03/12/2020 10:12 GMT

Explained: How GCSEs, A-Levels And SATs Will Be Different In 2021

Resits, advance notice of topics and more generous grades are meant to compensate for the interruption to education during the pandemic.

Students taking GCSE and A-level exams next year will be awarded special measures to compensate for disruption to their schooling during the coronavirus pandemic, the education secretary has announced.

The announcement comes after the fiasco around grading of GCSE and A-level students in the summer, when exams were cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic and school closures.

Thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by an algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn, allowing them to use teachers’ original predictions instead.

We took a look at what the government’s latest raft of measures will mean for students.


What’s changing?

Andrew Fox via Getty Images
Individuals sitting exams in 2021 will have special measures to ensure they are not disadvantaged by the coronavirus pandemic (file picture) 

The measures, set out by Gavin Williamson, include more generous grades, in line with results from summer 2020.

Students will also receive advance notice, at the end of January, of some topics ahead of tests.

Additional exams will also be run to give students a second chance to sit a paper if the main exams or assessments are missed due to illness or self-isolation, the Department for Education (DfE) said.

Students will also be given aids, such as formula sheets, in some exams to boost their confidence and reduce the amount of information they need to memorise, as part of the measures.

A new expert group will be set up to look at differential learning and to monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country.

But it is understood that grading changes simply based on the region you live in have been ruled out.

Sats exams in Year 6 will still go ahead – except for the grammar, punctuation and spelling test – but tests in Year 2 will be suspended for a year.


What about vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils?

Under new contingency measures, students who miss one or more exams due to self-isolation or sickness, but who have still completed a proportion of their qualification, will still receive a grade.

If a student misses all their assessments in a subject, they will have the opportunity to sit a contingency paper held shortly after the main exam series.

These tests are expected to run in the first few weeks of July.

If a pupil has a legitimate reason to miss all their papers, then a validated teacher-informed assessment can be used but only once all chances to sit an exam have passed.

Students who are clinically extremely vulnerable will also be given the option to sit an exam at home if they cannot be in school due to restrictions.

It comes after DfE figures revealed that more than a fifth (22%) of secondary school pupils were absent from school last week for the second week running.

Gavin Williamson said: “Exams are the best way of giving young people the opportunity to show what they can do, which is why it’s so important they take place next summer.

“But this isn’t business as usual. I know students are facing unprecedented disruption to their learning. That’s why exams will be different next year, taking exceptional steps to ensure they are as fair as possible.

“I am determined to support students, parents and teachers in these unprecedented times and hope measures like more generous grading and advance notice of some topic areas will give young people the clarity and confidence they need to achieve every success.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “In September, we were faced with secondary exams proceeding unaltered, all primary assessments going ahead as normal, full publication of performance data, and a return to inspection in January.

“This announcement brings with it some much-needed relief to school leaders who have been operating in ‘emergency mode’ for most of this year.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “This solution to next year’s A-level and GCSE exams will make them as fair as they can be in the circumstances.

“It is not perfect – nothing can be, given the fact that learning has been so disrupted by coronavirus and that pupils have been affected to vastly different extents.”

What are the concerns with the latest plans?

Leaders from some teaching unions and educational charities still have fears about how the measures will address gaps in the system, as well as questions over how teachers will deal with the changes. 

James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, said the measures would need “careful management” to ensure they do not widen existing attainment gaps “as students at more affluent schools may have better access to the resources to prepare these topics in detail and at short notice”.

Meanwhile, Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said concerns remained about the differential impact that Covid-19 has had on pupils in different areas of the country.

He added: “More thought also needs to go into university admissions, to ensure that students in England are not disadvantaged because they are sitting exams next year, unlike their peers in other parts of the UK.”

Advance notice of exam topics is not expected to be made public until the end of January so students can focus their revision period from February onwards.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, has expressed concerns that a large proportion of teachers have said they will not be able to teach the whole syllabus in the time available with repeated pupil absences. 

She said: “That makes it crucial that teachers are told, now, what topics will be on the exam paper. I understand that this information is not going to be released until the end of January 2021. That is too late.” 

Ofqual’s interim chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey said: “Summer 2020 results were the first pandemic results. They were unique when compared to previous years, with higher grades overall.

“We have decided to carry forward the overall level of generosity from 2020 through to summer 2021, in recognition of the baleful and continuing impact of the pandemic.

“This is an unprecedented step. Having consulted widely, we think it the right thing to do.”

It is understood the level of generosity will be evened out across subjects to prevent significant differences in the number of students awarded top grades depending on the subject.