GCSEs: Open-book exams and reduced content for 2021?

Changes to next year’s GCSEs and A levels are being considered – but a repeat of calculated grades has been ruled out
8th June 2020, 5:48pm


GCSEs: Open-book exams and reduced content for 2021?

Coronavirus: What Will Next Year's Gcse & A-level Exams Look Like?

Reduced content in exams, a delayed start date and open-book papers are among the options being considered for GCSE and A levels in 2021, Tes can reveal.

Exams regulator Ofqual is in talks with headteachers’ unions about the shape of exams next year as it becomes increasingly apparent that some students in Years 10 and 12 will have missed months of school.

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Discussions have yet to reach any firm conclusions. But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said one option no longer under consideration was repeating the system of calculated grades being used this summer. 

“The secretary of state has ruled that out,” he said. “Some people will say, ‘Centre-assessed grading worked well this year - let’s have that again next year.’

Coronavirus: What will next year’s GCSEs and A levels look like?

“I don’t get much appetite for that, partly because I think there is a sense that the externality of an exam is quite important for the child, so a lot of our members would say there needs to be some kind of examination.”

Options that are on the table are understood to include:

  • Delaying the start date from May to June 2021.
  • Less content in exam papers.
  • Open-book exams

There has also been a suggestion from one teachers’ leader that students might need greater choice over exam questions next year.

Reduced content in next summer’s exams would be combined with increased teacher assessment, in one plan under discussion, according to Mr Barton.

“There’s the question of, ‘Can you reduce content and have fewer exams?’ and then, ‘Can you assess pupils differently?’ and one way of doing that is to put more emphasis on teacher assessment,” he said.

But he added that there were potential difficulties with the idea. “There is a problem with taking content out of the exams - some learners will have already covered that content, and they might still need it in what they do next,” Mr Barton said.

“Or could you change the assessment processes in the way we did this year? There is no appetite in the profession for that.”

The heads’ leader said that allowing pupils to sit open-book exams was also being considered as this would reduce the pressure to memorise content.

“Could texts move from being closed-book to open-book? Could pupils take in data sheets with formula?” Mr Barton said. But he added that this was a “peripheral” issue.

GCSE and A-level English literature exams were reformed to be closed-book from 2017, although a petition at the time opposing the policy gained almost 110,000 signatures.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “It is essential that Ofqual draws up plans in the event that there can’t be exams next year because we are in a second spike.

“The fact is also that young people and teachers will have lost quite a lot of teaching time, so there has to be a real discussion about what those exams would look like.

“Children might need, for example, to have greater choice in the questions they answer. Because education has been so disrupted, it is absolutely right that Ofqual should plan for education not as normal.”

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “We recognise students expecting to take exams next year, and their parents and teachers, are concerned about the disruption to their teaching and learning caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our overriding aim is to ensure exams and assessments are as fair as possible and we are working closely with the Department for Education, exam boards and groups representing teachers, schools and colleges, to carefully consider a range of possible measures. We will provide further information in the coming weeks.”


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