'We deserve clarity about GCSEs and A levels – now'

Will government take action in time to save students and teachers from another exams nightmare, asks Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

GCSEs and A levels 2021: The government needs to make a decision now on running exams amid all the coronavirus disruption, says Geoff Barton

Here we are, then. As the next half-term phase of this surreal year heaves into view, we find ourselves still no nearer to getting a definitive answer about summer 2021’s GCSEs and A levels in England. 

With most schools and colleges in most parts of the country resuming next week, neither teachers nor their students have any clear idea of the destination point – that is, of what their exams next summer might actually look like. 

And so, with Covid cases rising to nearly 100,000 a day, local rates of school attendance diverging and major changes to exams on the cards in Scotland and Wales, the government in Westminster is looking as far behind the curve as ever.

Its response to the problem of these exams and how they can be held in a way that is fair to young people has been remarkably sluggish, especially given these students’ vastly differing experiences during the national lockdown and a now-escalating second Covid wave

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Lost teaching time

After all, it’s not as if arrangements for the 2021 generation needed to wait for the fallout of the 2020 results fiasco. From the point of national lockdown back in March, decisions were always going to be needed around young people who were then in Years 10 and 12, who were missing out on potentially large swathes of teaching time. 

True, Ofqual introduced some minor changes to the specifications during the course of this summer, and education secretary Gavin Williamson more recently announced a three-week delay to the start date of the 2021 exams, to allow for a bit more teaching time. 

But, frankly, it’s not enough.

This so-called exam plan was never going to be anywhere near enough to address the scale of disruption and to provide some reassuring safety net of fairness to students. 

And, sure enough, as each day goes by, its hopeless inadequacy becomes ever clearer.

Meanwhile, Scotland – which always seems to be a few proactive steps ahead of England – has decided to cancel its National 5 exams, roughly equivalent to GCSEs in England, but to go ahead with its A-level equivalent of Higher exams.

And Qualifications Wales has recommended to minister for education Kirsty Williams a similar approach, with proposals to scrap timetabled GCSE and AS-level exams, and to prioritise an exam element at A level.

So a pattern is emerging, which, it has to be said, makes a great deal of sense. 

Coronavirus: Plan for the worst, and hope for the best

As A levels are the gateway qualification for university, then prioritise exams in these qualifications – not least because many students will want that opportunity – while removing the near-impossible problem of holding a full exam series for GCSEs.

You might want to add to that proposal the idea of holding formal exams in GCSE English and maths, because they are the gateway qualifications to future courses and jobs. Many students will crave the natural justice of demonstrating their knowledge and skills against an unseen examiner. That’s understandable.

So: plan for the worst and hope for the best. Prioritise A levels and GCSE English and maths; make adaptations to the papers; put robust teacher assessment and proper regulation in place. Then let teachers focus on what students need most: teaching.

All of which exposes the sticky position of the government in Westminster. 

So far, it has relentlessly quacked rhetoric about exams being the fairest way of assessing students, no doubt still feeling bruised by the debacle of the summer. 

But dare it really press ahead with a full exam series, as it becomes increasingly obvious that this cannot possibly be a level playing field, and with the likelihood that disruption will worsen over the coming weeks and months?

The nightmare scenario

The nightmare scenario is that it sticks to its guns, only to have to reverse course later in the academic year, thus triggering another unseemly last-minute scramble to put in place an alternative system – or, indeed, that it presses ahead with exams come what may, and things then fall apart.

Experience tells us that the government in Westminster is more likely to be paralysed by continued indecision before announcing too late a fudged plan that pleases no one and raises more questions than it answers.

Two things are sure. 

The first is that – whatever you think of the government – this is a really difficult set of decisions. No one denies the challenge of the problem. There is, in truth, no ideal solution. Every way you turn, there are problems, and this is really going to be a case of the least-worst option. 

But it may just be that if you’ve never been a teacher, you don’t realise why these delays in making decisions matter, how maddeningly anxiety-making it is for you and your students if you still can’t answer a question as simple as: “Will I be tested on this in next year’s exam, sir?”

The second issue, therefore, is that the government, with all its dithering, has a narrowing window of time in which to get this right.

Students and teachers return to learning next week – in class or at home. Amid so much uncertainty, so much swirling anxiety, they deserve some clarity. They deserve some answers. And time ticks frustratingly by.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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