GCSE English Literature and history pupils can skip exam topics next year, regulator says

3 August 2020, 19:23

Pupils face changes to some GCSE exams next year
Pupils face changes to some GCSE exams next year. Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

GCSE pupils sitting English literature exams next summer can skip some topics on the syllabus due to time spent out of classroom, the regulator has announced.

Ofqual confirmed pupils would be offered a greater choice of subjects in their exam papers for GCSE English literature, history and ancient history in 2021, and assessed geography fieldwork can be dropped. 

But school leaders have criticised the Government regulator's decision not to offer optional questions in exams for other GCSE and A-level subjects, despite most students having spent four months out of the classroom.

Schools were closed to most pupils in March but began to reopen to those in Year 10 and Year 12, the students taking GCSE and A-level exams next year respectively, in mid-June. 

The watchdog is yet to decide on whether the 2021 summer exams will be pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic, with fears of a second wave during winter. 

Under the proposed English Literature changes, all students will be assessed on a play by Shakespeare, and on two of the remaining three areas of content: poetry, a 19th century novel, or post-1914 British fiction/drama.

But exam boards were told they “have the option to focus on particular texts” to offer greater flexibility next summer amid “significant concern” among teachers at covering the full syllabus, Ofqual said. 

Nearly half (48%) of respondents to a consultation last month opposed the initial plans to leave the English literature assessment unaltered amid concern at pupils getting “to grips with complex literary texts remotely".

There will also be more choice on question topics in GCSE history and ancient history, Ofqual said.

Schools will no longer be required to declare to exam boards that they offered fieldwork opportunities for next year’s cohort of GCSE and A-level geography students.

READ MORE: Be more lenient with applicants' GCSE grades this summer, A-level colleges told

READ MORE: GCSE and A-level exams could be pushed back in 2021

Some pupils have returned to school to start exam preparations for next year
Some pupils have returned to school to start exam preparations for next year. Picture: PA

However, uncertainty reigns over whether next year’s exams will be delayed. The consultation had proposed delaying the start of the GCSE exam series to 7 June, after the half-term break - but the watchdog said it was still working "to consider the best approach".

"While there was general support for a delay to the exams, to allow more time for teaching, respondents were less positive about this if it meant a potential delay to results," Ofqual said. 

Duncan Baldwin, deputy director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the plans for the 2021 exam series "amount only to tinkering at the edges” given “students could experience widespread ongoing disruption” next academic year. 

"Everybody can see that the situation with coronavirus remains precarious. It appears to be likely that students will have to intermittently self-isolate, and that schools will be required to fully or partially close in response to local infection spikes,” he told the PA news agency. 

"This makes it extremely challenging to deliver all the content for GCSEs and A-levels to all students, on top of the disruption that has already taken place to their learning."

The Government insisted at the weekend it was an “absolute priority” to get all pupils back to school full-time in September, despite fresh concern from unions and warnings from Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, that “we have probably reached the limit” of reopening up society.  

Headteachers have been told to draw up plans for remote learning should local lockdown measures be imposed next term.  

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