Open letter from UTC South Durham to Department for Education and Ofqual

12 November 2020

Open letter to the Department for Education and Ofqual

I write from University Technical College South Durham, a specialist STEM school for 14 to 19 year-olds in the North East of England, in response to communication from OCR about level 2 and level 3 technical qualifications. Following Awarding Body discussions with Ofqual on assessment requirements for this Covid-disrupted year, we have been told that students are expected to complete all units as in a normal year.

However, the real impetus behind my letter was a deeply moving conversation with a class of Year 11 students yesterday about their experiences of the last nine months and their thoughts for the future. One of them wrote to me last night:

Generation on mute

Two hundred and thirty-one days, we have had reducing hope and no voice. Our generation is on mute. Nothing is dearer to us than our future; a future that is now unstable. We have been given something of a life-line – a three-week delay to exams. But does anyone really think that’s enough to steady our course?

Who is the head that decides our fate, my fate and the fate of many others? As far as I know, they are not just about to take the exams that are set to determine their future.

Who is the head that will listen to a generation who are drowning in anxiety? As far as I know, they have not felt the confusion and fear of missing six months of work only to be told you will sit in front of invigilators and take the exams with no regard to the trauma of this pandemic.

So please hear US, the generation who feel forgotten, our mouths taped shut as our future slips through our fingers. Please listen, because we are the future of this country, please listen because we are truly dealing with the toxic fallout of the choices of our education system.

You know me as Arron, but I am confident these are the words of an entire generation.

So I write on behalf of my students and as an education leader.

Please do not tell me that it is business as usual. We are living through unparalleled disruption and challenges to teenagers’ emotional wellbeing. My staff and I are dealing with a large number of students who are unable to focus properly on their education. Several have parents who have lost their jobs or who are unwell. Some have witnessed domestic tensions at home for the first time. Some have been faced with bereavements of family or of peers. Most are worried for their future in a way I have not seen before in the teenage population.

Please do not tell me that a three-week delay to exams is enough. Most Year 11 and 13 students across the country lost around 70 days of face-to-face learning in the first lockdown. Nine weeks in to the school year many schools have had to send those year groups home more than once. Students are working hard; I am proud of ours and I cannot fault their attitude but, as Arron articulates so well, they know that they have lost so much education. Since September, 24% of my Year 11 students have attendance which has dropped below 90% purely because of enforced Covid self-isolation; in a normal year those students would be classified as persistent absentees and the academic impact of absence is well researched and documented. Can they really be expected to complete all the units of their technical qualifications when they have missed so much access to specialist facilities? I find it very hard to explain that to them.

Please do not tell me that it is fair for all to run exams as normal. Attendance data from across the country in October showed wide differences between Local Authorities, with those in the North West and North East dramatically affected because of Covid. It is not a level playing field. After the tensions around results days in the summer, it is understandable to conclude that we need to fall back on exams. However, it is very clear that exams are the easiest way for the system to cope but not the fairest for young people under these circumstances. The Welsh and Scottish governments have recognised this and Ofsted’s report published this week highlights the wide variations of impact of Covid.

Please do not tell me that education continues just as well remotely. We have excellent systems for on line learning and students and teachers are using them effectively. The government provided us with ten laptops, which have been brilliant… for ten students. Today I have 14% of Year 11s at home self-isolating through no fault of their own. All now have devices (we have supplemented with laptops from classrooms) though several are sharing time on wifi and the kitchen table with their siblings and parents. They lack the opportunity to learn from their peers or get instant answers to questions from their teachers; the richness and depth of learning is diminished. Our experience is that the most advantaged students will achieve around 60% of their normal school progress when they are working from home, though my top set English students have told me that they think they are only 30% productive.

Please do not tell me that school professionals can operate as normal. My staff are brilliant; they relish their contribution to society, understand their responsibilities as key workers and rally round superbly when colleagues are absent. But they are stretched and exhausted; some are vulnerable and worried. Two are ill and too many others are self-isolating; we lost 51 hours of direct specialist teaching today and I have 40% of my staff team who cannot come into the building. But most of all they are concerned for our students and their wellbeing.

Please do not tell me that it is affordable. Most schools are not able to balance their budget this year anyway (not the topic of this letter) but we have spent £1000 on supply teachers today and £3000 for the week. On top of all the other Covid costs, this is utterly unsustainable and yet there is no indication of financial support to keep students in school. I have a choice between breaking our budget or imposing far more remote education.

These themes are replicated in most schools across most Local Authorities and I know that many have had a tougher time than we have.

Please work with us to create a plan which will meet the needs of the young people we care for in the situation they find themselves in. How about taking a breath, recognising the pressures on them and giving them a chance? How about moving to a fully planned CAG process, or a 50% exam and 50% teacher assessed system? How about trusting exam boards to define sensible assessments for their technical and vocational qualifications? How about removing the pressures of performance tables on schools so that we can focus on the welfare of our students? How about extending the interim Ofsted visit programme to the end of the year to provide supportive clarity of the situation across education?

I have asked my staff to concentrate on the wellbeing of our students. I have asked my teachers to focus on the skills their students need for the next stages of their education or career. Neither of those is compatible with expecting them to rush through volumes of coursework and cram for a full set of exams.

Please support us to deliver an education which works for our students at this extraordinary time in their lives.

Yours sincerely

Tom Dower

UTC South Durham