Exams 2021: DfE is still 'some way off' a plan

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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We are still “some way off” an announcement on arrangements for next years’ GCSEs, AS and A levels, after a crunch meeting between Ofqual, the Department for Education (DfE), and education unions.


Unions said that the meeting on Monday (October 5) – with schools minister Nick Gibb, Ofqual’s chief regulator Glenys Stacey, and DfE officials – was “useful” but have raised concerns about the delays and consequent lack of clarity for schools.

At the meeting, Ofqual asked for a further two weeks to come up with proposals surrounding next year’s examinations.

Before the crunch talks, the five education unions had published a blueprint for how next year’s exams might take place, including how students who are unable to sit exams in the summer, or whose education has been very significantly disrupted, will “nevertheless receive robust, reliable grades”.

The proposals include formal staged assessments to support centre-assessed grades, “reserve papers” and back-up exam dates.

The unions behind the blueprint are the Association of School and College Leaders, National Association of Head Teachers, NASUWT, National Education Union, and National Governance Association.

Speaking after the meeting, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “Despite widespread speculation that the government were about to announce a delay to 2021 examinations, it instead appears that we are still some way off an announcement on arrangements for next years’ GCSEs, AS and A levels.”

The unions are warning that mooted proposals to move the start of the summer exam period back by two or three weeks will not be enough on their own to address the disadvantage to students caused by Covid-19.

The blueprint states: “We agree that moving the timing of exams back may be a necessary mitigation in order to provide a small amount of extra learning time. However, we must not lead ourselves to believe this will make any significant difference to the different learning experiences students have had this year.”

On Covid-19 testing, the blueprint adds: “We would urge the government to prioritise students due to sit exams imminently, i.e. those in years 11 and 13, for testing, along with education staff.

“This would not entirely solve the problem, as it wouldn’t help year 11 and 13 students who are having to self-isolate as a result of other members of their household displaying Covid symptoms or testing positive, but it would be a step in the right direction.”

On contingency, the blueprint suggests the development of “reserve exam papers” for those students unable to sit their exams next year because they are self-isolating. This would also require reserve exam dates to be agreed.

The blueprint also outlines a proposal for formal staged assessments, which could be taken this autumn or in the spring and which could be used alongside coursework to determine centre-assessed grades if necessary.

The blueprint calls for a review of the assessment of all general qualifications “to allow for greater optionality in most subjects, and consider changes to the design of assessments to ensure any issues with this are addressed”.

Up until now, all that has been proposed by Ofqual and the DfE are minor amendments to exam content focused on practical activities in subjects like music, science and languages, and increased optionality in English literature, history and ancient history.

However, the blueprint states: “Greater optionality in all qualifications is … in our view, essential. We recognise there may be unintended consequences of optionality, which may impact particularly on disadvantaged learners. However, this can be mitigated with intelligent assessment redesign – such as splitting exam papers into separate topics, and asking schools and colleges to only distribute to students questions on topics they have been taught.”

The paper adds: “We are concerned that the changes Ofqual has already announced amount to merely ‘tinkering around the edges’ of recognising and accounting for the different experience students have had.”

Finally, the blueprint recognises the headache facing Ofqual surrounding comparable outcomes – the system of restricting grade inflation by ensuring a similar proportion of students achieve the same grades each year.

The blueprint warns: “Abandoning comparable outcomes without careful consideration of the alternatives risks destabilising the system and devaluing students’ achievements. Pegging results to 2020 carries similar risks, and punts the problem further down the road. Pegging results to 2019 risks further disadvantaging students whose education has been most disrupted, by making it harder for them to attain the grades they might, in a ‘normal’ year, have been capable of achieving.”

The blueprint suggests that if its recommendations are implemented then comparable outcomes could be used in 2021 and should be “ideally pegged to a point between the grades achieved by students in 2019 and 2020”.

Commenting after the meeting with Mr Gibb and Ms Stacey, Julie McCulloch, director of policy at ASCL, said: “We recognise that decisions around GCSEs and A levels in 2021 are difficult, and it is imperative that any changes are carefully considered. However, we are increasingly frustrated at the on-going lack of clarity from the government over what it plans to do about these exams to mitigate the impact of the on-going disruption caused by the Covid pandemic.

“We are aware of speculation that exams may be delayed by a few weeks to allow for more teaching time. But it is important to understand that the benefit of doing this is marginal compared to the disruption that has already taken place and is likely to continue over the coming weeks and months. It doesn’t go far enough and more will need to be done.

“The content of the exams needs to be reviewed to allow students more choice in the questions they answer, and, most importantly, there has to be a robust contingency plan for students who are unable to sit exams or whose preparation is very badly affected by the impact of Covid.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the meeting had been “useful”.

“It is clear that Ofqual is thinking hard about how next year’s GCSEs and A levels can be fair to students whose learning has been disrupted throughout the pandemic. Ofqual has asked for a further two weeks to come up with proposals. The government, however, is not showing signs of thinking hard enough about the issues facing teachers and students.

“Teachers, absolutely need to know what the format and content of GCSEs and A levels will be next summer. Teachers invest huge amounts of work and care into preparing their students for these exams. At present, they are in the dark – and this is causing them huge stress and anxiety.

“We are also very concerned that there is no plan B for students who are not able to take exams in the summer. Teachers should have begun this term knowing what forms of student assessment they needed to undertake to provide robust evidence for centre assessed grades. We cannot repeat this year’s scramble to locate this evidence.”


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