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Now teachers' conditions must make the grade

Unions call for action on pay and stress after students achieve record A-level results

TEACHING unions called for action on low pay and high workplace stress today as staff and pupils were praised for achieving record A-level results.

Unions pointed out that teachers have been pushed to the limit over the last year, with schools and colleges left to pick up the pieces after ministers’ repeated failures during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their calls came as hundreds of thousands of pupils received grades determined by teachers, rather than by exams, having been assessed only on what they have been able to learn during the crisis.

More than two in five (44.8 per cent of) A-level entries were awarded an A or A* grade: up by 6.3 per cent on last year, when 38.5 per cent achieved the top grades.

Robert Halfon, Tory MP and chairman of the Commons education committee, claimed that so-called grade inflation is “baked” into exam results due to the pandemic.

But Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said that such claims should be ignored.

“Students should be confident that they are getting the grades they deserve and that they reflect the standard of achievement they have demonstrated,” he said.

The National Education Union (NEU) said that students’ success this year “simply shows how the exam-only system pre-pandemic did not allow all students to demonstrate their abilities.”

Joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “Emerging from the pandemic should be an opportunity to reassess the established ways in which we carry out exams and award qualifications.

“[Education Secretary] Gavin Williamson may commend teachers today, but his praise comes too late and rings hollow. Late and incoherent guidance on how they should submit grades resulted in increased workload and stress for teachers as well as uncertainty for students. 

“Government has taken school and college staff for granted and ignored their calls throughout this pandemic, maintaining the silence of a monk for much of it. This cannot and must not continue.”

Mr Williamson said the government will consult on a contingency plan “largely based around” teacher-assessed grades for next year, but with the aim of returning to an examinations system.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said the government must now show teaching staff that they are valued. 

“Whilst schools have done a tremendous job in picking up the pieces left of ministers’ last-minute decision-making, many teachers were left running on empty with teacher workload at breaking point at the end of last term. 

“We cannot afford a repeat of this confusion and chaos for yet another year.”

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady pointed out that teachers have not been rewarded with a proper pay rise after their hard work and dedication in an “incredibly difficult” year.

“Sadly, in spite of these efforts, college employers only saw fit to offer staff a 1 per cent pay rise, which is actually a significant real-terms pay cut,” she said.

“They need to think again and demonstrate they value their workforce, otherwise we will see sustained strike action at colleges across England come autumn.” 

Data from exams regulator Ofqual showed that pupils at private schools were increasingly more likely to receive the top grades than those in state schools, with black students, those on free school meals and those in areas of high disadvantage less likely to obtain them.

Almost three-quarters (70.1 per cent) of pupils at fee-paying schools achieved the top grades, compared with 44 per cent in 2019, when exams last took place, and 60.8 per cent last year.

Education charity the Sutton Trust said the coronavirus crisis has “compounded existing inequalities, and today’s results are a reflection of that.”

Labour shadow education secretary Kate Green said Tory chaos had “opened the door to unfairness” and that “the government’s measly recovery plan will see half a million students leave school this summer without any support to recover lost learning or boost their wellbeing.”

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