptop, decent broadband connection and a full school week’s distance learning from the outset be anything but at an advantage against students whose learning has been patchy at best? – and whilst I would like to think lessons will have been learned, experience shows us this government is not one to reflect on its mistakes, but would rather bat away any suggestion of incompetence and put blame squarely on other organisations.

The Government still has time to protect the current Year 12 students, to ensure that none are put at an avoidable disadvantage – whether that’s in their preparations for exams, or having fewer spaces to compete for at universities whilst students missing out this year, defer their applications to September 2021- and my Labour colleagues and I will keep putting pressure on this government to act timely, and fairly.

Gavin Williamson’s A-level result debacle is depleting teachers and school leadership’s valuable time and energy. Schools deserve every bit of extra support to navigate their way through these uncharted waters, not to be sent off course by sand bars and obstacles that can be seen miles ahead.

Whilst the U turn on A-levels is welcome there are too many questions that remain.

This Government must be held to account and if Gavin Williamson doesn’t resign, he should be sacked.

Members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet need the humility and self-reflection to recognise their many shortcomings, listen to the experts who see what’s coming ahead and work much harder at anticipating problems before they arise, for all our sakes.

The published article can be read on the Bedford Independent’s website

May Bedford Independent Column: Government is losing public confidence over return to schools

On 10 May the Prime Minister announced that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be the first to return to school on 1 June.

Teachers’ unions, backed by the British Medical Association, have since expressed concern about the safety of classrooms and believe the Government is trying to shift the responsibility for safety in schools and community health, during a health pandemic, onto individual headteachers without a safe national framework.

Parents in Bedford and Kempston now face the agonising choice between the obvious benefits of their child returning to the school structure and environment versus the unknown risks of compromising the lock-down when the infection rate is still not under control.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are still observing the lockdown and a handful of councils across England have instructed schools not to open more widely, for fear of the virus spreading again.

This is a novel virus, so scientists are divided on the risks to children. Some studies show pupils are less likely to become ill if infected and their ability to transfer the virus is low, while others show they are as infectious as adults, even if asymptomatic.

The Department for Education’s Chief Scientific Adviser admitted the Government’s plan could risk spreading coronavirus since there is a “low degree of confidence” that children transmit the virus less than adults.

Speaking to Andrew Marr on Sunday, Michael Gove could not guarantee that teachers and pupils would not catch coronavirus. But when I asked the Secretary of Health if he could reassure parents and teachers it was safe for young children, unable to socially distance, to return to school he maintained that parents can be “confident that school is a safe environment for them.”

The Government is losing public confidence just when it’s most needed to persuade anxious parents to send their children to school; it’s been eroded by endless contradictory advice and slippery pledges made to fill front pages for a day, that are exposed as untrue soon afterwards.

When there are differences of opinion between scientists on what counts as safe, only honesty about what is uncertain earns political trust. But too often now, this Government’s bold pledges, including those on testing, PPE and their myth that they had “put a safety ring around care homes”, have been exposed as falsehoods. The horrific death toll tells the real story.

Now we learn that the tracing app, integral to the testing, tracing and isolation strategy and so vital in preventing a second surge, will not be rolled out before children in England return to school.

In a few weeks’ time, the picture may look quite different. We are all coming to terms with moving forward to live with a different level of risk until a vaccine can be found. Bedford Borough have committed to opening schools when it is safe to do so. But the Government must address teachers’ concerns, and put in place the plans to test, trace and isolate before teachers and parents can be confident that sending children back to school won’t trigger a second deadly peak.

Please note I have reinstated surgeries, which will take place virtually until further notice. I will be holding appointments for Zoom meetings from 3-5 on Fridays. 

April Bedford Independent guest column: Government’s response is an epic failure

I want the government to succeed in fighting the biggest crisis in peacetime history, to save lives and protect livelihoods.

As an Opposition MP, it felt important to provide constructive support to the Government, only challenging when we think serious mistakes are being made or something is not happening that needs to happen.

The Sunday Times report last weekend changed things.

The news that Boris Johnson skipped five emergency Cobra meetings on Coronavirus, ignored early calls to order protective gear and was dismissive of scientists’ warnings of the severity the threat posed to the security of the UK, confirmed an extraordinary complacency from a Prime Minister renowned for his disregard for detail.

We now know that the Prime Minister’s long weekend holidays, even during the winter floods, his requests to keep briefings short – otherwise he wouldn’t read them, and his two week holiday with his fiancée at a countryside retreat in Chevening were the backdrop to a sequence of failings in February that has undoubtedly cost thousands of lives.

NHS England had already declared the virus outbreak as a “level 4 critical incident” at the end of January, the first ever of this severity.

Lack of provision for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our health and social care workers is the story that has been simmering since the beginning of the crisis.

I’ve been written to by local doctors, care home providers and dentists, all raising concerns about PPE and testing.

Months on, and the deaths of at least a hundred frontline, health and social care workers later (according to a nursing website Nursing Notes), the cries from the frontline about PPE shortages are now deafening.

But the Government seem no nearer to securing a stable supply line to keep workers who are risking their lives to help us, safe.

And local authorities are bearing the brunt.

Last week, Bedford Borough Council contacted me to express “real concerns about the delivery of PPE”.

Although equipment is filtering through in fits and starts, deliveries have been late, incomplete or incorrect.

Bedford’s Local Resilience Forum and Bedfordshire Police are working flat out to ensure we do not reach a position of rationing, but the reality is that there is a big gap between what the Government is telling us and what is happening on the frontline.

The public policy void in the UK – where there should be a coordinated central direction – is now grossly irresponsible.