Exams 2021 – what will happen to A Level and GCSE students next year?

students writing in an exam hall

I’m enjoying doing lots of one-to-one catch-ups with my college students this week. This is my favourite part of the job, the bit where you get to know them as friendly and interesting individuals, rather than the sullen faces you see in the classroom (I know they don’t mean it!) or the anonymous initials you’re faced with on Microsoft Teams. It’s one of the reasons I started my coaching business.

One question that has come up again and again in these meetings is, “What will happen with exams next year?” It’s really bugging them. These are students in their first year of A Levels and many of them are hoping to go to university. They’re starting to look at courses now, and this worry is uppermost in their minds as they peruse the entry requirements.

So what IS going to happen with A Level and GCSE exams in 2021? The answer, right now, is no one knows. Many ideas have been mooted, not all of them official and not all of them good! Let’s look at some of the latest:

Delaying summer exams

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, told MPs in June that this is under consideration. The idea is that it would give students more time to study and prepare for exams, making up for some of the time lost during school and college closure. Exams would be at the end of June or July 2021 rather than starting in May as usual.

Sounds promising, but there are a few potential issues. One is the time required for marking and standardisation, which normally takes place from the exam period up to results day in August. It might be impossible to fit the process into a shorter window, which would mean pushing back results day and delaying entry to colleges and universities. Another consideration is the basic shape of the school year. Later exams means a longer period of lessons at a time when teachers are often redeployed on school projects that would otherwise go unstaffed, including intensive support for younger students, in-service training, enrichment activities and developing new schemes of work and resources for the coming year.

It would also be a long stretch for students missing all the benefits that go with being in Year 11 or Year 13: the chance to take exams while relatively fresh rather than hot and exhausted at the end of a long summer term, and that long summer break that comes with the rite of passage that is finishing compulsory education. I wouldn’t want to be managing a teaching space full of disengaged Year 11s who feel trapped and desperate to escape the classroom!

Cancelling exams and awarding grades through teacher assessment

In March, we were shocked when GCSEs and A Levels were suddenly cancelled, before most schools were closed and when lockdown was just a news story from Italy. Now, at a time when Year 11s should be relaxing in a post-prom haze and examiners like me should be frantically marking hundreds of papers, it seems obvious that exams simply could not have happened this year.

For some, this was a blessing – after all, young people frequently identify exams as a number one cause of stress. But for many students, the sense of completion and achievement that comes with proving your ability at the end of programme of study is part of that all-important transition phase between childhood and adult life. Able students felt cheated of the opportunity to prove themselves and evidence their hard work, last-minute crammers suddenly realised that their usual trick wasn’t going to work this year, and BAME students started to wonder whether they would be treated fairly in the new teacher assessments.

In many ways, grades generated by teachers are a more accurate measure of ability than exams. Whereas an exam simply shows what a person was capable of on a particular day and time, regardless of personal circumstances or environmental conditions, a teacher assessment brings in a range of evidence and data collected over the entire course. They can also take students’ individual challenges into account in a way that the exam system can only touch upon. Good teachers are rarely surprised by their students’ results.

The exceptions to this rule are for BAME and disadvantaged students. There is compelling evidence that students from ethnic minority backgrounds are routinely predicted lower grades than their equally able peers. This leads to fewer university offers and reduced choices when their (usually better than expected) results are eventually published. It is a similar situation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is a real issue for social mobility, especially when you consider the appeals system that will likely be huge this year, with thousands of affluent families appealing their children’s GCSE and A Level results.

Of course, there are safeguards in place to pick up this unintentional bias. Ofqual says it will look at how centre assessed grades vary by various protected characteristics, and there will be a careful comparison of results with previous years at the same school. Nevertheless, it’s probably a relief to many that Williamson has insisted that exams are going ahead next year.

Open book exams

The TES revealed last month that allowing students to sit open-book exams was being considered for 2021. This would allow students to access textbooks and notes in the exam and reduce the pressure to memorise content, particularly where some have missed out whole topics that were covered remotely during lockdown.

English Literature GCSEs and A Levels were reformed to be closed-book in 2017, despite a popular petition opposing the policy. Perhaps these texts could be reinstated, and Maths / Science students could benefit from data and formula sheets. There’s not a great deal of enthusiasm for this as a sole solution though, as it is seen to be peripheral issue of limited benefit.

Reduced content in exams

With so much teaching time lost, it makes sense to simply reduce the amount of content to be learned, doesn’t it? This would completely remove the pressure to cover a huge number of topics in reasonable depth over the next two terms, which are also likely to be disrupted.

Now this might be a brilliant idea for people just beginning their GCSE or A Level courses, but it doesn’t help those who are already halfway through. Schemes of work are designed by teachers, so every school covers the specification content in a different order. How can exam boards decide what to take out when they don’t know what’s already been covered? Of course, nothing is wasted in terms of subject knowledge that might be useful for the future, but if your main topic is removed and you have a large number still to do, your students are going to be at a disadvantage.

The best way around this is to give students a choice of questions. This is not uncommon in exams where there is a selection of optional topics or students can simply pick their preferred question. It just needs to be clear to teachers and students in time to get clear on exam technique. I’ve picked up a number of students who’ve failed because they chose a question on a topic they knew nothing about!

Adjusting grade boundaries

Grade boundaries are something I haven’t seen debated, but they are very much on students’ minds: “If everyone does really badly, can’t they just reduce the grade boundaries?” It’s also a hot topic on The Student Room’s discussion forums.

In a sense, this is something that happens anyway. Grade boundaries (the number of marks needed to achieve a particular grade) for the same subject vary from year to year and from paper to paper. They are based on how difficult a paper is perceived to be and what scores have been achieved by students across the country on that test. The grade boundaries are set after the results have been collated, so they are based on how the whole cohort of students has performed. This is designed to ensure consistency of standards from year to year and avoid grade inflation.

These boundaries can vary quite a lot, despite attempts to make each paper equally difficult. For example, in 2019, students had to score 83 out of 160 on their English Language GCSE paper to achieve that all-important grade 4, but in 2018, it was only 75. It makes sense then, that if the whole cohort scores lower in 2021 then the boundaries would shift downwards to reflect that and the spread of grades would remain broadly the same as usual.

While this seems like a straightforward assumption, there would be questions around the perceived value of next year’s qualifications compared to previous cohorts if grade boundaries have to be adjusted further than usual. And on a more personal level, it feels to me like setting students up to fail. Setting them a too-hard paper with the expectation that they will score poorly does nothing for the self-esteem of a generation who have been through such a lot already.

Where does it end?

The government is consulting with Ofqual, the exams regulator, as we speak, and an announcement is expected before the end of term. It’s possible that a combination of the ideas above might be proposed, but there is no perfect solution.

What is clear is that that planning for business as usual in education is not an option. There has been too much disruption, there’s too much inequality and millions of futures are at stake. This extends far beyond current GCSE and A Level students; children at every stage of their education have had their studies interrupted. This doesn’t mean they’ve learned nothing though – far from it. Maybe this is the time to rethink what we really want from our education system.

Lucy Aditi is on a mission to help stressed students enjoy their education and meet their life goals without cramming or therapy. With over 20 years’ experience working with young people, she is the creator of Ride the Waves, the academic life coaching programme specifically designed for people aged 14-21. She is also a busy teacher, entrepreneur and parent.

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