Tests to be rolled out at schools to see how far children have fallen behind during lockdown

A school pupil wearing a face mask on a bus in Newcastle
A school pupil wearing a face mask on a bus in Newcastle

Tests are to be rolled out at schools in England to see how far children have fallen behind during lockdown, the education secretary has said.

Assessing the current Year 11 and Year 13 students on their abilities is seen as a top priority for ministers because it will inform their decision on how much to postpone the 2021 GCSE and A-level exams.

Officials at the Department for Education (DfE) are drawing up plans on how schools can test pupils on their knowledge in a “non-burdensome” way.

Gavin Williamson told the Commons that benchmarking pupils will be “absolutely vital” for informing the Government’s policies over the next year.

Around four in 10 schools in England reopened fully on Tuesday for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown in March, with the remainder opening by the start of next week.

Mr Williamson was asked by Robert Halfon MP, the Tory chair of the education select committee, asked whether an “urgent” benchmarking exercise should be done to help with the Government’s decision on when GCSE and A-level exams should take place next year.

Mr Williamson said this is “something we’re looking at and will be doing and working right across the sector to ensure there’s a clear understanding of where some of the learning gaps that children have, in order for us to best deal with it”.

While testing students who are due to take public exams next summer is the DfE’s priority, tests could be rolled out to all secondary school pupils.

Earlier this year ministers pledged they would set up a £1 billion on catch-up fund which would fund private tutors for the most disadvantaged children.

But Mr Williamson is keen for this to be spent in an “evidence based” way to ensure it is spent on those who need it most.

“This is not just throwing money at schools saying ‘here is some cash, do what you like with it’. We want it to be evidence based, tracked and monitored,” Government sources said.

A study by one of Britain’s leading education research bodies found that boys have fallen further behind girls during the pandemic, with some now lagging up to six months behind in their studies.

The majority of children have fallen three months behind after missing classes and schoolwork during lockdown, according to a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research of 3,000 heads and teachers in 2,200 schools.

Ministers hope this week will mark the start of a mass return of workers to their offices, as parents who have had to work from home to look after their children are finally freed to go back to the workplace.

But a poll found that one in six parents are “seriously considering” keeping their children out of school. 17 per cent of mothers and fathers are seriously considering keeping their children out of school in September, according to YouGov’s Parents Omnibus survey.

This includes six per cent who said they are “very seriously” considering keeping their children at home, and a further 11 per cent who are “fairly seriously” considering it.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, insisted that the rules on school attendance – including fines for parents who fail to send their children in – apply from today for schools in England.

“School is mandatory in this country,” he told Sky News. “We believe in compulsory education. “Fines have always been the last resort for headteachers, but it is a last resort, a tool they have to make sure young people are attending school.”

A separate poll by Mumsnet found that six in ten parents feel that the Government has not done enough to reassure them about sending their children back to school.

Almost half of parents (46 per cent) said they are anxious about sending children back to school, the survey of over 700 parents found.

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