Most A-level and GCSE exams in 2021 in England will be delayed by three weeks due to the pandemic, Gavin Williamson has confirmed.
The education secretary has said students taking exams next year will need more time to prepare as he pledged more support.
It comes as the Covid second wave starts to take hold across the country, with rising cases and hospitalisations likely to trigger further lockdown measures.
The announcement follows the summer’s exams fiasco when ministers had to U-turn on results decided by a computer algorithm, which saw the brightest but most disadvantaged children hit hardest.
Williamson said in a statement on Monday that exams are “the fairest way of judging a student’s performance”.
He added: “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 received.”
Kate Green, Labour shadow education secretary, welcomed the news, but added: “A delay is necessary but not enough to make exams fair for all.
“The government must ensure that every pupil gets the support they need to catch up, and that they look at other possibilities to make exams fairer.”
In August, unions called for an independent inquiry into the debacle, saying that Williamson and prime minister Boris Johnson had failed young people.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, called the announcement was “unrealistic” for parents and teachers and “amounts to a dereliction of duty by government to pupils, parents and education professionals”.
She added: “Pupils taking GCSE and A levels next summer are in a terrible position. They have missed five months of in-school teaching – a loss which impacts most severely on disadvantaged pupils, 700,000 of whom have no access to the internet which denies them access to remote learning.
“Many pupils are missing further schooling, now, as they isolate at home waiting for Covid test results. It is completely unrealistic, and unfair, to expect these pupils to take exams which make no compensation for disruption to school teaching time.”
The Universities and Colleges Union has called for a broader shake-up of exams, saying the marking workload for teachers amid the catch-up programme will be “unbearable” for some teachers.
General secretary Jo Grady wants an eventual overhaul of the system where students would apply to university after receiving their results, rather than on the basis of predictions.
“The government needs to accept it got things badly wrong back in August and work with staff to ensure a proper system of teacher-moderated grades instead of exams, in case we see a continued rise in Covid-19 cases and more widespread lockdowns,” she said.
“Whilst a delay in the start of exams in 2021 to allow students and teachers more time to complete courses is welcome, it is vital to consider how this will affect teacher workload and timetable planning.
Longer term, the current situation shows that we must seriously look at moving to a system of post-qualifications admissions, where students apply to university after their results.
“Without substantial support from the government, and a commitment to genuine reform, further uncertainty around exams and marking systems will simply create further chaos for students and unbearable workloads for staff.”