Disadvantaged pupils are given laptops to study online while schools are closed

Disadvantaged children across England will be given free laptops and tablets to enable them to study online while schools are closed.

Care leavers, children with social worker support and year 10 pupils, who sit GCSEs next year, will receive devices if they do not already have them, the government announced today.

4G routers will be supplied to families who do not have mobile or broadband internet to ensure children can access online resources. Data charges will be temporarily waived on certain sites providing educational resources.

Tomorrow will see the launch of Oak National Academy, an online enterprise set up by teachers and funded by the Department for Education. It will provide 180 video lessons each week, from reception to GCSE level, in a range of subjects.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, welcomed the move but called for “definitive clarity” from ministers that schools are not expected to deliver the normal curriculum at a time when students were in different places, with different levels of parental availability and income.

“Free laptops will help with access to learning,” she said. “They will also help children stay connected to friends, teachers and youth workers, which is really important for their resilience and health during emergencies.”

The government announcement comes as anxiety grows about the new system to award grades to GCSE and A-level pupils in lieu of cancelled exams.

Pupils and parents have been contacting teachers about the new teacher assessments which will be used to formulate the results published in August. Schools are advising staff to ignore contact from families who are trying to influence teachers’ judgments.

Some are no longer setting work for GCSE and A-level pupils to stop attempts to sway teachers, who have to score and rank their pupils, based on mock exam results, coursework, marks in assignments and any other evidence.

The grades that they issue to exam boards by the end of May are what they believe candidates would have achieved in public examinations if the school year had operated as normal.

Ofqual, the exam regulator, has instructed schools not to share those grades or discuss them with families. Despite that, parents are contacting teachers to lobby for their children. Some are offering excuses for disappointing mock results, for instance, or insisting that as their child has a private tutor, they would have performed better than expected in exams.

Tom Middlehurst, head of policy at SSAT, a schools network with 3,000 members, many of them academies, said: “The difficulty is that the kind of parents who are having those discussions and making that effort are likely to be middle-class parents, and what we must really not allow to happen this summer is that educational inequality widens. Already with home schooling and school closures, there is likely to be a long-term impact on the more disadvantaged, and we have to mitigate this where we can.

“Of course parents want to be reassured by what is going on but they must allow teachers to use their professional judgments to make those decisions.”

At Alsager School, in Cheshire, students have been asking staff about grades. The school has told parents and pupils that “there is nothing that individuals can do that will influence their final grades”, and that GCSE and A-level pupils will no longer be set work by their subject teachers.

Ormiston Forge Academy, in the West Midlands, has also asked pupils to “please refrain from contacting teachers about suggested awarded grades”.

Teachers face a difficult challenge in putting classmates in rank order. The number of candidates for GCSE maths and English in particular, is substantial, with hundreds of pupils bunching around grades four and five.

Grades submitted to exam boards will be put through a standardisation process to even out teacher grading that is too severe or too generous. Statistical adjustments will be made using data about schools’ performances in previous years and the cohorts’ prior achievement in key stage two tests or GCSEs.

Some headteachers are concerned that if too much weight is given to schools’ previous results, it will disadvantage pupils in secondaries that are on an upward trajectory.

Middlehurst said: “While we understand the need for using schools’ prior attainment, we are concerned that this will unfairly disadvantage the students at schools that have made concerted efforts to improve in the last 12 months.

“Many SSAT members have been in touch to say that they are honestly predicting significantly better results in 2020 than in previous years.”

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