GCSE and A-level exams 2021: What we know so far about the government’s plans

The government has confirmed its plans for replacing GCSE and A-level exams this summer, with teacher assessments due to be used to give students their grades.

However, the full response to last month’s consultation is not expected to be published until later today. Education secretary Gavin Williamson is also due to brief MPs this afternoon.

Here’s what we know so far…


1. Teacher assessment grades, with optional ‘questions’ from exam boards

The government has confirmed it is to press ahead with its plan to use teacher assessment to issue grades this year, and has stressed that unlike last year, there will be “no algorithm”.

Ministers have also promised that pupils will only be assessed on “what they have been taught”, in recognition of the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on learning.

Exam boards will provide detailed guidance on how to make grade judgments by the end of the spring term, and will also publish “optional” assessment materials by Easter.

The government said teachers could use a “range of evidence”, including mock exam results, coursework, or other work completed as part of a pupil’s course, “such as essays or in-class” tests to arrive at their judgments.

Teachers will then have up until June 18 to submit their students’ grades, to allow “as much teaching time as possible” before assessments are made.


2. ‘Flexible’ assessment approach

Teachers will have flexibility on whether and how they use optional questions set by exam boards, some of which will be based on past papers and others that will be previously unseen.

Questions will be released for all subjects, likely by topic area, and they do not have to be sat in exam conditions.

The government will also recommend that if assessments are used, whole classes sit the same ones so teachers can compare between individuals.

In the results to the consultation, only 26 per cent of students agreed that exam board papers should be provided. That is compared to 51 per cent of parents and carers, 69 per cent of teachers and 72 per cent of senior leaders.


3. Results in August, not July

The government’s consultation, held last month, suggested results would “most likely” be issued in early July after the quality assurance process.

However, this has been pushed back by a month, with A-levels results due on August 10 and GCSEs on August 12. Quality assurance will still take place before the end of term.

The DfE said this approach offers “additional time for appeals to be completed”.


4. Another autumn exam series

For those students who want a further chance to improve on their teacher assessment grades, the government is expected to announce that a full autumn exam series will be held for the second year in a row.

Last year, almost 60 per cent of students who took an autumn exam in GCSE subjects other than English and maths improved on their grades issued in the summer. The top results at A-level dropped compared to the summer’s centre assessed grades.


5. Quality assurance could trigger exam board ‘visits’

The grading process will be subject to three stages of external quality assurance.

First, schools and colleges will have to send exam boards their internal quality assurance processes, which will be checked.

The boards will then conduct sample, random checks of evidence over June and July across a range of different schools and colleges.

Risk-based checks, based on criteria such as changes to entry patterns or new schools, will also then take place.

For example, if results are lower or higher than expected, it could trigger a visit from the exam board, though this could take place virtually.


6. Appeals will go to schools and colleges first

Despite concerns from unions, the government has confirmed its plan set out in the consultation which will allow students who believe their teacher had made an error in their grades to appeal to their school in the first instance.

However, there has been a change to the grounds for escalating an appeal to exam boards.

The consultation proposed that appeals could be submitted to exam boards on the basis that a school had not acted “in line with the exam board’s procedural requirements”.

But the government said this “did not sufficiently take into account the workload it would place on teachers, as well as the importance for students of having their appeal heard by a third party”.

Under the revised plan, schools will only have to check for errors and whether their own processes were followed in the first instance.

Then, if pupils want to take it further, exam boards will review both the school’s processes and the evidence used to determine a students’ grade to confirm whether the grade was a “reasonable exercise of academic judgement”.

Where the student disagrees with the final result issued by the exam board after the appeal, and believes the process has not been followed correctly, an application can be made to Ofqual’s Exams Procedures Review Service.

There’s no threshold for students to apply, but the grade can go up or down as in normal appeals.

DfE also expects that appeals from students with a university place will be prioritised by exam boards, which they said is similar to arrangements in previous years.



7. DfE looking at appeals funding

The DfE has said students will not have to pay for appeals, and at this stage they do not believe schools and colleges will have to pay either.

But the department is working through the exact details on how the process will be funded.

The consultation said exam boards would decide whether to charge a separate fee for appeals made to them.


8. Students won’t know grades before submission

As set out in the consultation, teachers will not be able to tell students’ their final grade before results days.

Exam board OCR had suggested in its response to the consultation that rules forbidding schools and colleges from telling pupils their grades should be dropped this year to prevent “sudden surprises” and reduce appeals.

But the government has said that although teachers should have a dialogue with students about the evidence that will inform their grade, they can’t tell them the grade itself.


9. List of centres for private candidates

Private candidates, such as those not on roll at a school, will be assessed in the same way as other pupils this year, with schools due to be provided with “clear guidance” on evidence they can use to assess them.

A list of available centres will be published “shortly” and the DfE has said it will work with the sector to make sure there are “sufficient centres” available at a “similar cost” to a normal year.


10. Plans confirmed for BTECs

Plans for vocational and technical qualifications will depend on the type of qualification.

For VTQs and other general qualifications that are most like GCSEs and A-levels, such as many BTECs and Cambridge Nationals/Technicals, exams will not go ahead.

Instead, teacher assessed grades will be used, based on a similar range of evidence as academic qualifications.

FE Week has the full details here.

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