Exams have been cancelled – so what happens now?

18 Mar 2020, 22:21


Robert Half, the American businessman, once said “it’s easy to make good decisions when there are no bad options”.

Gavin Williamson is now grappling with the opposite. Because it’s not only easy, but inevitable, that bad decisions are made when there are no good options.

In a fast moving crisis, you can’t afford to wait for good options. It’s become very clear in the last few days that schools have to close.

Given the timing and uncertain duration, it’s also clear normal summer exams can’t take place. It’s right to act on those decisions now – even when you don’t know yet what will happen in their place.

Thoughts now turn to what replaces the exams. Students will rightly be anxious – as will their parents and teachers

But thoughts now turn to what replaces the exams that Year 11 and 13 (and older learners) have been spending two years working towards. They’ll rightly be anxious – as will their parents and teachers. So here’s what I think the plan should be.

Logically, there are only three things that can now be done.

We can abandon the system altogether and no qualifications be awarded. Exams can be taken later in the year at an unspecified time. Or there can be some other system for awarding qualifications to the usual timetable.

The first is possible but highly undesirable. Qualifications serve to recognise student achievement, as well as a signal onto their next stage. That’s still needed.

It’s possible to have them taken later in the year. But at this moment we simply don’t know when – or if – schools will reopen. We can’t say we’ll definitely hold them in, say, September. Even if we could, it’s not clear we could reorganise all other elements of education, as well as work, around an extension of the school year.

So that leaves only the option of awarding grades by other means. How to do this?

We want a system that balances three things: maximum certainty for students and exam centres about how grades will be awarded; minimum bureaucracy and burden in generating these; and maximum reliability and disaggregation between students’ achievement.

Naturally – because why would things be simple – these three goals can be in tension.

We could set some other test – one that requires no additional learning, and is quick to mark. This would score high in certainty for learners; high (ish) in reliably disaggregating student outcomes, but poorly for bureaucracy (who, in practice, is going to design, check, give out, and mark all these tests?)

We could somehow make a holistic judgement on students’ performance to date. This would involve some form of best fit overall judgement on a student and award a grade on that basis.

This gives less certainty for learners, probably less disaggregation, but – as a brand new system – probably quite a lot of effort.

This gives maximum certainty, a reasonable disaggregation of achievement, and minimal effort

Or we could simply use predicted grades. This gives maximum certainty, a reasonable disaggregation of achievement, and minimal effort – because, of course, predicted grades have already been made, especially for A Levels.

The obvious pushback is how we ensure such grades are remotely valid. There’s a significant literature showing that teacher judgements are hugely variable because of human nature.

In addition, there’s a differential bias seen in the system when it comes to A Level predicted grades in particular between different centres and the curse of over or under predictions.

This is where Ofqual come in. Their job, after all, is to ensure that exam boards give out grades that are valid and reliable.

So my plan would be that all centres submit predicted grades to Ofqual for their GCSE and A Level students.

As they would do if the grades were submitted by exam boards, Ofqual would scrutinise these, and say – based on everything we know about that student (prior attainment etc), and everything we know about that centre (previous GCSE and A Level grades for that centre) – do these seem right? If not, they have the right to adjust the grades up and down accordingly.

Three more things need to happen.

Centres, and students, need to be given total clarity over how Ofqual will do this, and what the margin for error is – and as much clarity as is possible to help centres submit correct grades.

Secondly, students need to be reassured that Ofqual’s goal is to help support them to get the grades that are fair, and as close to what they would have likely got in their exams as possible.

Thirdly, if a centre or students really don’t want to do this, they must be supported as far as possible to resit some or all paper exams as soon as they can – perhaps next January, or even next summer.

There are – you don’t need to tell me – several perfectly sensible objections to this system. But in a time of national crisis, we need a best-fit decision – and to all back it.

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  1. Jonathan’s ‘best fit’ solution is sensible. It’s pragmatic and workable. In the long run, GCSEs are not as important as the government says they are. Their importance to pupils is to decide post-16 progression a stepping-stone on the way to future education and training. This can be accomplished via teacher assessment.
    This crisis has revealed the flaws in England’s exam system. We should be moving towards graduation at 18 via multiple, mostly existing, routes.

