GCSEs and A-levels: Decision on exam delay promised ‘very soon’

A decision on whether to delay next year’s GCSE and A-level exams in England will be made “very soon”, schools minister Nick Gibb has said.

This is expected to be part of a wider strategy on how next summer’s exams will operate when so much school has been missed because of the pandemic.

In June, the government announced that exams were likely to be pushed back to later in the summer than usual.

Labour has called for next summer’s exams to be delayed.

This week many pupils in England and Wales are returning to school – after the long disruption caused by the pandemic outbreak, with almost all schools expected to be ready to teach pupils full time.

Worried parents

But a survey from YouGov suggested there were still fears about safety – with 17% of parents “seriously considering” not sending back their children.

The polling firm has recorded growing confidence in sending pupils back, but this latest survey, as schools prepare to reopen, suggests a hard core of unconvinced parents.

Parents were more likely to back wearing masks in school, with 47% in favour and 36% against.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, addressing the first Cabinet meeting since the summer break, said there was likely to be more of “this wretched Covid still to come” but he was “absolutely confident” that “we are going to be able to deal with those outbreaks”.

The return to school has raised concerns about what will happen to next summer’s A-levels and GCSEs, when so much teaching time has been lost.

Mr Gibb said a delayed start to the exam season was being considered, as previously put forward by education ministers earlier in the summer.

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“We have to take into account the other nations in the UK which also use the GCSEs and A-levels in their term dates,” Mr Gibb told the BBC.

“You have to take into account the time for marking, making sure results are delivered on a certain date for university admissions and so on.

“There are a whole range of factors that the exam boards, Ofqual and the Department [for Education] are looking at, but we will form a decision very soon.”

‘Tinkering at the edges’

In June, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs that he would consult with Ofqual, England’s exam regulator, on “how we can move those exams back, giving children extra time in order to be able to learn”.

Ofqual has suggested that relatively few changes will need to be made to how much is taught for exams – but heads’ leader Geoff Barton criticised this as “little more than tinkering at the edges“.

The ASCL head teachers’ union has called for a reduction in the scale of the content of exam courses to take account of the amount of teaching time that has been lost.

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There have also been questions about what will happen if schools face local lockdowns – and whether there will have to be a back-up plan for teachers’ predictions to be used again.

West Sussex head teacher Jules White said a month’s delay for exams would only be “window dressing”.

“The idea that all students, especially those who are disadvantaged, will rapidly catch up on vast amounts of subject content is naively optimistic and politicians from all sides must call for urgent and meaningful modifications to exams,” said Mr White, who has organised school funding campaigns.

Labour has called for the exams, usually taken in May and June, to be pushed back to mid-summer to help cope with the impact of coronavirus.

On Monday, shadow education secretary Kate Green said students starting Year 11 and 13 in September had “a mountain to climb”, having missed months of schooling.

Scheduling exams for later next year would allow more catch-up teaching time, she said.

This year’s exams were dogged by chaos and left teachers, parents and pupils calling for a major rethink of next summer’s exams.

Nearly 40% of A-level grades awarded to students using an algorithm were below teachers’ assessments, with disadvantaged students particularly badly affected.

Days after the results were announced, and following widespread criticism, the government performed a U-turn and decided to base grades on teachers’ recommendations instead.

Conservative MP Tim Loughton said the exam problems had been a “shambles” and that after such a “turbulent” summer when “things have not gone as well as they should have done”, the government needed to “get control of the agenda again”.

“I think a lot of people will find it surprising that we seem to have had a few heads roll who are civil servants and in charge in quangos but so far there has been no ministerial accountability and I think that is raising a few questions.

“Ministers have lost their jobs for a lot less, including education ministers,” said Mr Loughton.

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