Call to cut GCSE content to tackle 'postcode lottery'

More than 60,000 sign NEU petition demanding a reduction in subject content for GCSE and A-level exams in 2021

Catherine Lough

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Call to cut subject content amid coronavirus disruption to schools

Teachers have called for reduced content in exams in 2021 amid fears that disruption caused by Covid-19 will mean exams cannot go ahead.

In a petition for "fair grades" launched by the NEU teaching union, signed by more than 61,000 people, teachers have called for subject content to be reduced in next year's exams, and for a "robust" system of teacher-assessed grades to be established in case exams are cancelled.

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In a statement from the union, it states that "students starting the final year of their GCSEs and A levels in September 2020 have missed months of schooling: the exams they sit in the summer of 2021 must reflect this lost learning time".

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"[Exams] must be slimmed down by making some topics optional to allow for the different order in which content will have been taught across the country," the NEU says.

It calls on the government to work with teachers and school leaders to develop a "robust national system" of teacher-assessed grades "in case there is further disruption to exams next summer because of a second spike in coronavirus or local lockdowns".

The petition also calls for there to be an independent review into "assessment methods used to award GCSE and A-level qualifications in England, along the lines announced by the Scottish government".

"The current over-reliance on exams increases student anxiety and fails to give a fair reflection of what students can achieve," it continues.

"All options should be considered to ensure that young people are rewarded for their achievements, supported to fulfil their potential and not held back due to their background."

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “This petition was launched before the full opening of schools in September and prior to the many examples of schools having to send pupils home due to new cases of Covid-19.

"Our warnings were prescient. There is a clear disruption to learning, and a geographical unevenness. There is an emerging postcode lottery for exams in 2021.  

“In October, [education secretary] Gavin Williamson made it even harder for disadvantaged pupils to avoid learning loss. His actions to impose a legal duty on schools to provide remote learning, but to then ration already inadequate supplies of IT equipment to families the next day, are shameful. They are not the actions of a politician with the welfare of every child at the forefront of his mind. 

“Any sensible observer can see there will not be a level playing field for exams next year, and it is deeply irresponsible of Gavin Williamson to conclude – as he recently did – that a three-week delay to summer exams in 2021 will be sufficient to make the system fair. 

“We need a rethink, and with it a far more realistic expectation of what should be measured and how. Since August we have been calling on government to work with us to address the challenges facing GCSE and A-level students, who are studying right now, so that they are not met with the sort of atrocious handling of results we saw in 2020.

"Students need to know where they stand now, not later.” 

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance, which is why they will go ahead next year, underpinned by contingency measures developed in partnership with the sector.

 “Over the coming weeks, we will jointly identify any risks to exams and the measures needed to address potential disruption, with fairness for students continuing to be our priority.”


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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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