Next year’s exams are to go ahead in England, but most will be delayed for three weeks to allow schools additional teaching time, the government has said.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, confirmed GCSEs and A-levels would be held in the summer, with small curriculum adjustments already outlined by the qualifications regulator, Ofqual.
He said it was the fairest way to proceed for students whose studies have already been disrupted, but headteachers and unions dismissed the announcement as “cruel” and “inadequate”, and said contingency planning for further disruption was being left too late.
“We are dismayed by this announcement,” said Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. “It has taken the government an eternity to reach a very inadequate response to the scale of the challenge which lies ahead for students who are taking GCSEs and A-levels next year.”
He added: “Delaying the start of exams by three weeks is of marginal benefit when compared with the loss of learning from the national lockdown and ongoing disruption.”
“This is just cruel,” said Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union. “Today’s announcement amounts to a dereliction of duty by government to pupils, parents and education professionals.”
Headteachers have been calling for students to be given more topic choice in exams, to take into account the fact they will not have been able to cover all the curriculum. They have also suggested pupils sit fewer exams in each subject.
Insiders, however, say the government is insistent exams must be rigorous and there should be no “dumbing down” or caving in to pressure from within the sector for a full-scale review of the assessment regime, following the debacle of this year’s results.
The summer exam series will start on 7 June 2021 and end on 2 July for almost all AS/A-levels and GCSEs. Vocational and technical qualifications will also be moved back.
Results for both GCSEs and A/AS-levels will be held in the same week for the first time, with A and AS-level results on Tuesday 24 August and GCSEs on Friday 27 August, enabl ing students to start the following academic year as normal.
In a written ministerial statement, Williamson said: “Fairness to pupils is my priority, and will continue to be at the forefront of every decision we take in the lead up to exams next summer.
“Exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance so they will go ahead, underpinned by contingency measures developed in partnership with the sector.
“Students have experienced considerable disruption and it’s right we give them, and their teachers, the certainty that exams will go ahead and more time to prepare.
“Combined with our £1bn catch-up programme and the changes proposed by Ofqual to free up teaching time, the changes I am announcing today give young people the best chance of being ready for their exams without undermining the value of the qualifications they receive
The government said one maths and one English GCSE exam would be held before the May half-term, to give any year 11 pupils affected by Covid-19 the best chance of completing a paper in each of these core subjects. Ministers will continue to work with Ofqual and the sector to develop contingency planning for all potential scenarios.
The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said it would be “a challenge” to deliver GCSE results within the reduced time-scale for marking. Dr Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said: “We cannot risk a repeat of the chaos which engulfed this year’s exam results and it is imperative that a range of robust and transparent contingency measures are developed.”
Last week, the Scottish government said it would not hold exams for its National 5 qualification, its equivalent of GCSEs, and would instead award grades using a new system of school assessments. The timetable for Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers – the equivalent of A-levels – will be delayed.
A-level, AS and GCSE exams in Northern Ireland will start one week later in 2021 but will still finish by 30 June. However, schools have been told to keep evidence of pupils’ progress in case it is needed as part of contingency arrangements. Wales is expected to announce its exams plans before half-term.
Students in areas in the north of England, which are currently seeing high rates of infection, are likely to be particularly disadvantaged by government plans to press ahead with exams, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has warned.
Sarah Mulholland, head of policy said: “We’re very concerned that young people across the North are likely to be at a disadvantage if the Department for Education opts to go ahead with GCSE and A-Level exams next summer, given the fact that they are the ones most likely to have been impacted by school closures following year group bubbles of pupils having to be sent home for instance. Continuous assessment would be a much fairer alternative to the proposed plan, and would reduce the risk of a similar fiasco such as we saw this summer.”