Education Secretary defends 'more generous' GCSE and A-levels

3 December 2020, 08:43 | Updated: 3 December 2020, 11:17

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

GCSE and A-level students will receive "more generous grades" and advanced notice of exam topics next year, the education secretary has announced.

Gavin Williamson confirmed on Thursday that pupils will be compensated for the disruption caused to their school calendars during the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking to Nick Ferrari on LBC this morning, Mr Williamson said: "We're going to have a much more generous approach in terms of grading, mirroring 2020 into 2021."

Nick Ferrari pressed saying: "Candidly, we're going to tell them the questions, they can take in additional papers, they'll get advance notice, can they bring their big sister in too to answer the question? Where does it end?" Nick suggested scrapping the exams altogether.

Mr Williamson replied: "The best form of assessment is exams. It isn't teacher assessed grades, it's not algorithms."

Another measure being introduced for the current cohort to prevent them from being disadvantaged includes giving students exam aids when sitting papers.

If they miss any scheduled assessments through illness or self-isolation, additional dates will be added to give them a second chance to sit the exam.

The new measures announced by the Department for Education (DfE) come following this summer's grading fiasco when exams were cancelled due to school closures.

Read more: GCSE and A-level exams will be delayed next year

Read more: Ofqual chief Sally Collier stands down following A-level results fury

Thousands of A-level students, and their parents, were stunned to see their results downgraded by an algorithm in August, with the backlash forcing Ofqual into a major U-turn, allowing teachers to grade the pupils with their original predictions.

In October, the government confirmed 2021's exams will still go ahead in England but that they will be delayed by three weeks to help children catch up on their studies.

On Thursday, the education secretary unveiled a new package of measures that will ensure students receive grades that are as fair as possible.

It comes amid growing calls for his department to step in and compensate children for missed learning.

Mr Williamson said students will 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.

Read more: Students can 'breathe again' after government U-turn on A-level results

Read more: A-level and GCSE results to be based on teachers’ predictions

Students protested against their original algorithm-allocated grades in August
Students protested against their original algorithm-allocated grades in August. Picture: PA

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.

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

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 per cent) of secondary school pupils were absent from school last week for the second week running.

Mr 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."

Gavin Williamson faced pressure from students and parents over August's exam fiasco
Gavin Williamson faced pressure from students and parents over August's exam fiasco. Picture: PA

The DfE has also announced that full, graded Ofsted inspections will not resume until the summer term and exam results will not be included in school performance tables this year.

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.

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."

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.

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.

But James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, said the measure would need "careful management" to ensure it does 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."

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