  2. Matthew Jones

    I understand there is no perfect system, but I find this system is very bias against pupils who have been over-achieving or under-achieving in the lead up to exams.

    Some pupils beat their target grades by 1 or 2 grades every year through persistent hard work, meanwhile others will miss theirs, not because of a lack of intelligence, but through a lack of effort. I don’t see how giving predicted grades would be fair and reflect the effort put in by some very exceptionally hard-working students.

    On the contrary, I do agree that this current situation does highlight the flaws into this countries current examination style.

  3. Suggestion is fine for the majority but my child is a home schooled A level student – I have paid for her to sit her exams at a local school – so she will not have any predicted grades. She has accepted a university place so is understandably very anxious

  4. The government did not think this through. They should not have announced that exams were cancelled without consultation. They are now scrambling to inform all the relevant stakeholders. The exams should be postponed until November (GCSE English & Maths Resits already take place in November) or January as suggested in this article. Teacher judgement is too often unreliable and should not be used to award GCSE grades. As teachers and managers in the sector, we should all humbly agree that we do not always get it right. It is so sad to see the lack of leadership in the sector with so many simply agreeing with the government. The announcement was poorly managed and has left learners not knowing where they stand. Whilst I do not agree entirely with the approach put forward by Jonathan I applaud the fact that it is coherent and well thought out, something that cannot be said about the governments’ approach.

  5. Now is the time for teachers and their professional judgements to be trusted. For all pupils (SATs, GCSEs and Levels) where teacher assessment is submitted; externally moderated (without standardisation) given the short space of time available.

    This has to be the best option…

    • Andrew Pember


      Teacher assessments judgements can be biassed, but most of the GCSE/A Level awarding organisations have expertise and systems to operation external moderation of internal assessments / judgements.

      Ofqual do not have this expertise or the systems to do it – I imagine they are talking to the AOs right now…

    • Michelle

      This is sensible for those at GCSE, A Levels or other exam points however this doesn’t consider the Year R, 1 or other year groups who only has been taught 1/2 of the curriculum and then will move up a year group with massive gaps in knowledge. This will affect end results for years (unless we get rid of exams forever, which would be a positive) My prefered option would be extend the academic year to Dec of we are back to normal by then. Exams could happen in Nov (unless we get rid of exams for good) Results for Dec, start new school year in Jan. Once this is over we need families to get out and spend money to get economy moving again. This would mean kids could go back to their orginal teacher Sept-Dec. This also supports vocational learners who still have a lot of practical elements to catch up with.

  6. Josh Dale

    I don’t think this would work given the new system for GCSEs, only a certain percentage of students get each grade, as the predicted grades may not be given in the same proportions.
    For example say 5% of students would be given a 9 usually but 8% have a 9 as a predicted grade (and it is completely justifiable), what would happen then?
    The grades can’t be given out as it would be unfair, it could mean students from this year get a higher or lower proportion of top grades relative to last years. It would also be unfair on deciding how these grades would be changed.

  7. Whatever process is decided on needs to be able to be implemented and completed by the start of the new school year. There must be an appeals procedure and, I suggest, the option to take an exam later in the year. I believe that for GCSEs the main assessment should come from the mock exam results but taking into account teacher assessment on post mock performance, in other words new predicted grades but appeal only available where it would impact on future academic study i.e. A level subject choice.
    For A level grades the University opinion has to be the main input as it is probable there will be far fewer (none?) foreign students able to take up places which could lead to major financial issues. So UCAS submitted predictions should upheld but again with the ability to appeal, however it is unlikely that everyone will be able to sit exams in a rearranged sitting.

  8. In closing the schools at short notice, the government has acted appropriately and decisively in its response to the evolving estimates of the likely impact of the coronavirus on the health services. I am not convinced, however, that it was necessary to announce the cancellation of the GCSE and A-level examinations. This has caused untold confusion and distress amongst Year-11 and -13 students.

    It would have been more appropriate to postpone the A-levels until August and the GCSEs until the beginning of September. University entry could be postponed until as late as January 2021, with the lost term being made up later with extended terms – surely, not too onerous when spread over a three-year course. The GCSEs could be taken in the first week of term and marked by the schools. Given that teachers are experienced in marking mocks, and with appropriate moderation, this could be done with the necessary rigour. More importantly, it would be fair because students would know that these examinations are ‘for real’ (unlike their mocks). In the meantime, the new Year-12 students could be allowed to begin their AS and A-level courses, subject to their teachers’ approval. Only in the event of a student being found, subsequently, to have significantly underperformed in the relevant GCSEs might their choice of A-levels be reconsidered.

