The UK education secretary is facing growing calls to follow Wales’ example and cancel next summer’s GCSE, AS and A-level exams in England amid lingering uncertainty over whether students can be guaranteed a level playing field when it comes to end-of-year assessments.
The National Union for Students (NUS) has called on ministers to “follow the lead” of the Welsh government – who have announced plans to scrap exams for the second year in a row amid disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Salsabil Elmegri, the NUS vice-president for further education, said: “From an equal opportunities perspective, having two different systems would not be fair on students studying in England to have to take exams while their neighbours in Wales do not.”
She said scrapping exams was “crucial” to give students certainty and allow staff to plan for the future.
Downing Street said there was “no change” in relation to summer exams in England – which are set to be pushed back by several weeks next year – following Wales’ announcement.
Meanwhile, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has called for a “continuous assessment plan” instead of exams.
“It is either naive or wilfully ignorant of the government to pretend that there is any hope of achieving a fair, level playing-field for pupils when there are huge disparities both in attendance and a child’s ability to work from home,” Sarah Mulholland, the think-tank’s head of policy, said.
She added: “We need to pre-empt another catastrophe that puts the futures of millions of young people across the country – but in particular in the North where Covid disruption has been worst – at risk.”
Systems to calculate grades without exams received fierce backlash this year, with U-turns across the UK allowing students to take their initial teacher-predicted grades – instead of calculated ones that had passed through moderation – following outcry.
Wales is so far the only country in the UK to announce exams will be scrapped for the second year running.
GCSE, AS and A-level exams are due to be pushed back slightly in both England and Northern Ireland next year, while Scotland has announced plans to cancel National 5 exams, and delay others.
Following Wales’ announcement, the Department for Education (DfE) said exams are “the fairest way of judging a student’s performance” and the government believes they should go ahead next year.
Kirsty Williams, the Welsh education minister, said on Tuesday the pandemic made it “impossible to guarantee a level playing field” for students facing exams.
“In line with the recommendations of both Qualifications Wales and the Independent Review, there will be no exams for GCSE or AS level learners next year,” Ms Williams said. “A-level students will also not be required to sit exams.”
The minister added: “We remain optimistic that the public health situation will improve, but the primary reason for my decision is down to fairness. The time learners will spend in schools and colleges will vary hugely and, in this situation, it is impossible to guarantee a level playing field for exams to take place.”
A leading union welcomed the move to scrap next year’s exams in Wales.
“This is the right decision for our young people,” Eithne Hughes, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru’s director, said.
“It recognises the fact that they will have been affected to differing extents by the impact of the pandemic and it allows for as much teaching time as possible to catch-up with lost learning.”
She added: “We are confident that the planned approach is robust and that it will avoid the pitfalls that occurred in the grading of this summer’s qualifications.”
Teacher-managed assessments will include assessments that are externally set and marked, but delivered within a classroom environment under teacher supervision.
Teachers will also have flexibility when it is best to undertake the assessments.
Following Wales’ announcement, the UK prime minister’s official spokesperson said the government still intends to press ahead with A-level and GCSE exams in England next year – which will be slightly delayed “to give students more time to prepare”.
“We continue to think that exams are the fairest way to judge students’ performance and that they should go ahead next year, underpinned by the contingency measures we have developed with the education sector,” the PM’s spokesperson said.
Speaking about England’s intention to go ahead with 2021 exams, Geoff Barton from the Association for College and School Leaders told The Independent: “We think this can be achieved in a way that is fair to students but it will require substantial modifications to the content of the exam papers.”
The union’s general secretary added: “Students will need more options about the topics on which they answer questions to address the fact that they won’t necessarily have covered them all to sufficient depth and this will vary depending on how much disruption they have suffered.”
Andy Byers, a secondary school headteacher in Durham, told The Independent: “I do think exams should go ahead in some format but it does need to be fairer than the current ‘go ahead as normal’ plan.”
Following the move in Wales, a DfE spokesperson said: “Exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance, which is why Ofqual and the government all agree they should go ahead next year.
“We are working closely with stakeholders on the measures needed to ensure exams can be held, and will set out plans over the coming weeks.”
The decision in Wales marks the cancellation of end-of-year exams for the second year running in the country over the coronavirus pandemic.
Like elsewhere in the UK, students were handed calculated grades – teacher estimations that went through a moderation process – this year.
Additional reporting by Press Association