A-level and GCSE grades: Call to scrap panic-inducing tests

An A-level student has started a campaign to scrap any external exam assessments in Wales this year, calling for grades to be decided by teachers.

Pupils are unlikely to return to any classroom learning in Wales until the end of January at the earliest.

Cai Parry, who is 17 and cares for a family member, said the thought of any external tests was “panic-inducing”.

The Welsh Government said its exams advisory group was considering how to adapt plans set out before Christmas.

More than 6,000 people have so far signed a petition calling on the Welsh Government to cancel externally set and marked assessments for A-levels and GCSEs in 2021.

Cai, who lives in Cardiff and hopes to study politics at university next year, said he was concerned the “quality of learning” for pupils had been so varied that it would be unfair to expect students to sit externally set assessments.

“I’m a child carer. And the time I’ve had to put into that has gone up a lot because of pandemic and it’s got to a point where it’s really interfering with my ability to study,” he said.

“I’m not going to be going into those assessments with the same sort of opportunities as everybody else and it’s not going to result in me having a fair grade.”

He added that there needed to be a system that considered the “varying circumstances” in which pupils were studying.

Manon Clarke, a 17-year-old AS-level pupil from Cardiff who wants to study medicine at university, is backing the campaign.

She said pupils in “more vulnerable situations” and “who don’t have the same facilities to learn online” were disadvantaged.

Although she does not blame her school or teachers, she also does not feel she has “reached far enough” in the courses to sit any assessments.

“I think that whilst they were originally a good idea, now with the circumstances… I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.”

In December, Wales’ Education Minister Kirsty Williams confirmed the details of a plan under which students would receive grades based on a mix of internal and external assessments, rather than end-of-year exams.

But following the announcement of the move to full-time remote learning earlier this month, exams regulator Qualifications Wales cancelled the spring period of “internal assessments” for GCSE, AS and A-level pupils, which would have been marked by teachers and had been scheduled between 22 February and 23 April.

However, the external assessments, which will be set and marked by the exam board, are still scheduled to take place between 17 May and 29 June.

In England, the government has announced that teachers’ estimated grades would be used, although Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has since suggested that some external “mini exams” are being considered.

The Scottish equivalents to GCSE and A levels will be teacher-assessed, while Northern Ireland has also cancelled all GCSE, AS and A-level exams this year.

Plaid Cymru has reiterated its calls for the external tests to be scrapped, and now want an urgent decision to change to teacher-assessed grades, also known as “centre-assessed”.

Education spokeswoman Sian Gwenllian said this would be “sensible, practical and fair” and a “a perfectly legitimate alternative system”.

“The children have had so much disruption to their education already this year and some children have had more disruption than others,” she said.

The chief executive of the WJEC, Wales’ exam board, said there were “no easy decisions [or] outcomes”.

Ian Morgan said the decision to cancel exams in England “does have a broader impact right across the UK”, but that they would push forward with an agenda that suits learners in Wales.

“What we need is to make sure that there’s consistency in the process, that everybody is treated fairly and that the level of content and the level of assessment of learners get, is fair and balanced across the board,” he added.

A Welsh Government official said following the shift to full-time remote learning its advisory group would now be considering how to “build on and adapt” the proposals to “support learner wellbeing and progression”.

“The minister is also discussing with stakeholders including young people and will provide a further update as soon as possible,” they said.

Covid in Scotland: Parents verdicts on week one of home-schooling

The new school term began in Scotland this week – but many pupils and teachers did not return to the classroom.

Instead, laptops, tablets and exercise books were opened on kitchen tables across the country as home-schooling began again in earnest.

Day one was marred by technical difficulties as thousands of users logged on to Microsoft Teams after holidays.

But did it get any better? We asked some parents about their experience of home-schooling during the latest coronavirus lockdown.

During the first lockdown Donna Bruce, from Rutherglen in South Lanarkshire, juggled a full-time job and working from home while looking after her two children, Kai, 10, and eight-year-old Quinn.

