Britain’s education secretary has given his “absolute reassurance” that pupils will sit A-level and GCSE exams next year in the UK and the Gulf.
Following the fiasco over exam results this year, Gavin Williamson told The National examinations would go ahead despite the pandemic because "children have to get back into a system of proper examinations".
The Department for Education came in for severe criticism over the summer when pupils were initially awarded lower results under an algorithm system - but after a public outcry were subsequently given their teacher-predicted grades.
This video chronicles the outcry and the screeching government U-turn.
“I'm much more in favour of exams than algorithms,” Mr Williamson reflected, from behind his desk at the DfE.
“We'll certainly be running exams next year.”
Increasing UK-UAE educational ties
Mr Williamson has had a virtual meeting with the UAE’s Minister of Education, Hussain Al Hammadi, to discuss next year’s tests.
“We are working very closely with schools in the United Arab Emirates to make sure that exams can proceed smoothly for those 150,000 children who will be taking them in the summer.”
Getting British students to attend university in the Gulf also plays a large part in Mr Williamson’s thinking on the future, once Brexit is completed and the pandemic is over.
“My dream is to see more British students going to the United Arab Emirates to be able to study there," he said.
"The UAE and the United Kingdom has such a long standing historical partnership that has served both nations incredibly well and I think British students will very much benefit from being able to learn in the Emirates as part of that partnership.”
With the Universities of Birmingham and Bradford already opening campuses in the UAE, the education secretary said he would also like to see more British universities setting up sites.
Mr Williamson took heavy criticism during the summer exam difficulties but said throughout he had the full support of Boris Johnson.
“The prime minister was fantastic at all stages recognising the importance of making sure that we deliver the awarding for children.”
He said that after 13 years of schooling, it was important that children got their grades “so they were in a position to progress to the next stage of their careers, whether that's in their lives, whether that is to university, college or an apprenticeship, it is just really important".
Teachers more valued by society thanks to lockdown
As the husband of a primary school teacher and father of two daughters at secondary, Mr Williamson said lockdown had been challenging. “Initially the closure of schools was quite popular with both my daughters but they equally got to a stage where company of mum and dad was starting to wear a bit thin," he said.
As a result of home-schooling, he believes many parents now realise the “value of the work that teachers do and understand how challenging it is educating your own children”.
It was therefore a “top priority” for the British government to keep all schools open and that for the future of the country “having children in schools was the best place for them”.
Asked if the gap between state schools and private education had opened up during lockdown he said the government was purchasing 500,000 extra laptops for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and spending an extra £1 billion in education funding.
“We do recognise that some children have missed out,” he said.
He said the pandemic had been “enormously challenging”, particularly for children, teachers and parents. The attention was on “children who have missed out on school, how do we help them catch up”.
“It’s been a tough few months, but I think that keeping that laser-like focus on making sure that we're delivering for children is the only thing that we should do,” he added.
The pandemic has severely affected funding for universities with a drop in foreign student numbers but Mr Williamson argued that British higher education was “far superior” than other countries and that with four universities in the top ten global list, Britain was “a truly global superpower of university education”
“To get the best university education you end up in Britain,” he said, speaking from a desk with a bust of Oliver Cromwell, the distinguished parliamentarian, nearby.
“The strength of the British education has been that it’s always been able to adapt incredibly well. I also believe that a British education gives people a really good global understanding.
“We want Emirates students to go back and say what an amazing experience they’ve had and see Britain very much as their second home, a special place for them, somewhere that they have incredibly fond memories of, and that is the best way of deepening the relationship between our two great nations.”
With the worrying rise of ISIS and extremists, Mr Williamson argued that learning was a key asset in turning people away from radicalisation.
“Education can play an important role in the understanding of tolerance and cultures and society. But most importantly, it opens doors for opportunity, making people realise that actually with skills and education you're able to achieve so much.
“The Emirates has long recognised the importance of tolerance within society. I believe that is why the Crown Prince has put education very much at the heart of his vision for the Emirates recognising that it is key and one of the most important ways of really unlocking opportunity and aspiration for so many young people.”
Welfare of overseas students a priority
As Britain experiences a substantial second wave of Covid infections with universities badly affected, the MP said his officials would ensure that overseas students' welfare is looked after.
“Universities are ensuring that they're cared for. There might be a lot of students be staying at universities over Christmas away from their families and when I've been speaking to university leaders in the UK I’m emphasising to them the importance of making sure it's a good experience for those students.”
In the post-Brexit era, the politician believes that Britain and the Gulf region working together on research and technology would help develop “new ideas and new concepts, and new science together”.
“This is what will create ever deeper bonds between us,” he added.
“It is incredibly exciting and I hope that we could put education at the very heart of relationship between the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.”