2021 exams: Decision on GCSE and A-levels timetable weeks away – as regulator considers online tests in case of lockdown

Ofqual has said a decision on if and when next year’s GCSE and A-level exams will go ahead is weeks away – and has floated the idea of online tests if necessary.

The exam regulator launched a consultation in July, which proposed delaying the start of GCSEs until after half term, pushing them back to 7 June to allow for more teaching time.

It said any changes would be announced in August, but it has not yet made a final decision on the timetable for 2021, and is still drawing up contingency plans for next summer’s exams.

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Questioned by MPs on how it planned to avoid a repetition of this summer’s exams fiasco, when ministers decided to scrap exams for an algorithm to award grades, Ofqual’s chairman suggested the regulator was keen for traditional exams to take place.

Richard Taylor told the Commons education committee on Wednesday it was “absolutely essential” students sit a “fair, comparative test”.

And in the event of a local lockdown, he said there are “mechanisms” – including “online tests” – which offered a solution.

Ofqual, which has been considering whether to delay exams next year, has been consulting on the issue since June.

In a consultation document last month, Ofqual revealed that 37% of respondents strongly supported delaying the exams, compared with 8% who said it was a bad idea.

The regulator said: “While there was general support for a delay to the exams, to allow more time for teaching, respondents were less positive about this if it meant a potential delay to results.

“We will continue to work with the DfE (Department for Education), exam boards, regulators in Wales and Northern Ireland, and groups representing schools, colleges and higher education to consider the best approach, and we will confirm our decisions as soon as possible.”

That was back on 3 August, and Julie Swan – the regulator’s executive director for general qualifications – told MPs a decision would be announced in the coming weeks.

It means staff and students face further uncertainty with just two terms left to prepare for GCSEs and A-levels, having lost several months of learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mason Parkes, 15, who attends Bristnall Hall Academy in Oldbury, West Midlands, told Sky News: “It’s definitely hard and challenging… I would like the government to make a decision because we don’t know whether we are doing them later or if it’s just certain subjects or if it’s teachers’ predicted grades.

“It’s definitely worrying because we don’t know what’s going on or what to do, or what we are doing. I hope a decision is going to be made soon. I’m just going to try and get my head down and revise in every subject that I can.”

Rajan Mattu, 15, added: “I feel the government needs to make a decision quite quickly so we know what we need to do for our exams so we can prepare in the right way.

“I wouldn’t prefer them to be delayed. I would rather get them out of the way and done. All we can do is work, but we don’t know what to work on.”

On Tuesday, Education Secretary Gavin Williams, who supports delaying exams, told MPs the government is determined that exams will go ahead in 2021, adding they were working with the sector to ensure “this is done as smoothly as possible”.

Labour has said next year’s exams should be pushed back to mid-summer due to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said pupils starting Year 11 and 13 face “a mountain to climb” unless the timetable is changed.

She said exams due next May need to be delayed until June or July to facilitate extra teaching time.

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Some BTEC students still haven’t received their grades, Labour MPs Sarah Owen and Shabana Mahmood told Mr Williamson, who said the issue was being addressed “as swiftly as possible”.

“This is something that occurs each year, and the number of youngsters who received their BTEC awards was significantly higher than the previous year, but there are some centres where there continue to be some challenges,” he said.

Ofqual was fiercely criticised after the “moderation” algorithm it designed meant around 280,000 students in England saw their A-level marks fall by one grade or more from their predicted results.

The algorithm, used following the cancellation of this year’s exams due to the coronavirus pandemic, was claimed to have disproportionately penalised students from schools in disadvantaged communities.

The regulator faced further anger over its handling of the appeals process for students who wished to challenge their results.

Following the controversy, Ofqual and the government performed a U-turn by ditching the algorithm and announcing A-level and GCSE students would instead be handed exam grades as predicted by their teachers.

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