With the number of changes that have occurred across education (and the country) over the last six months, it came as no surprise that the November exam series would also be subject to change. With students now able to make the overall decision as to whether they sit the exam in November, many centres are finding they have much-increased numbers for November.
Some colleges have decided to enter all student – which bring about obvious and numerous challenges.
Firstly, where do students sit the exam while still following Covid guidelines – how do (in some cases) thousands of students sit an exam and maintain a 2-metre distance from their peers? Where will the funding come from for the additional exam entries?
The DfE have offered help in the form of the exam support service, which will help schools and colleges to claim funding for "for essential additional costs": exam fees, identifying and sourcing alternative sites, and extra invigilators.
Background: Could GCSE resits be taught exclusively online?
But what of the other challenges? In a normal academic year (remember those?), identifying students who require exam access arrangements and exam support is challenging enough as students join throughout September and information from schools and other colleges doesn’t always follow. With the added workload of completing this process for so many more students for November resits, there is the danger that students won’t have arrangements in place, or colleges may have to take on additional staff in the short term.
Though £96m in additional funding has been ring-fenced for intervention, this money is not released until November. With so many changes occurring in education over the exam period and summer, there is the very real possibility that some students will sit an exam having had extremely limited or even no face-to-face teaching from mid-March until the exam.
What lessons can be learned?
As ever, the further education sector will rise to the challenge and provide additional support, intervention and resources for all students, but what lessons can we take from the November exam series and 2020 as a whole? What solutions can be offered for future years?
Initially, there had been discussion that there would be a January series of exams for students. Though rumours of this have largely died away, why not replace move the November series to January in future years and give further and post-16 education the opportunity to fully assess and diagnose student needs?
With national challenges in English and maths attendance, this would also represent a particularly large carrot which could be offered to students to improve attendance and focus (whereas currently, the deadline for entry is much earlier and so gives little scope for this).
Attendance after November for those who sit the exam is also a constant challenge. With a move to January, students should have a solid term of attendance, and will still have the June exams in sight, meaning the motivation to continue to attend will be stronger. There may also be the motivation for more examiners having had a break at Christmas and potentially overspent during that period... Joking aside, there is more preparation time to train examiners, and for the exam boards themselves with a January series.
More than this, there do need to be changes to the transition into further education and the ways in which we identify and process exam access arrangements. With some exam boards now offering portability of results (i.e. colleges can access results and raw marks online without contacting schools for some boards), why can’t this same process be used to record and transfer exam access and SEND information? A central, online national database of relevant students who can be identified and registered at any point in their academic life would mean that all schools, college and external relevant agencies (with proper written permission) could access relevant information.
The upkeep of this service could be paid for with the vast sums saved on additional testing (with some students receiving the same tests at school and college because relevant information has not been passed on) and would be much more efficient: provide evidence a student is enrolled, and their records are then accessible.
With a January exam, this information would be in place well before deadlines, and could be distributed to teaching staff to make sure it becomes the normal way of working.
Whatever 2020-21 holds, with new lockdown restrictions for at least the next six months, and with discussion of potential online exams, access arrangements and additional preparation time is needed now more than ever.
Jonny Kay is head of English and maths at a college in the North East