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Worried about exams in 2021? Here’s what to expect

27 November 2020

In light of the disruption to education caused by COVID, Ofqual plans to make changes to assessments in England in 2021. Keep reading to learn how these may affect you.

It is widely acknowledged that school children have been the most affected by the disruptions caused by COVID. The months of school missed has put into question how children will be assessed in 2021. With teachers, parents and students clamouring for a solution, it is no wonder that Scotland and Wales have already announced that they will scrap major exams in favour of teacher based assessments. England, however, are still to finalise plans.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement last month was met with dismay by schools, teacher and education unions, and parents, as he stated that most exams in England will continue as normal, but with a three week delay to allow for additional teaching time. Now, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) is under pressure to deliver their finalised plan for next year’s GCSEs and A-levels by the end of the month.

But what are all the options that Ofqual are considering, and which ones do experts deem best for students?

First of all, it is important to note that Ofqual is not considering following Scotland and Wales in scrapping exams all-together and following the teacher-assessment model – despite calls from leading education associations, Lord Baker (former Conservative education secretary who introduced GCSEs), and leaders in the North of England to do so. According to Mr Colin Hughes, Chief Executive of the AQA exam board, this is because it would put into question the qualification of a whole group of students, as their qualifications would be different to those who came before, and, potentially, to those who will come after them.

So, what is Ofqual considering?

Ofqual’s acting Chief Executive and Chief Regulator Dame Glenys Stacey has stated that in the event that students aren’t able to sit the exams in the summer, mock exams could be held and marked in the spring. These would be “benchmark” tests in core subjects, as Ofqual is also considering reducing the number of subjects for these mocks.

In the event that students aren’t able to sit any of their exam papers, there could be a possibility of sitting an extra reserve exam in any given subject. Education minister Gavin Williamson stated in September that this option is a definite possibility, and Mr Hughes believes this option to be especially helpful for A-level students. But he warns that exam boards cannot deliver both mock exams and post-summer reserve papers, as they are called, it would have to be one or the other.

In the case that a student is self-isolating for as long as 14 days, Ofqual is looking into giving grades for single papers. This means that students will be allowed to sit one paper in one subject and get a reliable grade out of that — rather than sit all the papers. However, the student would have to prove that they were genuinely isolating, to prevent them from taking advantage of the system.

Another option is “regional grading”, which is backed by Labour and a leading academy chain. Shadow education secretary Kate Green believes that students in badly hit regions should get ‘special consideration’ — just as students with long-term illnesses currently receive. However, Mr Hughes disagrees. According to him, this would not only be extremely difficult to measure, but it would actually be unfair, as, in his words:

...if you did it regionally, is it fair to do something for students in a rundown inner-city area comprehensive and just down the road there’s a fantastic private school and those students will get bumped up from a B to an A? Is that fair? Is that the right outcome? So are there any opportunities for special consideration? Yes, but they are limited. Personally, I don’t think that’s the best way forward.

Ofqual is also discussing the idea of “optionality” — giving students a greater choice in exams (such as increasing the amount of multiple choice questions) to mitigate for lost time. AQA’s Colin Hughes, however, also deems this option unfair. Research has found that more options actually disadvantage less able students who tend to struggle when faced with more choices, whilst more able students thrive.

Finally, Dame Glenys has also alluded to providing students with aids during exams. These can range from “formula sheets” in maths examinations, to periodic tables in science exams for students to refer to.

Given the ongoing uncertainty around what exams will look like, it has never been more important for students to stay focused and on track to meet their goals. UK Study Centre’s tutor and consultancy team is here to guide you and help fill the gaps in your learning, so that you can achieve excellence no matter the circumstances.

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