Exams 2021: Contingency plans not to be published until November

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Schools will have to wait until November to find out about the government’s contingency plans for next year’s examinations – including what role teacher assessment might play.

The Department for Education (DfE) is planning a six-week consultation as it considers measures needed to address any potential disruption that Covid-19 might cause next summer.

In a letter to exams watchdog Ofqual this week (DfE, 2020), education secretary Gavin Williamson said he wants to inform schools of the conclusions of the contingency planning in November.

It comes as the DfE confirmed its plans to delay most GCSE, AS and A level examinations by three weeks next summer.
Just days after the government in Scotland said that exams would not take place next year, Mr Williamson has chosen to follow a different path in England.

It means that the 2021 examination series will begin on June 7 and end on July 2. Results days will be on Tuesday, August 24, for AS and A levels and on Friday, August 27, for GCSEs.

Students studying Level 1, 2 and 3 vocational and technical qualifications who need their results to progress will receive their results no later than their peers, Ofqual has confirmed.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has branded the DfE’s response “weak” and said it was “dismayed” by this week’s announcement.

The DfE also revealed that one maths and one English GCSE exam will be held just before the May half-term to give a greater chance for pupils affected by Covid to still sit their exams.

Meanwhile, the DfE says there are to be no more subject-level changes to exams and assessments. It comes as earlier this term, as part of their bid to free-up teaching time, Ofqual and the DfE set out minor amendments to 2021 exam content focused on practical activities in subjects like music, science and languages, and increased optionality in English literature, history and ancient history (Ofqual, 2020).

However, speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday (October 13), Ofqual’s interim chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey said that further changes might include more multiple choice questions and exam boards offering advance materials before tests such as formula sheets in science.

In his letter to Ofqual on Monday (October 12), Mr Williamson confirmed his decision and sought further advice on contingency plans “to ensure the assessment experience is as fair and accessible for all students as possible”.

The letter confirms that the DfE and Ofqual will engage “widely and openly” with the education sector during the next six weeks to consider “the measures necessary to address potential disruption to 2021 exams”.

Mr Williamson adds: “My officials are already working with you and the exam boards to consider the risks to delivery of the 2021 exams at a national, local and individual student level.

“At an individual level, a student may not be able to sit an exam or exams due to illness, shielding, bereavement or self-isolation. Individual schools, or schools and colleges within a locality may be adversely affected by the pandemic during the examination season in ways that put exams for students in those centres at risk.

“The work here will need to identify all the potential scenarios, and it will be important to evaluate the risks and possible unintended consequences of each of the contingencies we consider.”

Reacting to the news, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he was “dismayed”.

He added: “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 on-going 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 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.”

In his letter, Mr Williamson said that the priority now is to “ensure that students have confidence that they will be fairly treated in terms of assessment in 2021”, adding that particular consideration will be needed for pupils with SEND.

He said: “We should aim to inform the sector of the conclusions of the contingency planning in November.”

In a statement on Monday, Dame Glenys 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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