Exams 2021: What’s on the table as deadline looms


Despite waiting for months, Schools Week understands the government will fall short of its pledge to communicate the plans for next year’s exams to the sector in November.

But an announcement is getting closer. We spoke to insiders to see what was on the table.

The exams announcement will contain policies that address a few different areas, such as making exams easier, grades more generous, providing contingency measures for pupils who may be off on exam day and also attempting to balance up the difference in lost learning between pupils, schools and regions.


Making exams easier

This should include various measures. One of these could be content signalling, such as where advance notice is given by the exam board of what topics are going to come up.

While it gives schools a heads-up on what to expect, it has challenges as it may not be possible to do it for every subject – and there are concerns it could lead to varied interpretations by teachers.

Another idea tabled is around question paper optionality and whether the number of questions should increase. While this has its benefits, there are concerns it could cause distraction for some students.

Ofqual’s interim chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey has also told heads that formula sheets in science, more time for certain papers and being more sensitive of the ramping up of question difficulty are all in the mix. But she said none was “straightforward” and all involved “some compromise over technical validity”.


Lost learning is ‘key issue’

Arguably the most difficult area to find a solution for is how to compensate for varied learning loss across England.

One of the options on the table is to drop components. This could be the exam board stipulating which one to leave out, or for teachers to request which one should be dropped. Sources say an advantage of this idea is the “simplicity” of it.

Another proposal is running an appeals system after the series, where teachers can essentially appeal if content came up that pupils had missed out on having the chance to learn.

There are downsides to this as students may have a potentially poor exam experience, and it is mitigating for lost learning after the exam, rather than before.

There have also been calls to introduce some sort of regional grading system, with fears of pupils facing a “covid penalty” unless Ofqual takes geographical differences into account. However, experts have shot this down as unworkable.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this is the “key issue”, but admitted “we are not convinced that anything we have so far seen achieves” equalling out “the differential learning experiences of candidates”.


Reserve papers likely to feature as contingency measure

The problem to solve here is how can pupils who may be isolating on exams day still take the test.

Mock exams at some point next year have been discussed as one way to mitigate this. But it would have to be decided whether they were teacher assessed or exam board assessed mocks, and what the standardisation approach would be.

Sammy Wright, a commissioner at the Social Mobility Commission, warned earlier this month that mock exams in January could disadvantage poorer pupils even more as they haven’t had time to catch up on what they have missed.

Meanwhile, earlier the month the Education Policy Institute suggested benchmarking assessments if exams were cancelled.

Other options being discussed include a portfolio of teacher evidence and reserve papers after the exam series, the latter of which seems nailed on.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs in September they were “very much taking on board what Ofqual has said about maybe needing to have a reserve set of papers for youngsters who… may not be in a position to take the examinations”.


More generous grades – but by how much?

Stacey has told ministers she wants to compensate pupils with “more generous” national performance standards next year (and beyond).

It’s a strong indicator that some of the grade inflation seen in this summer’s results, with centre-assessed grades being awarded, could be allowed to continue. But we don’t know how much.

The regulator also said this week that applying comparable outcomes to exams results will not be enough to compensate for learning loss where it “affects some learners far more than others. There is still a case for applying the comparable outcomes principle, albeit only as a partial compensation strategy.”

The Sunday Times has reported the amount of lesson time each pupil has lost to coronavirus could be recorded to allow universities to lower entry requirements for those hardest hit.


So, when will we find out?

Williamson has said “we should aim to inform the sector of the conclusions of the contingency planning in November”.

To meet this deadline, the announcement would have to be by Monday. But Schools Week understands this will likely not be met. DfE said “we will set out our plans in the coming weeks”.

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