Revealed: Insider’s view on 6 options for GCSEs 2021

As time runs out on planning for summer A levels and GCSEs, the head of the AQA exam board gives his opinion on options for change

Catherine Lough

GCSE and A levels 2021: An insider's view on the options for awarding grades next year amid the coronavirus pandemic

Pressure is mounting on Ofqual to finalise the plans for next year’s GCSEs and A levels that it has promised to deliver by the end of this month.

Now, as talks reach the end-game, the head of England’s biggest school exam board has used an exclusive Tes interview to talk through the possible options and their implications.

But Colin Hughes, chief executive of the AQA board, is keen to manage expectations. He stresses that the measures cannot all be used at the same time and that none of them will be able to “solve” Covid disruption suffered by candidates.

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“There is a relatively simple list of the sort of bigger contingency options available,” he told Tes. “One really important thing to grasp is you can’t have all of them.

“You’ve got to pick, and none of them solve the whole problem. The problem, as it goes, is not completely solvable.

“And we mustn’t have that sort of fantasy that we can just sweep away the extraordinary impact this pandemic has had.”

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Possible options

1. Mock exams in spring

“That’s known as the mock route,” said the AQA chief. “We can have students sit mocks in spring, hold those mocks and then mark them in the event that students weren’t able to sit the summer exams.”

Ofqual’s acting chief regulator 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, Dame Glenys Stacey 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.

“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.”

Would it work?

The “mock route” is “doable”, according to Mr Hughes. “But,” he asks, “is it a great idea, now that we’ve just given three weeks of time back to students, to take it back again by giving them a second round of exams?

“I think that’s an interesting call to make, frankly. But it would work – it’s doable.”

2. Post-summer reserve papers

Mr Hughes said a second option was to “run 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”.

“This would be massively important in A level, where progression is really important,” he added.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said this was a possibility when questioned by MPs in September. “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,” he said.

Would it work?

"That is doable but you can’t do both [mocks and reserve papers],” said Mr Hughes. “You’ve got to choose one or the other. It’s literally impossible for the exam boards to deliver both of those."

3. Giving grades based on single papers

“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,” said Mr Hughes.

“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.”

Would it work?

“Of course, that student’s going to need to prove they were genuinely isolating otherwise it becomes a gameable option,” the AQA chief executive said. “You know, ‘I thought I did rather well in that paper, I think I’ll duck the second one.'

“You’ve got to be very careful about creating opportunities for things or disincentivising students to carry on studying right the way through: ‘I think I just did that mock rather well, I think I’ll just sit back and coast through now. I’ll just go off ill.’”

4. Regional grading

"One of the things that’s being talked about is the notion that we could apply some kind of regional special consideration," said Mr Hughes. "So this particular region was hit really hard or even this particular school had it really hard. And that seems attractive on the surface."

Would it work?

The AQA chief has concerns about both the practicalities and fairness. “The reality is that – how are you actually really going to measure that across space?

"The other thing is, 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? Is that fair? Is that the right outcome?

“So are there any opportunities for special consideration? Yes, but they are limited. Personally, I don’t think that’s the best way forward.”

5. More 'optionality' and choice in question papers

Mr Hughes describes the idea of more “optionality” – greater choice within question papers –  to mitigate lost learning time as “very interesting”.

“It is actually, of course, theoretically possible to drop papers or provide greater choice amongst questions,” he says.

Ofqual revealed last month that it was looking at optionality and the possibility of more multiple choice in exams. Dame Glenys pointed out that it should "not narrow the curriculum".

Would it work?

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,” he says.

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

6. Allowing the use of aids like periodic tables in exams

This is another strategy suggested by Mr Hughes that Ofqual has already said it is looking at. Dame Glenys has raised the possibility of exam boards providing “formula sheets” for students to use in maths exams.

Would it work?

“Could we help students by enabling them to take certain things into the exams, like periodic tables?" says Mr Hughes. “Yes, I think we could do that.”


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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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