GCSEs: Why we should hold a second exam series in July

Running a second GCSE English and maths exam series in July would benefit post-16 students, says Jonny Kay

Jonny Kay

GCSEs 2021: The changes to the exam timetable only benefit learners in schools, writes Jonny Kay

With decisions now made around November exams, and the centre-assessed grading (CAG) process seemingly a lifetime ago, there were many who felt a January 2021 exam series may be the next major event for students sitting exams (as seen in Northern Ireland). However, with little chance of this series occurring in England, all eyes have now turned to summer 2021 and how exams will be carried out.

In Scotland, it was announced at the beginning of the month that school exams would be replaced by teacher judgement supported by assessment (no doubt influenced by 2020 exam algorithm backlash). In Wales, parents, teachers and students are being consulted on the format and timing of 2021 assessments and will have kept an eye on decisions in Scotland.

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In England, the Department for Education announced that GCSEs would go ahead as normal, albeit slightly later for the majority of exams (with a delay giving extra study time).

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But, what about further education? What impact will these decisions have for post-16 students?

As has so often been the case during the pandemic, it appears that little thought has been given to the impact these changes may have on further education and resit students. Though these changes are intended to give students time for additional teaching and revision, the move to hold one of the GCSE English exams earlier than normal means students have not only missed out on vital teaching time due to lockdown but will also lose two weeks of teaching as a result of the new date.

It is easy to see the appeal of the more simplified scheduling – two one-week blocks, each containing a GCSE English and maths exam – but, with less preparation and teaching time, there could well be an onset of anxiety and stress for practitioners and students alike. Traditionally, students use the half-term holiday to complete revision and intervention sessions to prepare for the first GCSE English exam – this is now not possible for 50 per cent of the English language GCSE.

The move may benefit students in schools (who can spend the Easter term giving more focus to English and maths exams), but more work is needed to support FE students.

So, what can the DfE do to support English and maths in further education? With catch-up funding only beginning in November, and the November exam series giving students minimal preparation time (unlike in Northern Ireland, where a two-week delay has been imposed) after such a long layoff due to lockdown, more resources and support are needed.

With pressures potentially mounting on students and staff alike, there has been renewed debate around revised, or even new, qualifications in English and maths for resit/ post-16 students (particularly in maths, with the rise of core maths and discussion of a "passport"-style qualification). However, with so many changes and challenges in FE, it is more important than ever to embed whatever consistency we can and support students to achieve in qualifications they are familiar with.

Part of this must be to give students back the time they have missed in all subjects and qualifications. To do this, why not hold a second series of GCSE English and maths (and potentially science) in summer 2021, at the beginning of July? With post-16 resit students already missing out on valuable teaching time in comparison to schools (attending 3 hours per week, as opposed to four or five hours in schools), this would provide additional time to prepare for exams and could be the all-important difference for so many students who come so close to achieving a grade 4.

It would appear to be the perfect time to review the amount of teaching English and maths students in FE receive. The catch-up funding is available, and it is obvious students need more time in classrooms. Why can’t this be extended indefinitely?

To complement this, cancelling the November 2021 exam series, and replacing it with a January 2022 series (with guaranteed entry for resit students) would mean students would have more time to prepare, should they need to resit in 2021-22. An extension of catch-up funding to support students during, through and after the summer of 2021 would also be fully welcomed and enormously beneficial.

With so many questions over the summer 2021 series (education secretary Gavin Williamson has only stated that contingency plans for the 2021 exam series will be "decided later"), FE and post-16 students, in particular, require additional support and resources.

Jonny Kay is an FE leader in the North of England

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Jonny Kay

Jonny Kay is the head of teaching and learning at a college in the North East. He tweets at @jonnykayteacher.

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