What's the best solution for 2021 GCSEs and A levels?

With no plan B in place, is there a way to ensure that GCSEs and A levels don't end up in chaos again, asks Tom Richmond

Tom Richmond

GCSEs and A levels 2021: With schools closed, what is the best solution?

“Normal” is a dangerous word to use these days. What counts as normal one day could look decidedly abnormal soon afterwards. 

This is why Boris Johnson’s declaration that "it’s not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal” leaves us scratching our collective heads. He did not cancel any exams, nor did he confirm that any summer exams would take place. So what now?

There are many ways of assessing what children and young people have learned. While no assessment method is perfect, external examinations remain the most valid (accurate) and reliable (consistent) form of assessment that we have available – certainly within the next few months.

Even so, the scale of the learning loss experienced across the country is significant, and potentially about to get even worse in the coming weeks. 

It is, therefore, reasonable to suggest that putting on a full suite of GCSEs, A levels and equivalent qualifications in the summer of 2021 would indeed be unfair, as the prime minister noted. 

Coronavirus: What do we do about exams in 2021?

The question of what alternative arrangements should replace next summer’s exams will no doubt rekindle the prospect of using teacher assessments to judge students’ achievements. However, last summer delivered a painful lesson across the whole UK regarding the deficiencies in this approach.

It is inevitable that relying on teacher assessments for high-stakes judgements will lead to grade inflation, even if some form of moderation is layered on top. It happened last year, and it will get even worse if we use the same system for a second year, because there is little or no reason for schools and colleges to make anything other than optimistic judgements. It’s worth bearing in mind that, on an annual basis, 80 per cent of teachers’ predicted grades for Ucas applications fall short of their predictions. 

Rampant grade inflation would seriously damage the credibility of GCSEs and A levels, potentially leaving this year’s entire exam cohort with qualifications that are worth considerably less in the eyes of employers and universities.

One might instead propose a move towards coursework or centre-assessment grades, accompanied by a slightly less mutated algorithm for 2021. But such endeavours would still not deliver a fair verdict on what pupils know and can do by the end of their course.

Where does this leave us? We need to factor in the significant learning loss experienced by students, while also recognising the value of external examinations. The most obvious solution is to proceed with exams in principle, but cut the number of exams that students must take. 

A significantly reduced GCSE and A-level schedule 

The government should encourage GCSE students to drop down to five subjects, by converting the Progress 8 accountability measure for secondary schools into Progress 5 for this summer. This would allow schools in England to slash the amount of content that students must learn in advance of their GCSEs. 

As a starting point for deliberations, all students could be required to take GCSE English and maths, plus one science and then any other two subjects, including technical awards, to make up their complement of five. (On a related note, this presents the perfect opportunity to scrap the pointless EBacc, as the EDSK think tank proposed back in 2019.) 

To reduce the health risks to students and staff this year, two exam sittings should be provided for all GCSE subjects across May and June, with children randomly allocated to each sitting.

A levels are also too important to be subjected (again) to the vagaries of centre-assessed grades. On that basis, all A-level examinations should proceed as normal, albeit across two sittings for each subject over June and July. The A-level cohort is far smaller than the GCSE cohort, meaning that additional examination space could easily be prepared in advance if necessary.

At this stage in the academic calendar, any alternative to examinations is likely to be a rushed and cumbersome proposal that is less fair, less valid and less reliable than exams. No one wins in that scenario, even if it feels friendlier to some. 

There is evidently no off-the-shelf plan B available, and we should not waste precious time trying to create it. What’s more, it is entirely possible that any alternatives could make things even worse for the most disadvantaged learners, given what we know about the biases inherent in teacher assessment. 

Instead, the government should announce that there will be a significantly reduced exam schedule this summer. By allowing GCSE students to prepare for just a handful of subjects that reflect their interests and aptitudes, while A levels and other Level 3 qualifications go ahead in a safe and secure manner, we can protect the integrity of our education system at the same time as protecting the health and wellbeing of everyone involved. 

This is surely the best outcome we can hope for in 2021.

Tom Richmond is the director of the EDSK think tank and a former teacher and government adviser

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