Exams 2021: Key questions that need to be answered

Ofqual's plans for exams and assessment were published last week – but there are still many unknowns, writes Jonny Kay

Jonny Kay

GCSEs 2021: Key questions that FE colleges need answering

After much consultation, and (to put it mildly) the extreme challenges around exams in 2020, the Department for Education announced last week that students would receive grades "awarded and determined" by teachers.

With much discussion and debate around what assessments and exams would look like in 2021 (not least after education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed exams would definitely happen as recently as December), at least some relief followed the announcement. However, with key dates and events released, thoughts now turn to the questions that have not been answered.

With additional (substantial) detail to follow, teachers have raised immediate concerns around some of the main elements of the announcement.


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Firstly, what specific evidence will be needed to award grades? With most students having completed work remotely (synchronously and asynchronously), but not all, there are those who have not had access to the resources or technology required (despite government assurances of laptop distribution targets). This is also mirrored in those attending school, with some isolating for long periods or not able to attend at all.

With so many resources available from so many platforms and mediums (from the BBC and Oak National to YouTube and social media), how can teachers really determine which work is representative of student ability?

Many teachers celebrated the announcement that exams and "mini mocks" would not be mandatory, but with the announcement that students would be able to complete exam questions from past papers (as well, potentially, as those from new materials) in flexible conditions, concerns remain. If conditions are flexible and teachers can decide which questions to set students, how will exam boards ensure consistency? Will parents, carers and students have confidence in a system with so many variables?

It is clear that some form of training will be required, but with the DfE promising guidance before Easter, this doesn’t leave much time for anyone involved. There will, of course, be the opportunity for students to appeal, but, again, many questions surround this process and there will be concerns among students that this process will mirror that of 2020 when appeals were amended to mean only an appeal on technical grounds.

With students likely having little to lose from an appeal, what is to stop the majority of students appealing? And, as at all other stages, questions remain around who will complete this workload. As results day is moved forwards by two weeks, teachers will likely be expected on site as students receive results. For most educators, the pandemic has represented the most exhausting, testing and stressful 18 months of their careers – to be tasked with additional workload in the middle of the summer holidays will extend this.

With minimal time for teachers to refresh before another difficult year comes, as well as taking time, resource and budget, this standardising, moderating and quality assuring will take their toll. Rounds of applause and sincere "thank yous" in some sections of the media have been very well received, but an increase in funding is urgently needed.

The autumn exam series

This is also before taking into account the autumn series of exams, which was mooted. In summer 2020, it was very much suggested that an autumn exam series would mean a full series of exams for all qualifications. As is currently happening, there was much demand for the detail of this announcement, but little information followed. The same questions remain: will there be a full suite of exams? Will English and maths GCSEs continue as normal in November, or will a second series be arranged in September/October or January (as was first mooted)? Will all students be given the opportunity to sit exams (regardless of the grade awarded in the summer)? Irrespective, clarity and detail are needed here, too. And quickly.

For Btec and wider vocational subjects, the announcement did at least provide specific information on next steps (something sorely missing in previous briefings). If practical elements can’t be completed in time, they can now be completed at a later date. As supportive and helpful as this appears, there remain more questions than answers. Along what timescale? Is this available for all learners on all Btec/ vocational qualifications? And will additional funding be made available to support this?

More concerning than the above, the clear choice of language ("teacher-assessed" grades, no longer "centre-assessed") seemingly moves all responsibility (and workload) for the process on to teachers, with little responsibility apparently being taken by the Department for Education. Again, how teachers and students will be supported throughout this process remains to be seen.

With so many variables still yet to be defined, we must remember that those now leaving school will have suffered 18 months of disrupted education. As this process finishes in late August, thoughts must already start to turn to next year and how we can support those students with the challenges they will face in further and higher education.

Jonny Kay is the head of teaching and learning at a college in the North East. He tweets at @jonnykayteacher

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