Big questions remain over exams and assessment in 2021

Ofqual publishing its consultation on assessment offers a chance to right the wrongs of last year, writes Jonny Kay

Jonny Kay

GCSEs and A levels 2021: What might happen with exams and assessment this year - and what might it mean for FE colleges?

With the new year barely a fortnight old, and with the recent raft of changes to school and college delivery, 2021 is starting to look a lot like 2020.

With the announcement that all teaching would move back to online (where possible), schools and colleges have acted quickly to support students across the country.

With a new national lockdown, there came the suspicion that changes would also be made to 2021 summer and in-year assessments. And so it came to pass.

This week education secretary Gavin Williamson announced that major changes would be implemented to all exams and assessments as a result of new lockdown restrictions, and to mitigate against lost teaching time in all sectors.


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But what might this look like in further education?

With a host of U-turns in 2020, educators had long suspected that changes to exams and assessments would come sooner rather than later. As soon as the 2020 centre-assessed grades process started, many in FE began to ask questions about what this would mean for 2020-21 and how assessments and exams could accurately, and fairly, be awarded.

Though the announcement comes after the majority of home nations had already laid out their plans for exams and assessments, there is at least time to consult and develop plans around what assessment will look like in lockdown and beyond.

Exams: Getting results right in 2021

There are also some positive signs for those in FE that Btecs, functional skills and vocational and technical qualifications have at least been taken into consideration, with the majority of announcements around these qualifications following days, and even weeks, after GCSE and A-level announcements in April and May 2020.

There, we must also ensure there is no repeat of the impact that this had on further education and post-16 students. Concerns over progression routes were raised early and, though colleges were able to support students and guarantee course places in the majority of cases, the mental health and wellbeing impact this had on students (fearful they would be without destinations in September 2020) and teachers and leaders was significant. Again, with a consultation process announced, there is the opportunity to right these wrongs.

Time for additional teaching

With Gavin Williamson also announcing that grades are to be issued "as late as possible", students may have opportunities to attend additional teaching (whether this be face-to-face or online remains to be seen) and this should help to support teacher judgements during the 2021 CAG process. At the very least, it will give extra time to compile evidence, something which was much needed last year.

Though there were positives in the announcement (or best-case scenarios following Covid rates, subsequent lockdown and online teaching and learning challenges), there are challenges to be met.

Externally set exams and tasks have been proposed by Williamson and Ofqual and, though this would support teacher-assessed grading, it will inevitably disadvantage those who have already been disadvantaged by Covid. Those without laptops, tablets, internet or regular contact with teachers will unavoidably have experienced less teaching, and will therefore be less prepared.

The much-debated mini-exams also raise questions. How will they be implemented in schools and colleges looking to reduce student numbers in classrooms? Who will invigilate these exams? Who will mark these exams?

There also remain the basic logistical challenges faced by larger colleges who regularly see 4,000 to 5,000 students resitting in English and maths.

There is also the matter of the additional training that has been promised. This training clearly needs to happen soon, but cannot happen without the completion of the consultation. Again, questions need to be answered here: who will administer the training? What format and structure will it take?

And all of these concerns and deliberations are without taking into account the impact on vocational and technical qualifications. The mixed messages sent out in the first week of January left many students concerned and anxious about their futures. Exams were on, then seemingly off, then colleges were allowed to decide, at times with very little notice.

Though Williamson announced that practical assessments and VTQs could still take place, many colleges will be wary of the inevitable risks associated with students returning to college, even in small numbers.

Online learning has been effective throughout education, but it is important to remember that the teaching of practical, vocational skills cannot so easily be recouped. How will those learners make up the lost time?

And all of this before an appeals process is discussed or finalised. There also remains the issue of gathering a "breadth of evidence’ in subjects like English and maths in FE, where low attendance remains a challenge in gathering substantive evidence".

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, it is likely that educators will once again perform above and beyond expectations to deliver for students, parents/carers and the Department for Education, but there are many, many questions to be answered on that journey.

Jonny Kay is the head of teaching and learning at a college in the North East. He tweets at @jonnykayteacher

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