Pupils might have to sit their GCSEs and A-levels on later dates or at alternative sites in the “nightmare” scenario of a no-deal Brexit causing significant traffic disruption, Tes can reveal.
Exam board sources have told Tes that in the most extreme scenario of a large number of candidates not being able to sit a paper, “drastic” action could be taken to postpone the sitting across the entire country.
The UK is currently set to legally leave the EU on Friday with a deal yet to be approved, although prime minister Theresa May has asked EU leaders to reschedule this to the end of June.
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If Britain were to leave without a deal, then it is possible that the resulting disruption could run into the summer exam season, which begins next month.
Two exam sector sources – who spoke to Tes on the condition of anonymity – outlined the planning that boards have undertaken to prepare for a no deal.
They both said the Joint Council for Qualifications – the membership body for exam boards that is leading on Brexit planning – had looked at the possibility of delays to cross-Channel lorries at Dover causing traffic jams across Kent.
One of the sources told Tes: “The nightmare scenario you can envisage is if there’s a no-deal Brexit, and you end up with roads in Kent turning into carparks.
“You could literally end up with kids not able to get to school for their timetables exams.”
The source said that in this scenario, the action taken by exam boards would be tailored to the seriousness of the disruption. At the lower end of the spectrum, boards could “look at changing start times”.
“Obviously exams have fixed start times in general,” the source said. “There’s a little bit of discretion for schools around that, but in exceptional circumstances, we can extend that discretion if we’re confident that schools can make sure that students wouldn’t have access to any confidential material.”
Exam boards could also redirect candidates to “alternative sites”, they said.
“There is provision for students not to sit the exam at the centre they have been entered for, or not at that physical site, if there’s an exceptional situation.
“You could envisage a situation where there was a particular school that was gridlocked just because of where it happened to be, those students could potentially be diverted to other local schools in order to sit those exams.”
In the most extreme scenario, an exam sitting could be postponed nationwide if it looked like a large number of students were going to miss it.
“There is a more drastic option potentially of actually postponing a given exam at the last minute nationally, which, for obvious reasons, would be a thing we’d be reluctant to do,” the source said. "If you did get into a situation where you did have five or 10 per cent of the cohort that just couldn’t sit their GCSE in English, then we couldn’t just find our way around that with the usual things."
If any of these contingency plans had to be activated, then communication would be key. “There’s likely to be a lot of hysteria around it. It’s probably going to be important to get the comms out and just make sure it’s crystal clear and we can reassure people so that especially we don’t have kids panicking.”
The source also said that exam boards have focused on ensuring their supply networks would hold in the event of a no deal. “The obvious things are printing and distribution – essentially we’re working with our suppliers to make sure there aren’t any risks that can’t be mitigated,” they said.
A second source confirmed that exam boards were arranging “alternative sittings” on later dates if students were unable to get to their exams. They said this might have to involve some students sitting a substitute paper of an “equivalent” difficulty, because details of the original paper would already be public.
The source said that exam boards had modelled how traffic disruption could “ripple” through distribution networks, to make sure they had “watertight” processes for shipping papers and getting them to scanning centres.
Tes was also told that exam boards with international business operations had readied alternative supply routes in case a no deal disrupted international freight. Confidential exam material could be lodged electronically in regional offices and then printed and distributed from that location.
Both the sources Tes spoke to said they felt confident about their contingency plans.
A spokesperson for JCQ told Tes it was “aware of, and are planning for, the different possible scenarios presented by the UK leaving the European Union.
They went on: “JCQ is working with its member awarding organisations, government and regulators to finalise appropriate collective arrangements which might be needed to ensure all examinations and assessments for qualifications provided by JCQ members take place according to the published timetable.
“JCQ has tried and tested joint contingency arrangements which have been reviewed. JCQ will continue to focus on ensuring the needs of centres and learners are met.”
An Ofqual spokesperson said: "We are working closely with exam boards to ensure the summer series runs smoothly, and that any potential impacts of the UK’s planned departure from the EU are managed appropriately.
"Schools and colleges should also have their own contingency arrangements in place. Our website has more information on managing disruption during exams."