GCSE and A-level students could sit shortened exams with reduced subject content later this year, Tes understands.
In the autumn, GCSE and A-level students will have the opportunity to sit papers if they are unhappy with their teacher-assessed grades. However, under the plans, students could sit papers that cover only part of the syllabus.
Exam boards and Ofqual have been holding discussions on whether the content covered by the exams and the length of the papers should be cut, Tes has learned. This could mitigate the learning time lost since lockdown closed schools to most students.
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With Year 11 and 13 pupils now not due to return before the summer, they have missed more than a term and therefore more than a sixth of their courses.
But no decision has been taken yet, and as Tes revealed last month, another option being considered is not running exams at all this calendar year for some GCSEs and A levels.
Exam board sources say they will need a decision or at least clarification soon because of the practical implications. But Ofqual is yet to begin a consultation.
The idea of shortened papers was first referred to on 22 April, when Labour MP Apsana Begum asked whether exam boards should reduce content in summer 2021 exams at a Commons Education Select Committee meeting. Her question prompted the start of exam board discussions for this year, sources say.
On 29 April, education secretary Gavin Williamson also referred to "shortened" exam papers in a hearing with the education committee.
Tes understands the discussions have considered research on the views of teachers and universities. Shortened exam papers were a preferred option among teachers compared with an exam series where fewer subjects were offered.
However, there are fears that higher-tariff universities would be unhappy with shortened qualifications, and that science departments would also be concerned about accepting students with gaps in their knowledge.
There are also concerns that it would be impossible to reduce content in exams without some pupils being unfairly disadvantaged, as there is no way of knowing when different schools have covered particular A-level or GCSE topics.
One reason behind offering fewer subjects could be the logistical difficulties of offering a full series of exams while observing social distancing measures, Tes understands.
Ofqual is due to have a further consultation on the autumn series and whether it will "permit" or require boards to run exams in every subject, meaning that some GCSE and A-level subjects might not be available for pupils to sit in the autumn.
An Ofqual spokesperson said: “There are a number of considerations relating to an autumn exam series and we will set out further proposals for consultation shortly.”
A spokesperson for the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said: “JCQ and its member awarding bodies are working closely with Ofqual and the DfE in the response to the cancellation of examinations this summer and the forthcoming autumn series.
"Ofqual has said that it intends to hold a consultation on the autumn examinations, and it is inappropriate to speculate before the launch. We would encourage all interested parties to contribute to the consultation when it is live.”