'Little more than tinkering' – proposals for 2021 exams revealed

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Proposals to adjust the implementation of next year’s GCSE and A level examinations “amount to little more than tinkering”, school leaders have said, and will not make up for four months of lost face-to-face learning time.

Ofqual has put out for consultation its plans to adapt next year’s exams and assessment in light of the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

They propose adaptations to free up teaching time, plans in case of further public health safeguards, sampling of subject content and optional questions in some exams, changing the length of exams, and changing the exam timetable.

Adaptations to free up teaching time

A number of adaptations are proposed to give teachers more teaching time, including removing the requirement to record the spoken language assessment in GCSE English language, allowing GCSE students to observe (rather than undertake) practical science work, and assessing art and design students on their portfolio alone.

Public health safeguards

The proposals include measures to mitigate the impact should further public health safeguards be introduced next year. For example, these include changes to performance rules in dance and drama, and permitting design and technology students to watch teachers demonstrate the use of machinery, rather than to use it themselves.

Sampling of subject content

Education secretary Gavin Williamson had asked Ofqual to consider whether content sampling in question papers or increasing the use of optional questions could be helpful approaches to the 2021 examinations.

However, the Department for Education has ruled out this approach in core subjects at GCSE and in A and AS levels. Ofqual adds: “While our proposals already introduce opportunities to free up teaching time in many subjects, without needing to make changes to content sampling, this has not been possible for GCSE history, ancient history and geography.

“We have, therefore, agreed with the DfE to identify options to sample less of the subject content in these three subjects in 2021. Such an approach will give schools and colleges some choice over the content they teach and therefore help teachers and students to cover that content in appropriate depth.”

For GCSE geography, Ofqual is also proposing that content relating to fieldwork should not be assessed in 2021.

Ofqual is not recommending the use of more optional questions in any other examinations other than GCSE history and ancient history.

Changes to the exam timetable

Examination boards have been asked by Ofqual to “consider how the 2021 exam timetable could be changed to allow more time for teaching”. One particular proposal is that GCSE exams could start after half-term, on June 7.

Ofqual adds: “We are also seeking views on whether such a change would be appropriate for the AS/A level exam timetable, and the impact of any delay in issuing results.”


School leaders said that the move to June for the sitting of exams could help, but pointed out that the proposals would not make up for four months of lost teaching time during lockdown.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “These plans appear to amount to little more than tinkering at the edges of next year’s exams, despite the massive disruption to learning caused by the coronavirus emergency.

“We note that exam boards are being asked about the implications of moving the start of the exam series to June and this may help if it proves possible, but it adds up to a few weeks more learning time to compensate for a shutdown which has lasted for four months.

“The young people who will take these exams have lost a huge chunk of face-to-face teaching time, and there is likely to be more disruption next academic year, with the possibility of localised full or partial closures in response to coronavirus outbreaks, and students who have to self-isolate.

“We understand that it is difficult to scale back exams in a way that is fair to all pupils, but we fear the very minor changes in this consultation fail to recognise the enormous pressure on schools and their pupils to cover the large amount of content in these courses.

“We are also extremely concerned that there does not appear to be any Plan B in the event of widespread disruption next year which would make it impossible to hold a full exam series. It is surely just a matter of common sense to have an alternate strategy in place.”

Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said: “We have considered a wide range of options before coming forward with a set of proposals for next year’s GCSE, AS and A level exams which will help reduce the pressure on students and teachers, while allowing them to progress with valid qualifications which higher educational institutions and employers can trust. I would encourage all those with an interest in our consultation to give us their views.”

The consultation is open until July 16, with final decisions due in August.

  • Ofqual: Proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2021 (consultation), July 2020 (closes July 16, 2020): https://bit.ly/31yigrP


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