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What Is Happening With GCSE’s, A-Levels, And BTEC Exams In England In 2021?

It is all too easy to underestimate the impact of the current pandemic on children. While many schools are offering some online learning, this is never going to be a proper replacement for in-person lessons. Once schooling returns to normal, most children will hopefully be able to catch-up on what they have lost, and not lose too much in the long-run. But for students who have exams in 2021, there is a real concern that online learning may not suffice as a replacement for traditional teaching. Some students who are particularly diligent and adaptable may be able to thrive using online learning, but many will not. And to add to the challenges of at-home learning for those facing exams this year, there is now real confusion as to whether exams will go ahead. In this article, we will discuss what is known about the 2021 GCSEs, A-Levels, and BTEC exams as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lack Of Clarity Regarding 2021 Exams

There have been various stories circulating in the media about what will happen to exams in 2021. Following the announcement of the new national lockdown in England, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that GCSEs and A-Levels would be cancelled for 2021, in favour of grading by teachers. Keen to avoid the controversy regarding the use of an algorithm in 2020, which unfairly reduced the grades of many students, Williamson said, “this year, we’re going to put our trust in teachers, rather than algorithms”. Announcing the exam cancellations, he explained, “Although exams are the fairest way we have of assessing what a student knows, the impact of this pandemic now means that it is not possible to have these exams this year. I can confirm that GCSEs, A-levels and AS level exams will not go ahead this summer”. Unfortunately, all of this comes only a few weeks after Williamson made a point of stating that GCSEs and A-Levels would “absolutely” go ahead and that he had “every confidence” in the government. Clearly, this has not aged well, but it is reasonable to suggest that no one had foreseen such a rapid uptick in the virus spread due to the new UK variant.

In the latest turn of events, it is now possible that A-level, AS and GCSE students in England may need to sit external ‘mini exams’ to help teachers in the grading process. Writing to the exams regulator, Ofqual, Williams explained that these mini external exams would help determine “deserved grades”; “I would like to explore the possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers, in order that teachers can draw on this resource to support their assessments of students”. He went on to explain, “It is my view that the consultation should set out proposals which allow students to be assessed based on what they have learnt, rather than against content they have not had a chance to study. This will need to be balanced against the need to ensure good enough coverage of the curriculum for all students to support successful progress”.

The challenge for the education sector is that until they have clarity as to what will happen and when teachers and students will remain in the dark. Even if assessments are based on what students have learned to date, by the time it comes to putting that knowledge to the test in the form of a mini-exam, there will be a gap of many months meaning that students will need time to review what they have been taught.

There will now be a two-week consultation by the Department of Education and Ofqual to determine the way forward. Only then will it be clear what will happen later in the year.

For vocational and technical qualifications, Willamson has confirmed exams scheduled for February and March 2021 will be cancelled, and that BTEC and Cambridge National exams planned for the Summer will be assessed in the same way as A-Levels.

How Have Leaders In The Education Sector Reacted To The Idea Of Mini-Exams?

Education leaders have been open but cautious about Gavin Williamson’s idea. As quoted by the BBC, Geoff Barton, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he believed Williamson’s letter provided "broad and sensible parameters" for the assessment of exams given their cancellation for 2021. He struck a note of caution, however, stating, “As ever, the devil will be in the detail of how this is turned into reality….it is vital that the final plans not only provide fairness and consistency but that they are also workable for schools, colleges and teaching staff who will have to put them into practice”. He also welcomed the move not to rely on a formula to re-jig results "following last summer's grading debacle”.

Simon Lebus, Ofqual’s interim chief regulator, has advised Williamson that this year's grades will end up being more unreliable than if exams had proceeded as normal; “It is important that the consultation makes clear to all, especially those who rely on the results to make selection decisions, that overall outcomes this year will likely look different from 2020 and previous years”.

Wrapping Up

Among many other factors, COVID-19 will be very much part of the government and Ofqual’s calculations. They may take the view that by the time exams would normally be run, the pandemic will have abated due to the warming weather, lockdown measures, and, of course, the vaccine roll-out. It will only take another variant or delays in the vaccine roll-out to mean that any planned external mini-exams cannot proceed, or that dates slip until later in the year.

When the final announcement is made regarding how GCSEs and A-Levels will be assessed for 2021, we will let you know. We can only hope that better decisions are made than in 2020 and that the interests of all children affected are foremost in the thinking process.

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