Exams 2022: Schools frustrated at contingency plan delay

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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“By the time these decisions are finalised, we will be halfway through the autumn term.”

School leaders remain frustrated at the time it has taken Ofqual and the Department for Education (DfE) to set out its “Plan B” in case next year’s exams are cancelled due to Covid.

A consultation over contingency plans was published last week and is due to close on October 13. The proposals include asking schools to secure some assessment evidence “early in the academic year” – meaning before Christmas – making the timetable for schools very tight indeed.

The consultation was published as Ofqual set out its plans for grading and adaptations for the summer 2022 GCSE, A and AS level exams (see below)

In the contingency consultation, Ofqual and the DfE set out proposals that will once again see the use of teacher assessed grades (TAGs) should exams be cancelled due to Covid (Ofqual, 2021a).

It states that centres should plan assessment opportunities for TAGs in advance, to a timetable that “secures some evidence early in the academic year (for example, before Christmas) to protect against further disruption”. It suggests planning to assess students once in each of the second half of the autumn term, the spring term, and the first half of the summer term.

Furthermore, assessments that could be used towards TAGs should “replicate, in full or part, exam board papers”. It suggests that past papers could be used, in full or part, where appropriate.

And the conditions in which the assessments are undertaken should be “similar to those students will experience when they take their exams in the summer – for example unseen papers, closed book, timed and with supervision”.

Elsewhere, students should be told if an assessment could be used to inform their TAGs and teachers should mark the work and carry out any internal standardisation of the marking in line with exam board guidance where appropriate.

The consultation adds: “Students should be provided with feedback, which could include marks or comments, but teachers must not determine a TAG unless exams are cancelled nor tell their students what their TAG might be.”

It states that exams would only be cancelled nationally, and the consultation says that there should be no further materials provided by the exam boards to support the TAGs process.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, welcomed the consultation but said that school leaders had expected the process to “have been completed by now”.

He continued: “We have pressed for months for the government to provide information by the start of the autumn term on its contingency plans should exams need to be cancelled in 2022, but by the time these decisions are finalised, we will be halfway through the autumn term.”

Commentnig on the proposals, he added: “The contingency plans must strike the right balance between flexibility and consistency. More consistency of approach to the collection of evidence of students’ work and the conditions under which this is completed will increase fairness and confidence in the grades awarded. But these plans must have enough flexibility to fulfil the core purpose of a contingency plan – to enable grades to be awarded to students by schools and colleges who will likely be facing different levels of challenge and disruption should exams need to be cancelled.

“It is vital that the collection of evidence to support awarding in the event that exams are cancelled works alongside the teaching, learning and assessment which teachers have planned for this year. It should not create significant additional workload for teachers nor add pressure to students who are working hard to complete their courses.”

The DfE has also published its contingency arrangements for vocational and technical qualifications (DfE, 2021). These include using TAGs for those qualifications that are most similar to GCSEs, AS and A levels and delaying awards that require students to demonstrate occupational/professional competence to ensure that students are able to demonstrate the full set of knowledge and skills required.

Exam grading and processes for 2022

The contingency consultation was published as Ofqual set out its plans for adaptations to the summer 2022 GCSE, A and AS level exams in light of the impact of the pandemic on student’s education (Ofqual, 2021b).

It says that 2022 will be “a transition year to reflect the recovery period”, with grade boundaries to be set by exam boards reflecting a midway point between 2021 and 2019. It will mean that more students will get higher grades in 2022 than before the pandemic.

An Ofqual statement said: “This approach will provide a safety net for this year’s students as well as a step back to normality, with results expected to return to the usual grade profile by 2023.”

There will also be advance information on the focus of exams to help focus students’ revision in those subjects where there is not a choice of topics. This information will not be released until February 7, although this timing will be kept under review.

Other measures include a choice of topics in some GCSE exams like English literature and history and support materials such as formulae sheets in maths. Results days will return to normal on August 18 (AS and A levels) and August 25 (GCSEs).

Further mitigation measures being set out by Ofqual include ensuring there is at least a 10-day gap between exams in the same subject to reduce the risk of students missing all exams in a subject.

And students who unavoidably miss one or more exams in a subject may be able to achieve a grade through the special consideration process if they have completed the assessment for at least one component of the qualification.

Ofqual’s chief regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, said: “Our grading approach will recognise the disruption experienced by students taking exams in 2022. It will provide a safety net for those who might otherwise just miss out on a higher grade while taking a step back to normal.

“Exams and other formal assessments are the best and fairest means of assessing students’ achievements. Choice in some subjects and advance information to support revision are intended to provide support for all as we emerge from the pandemic.

“Advance information to help students focus their revision over the final months will be given for summer exams in early February and the timing will be kept under review subject to the course of the pandemic.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the plans represented “a sensible set of measures”.

However, he added: “This should all have been sorted and announced much earlier. It is frustrating that it has taken to this point – deep into the autumn term and with on-going Covid-related disruption in schools and colleges – to set out the shape of exams for which young people are studying.”

One bone of contention is the early February date for advance notice of exam topics in some subjects. Mr Barton said that some will feel “this information should be provided earlier given the disruption that has taken place”.

However, he added: “It seems a reasonable balance between allowing time to cover as much of the course content as possible and time to focus on topics that will come up in the exams, given that both these considerations are important for students who have potentially missed out on learning.

“However, it will need to be kept under review according to the impact of Covid as the academic year progresses and we’re pleased that this is acknowledged by the government.”

  • DfE: Contingencies for 2021-2022: For vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) and other general qualifications, September 2021: https://bit.ly/3iDIUr0
  • Ofqual & DfE: Open consultation: Contingency arrangements: GCSE, AS, A level, Project and AEA (closes October 13), September 2021a: https://bit.ly/3lcXk2Q
  • Ofqual & DfE: Consultation outcome: Proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2022, September 2021b: https://bit.ly/3AggCsg


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