She didn’t have enough devices for all three of them, and she had to occupy the children for seven hours a day while working at the same time.

Her early Zoom meetings enjoyed guest appearances from half-naked children climbing kitchen cupboards to find snacks.

This time round, she feels schools and teachers were better prepared.

“Teachers had made videos talking to the children and reassuring them,” she said.

“I feel there is less pressure this time on parents and children, but children still need supervised and their time still needs occupied to allow parents to work and that’s when the issues come in.”

“On day one, they finished all their assigned school work by 11:00 and I was working until 16:30,” she added.

“I feel anxious and worry as the novelty wears off and my work gets busier, how I will cope.

“At the end of every day I question if I have done enough and try to remind myself it’s not a race or a competition – if we all survive to tell this story in the future’s history lesson then that’s all that matters.”

Kirsteen Roberts, from East Lothian, found the first lockdown stressful.

Her son Finn is in S2, while daughters Layla and Summer are in P7 and P3 respectively. The primary school work was structured with teacher contact but the secondary work was “patchy”.

She said the younger two were pretty motivated but the eldest was frustrated and didn’t have enough to do.

“With school plus keeping on top of Zooms for extra curricular activities, I felt a huge pressure,” she said.

Kirsteen was disappointed to return to online learning.

“None of us were looking forward to it and I feared that no work would be posted on the first day,” she said.

“Thankfully I was proved wrong. The secondary school teachers have organised weekly class Google Meets this time around which is a big improvement.

“Everything went well technically and the first day went pretty smoothly – only two out of three of them ended up in tears after putting pressure on themselves.

“I feel we can get through it intact – as long as it really only is a few weeks this time.

“I think workwise the kids will get enough of what they need from the school without me having to find more on the BBC or websites like Twinkl, but it’s still hard on them and they miss the classroom contact.”

Resources to support learners, teachers and parents during lockdown.

Fiona Keiller, from Perth and Kinross, is a single parent to Ross who is in P6.

She said there were “good days and bad days” during the first stint of home learning. She did not feel her son was getting enough to do and she was also working full-time from home.

This time around she was told Ross would have two live sessions per week via Microsoft Teams.

“My son struggles to get on with the tasks without my assistance, so he insists on trying to rope me into helping him which is difficult when I am in meetings and trying to do my own work,” Fiona said.

“I felt worse after the first day, I had forgotten just how stressful it is. Hopefully we will find our groove by week two but I worry whether Teams is going to cope with the amount of traffic on it.”

Emily Black is a keyworker from Aberdeenshire, with a daughter in S1 and a son in P1.

The first time schools were closed, her daughter tried to complete tasks while her little brother tried to play with her.

“My son’s behaviour became concerning and my daughter cried every day,” she said.

This time round, their rural internet has proved a problem.

“My daughter was up and at her laptop at 08:45. She is used to using Teams for homework but when it decided to play up, I thought she was going to launch her laptop out of the window,” she said.

“My son really appreciated the welcome video message from his teacher so was a lot more engaged after his teacher had told him to do his jobs and then he could have fun.

“It went a lot better than I expected. But it has also exposed that I’m not a teacher and I would struggle to keep this up longer-term trying to help both of them, at some times simultaneously. But I don’t know if it will be the same in a couple of weeks.”

Mark Cummings from East Dunbartonshire has two daughters, one in P2 and one in kindergarten. Both attend an independent fee-paying school.

He was disappointed by the timing of this government’s decision – just after the festive break – but he said his daughter’s school has been “excellent”.

“They are well organised and clear in what they are trying to do,” he said.

“Our daughters are getting a full curriculum each day (two live lessons with teacher and classmates and four pre-recorded topic lessons). It is not comparable to the experience they get at school but is a great effort nonetheless.”

But he is concerned about the long-term effects of home-learning.

“Online learning is not adequate and will lead to greater disparity in learning between different types of pupils who attend different types of schools,” he said.

TikTok level crossing stunt staggeringly stupid

A TikTok stunt featuring a car parked on a level crossing has been branded “staggeringly stupid”.

