GCSEs and A levels 2021: 9 options to counter Covid

With plans to mitigate Covid disruption to exams now overdue, here are the main contenders and those that are losing support

William Stewart and Dave Speck

exam hall

The Department for Education and Ofqual are expected to miss their own deadline for releasing detailed contingency plans for disruption to next year's GCSEs and A levels by the end of this month.

Nevertheless, the announcement cannot be too far away, or at least that is what the schools crying out for certainty will be hoping.

As the head of the UK's biggest schools exam board has already admitted, the problem of the coronavirus upheaval to candidates' education is "not completely solvable".

“We mustn’t have that sort of fantasy that we can just sweep away the extraordinary impact this pandemic has had,” Colin Hughes, AQA chief executive, has told Tes.

And that central difficulty probably explains why the discussions have taken so long and why so many options are being considered. As talks have continued, some ideas have clearly fallen away as realistic contenders, while others have emerged with strong backing.

This is a still fluid situation. But here is a guide to what are the most likely options to when the plans are finally published.  

The contenders

1. Covid asterisks on exam certificates 

Ofqual reportedly believes that using a symbol on GCSE and A-level certificates to denote the Covid disruption suffered by an individual candidate – rather than changing actual grades – has "potential".

This "one-off special flagging system alongside exam grades" would recognise the minority of students most seriously affected by Covid-19. They would get an asterisk or star next to their exam result on their certificates if schools judged that their grades were lower than they would have received if there had been no pandemic. 

Lee Elliot Major, the academic who came up with the idea, argues that "such an individualised system could tackle the thorny problem of regional variation in learning loss vexing headteachers across the country".

It would, he says, "make for a fairer exam system for many of our most vulnerable pupils. It would be levelling up on an individual level."

An Ofqual spokesman said: "With students having different experiences of the pandemic, we want fair ways of reflecting that next summer, while still making sure that exam grades give a good indication of individual students’ knowledge and understanding – as they should. This is one potential approach. 

"Exam certificates are an enduring record of achievement and we know that not all students would want them to carry such a permanent indicator, but there are other ways to record lost learning that could be equally valuable for students and those relying more immediately on these qualifications."

2. Generous grading

Ofqual has said that grading for GCSEs and A levels in 2021 – and possibly later years – must be more generous in order to compensate for the disruption to education caused by the coronavirus.

In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, Ofqual interim chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey said the grading next year would need to account for the "baleful impact of the pandemic for all students qualifying in 2021 (and possibly beyond)".

The question is: how far do you go with this generosity? Some senior exam-sector figures have told Tes that next year’s GCSE and A-level grades may need to be even more "generous" than those from this summer’s unmoderated results if they are to be fair to the students involved.

But other sector sources have suggested that grading standards for 2021 would be pitched between 2019 and 2020 to ensure that public faith in the exams system and students' morale was not adversely affected.  

And we still don't know if Mr Williamson thinks generous grading is a good idea.

3. Letting candidates see exam material in advance

One of the options being considered is for students to see material from question papers in advance. 

"This isn’t a new idea," Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said earlier this month.

"Earlier in the summer, Ofqual has signalled some specific approaches – eg, in English literature you could have students taking in extracts rather than needing to memorise quotations, or using data sheets in maths.

"The question is how far that can be taken in other subjects, as it often was in previous versions of exams – for example, being presented with source material or a case study taught in class, then being asked questions on that source material in the actual exam?"  

He told Tes that "giving advance notice of the topics in exam papers could help address the disruption caused by Covid to a certain extent because it would guide teachers and students on where to place their focus in the time available". But he cautioned that "it does not address the central problem of the high degree of variability in learning experiences between students".

Meanwhile, Ofqual has been clear that it wants next year's exams to be "less daunting".

4. Reserve papers

Mr Williamson raised this as an option when he appeared before MPs in September, saying: "So we're very much looking at that, very much taking on board what Ofqual has said about maybe needing to have a reserve set of papers for youngsters who as you've highlighted may not be in a position to take that examination, and obviously it wouldn't be possible for them to take the same examination just a few weeks' later...we are planning for that."

The idea has been described as "doable" by Colin Hughes, chief executive of AQA, the biggest GCSE and A-level exam board. 

He discussed the idea of running "a single paper after the summer series, an extra reserve paper essentially for people who just couldn’t sit any of their exam papers in a given subject”.

5. Mock exams in spring

Dame Glenys at Ofqual has already said that this is a possibility. Asked last month whether invigilated mock exams would be part of a plan B, in case students can't sit exams, the chief regulator said: "Certainly contingency papers if you like, sitting an exam paper ahead of the ordinary exam season, is an option we're looking at."

Earlier this month, Tes reported that students sitting "benchmark" tests in core subjects was one option under consideration for exams in 2021. 

Mr Hughes suggested that there was also scope for the number of subjects being reduced for mocks.

