Exams 2021: International schools split on exams plans

International schools are uncertain whether exams will go ahead – and divided on whether they want them to

Dan Worth

International schools are currently not sure whether IGCSE and International A-level exams will go ahead this year amid the coronavirus pandemic

When it was announced on 8 January that IGCSE and International A-level exams would go ahead, eyebrows were raised.

A key concern was that pressing ahead with exams in international schools ignored the fact that every nation was in a different situation with the pandemic – some were teaching in school as normal, some were spending months teaching remotely.

Matt Topliss, the British school principal at El Alsson British and American International School New Giza, Egypt, summed up this issue up in a column for Tes by saying that the decision has “created uncertainty and inconsistency between subjects, countries and education systems."

Students are clearly concerned, too. A petition by students urging the exams boards to call off the exams has raised over 25,000 signatures.

The central issue is students and teachers are concerned that those who sit exams will be worse off than their peers – both in England and internationally. In England, students taking domestic GCSEs and A levels will receive teachered-assessed grades – and there is an expectation that this will lead to grade inflation.

What will happen with IGCSEs and international A levels?

At this point, though, it is worth noting that although UK government policy is for exams not to take place, its consultation on this year's exams asks in question 59: “Should exam boards be prohibited from offering GCSE, AS- and A-level exams in any country in 2021?”

The summation of the issue is worth quoting in full:

“A dual system, whereby some students in other countries took GCSE, AS- and A-level exams, but students’ grades in England were determined by teacher assessment, might give rise to concerns that there were 2 types of grades awarded – one based on a student’s performance in exams and one based on teacher assessment.

“However, if it is possible for exams to be safely taken in at least some countries, and as exams are the best way to assess student performance, it might be appropriate to allow them to be taken by students who will not otherwise be able to be issued with a grade. Exams might also be the best route for private candidates in England.

So there is still the possibility that international schools will be able to sit standard GCSE and A levels.

This leaves international schools in a tricky situation depending on what assessments they use:

  1. For IGCSEs and International A levels, focus on the idea that exams will take place, whatever your circumstances.
  2. For GCSEs and A levels, ignore the possibility that the consultation could decide that exams should be available and focus solely on teacher-assessed grades.
  3. Wait to see if you have the choice as to whether students sit exams or receive teacher-assessed grades, and therefore continue working with one eye on students still sitting exams in May and June.

Divided opinion on whether exams should go ahead

In an effort to gauge how international schools in the Middle East are hoping the situation will develop, the British Schools in the Middle East (BSME) recently issued a snap survey to its members, asking simply:

  1. Do you want the summer exam series to go ahead?
  2. If not, what alternative assessment would you prefer?

In two days, 66 schools responded.

If, though, the hope was that the survey would deliver a clear consensus behind which the organisation could throw its lobbying weight, instead it served to show that there is a clear divide in the international sector in the region:

  • 53 per cent said they did not want exams to go ahead (35 schools).
  • 47 per cent do want exams to go ahead (31 schools).

Of the schools that did want exams cancelled, 32 of the 35 said they should be replaced by centre-assessed grades (CAGs) and teacher-assessed grades moderated internally and/or by exam boards through mark schemes and exemplars of evidence for moderation.

Because of this split in opinion, the CEO of the BSME, Olivia Roth, told Tes that the organisation would not be advocating for either position but simply reporting on the findings to the necessary exam boards.

“It is clear BSME schools have a varied view of what is the best way forward for their own students,” she said.

“BSME respects schools' individuality and will therefore not be lobbying any particular view. However, we have shared the outcome of the poll with examination boards, as well as reinforcing the need for early and succinct communication with schools.”

She added that the organisation is also encouraging schools to reach out to regional representatives of exam boards to “ensure that their school's voices are heard, ensuring the best outcomes for your students”. 

'Uncertainty for everyone'

Commenting on the findings, Mark Leppard, who is chair of the BSME but also headmaster of the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, told Tes he had expected to see more consensus among leaders on wanting exams to be cancelled in preference for teacher-assessed grades.

“I thought it would be closer – personally I would prefer them to be cancelled because I think there is a lot of concern for students, teachers and parents on the fact exams [IGCSEs and Intearnational A levels] are going ahead," he said.

“It’s just not a level playing field and we have a lot of questions left unanswered at the moment, and that is causing uncertainty for everyone.”

For example, he noted that so far there has been little from the exams boards on a series of major issues with exams still going ahead, such as:

  • How do students who are especially at risk of Covid-19, and therefore unable to leave home, sit an exam?
  • What happens if the pandemic changes – such as a new variant emerges – and nations insist on further lockdowns that make holding exams impossible?
  • Are universities being briefed to understand any notable grade discrepancies between students who receive teache- assessed grades and those that sit exams?