The “reckless” social media post, recorded on the line at Bromley Cross, Bolton, showed a camera and tripod set up on the railway to record the scene.

An accompanying caption asked viewers: “Would you take the risk to get the shot no-one else would?”

Insp Becky Warren, of British Transport Police said: “No picture or video is worth risking your life for.”

Network Rail, which reported the footage after it appeared on the video-sharing app, blasted the “staggeringly stupid and dangerous” clip.

It issued a reminder that trespassing on railway lines is against the law.

North West route director Phil James said using the tracks “as a backdrop for a photo shoot beggars belief”.

“Lives could so easily have been lost by this reckless behaviour.”

Insp Warren added: “There is simply no excuse for not following safety procedures at level crossings. The behaviour shown by the individuals in this video is incredibly dangerous and reckless.”

Many instances of trespass involve people using railway lines as backdrops for selfies and even wedding photos.

Last year, Network Rail and British Transport Police launched a You vs. Train campaign to highlight the issue of young people trespassing.

Elon Musk sent letter asking him to invest in Swindon

The world’s richest person has been invited to consider setting up a new manufacturing site in Swindon

Leader of the town’s borough council David Renard has written to Elon Musk, owner of the Tesla car company, asking him to consider opening a factory there.

Mr Renard suggested the Honda factory site, set to close in July 2021.

Mr Musk also owns Space X which aims to deliver broadband internet around the world, using 42,000 satellites.

In the letter to Mr Musk, Mr Renard said he would like to “draw your attention” to the Honda site.

He called it a “prime site” with good transport links and said the “biggest selling point” might be Honda’s 5,000-strong workforce which would need to find new employment when the plant closes.

Dale Heenan, Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet member for the town centre, said writing to Mr Musk was in his list of new year resolutions, according to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).

Honda said it was closing its site due to global changes in the car industry and the need to launch electric vehicles.

Jim Grant, the borough council’s Labour group leader, said he applauded the approach to Mr Musk and said “every opportunity” should be taken to bring jobs to the town.

But he added: “I am concerned, however, that this has more to do with publicising the Tory council itself than a serious approach to Tesla.

“Honda itself is keen on privacy, and I suspect Elon Musk and Tesla probably prefer to do such negotiations out of the public eye.”

Covid-19: Pupils pizza donation leaves Stoke-on-Trent nurses in tears

A nurse said she was “lost for words” after school pupils clubbed together to buy pizza for staff at their local critical care unit.

Tina Waltho tweeted a photo of pizza boxes which she said turned up this week at the Royal Stoke University Hospital.

A bit of investigating revealed they were a gift from a group of sixth form students.

The tweet prompted a huge outpouring of praise on social media.

“At a time when healthcare staff feel so low and deflated, responses like this remind us that we are supported,” critical care nurse Mrs Waltho said.

“The nurse who had been in charge on the day shift was in tears. She had barely eaten all day and was a little emotional.”

Ms Waltho’s post has been retweeted thousands of times, with some people saying they would copy the students’ example.

Another wrote: “What an amazing gesture. The next generation make me proud.”

Medical staff across the country have been under pressure given the rising number of Covid-19 patients admitted to hospitals.

The Royal Stoke is run by the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, which had 276 new admissions with coronavirus in the week up to 3 January, up from 230 a week earlier.

Mystery still surrounds which school the pupils attend, with the nurse saying the only clue was that the pizzas came from a firm based in Stone, Staffordshire.

Poshmark turns used clothes into $7.1bn stock listing

Second-hand shopping site Poshmark hit a value of more than $7.1bn (£5.2bn) in its first day of trading, as investor demand sent its shares soaring.

The popularity of resale platforms is expected to rise, as shoppers grow more budget and environmentally conscious.

Poshmark also got a boost from the surge in online shopping due to the pandemic.

The firm, which raised about $277m in the Nasdaq listing, reported its first-ever quarterly profit this spring.

Its first day of stock market trading comes amid booming investor appetite for share offerings.

