'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.”


Richard Adams, Education editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Gavin Williamson to blame for England exams fiasco, says Ofqual chair
Education secretary called regulator and urged it to scrap new guidelines on appeals, MPs told

Richard Adams Education editor

02, Sep, 2020 @3:12 PM

Article image
Ofqual board minutes reveal tensions with DfE ahead of exam results fiasco
Regulator aware A-level and GCSE grade assessment unreliable before results day

Richard Adams Education editor

22, Oct, 2020 @6:20 PM

Article image
A-levels: why has Ofqual suspended its criteria to appeal grades?
DfE did not consult exam regulator on guidance and students must now wait until Ofqual issues revised policy

Richard Adams

16, Aug, 2020 @4:22 PM

Article image
Delay A-level and GCSE exams to give pupils more time, says Labour
Shadow education secretary Kate Green says exams should be pushed back to June 2021

Richard Adams and Peter Walker

30, Aug, 2020 @9:30 PM

Article image
Students in England to sit repeated mock A-levels and GCSEs, Ofqual says
Unions and school leaders critical after regulator publishes long-delayed contingency plan

Richard Adams Education editor

11, Nov, 2021 @5:29 PM

Article image
GCSEs and A-levels likely to be partly assessed by cut-down versions of exams
Education secretary to look into use of ‘externally set tasks’ to help teachers in England assess final grades

Richard Adams Education editor

13, Jan, 2021 @4:43 PM

Article image
Ofqual chief to face MPs over exams fiasco and botched algorithm grading
Sally Collier to appear before education select committee over A-levels and GCSE results debacle

Heather Stewart, Sally Weale and Kate Proctor

20, Aug, 2020 @8:14 PM

Article image
Ofqual head Sally Collier resigns over exams fiasco
Exams regulator chief, who oversaw development of flawed algorithm, steps down

Sally Weale and Jessica Elgot

25, Aug, 2020 @3:52 PM

Article image
Williamson told about flaws in A-level model two weeks before results
Exclusive: Ofqual reassured Department for Education that faults could be managed by allowing appeals

Richard Adams and Heather Stewart

01, Sep, 2020 @7:39 PM

Article image
School chaos deepens as Williamson fails to explain exam plan
Education secretary urges parents to report teachers failing to meet targets for remote learning

Richard Adams, Helen Pidd and Maya Wolfe-Robinson

06, Jan, 2021 @8:26 PM