GCSEs and A levels 2021: ‘Dismay’ at ‘weak’ DfE plan

Heads condemn 'inadequate' response to Covid disruption, warning that delay will only be 'of marginal benefit'

Catherine Lough

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Headteachers have condemned the government's plan to counter Covid GCSE and A-level disruption by delaying next year's exams by three weeks, branding it inadequate.

Both the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the NAHT school leaders' union have said the decision does not go far enough in mitigating the effects of the pandemic on pupils.


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Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said: “We are dismayed by this announcement. It has taken the government an eternity to reach a very inadequate response to the scale of the challenge which lies ahead for students who are taking GCSEs and A levels next year.

“Delaying the start of exams by three weeks is of marginal benefit when compared to the loss of learning from the national lockdown and ongoing disruption. There isn’t enough being done to make the exams themselves fairer.

“Students need to be given greater choice over the topics they answer questions on so that they can select those which they have studied to sufficient depth. This is vital in addressing the fact that they will have had different learning experiences due to the Covid pandemic and ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to answer questions fully.

“We are also concerned that the government is only now engaging with the sector over back-up plans in the event that students are unable to sit exams next summer.

"This process should have been started a long time before now so that it is possible to put plans in place in good time. Instead, we will now be approaching Christmas before there is any clarity on contingency arrangements.

“The government has not moved quickly enough on this issue, and its response is so weak that it is inevitably storing up problems for the future.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: "It is disappointing it has taken this long to get to this point when there are so many more decisions to be made.

"A delay is one step which could benefit all students giving teachers more time to cover the content. But along with the delay comes a compression of the series, and we remain concerned about the impact of this on both student wellbeing and their exam performance.

“Announcing a delay is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the planning that now needs to be done. This step does not address the disparity between different students' different levels of disruption to learning; much more needs to be done to ensure that the qualification system takes account of this so that students can have confidence that the grades they are awarded in 2021 are fair.

“The new commitment to making contingency plans is welcome; schools and colleges need to know whether they should be gathering evidence of formal assessments which might be needed where students are unable to sit some or all of their exams next summer.”

But Ofqual said it welcomed the Department for Education's announcement: “We strongly support the revised timetable, with almost all exams now to be sat after the summer half term, a spokesperson said.

Exams are the fairest way to assess what students know and can do.

Ofqual's interim chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey said: “During the pandemic, teachers and students are having to work in exceptional ways, to catch up and keep up with learning. These arrangements optimise the time now available for that, providing the best part of three extra weeks' extra teaching and learning for many. And with this and the subject content for these qualifications now settled, teachers and students have some welcome certainty in these uncertain times.

“Of course, we will need contingency plans. We are discussing with government, exam boards and the sector, the detail of that – taking into account the risk of disruption at an individual, local and regional level.”

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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