    If the infection rate continues to increase into August and September, then the above plans could be cancelled or modified, but to rule out this solution now leaves a whole cohort of Year-11 and -13 students deflated and demotivated, without any sense of purpose for the next six months. How is this experience going to influence their future attitude to the value of working towards long-term goals? Our fine young people deserve better than this.

    One of the benefits of moving to the new linear A-levels was that it lifted from students the burden of constant ‘assessment horizons’ – it gave students the opportunity to study their subjects in real depth over two academic years, without worrying that the next assessment would make or break their career. My own daughter, though achieving excellent grades in her mocks, made a deliberate decision to not allow the mocks to distract her from her long term preparations for her A-levels in the summer: she did not, for example, cease studying the topics that would not be covered in the mocks. She already had her predicated grades and university offers, so why allow the mocks to impact unduly on her long term goals?

    Under the current appalling circumstances, there is no perfect solution. The government must balance heath, economic and educational considerations. Whilst saving lives must be the overriding priority, I see no reason why our students could not have been told to assume the exams will be going ahead, albeit later in the year. If circumstances then prove too difficult to allow this, then everything will have changed and we will all be in a far worse place than is currently anticipated.

  9. Andrew Pesterfield

    A balanced viewpoint that reflects the level of professional trust we should have in teachers.
    In my view, given the longstanding issues with predicted grades (especially for university admissions) these shouldn’t be used. Instead I would suggest that the exam boards go back to schools with the following;
    Using your own internal data and professional judgement rank the students in your subject cohorts.
    Exam boards then award grades to the cohort in proportion to those achieved at the centre over a 3 year average
    Schools could then appeal individual grades if they feel that they are widely at variance but the onus will be on them to provide sufficient evidence to justify a grade change.

  10. Julie Howarth

    I am an examinations officer and although I am very concerned for all of our students I am even more concerned for the all the external candidates who use centres to resit exams. Has anybody thought about these candidates? Unfortunately they will not have the benefit of predicted grades as they have all been out of education for a period of time. It really will be worst case scenario for these candidates who will probably now have to wait yet another year before they can take the exams that will allow them to move onto the next step of their education.

  11. Andrew

    It will be interesting to see what is proposed but there needs to be consideration that all students progress at different rates. Some students with low prior attainment make lots of progress and some with higher prior attainment make less. It is dangerous to artificially raise or lower teacher predictions for an individual based on prior attainment. Schools should be aware of the attainment expectation per student and should be given the freedom to allow some students to make more progress than other; this is the case seen annually. The school should be asked to use previous value added per subject seen over the last 2 years worth of results and asked to ensure that this years’ value added for each subject is broadly in line with previous results for the school. Each subject will award a grade with some students making more progress than others but the average of the cohort being similar to previous years. Each student should then be ranked per subject and if, on external analysis, the results of the cohort are not in line with expectations then the entire cohorts grades are lowered slightly in line with what the school has achieved in each subject in the past – keeping intact the relative ranking of students for each subject. This allows schools to make the decision on the relative ranking of the students they teach. It would be unfair for one student to have worked really hard, done really well to achieve higher predicted grades than expected and have these lowered in preference to someone with higher prior attainment but lower predicted grades due to poor effort and poor mock results. Trust schools And teachers to make decisions on the individual level and allow exam boards and Ofqual to moderate on a national level.

  12. Maidstone Rugby Mum.

    Hi everyone,
    The Irish leaving cert has only just been cancelled following a determination to hold exams ‘by hook or by crook’ – the effect of this has been very damaging to the young people and parents involved and, in my opinion far cruler than the current proposed system here. Disadvantaged students are further disadvantaged – lack of access to internet schooling, expected to help with younger siblings or working to support family at home, with concerns of financial inequality widened.
    It’s not pretty but it is making the best of what we have and ultimately is as fair as it can be.

    Does anyone have any thought on Universities who rely on foreign students for the bulk of their income are going to allocate places – will Russell Group look to lower UK grades to fill the gaps?