Some schools in the UK are investigating the use of unregulated examinations to get around the government’s decision to cancel A-level and GCSEs exams this summer over coronavirus fears, the Guardian has learned.
A group of schools have been discussing the possible use of qualifications such as international GCSEs known as iGCSEs, or alternatives to A-levels known as Pre-U or international A-levels, which are offered by examination boards and almost exclusively used by independent schools.
The move comes as the Department for Education said pupils would be awarded assessed grades for conventional GCSE and A-level courses by the end of July, using an algorithm to be developed by Ofqual, the exam regulator, with each pupils’ grades then ratified by their teachers and exam boards.
The DfE said pupils unhappy with their assessed grades would have the option of appealing, and the opportunity to sit exams in the affected subjects after the start of the next academic year or in summer 2021.
“I have asked exam boards to work closely with the teachers who know their pupils best to ensure their hard work and dedication is rewarded and fairly recognised,” Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said.
But while A-levels and GCSEs have been cancelled, schools and students say they have not been told that iGCSEs or similar unregulated qualifications have also been called off, leaving them in limbo.
Both OxfordAQA – a joint venture between AQA and the Oxford University Press – and Cambridge Assessment have said they intend to continue with the international versions of the exams this summer where schools remain open, because of demand from overseas.
A spokesperson for OxfordAQA said: “Our qualifications are specifically designed for international students and are only available outside the UK. In countries where schools are open and it is safe for students to sit exams as normal this summer, they’ll be able to take our international GCSEs and A-levels.”
Cambridge Assessment plans to go ahead with its exams and is currently advising users: “For schools in England that take Cambridge International exams, we are working with the UK government to understand more about their intentions. We will provide more information to schools as soon as possible.”
Cambridge International later announced that it would not allow UK schools to offer its international qualifications this summer [see note at end of story].
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We are making clear to all awarding organisations that no exams should go ahead in schools and colleges in England this year.”
The international versions of GCSEs and A-levels have been controversial in recent years, with claims that private schools use them to bolster their results since the qualifications are not subject to Ofqual regulation and their grades are not limited by prior attainment like their domestic counterparts.
The move comes as most state schools in the UK were frantically adapting to the government’s order to close to all but vulnerable children, those with special needs and those with parents who work in key sectors, while at the same time holding emotionally charged meetings with staff, parents and pupils for what is almost certainly the end of the school year.
Headteachers said they were working as fast as possible to provide remote learning for most of their pupils staying at home, while also trying to figure out the number of children to be looked after at school next week, and if it was safe to host them, and administering efforts to get food to those eligible for free school meals.
The government delayed defining key worker status until Friday morning, leaving headteachers with little time to get parents to supply details and arrange staff rotas, catering and – in some cases - transport before the end of the day.
“This week has been an epic one, with schools told they have to be closed but open,” said Kat Pugh, headteacher of St Marylebone CE School in central London, who described how her school called each family of pupils with special needs or vulnerabilities to establish if they wanted their child to attend.
Pugh said the school then emailed all parents with a questionnaire about key worker status, but on Friday afternoon said she still wasn’t sure how many pupils or staff would be in on Monday morning.
“We’re expecting 40 to 50 students, but it may be 20 or it maybe 60,” said Pugh, who said she needed to balance the needs of the families with the dangers caused by students mingling and using public transport.
Other school leaders were preparing to juggle staff and sites to provide the supervised care that the government has demanded.
Martyn Oliver, chief executive of Outwood Grange academies trust in the north of England, said: “All our 33 schools are due to be open from Monday for those students coming in – children with an educational, health and care plan, children in need, those on the child protection register and looked-after children, while all of our schools have a vulnerable register. Then we will have children of those parents working in critical sectors.
“We also have two children who attend private school and whose parents are doctors, so they have asked if they can come to school from Monday, which of course they can.”
The pressure has been particularly acute for the leaders of pupil referral units (PRUs) and alternative provision, which educate a high number of vulnerable and special needs pupils outside of mainstream education, while special schools are also likely to have a high proportion of children eligible for care.
Philip Potter, the headteacher of Oak Grove College special school said: “Teamwork from staff, families and the local authority is amazing, it is how we juggle numbers in a special school while operating with skeleton trained staff.”
The headteacher of one primary school in Dorset said: “Staff are responding well, spirits are high and we are getting on. It is all very Dunkirk spirit!”
Paul Tarn, the leader of the Delta academies trust that runs more than 40 schools across Yorkshire, said his organisation was grouping its schools into clusters to keep fewer open and support social distancing.
“We are more likely to sustain our support through the length of the epidemic this way than if we try to run standalone schools,” Tarn said.
Update: Cambridge International has announced that schools in the UK will not be able to offer its international qualifications this summer. “Our first priority is always the safety of students. The UK government has decided there won’t be any GCSE or A-level exams held in the UK in May and June this year. Cambridge IGCSE, Pre-U, and international AS and A-level exams will not run in the UK in the May-June series.
“In countries where schools are open and it is safe to take exams, Cambridge IGCSE and Cambridge International AS and A-level exams will go ahead.”
• This article was amended on 21 March 2020. International GCSEs and A-levels are offered by OxfordAQA, a joint venture between AQA and Oxford University Press, and not by AQA as an earlier version said. This has been corrected.