GCSE and A Level Exams in England to take place a little later in 2021

Students taking GCSE, AS and A Level exams in 2021 sitting will now have an additional 3 weeks to prepare. This follows today’s announcement to delay the exam period in England.

Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has confirmed that exams will go ahead next year. There will also be “contingencies for all possible scenarios”. The Prime Minister and Education Secretary have stated that “[exams] are the fairest and most accurate way to measure a pupil’s attainment”.

It is worth pointing out that this only relates to GCSEs, AS and A Level exams in England. This announcement follows Scotland’s decision last week to cancel National 5 exams. We have no news at present which route the remaining nations of Wales and Northern Ireland will take.

A welcomed decision?

The new exam timetable will see almost all GCSE exams taking place after the Summer half term. This was an initial recommendation of respondents to Ofqual’s consultation paper in July, with the proviso that it didn’t affect the time taken to get results back. The current view would be that results would come in the last week in August.

Ofqual have welcomed the news and support the new timetable.

Three weeks certainly doesn’t feel like a lot of additional study time. Especially given months of disruption for GCSE and college students. The Government’s view is that this, together with small changes to the exam content, make it the ‘fairest’ option. Many teachers and commentators are not convinced. In particular there are concerns over students mental wellbeing. Many are also citing the difficulties many students will face this year given previous closures. Not to mention the near inevitability of future COVID related impacts.

Is it the fairest GCSE assessment?

Whether this is good news or not will very much depend on the teen. Those who have been able to continue studying – with remote classes or independently – may welcome the opportunity to sits exams. While those with limited resources or assistance at home might feel this is an unjust reflection of the whole student cohort.

There are alternatives to final exams such as in year assessments, coursework or full teacher assessments. As we heard from Dylan Wiliam – Emeritus Professor of Education at UCL – in a previous podcast episode; all assessments have their weaknesses. That’s why he advocates a mixed approach.

The issue for this Government is not just one of policy – it was Michael Gove who moved away from coursework assessment in GCSEs – but also one of time. Could they really come up with an alternative that ranked students’ outcomes to result in a distributed grade curve in enough time? Probably not if they wanted to let students and teachers know what that would involved before implementation.

Perhaps that will be the function of these contingency plans.

We’ve said it before. But it’s worth saying again: the best course of action is to prepare as if the exams were taking place. The rest is simply noise. Until, that is, it becomes a decision. But by then the focus and dedication that students will have displayed will surely only help in the event of a teacher assessed grade.