"You could do the range of subjects or you could do a limited set of subjects – stick to the EBacc subjects, which would obviously be much easier to administer and that would give you some back-up,” he said.

“They wouldn’t be comprehensive in that they wouldn’t give you the full range of papers. You would do a limited range of topics and it’s not particularly nightmarish to administer."

But the AQA chief has stressed that using both mocks and reserve papers is not an option because of the pressure it would place on the system. 

“What is difficult to administer is the subsequent marking of them, which is why you can’t do that and have another set of papers after the main series, because then we’d effectively be running three series in very short order, and that’s just completely not doable,” he said.

6. Special consideration

Candidates who have suffered long-term sickness, a bereavement, or domestic crisis can be considered for special consideration in a normal  year and in 2021 that could well be extended to students who miss exams because of the pandemic.

Exam boards are already spacing out GCSEs and A level papers to make the process easier. 

“We’re timetabling in the hope that if a student is isolating, let’s say, from 12 to 14 days during the exam cycle, they might at least be able to sit one of the papers,” Mr Hughes told Tes.

“So they might sit one maths paper and miss the second, and in that eventuality we can get a grade, we can get a reliable grade out of the one paper.”


Falling out of favour

1. Teacher- or school-assessed grades

The one thing that has been clear from the very start of working out what to do for 2021 GCSEs and A levels is that ministers are determined that summer exams will go ahead, come what may.

It has been their red line. And while Scotland and Wales have already cancelled exams, there is no sign U-turn from Westminster – not yet anyway. Ministers' only concession on this point has been to say the exams should be held three weeks later.

Sticking with exams is not a popular policy with many teachers, not least those working in the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus

But ministers also have plenty of backing on this issue. Amanda Spielman – now not only head of Ofsted but also chair of a key Ofqual committee overseeing the regulator's work – has warned that scrapping exams would risk doing students "real harm".

The chief inspector has suggested that the idea of cancelling summer GCSE and A-level exams "makes schools feel that a large proportion of pupils simply wouldn’t return to schools for the rest of the academic year".

Meanwhile, the Education Policy Institute thinktank has warned that teacher-assessed grades should be avoided for next year's GCSEs and A levels, amid concerns that these can be subject to bias.

The institute is clear that the "use of teacher-assessed grades should be avoided until there is more evidence about their reliability and impact on different demographics of pupils".

It says there are questions around "teacher bias" and concerns that teachers are not "immune from societal stereotypes" that could influence their judgements of young people, while some research shows that teachers slightly underestimate the performance of students with special educational needs and disabilities.

2. Regional grading

The idea of adjusting grades by region to take account of varying degrees of coronavirus disruption seems attractive on the surface, as an exam board chief has acknowledged.

And regional GCSE and A-level grades have been backed by Labour. But those in the exams sector like Mr Hughes have questioned whether the idea could work in practice.

“If you did it regionally, is it fair to do something for students in a rundown inner-city area comprehensive and just down the road there’s a fantastic private school and those students will get bumped up from a B to an A?" asked the AQA exam board chief executive. "Is that fair? Is that the right outcome?"

Meanwhile, an Ofqual adviser has warned that regional grading would be “completely impossible”.

Professor Robert Coe said it would be a mistake to think that exam grading could redress the inequality faced by students in different parts of the country through the impact of the coronavirus.

"How are you going to decide who has had disruption?" he asked. "Is that on a regional basis?

"Even in those regions where there has been significant disruption, there will be some schools that have had relatively little and certainly some pupils who have been relatively uninterrupted. Are we going to take account of that?

"Are they going to be lumped in with the region? On what basis do we make that decision and then how do we actually do that adjustment?

“People think that an exam grade should tell you something about what a pupil knows or can do or their attainment in a particular subject, for example. 

"This completely throws this out of the window and says, 'Well, we are just going to give a grade which we think reflects somehow what we think you deserve or would have got in an ideal world,' or I am not quite sure what. How do we define that?"

3. 'Optionality' – more choice within exams

This idea always looked like a runner after Ofqual's interim chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey suggested it as an option last month

However, since then serious reservations have come to the fore. 

Mr Hughes is concerned that while “greater choice amongst questions” sounds “terribly attractive”, it could introduce more unfairness.  

“There’s plenty of research that will tell you that the more optionality you introduce, the more it advantages more able students, because they cope with it much better,” the AQA chief told Tes.

“Whereas less able students find it more of a struggle. So actually, you may be cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told Tes earlier this month that the idea was losing support.

“I think the logistics of optionality are being seen as problematic," he said. "I think there’s widespread recognition of how even the logistics of creating exam papers where pupils could choose particular questions are very difficult, so I suspect that is being ruled out.

"I think the whole concept of optionality is lower down the pecking order than it was previously, not least because it risks further disadvantaging disadvantaged students.”

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