GCSEs and A-levels 2021: Exams in England ‘in jeopardy’

Heads say Welsh regulator's proposal to scrap 2021 exams throws 'spotlight' onto whether a full series can run in England next summer

Catherine Lough

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Heads have said a recommendation from the Welsh exams regulator that exams be scrapped next year in Wales throws the idea of running a full series in England into "jeopardy".

Qualifications Wales has recommended that students do not sit papers for GCSE and AS-level exams next year because of the ongoing disruption to schools caused by the coronavirus, although it said A-level papers should still go ahead. 


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Headteachers have said the move casts doubt on whether a full exams series is possible in England next year.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The recommendations in Wales throw the spotlight on plans in England where the government has so far said that exams will go ahead next summer.

“We have repeatedly warned that these plans don’t go far enough to recognise the disruption to students.

“It is now clear that the scale of ongoing disruption caused by Covid is so severe that the idea of a full exam series in England must be in jeopardy.

“It is imperative that the government in Westminster sets out as soon as possible how it intends to ensure that grades are awarded fairly next year in these circumstances.”

“Schools and students need to know whether there will be any form of alternative assessment and what this will look like, and the content of any timetabled exams has to take into account the fact that students will have been affected to widely varying extents.”

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership of local authorities and regional business leaders has already said the DfE should scrap summer exams and commit to continuous assessment for students' grades.

It is warning that running an exams series would risk another grading "fiasco" next summer because of the Covid disruption already experienced by many students.

In Wales, Eithne Hughes, director of ASCL Cymru, said that while exams could not "go ahead as normal", she was concerned that Qualifications Wales' proposal to use common assessments and coursework to award GCSEs had "overegged the pudding" through the amount of assessment this would entail.

“We agree that exams cannot go ahead as normal in Wales next year, because it is clearly the case that there cannot be a level playing field with students disrupted by the impact of Covid to widely varying extents, she said.

“However, we are concerned that Qualifications Wales has overegged the pudding in terms of the sheer amount of assessment it is proposing instead of exams for GCSEs and AS levels, and in addition to them for A levels.

“If the Welsh government accepts these proposals, students will be doing little else other than assessment between now and next summer, when what they most need is space in the timetable for teaching.

“There is an alternative proposal from an independent review commissioned by the Welsh government to scrap exams entirely next year and award grades on the basis of moderated assessment.

“This needs to be carefully considered alongside the proposals from Qualifications Wales to achieve a solution that ensures assessment is proportionate and fair to all students in these extremely challenging circumstances.”

Avis Gilmore, deputy general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “Any sensible observer can see there will not be a level playing field for exams in England next year, but we are of course not dealing with a sensible government.

Where Scotland and Wales lead the way, England is once again running out the clock with plans for a three-week delay to 2021 exams and very little else.

“The consequences of dither and delay are clear. Attendance rates falter, with more students having to self-isolate and learn at home. All pupils missed a term of study in the summer, and whilst some have been able to attend schools and colleges since September, many pupils’ education is still being interrupted by episodes of self-isolation as the government’s own attendance figures show.

“The mistakes of 2020 must never happen again, but history now runs the risk of repeating itself. With different rates of pupil absences across the country due to Covid, the current approach to exams in England is increasingly untenable.

“Not all students are able to access their education equally. We need to see a reduction in what is assessed, and a serious conversation with the profession to ensure a robust national system of moderated centre-assessed grades.

“Decisive action is needed to ensure schools and colleges have a clear path forward, giving students and their families the reassurance that an examination system is in place that ensures fairness across the country.” 

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Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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