Sunday, 20 Sep 2020

Labour attacks 'confusion and incompetence' from government over exams

Labour leader Keir Starmer attacks ‘confusion and incompetence’ from government over exams fiasco as he warns plans to get children back to school in September are now at ‘serious risk’

  • Labour leader said the government had ‘wasted’ two weeks clearing up ‘mess’
  • He added plans for all children to return to schools next month at ‘serious risk’
  • Downing Street slammed after 40 per cent of A-level results were downgraded

Keir Starmer today warned plans for children to return to classrooms in September could be at ‘serious risk’ due to the government’s chaotic handling of exam results. 

The Labour leader said Downing Street had wasted two weeks which could have been spent preparing for the new school year ‘clearing up a mess of the government’s own making over exam results.’

He added that Boris Johnson’s pledge for all children to return to school next month could be ‘at serious risk after a week of chaos, confusion and incompetence.’

Speaking to the Observer, Mr Starmer said: ‘Ministers should have spent the summer implementing a national plan to get all children back to school. Instead, the last two weeks have been wasted clearing up a mess of the government’s own making over exam results.

‘Restoring public confidence and getting a grip on the Department for Education must be Downing Street’s number-one priority this week. 

‘Failure to do so will leave the government’s promise of “levelling up” in tatters.’ 

Keir Starmer (pictured) today warned plans to get children back in classrooms in September could be at ‘serious risk’ due to the government’s chaotic handling of exam results

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was heavily criticised this month after an algorithm used by the exams regulator Ofqual resulted in an astonishing 40 per cent of A-level grades being downgraded from teachers’ predictions.

In a humiliating climbdown, the controversial algorithm was scrapped for both A-level and GCSE results just days after Mr Williamson claimed there would be ‘no U-turn, no change.’     

The Education Secretary said teachers’ predicted grades would be used to mark pupils who could not sit their exams because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

It followed a similar U-turn by the Scottish government. 

The Labour leader’s criticism of the exams fiasco comes as the UK’s Chief Medical Officers last night told parents their children face an ‘exceptionally small risk’ from Covid-19 when they return to classrooms next month. 

In an unusual ‘consensus statement,’ all 12 Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers agreed that ‘very few, if any, teenagers will come to long-term harm from Covid-19 due solely to attending school’. 

And they say that small risk has to be offset against ‘a certainty of long-term harm to many children from not attending school’.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was heavily criticised this month after an algorithm used by the exams regulator Ofqual resulted in an astonishing 40 per cent of A-level grades being downgraded from teachers’ predictions

Students take part in a march from Marble Arch to the Department of Education in Westminster, London, calling for the resignation of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

The experts concluded that ‘teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19’ compared to other workers, and say that the evidence from other countries is that reopening schools is not linked to a surge in cases.

In their statement, the Medical Officers brushed aside teaching unions’ safety fears by declaring that ‘there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19’.

They said the fatality rate for children aged five to 15 who become infected was just 14 in a million, ‘lower than for most seasonal flu infections’, and while every death of a child is a tragedy, ‘almost all deaths [from Covid] are in children with significant pre-existing health conditions’.

The experts reported that just one in a thousand children under nine who show Covid symptoms would need hospital treatment, a figure that rises to three in a thousand for ten-to-19-year-olds.

In a humiliating climbdown, the controversial algorithm was scrapped for both A-level and GCSE results just days after Mr Williamson claimed there would be ‘no U-turn, no change’

That is still an order of magnitude lower than the four per cent rate for the general population, and the experts add: ‘Most of these children make a rapid recovery.’

Set against this tiny risk, the scientists said: ‘We are confident that multiple sources of evidence show that a lack of schooling increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues.’ 

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty added that the ‘incredibly small’ health risks should be balanced against the overwhelming evidence ‘that not going to school damages children in the long run and that includes their long-term chances.’

‘It increases the risks of disparities, it entrenches deep-rooted problems, it increases the risk that they have mental and physical ill health in the long run,’ he said.

He added the transmission rates across the UK were broadly flat and said: ‘The evidence from other parts of the world is that, when schools have opened, this has not led to a sudden surge in transmission that looks as if it’s due to the schools opening.’

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