Exam body Pearson considers its options

In response to these questions, exam body Pearson told Tes that it believes many students still want to sit exams but said it was aware there was “great uncertainty” around the situation and so is still assessing its position.  

Following the UK government’s decision to cancel exams in England, we are carefully considering how to ensure the fairest possible outcome for every student, in every country we operate,” it said.

“We are undertaking a thorough review of the situation and will inform our centres as soon as this is complete.

OxfordAQA, meanwhile, said that, with regards to what happens if a student is unable to travel into school for an exam, “it may be possible for a student to sit an exam at home or in an alternative venue”.

“Arrangements would need to comply with local government and public health guidance, and the school would still be required to invigilate the examination according to our regulations. The student must not have tested positive for Covid-19 or be self-isolating.”

Schools in this situation are advised to contact OxfordAQA’s Access Arrangements team, the organisation added in its statement to Tes.

Cambridge International had not responded to the same questions at the time of publication.

Exams 'are still the best'

However, while these issues are clearly causing concern and are no doubt occupying the time of exam boards, it should be noted that almost half of the survey respondents wanted exams to go ahead.

One such leader is Michael Lambert, the headmaster of Dubai College.

The school currently offers 20 GCSEs to students, of which four are IGCSE and 16 are domestic GCSE, while its entire A-level offering is domestic (the equivalent of the exams sat in England).

Mr Lambert told Tes that he would much rather have the option of schools being able to decide if students sit exams or not because each school will be in a far better position to decide if students have had adequate learning to sit an exam – a far better assessment method than teacher-assessed grades, he said.

“We know exams are categorically the fairest way to assess people. Yes, they have their faults – but they are the fairest way,” he added.

“We moved to online learning pretty much straight away and didn’t lose a single day's teaching in the summer term [in 2020]. It was exhausting but we managed it. And then since September, we have been back 100 per cent.

“We would at least like the option of being able to decide what we do, rather than being told and have that option taken away.”

More U-turns ahead?

He noted, too, that, although teacher-assessed grades may appear the fairest way to give all students an equal shot at a useful grade for their future in another academic year heavily disrupted by the pandemic, there is nothing to say it will not cause the same fallout as the centre-assessed grades system used in 2020.

“We all thought CAGs looked perfectly good and we went through the process and did what we were asked – and then within 24 hours of data being released, you had students with placards, protesting and the biggest U-turn in education history,” said Mr Lambert.

 “The trouble with this year’s proposals for TAGs is that it’s another brand new system that we have never seen before.

“On paper it may sound brilliant but until you run it and see what happens and see what inflation or deflation there is and see how it impacts students with differential learning…all it will take is another round of protests and we could have yet another U-turn.”

He also highlighted that proposals for teacher-assessed grades include schools and their staff not only issuing grades but also handling any appeals from students – of which many could well be expected.

This could likely wipe out any summer break for teachers ahead of their return in September. “I’m not sure many of us have a wellspring of reserves left to deal with that sort of fallout”, he added.

What happens next?

International schools are caught in a wait-and-see bind. Those that follow IGCSEs and International A levels are expecting to sit exams. Those that follow domestic GCSEs and A levels are expecting not to sit exams.

But either situation could quite feasibly change to allow the option of choosing to use teacher-assessed grades or put students in for exams.

Would giving this option to schools solve the situation? Perhaps – the BSME survey split shows that school leaders have their own ideas about what it best for their students. But then having both options available would open up more questions:

  • Who would make the decision? Just the headteacher? SLT? All staff? 
  • Would students be consulted?
  • Would parents?
  • What would the damage be if a consensus formed among parents that the wrong decision had been made – whatever it was?

These are issues teachers do not have to think about quite yet – but they might.

Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned the International Baccalaureate – there, too, doubt rages. Schools minister Nick Gibb said earlier this week that IB students in the UK should not be sitting exams this year. And the IB is regulated by Ofqual. So presumably it will make that call. But would this be the same for the rest of the world?

Or will the IB, too, come to a situation where schools can choose themselves to do exams or deliver a form of teacher-assessed grades – based on how confident they are that their students have had enough quality learning to perform well in examinations?

As of yet, there has been no word from the IB on its plans since a holding statement was issued in early January.

Perhaps February will deliver some much-needed clarity.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories

Covid in schools, GCSEs 2021, teacher safety: LIVE

Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 1/3

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the ongoing pandemic will have on their working lives.
Tes Reporter 1 Mar 2021