Holiday booking site Airbnb and food delivery firm DoorDash were among a wave of companies that listed last year.

Investors mobbed their initial public offerings, prompting share price and market value to surge far higher than expected.

Poshmark saw a similar phenomenon. It priced shares at $42 each, well above the initial target, and they started trading at $97.60 each, giving a value of about $7.1bn.

Founded in California in 2011, Poshmark has been backed by celebrities including Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher and celebrity stylist-turned-designer Rachel Zoe.

Focused on used clothing and accessories, it provides a platform like eBay or Etsy that links buyers and sellers, mixing features from social media. It makes money by taking a 20% cut of each sale.

In filings with regulators last year, Poshmark said more than 30 million people had logged into the site over the last 12 months, with more than 6 million people buying at least one item.

Over the 12 months to 30 September, it reported a slim $6.2m profit, from revenue of almost $250m.

But the firm, which is currently active in the US and Canada, warned investors: “We cannot assure you that we will maintain our profitability in future periods, and we may incur significant losses in future periods”.

Poshmark is not the first company to test market appetite for resale sites.

In the US, TheRealReal, which focuses on luxury goods, debuted last year, and other second-hand shopping sites, including rival ThredUp, have also said they are planning share offerings.

Covid-19: Insurance fears stop care homes taking patients

Despite the huge need to free up space in hospitals, some care homes say insurance issues make it impossible for them to accept Covid-19 patients.

In October, the government launched a scheme for designated care homes to take patients recovering from the virus but insurance is a stumbling block.

Sir David Behan, head of the UK’s largest care home company, HC-One, says insurance has become a major concern.

The government says it is working to resolve the issue.

“We are aware the adult social care insurance market is changing in response to the pandemic, and recognise some care providers may encounter difficulties as their policies come up for renewal,” said a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson.

One Hampshire care home says it will have to stop taking patients within days because its insurance will expire.

Waterside House in Netley, Hampshire usually provides holidays and respite care for people with disabilities.

But since the autumn it has been taking Covid-positive patients discharged from hospitals on the south coast.

They are looked after on a separate floor from other residents, and the home has had to meet high infection control standards.

Home manager Sarah Knight said demand for the 31 beds is unparalleled and added: “I’ve been in nursing a long, long time, and I have never known anything like this.

“People end up in an ambulance sat outside hospitals for hours and hours, or they end up on a trolley in A&E in a corridor for hours and hours.

“By offering the best that we’ve got here, we can reduce some of that burden.”

The government originally hoped there would be 500 designated care homes taking in Covid-positive patients.

But Waterside House is one of only 129 which have been set up to take those who have not completed 14 days in isolation.

However, its public indemnity insurance protection, which it needs in case someone contracts Covid there, runs out at the end of January.

Waterside House is run by the charity Revitalise, whose chief executive, Jan Tregelles, said they have tried everything, but will soon have to start turning away people.

“It’s shocking,” she says. “We are truly helpless. We have a fantastic team of nurses and colleagues already.

“The facilities are here, everything’s arranged and we can’t step up to support our communities at this time.”

One resident, Alan Washbourne, who has been living at Waterside House since he was discharged from hospital during the first wave of the pandemic, said: “I feel quite safe here.”

He is not on the Covid floor of the home, and added: “If I were to go to somewhere else, which is possible, I might not feel quite so safe.”

After so many deaths last spring, many care homes will not consider taking patients who are Covid-positive, even with extra infection control measures.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of staff are off sick or self-isolating, leaving care homes facing shortages.

And many are also finding it difficult to get the public indemnity insurance.

Since November, HC-One, which is the UK’s largest care home provider, has had to cover its own Covid risks because it cannot get the insurance.

Sir David said it is one of the reasons why they have not taken part in the designated places scheme.

“You’ve got solicitors’ firms advertising, taking cases up against care companies,” he says.

“So, this isn’t a theoretical risk that there may be proceedings, it’s an actual risk, and therefore we need cover.

