Schools and exam boards undermine promise to pupils of September tests

A row is brewing between examination boards, schools, the government and England’s exam regulator over whether pupils unhappy with their assessed GCSE or A-level grades will have the chance to sit the exams in autumn, as promised.

When the Department for Education and Ofqual, the exam regulator, announced that this summer’s GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled and replaced with assessed grades, students were told they would have the option to take the exams “as soon as reasonably possible” after schools reopen following the summer holidays.

But that promise – repeated by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson – is in danger of being undermined by a reluctance among exam boards to create a costly set of extra exams if schools discourage pupils from taking part.

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The boards also fear that subjects with only a small number of entries, such as modern languages including Arabic and Japanese, would see only a handful of pupils wanting to sit exams in the autumn.

Ofqual said decisions on which exams will be offered is up to individual exam boards, although that could change, depending on a consultation. “Unless we decide otherwise, the default position will be that exam boards will decide which exams to make available to students in the autumn series,” the regulator said.

Such a decision would run counter to directions given by Williamson, who told Ofqual in a ministerial letter dated 31 March: “The government considers that students who do not feel their calculated grade reflects their ability should be afforded an opportunity to sit an exam at the earliest reasonable opportunity.

“Accordingly, I hereby direct Ofqual to take account of this policy and work with the exam boards and others to plan to enable this group of students to sit exams as soon as reasonably possible after schools and colleges are open again.”

However, some head teachers are opposed to having pupils sit GCSE exams in their first term as sixth formers, arguing that this is “totally impractical” and would interfere with pupils learning the A-level or BTec subjects they had just begun to study.

The rebel heads also say that a full suite of exams in October or November would further disrupt school life, taking teachers out to act as assessors and examiners, or forcing them to oversee revision.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which mainly represents secondary school heads, said it favoured only GCSE maths and English exams and those for major A-level subjects being offered before Christmas.

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Geoff Barton, the ASCL’s general secretary, told TES, which first reported the move: “Other GCSEs are very important for progression but they are superseded by other qualifications taken later down the line, while GCSE English and maths, and A-levels, have an enduring significance for the individual.

“It would, therefore, seem reasonable that in the current circumstances an opportunity is provided to sit these exams in the event that a student is unhappy with the grade awarded in the summer.”

Failing to hold the extra exams would mean that pupils unhappy with their assessed grades – which will be administered by the exam boards and Ofqual using teacher recommendations – would have no means to improve them until GCSEs or A-levels in spring 2021. Appeals are only allowed against the process followed, not the grades themselves.

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