Exams cancelled in favour of teacher-estimated grades

The response has been mixed, with many criticising the government’s lack of detail on the replacement solution

Grades estimated by teachers will replace GCSE, A-level and Sats exams in England, which have been cancelled due to the escalating coronavirus crisis, it was confirmed today.

The IGCSE exams, usually only taken in private schools, are still going ahead this summer.

In a statement to MPs this afternoon (Wednesday 6 January), education secretary Gavin Williamson said he had “learned lessons” from last year and would put his “trust in teachers rather than algorithms”.

Last year’s botched attempt to award centre-assessed grades with an Ofqual-supplied moderation algorithm was “felt painfully by students and their parents”, Williamson said. Although he offered reassurances grades would be fair and consistent, the education secretary did not elaborate on what plans Ofqual would put in place.

“The department and Ofqual had already worked up a range of contingency options,” the minister said, adding that “details will need to be fine-tuned in consultation with Ofqual, the exam boards and teaching representatives”.

HMC believes that any decision to cancel all exams in England this summer would be premature – Dr Simon Hyde, HMC

Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, pressed the minister for further details on what support schools will receive, and when. “Can he tell me exactly what will be done to ensure that all grades are fair, consistent and support pupils to move on in their education or employment, including private candidates?” she added.

She also accused Williamson of refusing to listen to teachers.

Many experts and professional groups welcomed the decision but criticised the statement for its lack of specifics.

The Independent Schools Council’s (ISC) chairman, Barnaby Lenon, said there was “no perfect solution” to cancelled exams and that many students “will be disappointed to lose the opportunity to put their learning to the test”.

“The learning loss experienced by so many pupils is a tragic consequence of the pandemic and everything possible must be done to ensure that this year’s exam pupils are not put at a further disadvantage. We cannot afford a repeat of the mistakes made as part of last year’s assessment process,” Lenon added.

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) was, however, less accepting of the U-turn. “Whilst it is important that the learning loss which some students have experienced is accounted for, and that disadvantaged pupils are not further disadvantaged, HMC believes that any decision to cancel all exams in England this summer would be premature,” said general secretary Dr Simon Hyde.

“With the hope of the vaccine on the horizon and the government now taking stringent lockdown measures, teachers and students can be more confident that public examinations can go ahead safely in June. The question is much more what form these examinations should take.”

Hyde said the government should have found other routes to facilitate examinations in the summer, including amending curriculums.

Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said: “The loss of learning during the pandemic has affected children in such a varied way that the existing exam system could not have been fair.

“Devising a robust alternative to award grades will not be easy, and it is right that some time is now being taken to reflect and consult. Today’s statement was notably short on detail, particularly if contingency plans on exams have already been prepared, as the secretary of state suggested.”

Plans would be needed “with some speed”, Perera added, which “create incentives for pupils to go on learning for the rest of the school year”.

Laura McInnery, co-founder of the TeacherTapp app, said Williamson’s announcement was “clear as mud”.

 Parentkind, which works with parent-teacher associations and encourages parental involvement in education and schools, said parents would support the move but added that “special consideration should be given to disadvantaged pupils, where the digital divide is having an adverse effect on both the quality and quantity of learning at home”.

The National Education Union (NEU) said the late arrival of the announcement would “lead to further extreme stress and workload for education staff, students and parents”. It said ministers were “obsessed and blinkered by their pursuit of exams” despite the realities of the pandemic.

“We will take up his offer to discuss the details of these issues but government and Ofqual will need to be far more willing to act on what we suggest this time. We will also make clear that any further workload cannot be dumped upon an already grossly overstretched profession at this time.


Read more: Schools close in latest lockdown while future of summer exams remains unclear

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