More generous grades, crib sheets and fewer topics: New rules for exams in England

Published: 3 December 2020

Post Desk : GCSE and A-level students in England will be given more generous grades and a chance to preview exam topics, as the education secretary promised next summer’s assessments will not be scrapped.

The measures, which are to compensate for disruption to schooling caused by the coronavirus pandemic, include exam aids – like formula sheets – to give students more confidence and reduce the amount of information they need to memorise.

The announcement comes after the summer’s fiasco around GCSEs and A-levels when thousands of students had their results downgraded from school estimates by an algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn.

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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told Sky News he could “absolutely” give a cast-iron guarantee that exams will not be cancelled.

“Tens of thousands of students have been taking those GCSE and A-level exams all the way through [the latest] national lockdown, and that’s been done safely and securely and successfully,” he said.

“I have every confidence if we’ve been able to run a whole set of exams for GCSEs and A-levels during a national lockdown, we have every ability to run those same set of exams in the summer of next year.”

But not all students are happy with the new measures.

Josh Aylott is a GCSE pupil at Bexleyheath Academy in south London. He says the process will be unfair.

“With previous years, it was always the people who put in more work before the actual exam who were expected to get a better grade because they worked harder for it, but now it’s like you can do less work, and then just before the exam you can see what you’re supposed to work on and it feels like it’s going to be almost too easy this year,” he said.

Fellow GCSE student Max Sely questions what “generous marks” means.

“Does that mean lowering the grade boundaries? Giving out marks more easily? They haven’t fully explained it.”

In October, the government announced that the 2021 exams would still go ahead in England, but that the majority of them would be delayed by three weeks, giving pupils more time to catch up on learning.

Exams will also go ahead in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland National 5 exams (the equivalent of GCSEs) have already been cancelled. Highers and Advanced Highers should still go ahead if possible, but a few weeks later than normal.

Students in Wales will not take exams for their GCSEs, AS-levels or A-levels next summer, and will instead have teacher-managed assessments.

Back at Bexleyheath Academy, headteacher Graeme Napier says knowing what topics are to be examined will help fine-tune the curriculum.

“I think quite plainly, we’re behind schedule than where we normally would’ve been at this stage of the year,” he says.

“The direction we’ve been given today allows us to make plans and get cracking to make sure that the students that have already experienced disruption are able to prepare for those exams.”

Under new contingency measures, students who miss one or more exams due to self-isolation or sickness, but who have still completed a proportion of their qualification, will still receive a grade.

If a student misses all their assessments in a subject, they will have the opportunity to sit a contingency paper held shortly after the main exam series.

If a pupil has a legitimate reason to miss all their papers, then a validated teacher-informed assessment can be used but only once all chances to sit an exam have passed.

The latest Department for Education figures show that more than a fifth (22%) of secondary school pupils were absent from school last week for the second week running.