Following the government’s announcement regarding next year’s exams, independent school heads and education unions say many questions remain with answers needed now.
On 12 October, the government announced that AS, A-levels and GCSEs will be held three weeks later in 2021 to help address the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Education secretary Gavin Williamson said this will give pupils “the best chance of being ready for their exams without undermining the value of the qualifications they receive”.
Williamson is working with school and further education leaders, exam boards, unions and the higher education sector to develop a range of contingency plans should students be unable to sit exams.
“I welcome the partial clarity but there is still so much that needs to be decided,” said Shaun Fenton, headmaster of Reigate Grammar School.
“Delaying the start of exams allows for extra teaching. That is the good news, but many questions remain: What will happen with students who are ill or self-isolating who can’t sit exams? Will we embrace virtual invigilation using cameras?
“Will we take into account differing student experience during lockdown or multiple episodes of self-isolating after positive test results in their school bubble? Will grading standards be pegged to 2019 or 2020 as they are a step change apart? How will this work out fairly for university progression? What is Plan B?”
Will we take into account differing student experience during lockdown or multiple episodes of self-isolating after positive test results in their school bubble? – Shaun Fenton, Reigate Grammar School
Fenton said there is “no good answer” and added: “We are faced with two bad options. Plan A is to pretend the exams can be ‘normal’. Plan B can only be a form of holistic teacher judgement, calling upon key assessments in school such as mocks or coursework – basically, a version of last year’s disastrous CAGS.
“We will settle on the ‘least bad’ option. In unprecedented times there is no consensus other than, perhaps, that decisions are needed soon. Clarity will enable teachers to understand and apply policy with compassion and skill, doing their best for students – as teachers always do.”
‘We cannot wait six weeks’
Vicky Bingham, head of South Hampstead High School, said schools cannot wait any longer to have clarity over next year’s exams.
“It is bewildering that all we currently know about exams in 2021 is that they will happen three weeks later (over a more compressed period) and that there have been a few adaptations to assessment e.g. the removal of the exam in art and the practical endorsements in science. We will apparently have to wait at least six weeks to find out what Plan B is.
“There also seem to be contradictory messages coming out – the secretary of state said [on 12 October] that no further changes to exams will be made. But Glenys Stacey from Ofqual implied on BBC radio that there might be greater ‘optionality’ but also that students had to cover the whole curriculum. What do they both mean? We cannot wait six weeks to find out.”
Bingham said young people have been “overlooked” by many of the decisions made and she hopes the government “gets it right this time”.
Greater optionality in exams is something joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Dr Mary Bousted, is calling for, as well as fewer exams.
“In unprecedented joint advice with the other teacher and leader unions, the NEU advised Gavin Williamson that GCSE and A-level exams must be altered to include greater choice of topics, which would enable pupils to be examined on what they have, not what they have not, been taught,” said Bousted.
“We continue to believe that greater optionality in exam papers, along with fewer exams, will be essential to support fairness and to decrease the already very high rates of pupil stress which are being suffered this year.”
GCSE and A-level exams must be altered to include greater choice of topics, which would enable pupils to be examined on what they have, not what they have not, been taught – Dr Mary Bousted, NEU
Bousted said if the government does not reconsider, NEU members have said exams will no longer be tenable, making the only fair route to cancel exams and use teacher assessed grades instead.
Irfan Latif, principal of DLD College London, asked whether universities would delay their start dates to make up for the shorter exam marking period for next year’s exams.
“The GCSE and A-level exam marking period will be tighter than ever. Will the appeal system be robust enough to cope with the mistakes that will undoubtedly arise in marking due to the time constraints imposed on markers? This will then have an impact on university entrance.
“Will universities, therefore, be delaying their start dates to allow students to go through the UCAS and Clearing process in a timely fashion as opposed to a rushed process which could have an impact on the students’ futures?
“The issues surrounding last summer’s algorithm debacle exacerbated this further causing students to lose out on coveted university places. There is still much to be done in this area to provide clarity to schools, students and parents.”
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