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Exams 2021: your questions answered

This post was edited on 10 November to reflect the decision to cancel exams in Wales next year.

On Monday 12 October we confirmed that exams will go ahead next year and most AS/A level and GCSE exams will be delayed by three weeks to give pupils more time to catch up on their learning.

The main exam series will start on 7 June, just after the May half-term, and end on 2 July. One maths and one English GCSE exam will take place before the May half-term to give any Year 11 pupil who is affected by Covid-19 the best possible chance of sitting at least one paper in each of these core subjects , as well as some AS and A levels with small numbers of students entering. GCSE and AS/A level results will be given out to students in the same week in August.

Here we answer some of your key questions about the announcement.

Why don’t you just scrap exams next year, following suit with Wales and Scotland?

Exams are the best way of judging students’ performance. GCSEs are an important assessment of attainment at a crucial stage of a pupil’s progression at age 16. A levels open the door to the next stages of higher and vocational education at age 18. There is broad consensus backing the decision to hold exams because they are a critical part of the education system, giving students the foundations they need to move on to the next stage of their life.

Teaching unions have been and continue to be directly involved in work to develop the best and fairest way for exams to run in 2021, including through meetings with the Schools Minister and Ofqual

Ofqual has backed this approach. Interim Chief Regulator Dame Glenys Stacey 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.

In a letter to the Secretary of State sent last week, Dame Glenys added that the regulator is looking at “what further steps we could take to make these exams a less daunting prospect for students, while of course making sure they remain a fair test of knowledge and understanding”.

While Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman told the Education Select Committee that she had not seen anything that suggests cancelling exams would be the sensible default for this year and that young people felt strongly about not having the opportunity to demonstrate what they could do in 2020.

The situation in England is different to that in Scotland. In Scotland students typically remain in the same educational institution post-16, the National 5 is not an ‘exit’ assessment. In England 71% of students change institutions at age 16 and GCSEs play a vital role in that progression.

What will you do to ensure exams are fair?

Exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance so they will go ahead next year, underpinned by contingency measures developed with the sector. The Education Secretary has written to Ofqual asking the regulator to work closely with him and the wider education sector to consider any measures needed to address potential disruptions to exams. More detail will be published later in the Autumn, to ensure students have confidence that they will be fairly treated in terms of assessment in 2021.

The Secretary of State wrote a letter to Ofqual on 12 October, that said:

It is important that we engage widely and openly with the education sector in the next six weeks to consider the measures necessary to address potential disruption to 2021 exams. This engagement will need to include gaining views from students, those organisations representing teachers, schools and colleges, and exam boards, as well as the further and higher education sectors.

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.

If you delay exams by three weeks is that not going to put increased pressure and stress on students having to cram their exams?

The wellbeing of students is our key concern. We understand the disruption to pupils during the pandemic, and the impact this may have had on pupils’ mental health. The delay to exams allows extra time for teaching and preparation. Schools have said it means the spring term can be devoted to teaching to a greater extent than usual. We have compared the new timetable to previous years; a typical GCSE pupil in previous years would have taken most of their exams within 4 weeks. This remains the same in the new timetable changes, with one English and one maths paper slightly earlier.

Students experienced considerable disruption to their education this year, some were not in the classroom for months. Why are you not delaying exams by more than three weeks?

The short delay to exams allows for extra teaching time, but clearly it doesn’t make up for all the time missed – but this shouldn’t be viewed in isolation as there are other measures in place. Schools and colleges are making extraordinary efforts to ensure pupils get the best possible education this year and catch up on any learning lost. We have announced a package of measures to help make up for lost teaching time caused by the disruption to education this year. The government announced a catch-up package worth £1bn, including a ‘Catch Up Premium’ worth a total of £650m. Our expectation is that this funding will be spent on the additional activities required to support children and young people to catch up after a period of disruption to their education. We also announced a new £350m National Tutoring Programme for disadvantaged pupils. This will increase access to high-quality tuition for disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people, helping to accelerate their academic progress and tackling the attainment gap between them and their peers. As part of this we announced a 16-19 Tuition Fund, allocating up to £96m as a one-off, one year, ring-fenced grant to school sixth forms, colleges and all other 16-19 providers. This will provide small group tutoring activity for disadvantaged 16-19 students whose studies have been disrupted as a result of COVID-19.

What if for whatever reason exams cannot go ahead – like a local or national lockdown, for example?

The extent of necessary public health restrictions over the next year is unknown, as such we are planning for every eventuality. We will engage widely and openly with the education sector to consider the measures necessary to address potential disruption to 2021 exams and intend to see the views of students, parents, those organisations representing teachers, schools and colleges, and exam boards, as well as the further and higher education sectors. But we are clear that keeping schools and colleges open is a national priority – that is why they remain open now even while national restrictions are in place - so we expect exams to go ahead even if there are restrictions in place.

Schools and colleges have shown exams can be held, even in areas of local restriction. The autumn exam series - involving more than 20,000 entries – has gone ahead.

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