'Plan B' for rigorous mock exams to avoid rerun of A-level fiasco

Exclusive: Gavin Williamson to announce 2021 exam delay in England and back-up plan in event of Covid disruption

Schools in England are to hold rigorous mock exams this winter as part of the government’s “plan B” to avoid the chaos of this year’s A-level and GCSE results, proposals shared with the Guardian show.

Gavin Williamson is expected to announce a three-week delay in the start of next summer’s A-level exams, and possibly GCSEs, alongside a requirement for schools to hold mock exams in controlled conditions earlier in the year, with exam-style invigilation, marking and grading.

The mock grades could then be used to assess results in regions or centres where pupils’ exam preparations had been severely disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks, or in the event of them being unable to sit some or all of their exams in summer.

Williamson’s announcement of preparations for the 2021 exam season is expected next week, although tensions between the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual, the exams regulator for England, have already led to delay.

Last week the Scottish government said it would not hold exams for its National 5 qualification, its equivalent of GCSEs, and would instead award grades using a new system of school assessments. It also said that the timetable for Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers – the equivalent of A-levels – would be delayed.

Wales and Northern Ireland are yet to announce their plans.

In England, Ofqual is said to have presented the DfE with a “bewildering” array of options for 2021 exams, some contradictory, with relations between the two bodies still strained after the debacle over awarding A-levels and GCSEs this summer.

In August Williamson’s department wanted to use mock exam grades as grounds for appeal by pupils unhappy with their grades as awarded by Ofqual’s controversial model. Ofqual initially published guidance for the use of mock grades, the weekend after its A-level results came out. But after a dispute with Williamson, it abruptly switched to using school assessments to award final grades instead.

One of the criticisms of using mock exam results is that schools approach them with differing degrees of rigour, making it difficult to compare mock grades between centres.

This year, the proposal is that schools will be expected to hold mocks in exam-like conditions, using specimen papers produced by exam boards. If pupils were unable to complete all the exams for a subject – because they were infected, isolating or their school was closed – examination boards could issue grades based on marks from equivalent mock papers.

School leaders said that the use of mocks as a fall-back position could create problems, including piling more pressure on pupils to revise for mock exams, rather than studying new material.

“The issue is whether creating a high-stakes assessment like this will lead to challenges, such as generous marking or teaching to the test,” said Hamid Patel, chief executive of the Star academies trust. “This needs to be carefully thought through and should only be used in the exceptional circumstances where a pupil is not able to sit at least one exam in a subject.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “We are committed to exams going ahead next year, as they are the best and fairest way of judging students’ performance. There is broad consensus, including amongst unions and school leaders we have engaged with, that holding exams is the best option next summer. We continue to work with Ofqual and exam boards to ensure these are fair and take into account the disruption caused by Covid.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The government also needs to ensure that its plan A – to hold a full set of exams next summer – is fit for purpose. These exams have to take into account the fact that students will have suffered varying degrees of disruption because of the Covid pandemic, or otherwise those who have suffered more disruption will be significantly disadvantaged.

“The answer is to allow students more choice in the topics on which they answer questions, so they are able to choose the topics which they are confident they have studied to sufficient depth.

“We have to ensure that next year’s GCSEs and A-levels are as fair as they can possibly be in these very difficult circumstances, and we are frustrated that we are still waiting on government announcements when we are already half way through the autumn term.”

Meanwhile, the National Association of Head Teachers has called on the government to scrap 2021’s standardised tests (Sats) in England’s primary schools, because of the disruption caused by the pandemic. The association’s annual conference unanimously passed a motion committing the NAHT to lobby the DfE to drop Sats, externally marked year 6 tests in maths and literacy used by the DfE to judge schools’ progress.

Michelle Sheehy, a representative from the west Midlands, told delegates to the online conference: “Statutory assessment in 2021 serves no useful purpose. When some schools are hit far more than others by the effects of Covid, Sats cannot function as a fair measure of comparative performance.”

Contributor

Richard Adams, Education editor

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