Coronavirus: Heads demand 'urgent' clarification on exam fee rebates

Headteachers have called for “urgent” clarification over whether schools will receive a rebate on exam fees following the cancellation of this year’s GCSEs and A-levels.

The decision to call off the summer exams this year following the outbreak of coronavirus has led to questions about whether schools should still pay full whack for exam boards’ services.

Exam fees cost schools thousands of pounds each year, and headteachers’ unions have raised the prospect of a rebate or discount in future years with the government, regulator Ofqual and the exam boards.

“Members have asked us about the fee being charged and whether this remains appropriate when the summer series of exams and assessments has been cancelled,” said Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT.

“Government, Ofqual and the exam boards must work together to answer these valid questions and let schools know as a matter of urgency whether there will be any reduction in exams fees or a rebate later in the year.”

Fees charged by exam boards cover a range of assessment services. This includes the production of exam papers, which won’t be used this year, but also covers things like marking and moderation. The government is yet to set out exactly how this year’s system will work, so it is not yet clear what exam boards’ role will be.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of ASCL, told Schools Week that although exam boards will have accrued some costs this year, those costs will be “clearly nowhere near what would normally be expected, and schools and colleges should be given some form of appropriate refund”.

“We are considering how this would best be achieved. We recognise that the immediate priority is to manage the system of moderated assessment so that students receive grades this year which will allow onward progression. Our initial thinking is that the saving on exam fees should therefore be reflected in lower fees in next year’s exam series.”

Schools Week approached the four exam boards that set GCSEs and A-levels.

A spokesperson for WJEC, the Welsh exam board, which is used in some English schools, said: “We understand that this is a particularly difficult time for centres, and we would like to reassure our headteachers/centre heads that we are working to agree an approach to fees following the government’s decision to cancel this summer’s exams.

“We will continue to keep our centres updated as the situation develops.”

A spokesperson for Pearson said: “We continue to work around the clock with the Department for Education, Ofqual and the other exam boards to define the detail of how this will work and will share information as soon as we have it.

“We know that schools, teachers and students have many specific questions around the impact of the changes to the delivery of qualifications this summer, and will be communicating about this in the coming weeks. We thank them for their patience and understanding in these unprecedented times.”

AQA’s chief executive Mark Bedlow said: “As an education charity, we have no wish to gain financially from this summer’s exceptional circumstances, so we’ll certainly be looking to pass any savings on to schools.

“It’s too early to know what the final cost of getting students their grades will be, but we’re going to be transparent with schools and keep them updated.”

A spokesperson for OCR said: “We appreciate schools have questions about fees and we’ll be sharing our plans about these as soon as we can, as we’re committed to keeping schools informed.”

One academy trust leader has said he will use anticipated savings on exam fees to pay for free school meal vouchers during the Easter holidays.

The government has confirmed its voucher scheme, launched this week to keep pupils eligible for free meals fed while they are at home, will not apply during the break.

But Jonny Uttley, chief executive of The Education Alliance academy trust, tweeted: “We do not expect exam boards to hold onto their full fees for awarding grades this summer.

“Therefore we have decided to redeploy some of this budget to extend our £15 weekly voucher scheme for all eligible pupils through Easter.”