“The NHS wouldn’t operate without similar liability cover and that’s what we need to see, and I think governments have a role to play working with the insurance industry to work to find a solution.”

The Department for Health and Social Care said it was making efforts to determine what actions it could take.

“Our priority is to ensure everyone receives the right care, in the right place, at the right time,” said a spokesperson.

BBC licence fee is least worst option, says new chairman Richard Sharp

The licence fee is the “least worst” way of funding the BBC, its incoming chairman Richard Sharp has said.

But Mr Sharp told MPs he had an “open mind” about how the corporation should be funded in the future, and it “may be worth reassessing” the current system.

He also said he didn’t think the BBC’s Brexit coverage was biased overall, but “there were some occasions when the Brexit representation was unbalanced”.

Question Time “seemed to have more Remainers than Brexiteers”, he said.

The £157.50 licence fee is due to stay in place until at least 2027, when the BBC’s Royal Charter ends, with a debate about how the broadcaster should be funded after that.

Mr Sharp, who spent 23 years working as a banker for Goldman Sachs, told the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee: “At 43p a day, the BBC represents terrific value.”

The government is currently reviewing whether its cost should continue rising with inflation from 2022, and whether non-payment should remain a criminal offence. Mr Sharp said he was “not in favour of decriminalisation”.

He said other possible options for funding the BBC in the future could include a household tax like the one used in Germany, “which amounts to the same amount of money”.

He added: “So when we next get the chance to review the structure of this then it may be worth reassessing.”

Asked whether he believed the BBC’s coverage of Brexit had been unbalanced, he replied: “No, actually I don’t.

“I believe there were some occasions when the Brexit representation was unbalanced.

“So if you ask me if I think Question Time seemed to have more Remainers than Brexiteers, the answer is yes, but the breadth of the coverage I thought was incredibly balanced, in a highly toxic environment that was extremely polarised.”

Mr Sharp said he was “considered to be a Brexiteer” and had donated around £400,000 to the Conservative Party over the past 20 years.

He said the biggest issue now facing the BBC is impartiality, and that “trust in leadership and trust in processes” must be rebuilt after high-profile equal pay cases with journalists such as Carrie Gracie and Samira Ahmed.

“Clearly some of the problems it’s had recently are really rather terrible and reflect a culture that needs to be rebuilt, so everybody who cherishes the BBC and works at the BBC feels proud and happy to work there,” he said. “Then in my view that would produce a better output inevitably.”

Mr Sharp also told the committee he would give his £160,000 salary as BBC chairman to charity.

When asked “what’s in it for you?” Mr Sharp, whose heritage is Jewish, said: “We’re all a product of our upbringing and I was very fortunate with the parents I have, my great grandparents came to this country escaping tyranny.

“I think I won the lottery in life to be British and if I can make a contribution, I couldn’t be happier to.

“The BBC is part of fabric of all our national identities, it offers education and enrichment and also important for our position in the world… It is a massive privilege to be chair of the BBC.”

Sir David Clementi, the current BBC chairman, steps down in February. The post-holder is officially appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the government.

Marcus Rashford calls on PM for wider free school meal review

Marcus Rashford has joined celebrity chefs and charities in calling for a wider review into the government’s free school meals policy.

They have signed a letter to Boris Johnson, urging him to “reform the system for the longer term”.

It says the issue “risks once again becoming divisive”, adding: “It is only by working together that we end child food poverty.”

It comes after another row over free school meals for February half-term.

The government has confirmed food will be provided to children by councils under the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, rather than through schools.

But councils and unions say the government should provide food vouchers instead, with the grant being used for other support.

As well as getting the backing of Rashford – who has led campaigns around child poverty over the course of the pandemic – the letter has been signed by chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, along with actor Dame Emma Thompson and over 40 charities and education leaders.

Organised by the Food Foundation charity, the letter said there needed to be an “urgent comprehensive review into free school meal policy across the UK” to feed into the government’s next Spending Review.

