GCSEs 2021: 5 ways exams will be different next summer

Grades will be pegged to 2020, regional grading is ruled out - here's how the government plans to approach exams in 2021

Catherine Lough

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Today education secretary Gavin Williamson announced long-awaited plans for how exams will take place in 2021, following the disruption to learning caused by the Covid crisis.

Tes’ reporting has anticipated many of the announced measures – so what did we learn today about how the government intends to mitigate the pandemic’s effects for the class of 2021?

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1. Grades will be ‘in line’ with those in 2020

The grading for GCSEs and A levels in 2020 was mostly based on teacher assessment following a government U-turn on the issue. This led to grade inflation compared with results recorded in the previous year. However, today the government announced that the grading in 2021 will be in line with that of 2020.

This is less generous than anticipated – Ofqual previously told the government in November that the grading in 2021 should be “more generous” than for the year before. But it is more generous than the suggestion made by school leaders in early October that grading next year should be pegged between outcomes in 2019 and 2020.

And the grading will also be evened out across subjects, as some subjects with smaller cohorts benefited from teacher assessment in 2020.

The generosity of 2020 will be maintained but averaged out across subjects, as teacher assessment meant that some subjects – notably A-level music and GCSE English – saw their grades boosted this summer. 

2. Students will be given advance notice of topics in the exam

As reported by Tes earlier this month, students will see some exam material in advance of sitting papers. Students will receive “advance notice of some topic areas covered in GCSE, AS and A levels to focus revision,” according to the government's announcement today.

These will be published from the end of January, Tes understands.

And, as Colin Hughes, chief executive of exam board AQA, predicted in an interview with Tes in November, students will be able to take in aids such as formulae sheets to exams so that they gain “more confidence”, as well as “reducing the amount of information they need to memorise”, according to the DfE’s statement.

For modern foreign languages, students may be able to take in vocabulary sheets, too. However, there will not be open-book exams for English literature qualifications.

3. There will be further papers for students who miss exams because of Covid-19

The government announced today "additional exams to give students a second chance to sit a paper if the main exams or assessments are missed due to illness or self-isolation".

In September, Mr Williamson said that a "reserve" set of exam papers might be needed for students unable to sit an exam on a given day

And in his interview with Tes, Mr Hughes said one option was to “run a single paper after the summer series, an extra reserve paper essentially for people who just couldn’t sit any of their exam papers in a given subject”, although he added that this would not be possible if exam boards ran an early "mock exam" series as well.

Now the government has confirmed additional contingency papers in all subjects will be available for students who are ill or self-isolating because of Covid-19. 

The "special consideration" process will also be scaled up so that students who miss one or more exams because of the pandemic can receive a grade if they have taken 25 per cent of their assessments, or 20 per cent in some circumstances.

For the most clinically vulnerable students, there will also be the option of sitting exams at home if national or local restrictions mean they cannot sit papers at school.

And a validated teacher assessment process will be used for a limited number of students who miss all papers in a subject, including contingency papers later in the year. 

4. There will be no grading by region – but Covid asterisks could be used

Grades will not be adjusted on a regional basis for areas more severely affected by the pandemic, Tes understands.

It is understood that the government has concluded that addressing regional differences across the country by grading would be too crude a measure, but there will be a "new expert group to look at differential learning and monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country".

Tes understands that the idea of regional grading is considered to be unfair, as learning disparities are not spread evenly across regions in the country.

Last week, an Ofqual adviser said that grading by region would be "completely impossible" as some schools in badly affected regions would have had relatively uninterrupted levels of learning.

5. 'Optionality' will not be used

The idea of optionality – where students could choose which questions they answered based on what they had covered, or where they could choose to drop certain papers – has been ruled out as overly complex and will not be used in 2021 exams. This is because it disadvantages some learners and would not be fair across all exam boards, given the different types of question and weighting across papers. 

Tes reported earlier this month that "optionality" in exams was "unlikely" according to headteachers.


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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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