The signatories praised the Department for Education’s “swift response” to reports earlier this week of inadequate food parcels sent to families, saying the “robustness of the message from you and the Secretary of State on this issue was very welcome”.

But, they added, “following the series of problems which have arisen over school food vouchers, holiday provision and food parcels since the start of the pandemic”, now was the time for a review.

The letter makes specific calls to look into the eligibility threshold for children to qualify, to explore whether disadvantaged children are being excluded, and to consider how the policy can deliver “the biggest nutritional and educational impact”.

The signatories want a review to be published and debated in Parliament before the 2021 summer holidays.

“We are ready and willing to support your government in whatever way we can to make this review a reality and to help develop a set of recommendations that everyone can support,” the letter said.

“School food is essential in supporting the health and learning of our most disadvantaged children.

“Now, at a time when children have missed months of in-school learning and the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of our health, this is a vital next step.”

Pimlico Plumbers to make workers get vaccinations

A large London plumbing firm plans to rewrite all of its workers’ contracts to require them to be vaccinated against coronavirus.

Pimlico Plumbers chairman Charlie Mullins said it was “a no-brainer” that workers should get the jab.

If they do not want to comply with the policy, it will be decided on a case-by-case basis whether they are kept on, he said.

Employment lawyers said the plan carried risks for the business.

The NHS is seeking to vaccinate 15 million people from priority groups by mid-February as part of efforts to try to control the spread of Covid-19.

But Mr Mullins said he was prepared to pay for private immunisations for people at the firm, which would be done on the company’s time.

Doctors have warned that key hospital services in England are in crisis, with reports of hospitals cancelling urgent operations after a surge in Covid patients in recent weeks.

Pimlico Plumbers plans to change its contracts for new joiners to require immunisation. It will rewrite its contracts with existing workers and employees as soon as is practical, depending on vaccine availability.

The firm has about 350 plumbers working as contractors and about 120 employees.

Mr Mullins said the firm was “not putting anyone under any pressure” to have the jab.

However, new starters who were not immunised would not be taken on, he said.

Mr Mullins said employees approved of the policy.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I’ve talked to people who have said: ‘I will queue up all night to get the vaccine.’

“I think it will be the norm in five or six months. To go into a bar or cinema, or go on a plane, you have to have a vaccine,” he added.

Mr Mullins said he had set aside £800,000 to pay for private vaccinations, but was expecting costs in the region of £100,000.

“Whatever it costs, I will pay,” he said. “I would pay £1m tomorrow to safeguard our staff.”

“If people don’t want the vaccine, let them sit at home and not have a normal life,” he added.

However, employment lawyers said this vaccination policy could be risky.

Legally, companies cannot force employees to take a vaccine, said Thrive Law managing director Jodie Hill.

“They can’t jab a vaccine in your arm,” she said.

People who refuse vaccination and are dismissed may have grounds to make a legal claim, she said.

“Even if they put that [requirement] in a new contract, I don’t think they’d get away with it,” she said.

Employees with more than two years’ service could claim unfair dismissal. But this option is not open to workers and self-employed contractors.

Broadly, people can refuse vaccination for legitimate reasons such as being pregnant or breastfeeding, for religious reasons, because of disability or allergy, or for ethical vegan reasons if the jab contains animal products.

Dismissal for employees with one or more of these protected characteristics could give rise to a discrimination claim.

People who are hesitant about taking the vaccine for personal reasons would not be able to claim discrimination, but could potentially claim unfair dismissal if they have been with the firm for two years or more.

People with strong anti-vaccination beliefs may be protected under equality law, Ms Hill added.

The company and Mr Mullins have previously faced a lengthy legal battle with one of its former contractors, Gary Smith.

In 2018, Mr Smith won a Supreme Court ruling over holiday and sick pay. However, an employment tribunal later ruled that he was not entitled to make a claim for the back pay, as he had not completed the necessary paperwork.

Mr Mullins insisted that the vaccination change to contracts “will be done legally”, but said that he was willing to take this matter to the Supreme Court as well, if necessary.

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