Exams for students in England cancelled in favour of teacher-assessed grades

Experts greeted the decision but criticised the minister for a lack of detail

Grades estimated by teachers will replace GCSE, A-level and Sats exams in England, which have been cancelled due to the escalating coronavirus crisis, it was confirmed today.

In a statement to MPs this afternoon (Wednesday 6 January), education secretary Gavin Williamson said he had “learned lessons” from 2020 and would put his “trust in teachers rather than algorithms”.

Last year’s botched attempt to award centre-assessed grades with an Ofqual-supplied moderation algorithm was “felt painfully by students and their parents”, Mr Williamson said. Although he offered reassurances grades would be fair and consistent, the education secretary did not elaborate on what plans Ofqual would put in place.

“The department and Ofqual had already worked up a range of contingency options,” the minister said, adding that “details will need to be fine-tuned in consultation with Ofqual, the exam boards and teaching representatives”.

Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, pressed the minister for further details on what support schools will receive, and when. “And can he tell me exactly what will be done to ensure that all grades are fair, consistent, and support pupils to move on in their education or employment, including private candidates?” she added.

She accused Mr Williamson of refusing to listen to teachers.

Expert reaction to U-turn on exams

Many experts and professional groups welcomed the decision but criticised the statement for its lack of specifics.

Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said: “The loss of learning during the pandemic has affected children in such a varied way that the existing exam system could not have been fair.

“Devising a robust alternative to award grades will not be easy, and it is right that some time is now being taken to reflect and consult. Today’s statement was notably short on detail, particularly if contingency plans on exams have already been prepared, as the Secretary of State suggested.”

Plans would be needed “with some speed”, Ms Perera added, which “create incentives for pupils to go on learning for the rest of the school year.”

Laura McInnery, co-founder of the TeacherTapp app, said Mr Williamson’s announcement was: “Clear as mud”.

The fairness of examinations was in question after research revealed that students in deprived areas were more likely to miss school in 2020.

According to the research, local authority areas with the highest proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals had lower school attendance rates at the end of last year than areas with a low proportion of students entitled to free school meals.

In councils with the highest proportions of pupils entitled to free school meals, it was equivalent to 9.6 missed days. At local authority level, each 10-percentage point increase in the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals was associated with an extra 1.4 to 1.8 school days missed per pupil over the course of the autumn term. Prof Lee Elliot Major from the University of Exeter and Andrew Eyles and Professor Stephen Machin from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics conducted the research warned extended school closures in early 2021 are likely to widen educational inequality.

Parentkind, which works with parent-teacher associations and encourages parental involvement in education and schools, said parents would support the move but added that “special consideration should be given to disadvantaged pupils, where the digital divide is having an adverse effect on both the quality and quantity of learning at home”.

The National Education Union (NEU) said the late arrival of the announcement would “lead to further extreme stress and workload for education staff, students and parents”.

It said ministers were “obsessed and blinkered by their pursuit of exams” despite the realities of the pandemic, adding: “We will take up his offer to discuss the details of these issues but government and Ofqual will need to be far more willing to act on what we suggest this time. We will also make clear that any further workload cannot be dumped upon an already grossly overstretched profession at this time.”

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Council was, however, less accepting of the U-turn on exams.

“Whilst it is important that the learning loss which some students have experienced is accounted for, and that disadvantaged pupils are not further disadvantaged, HMC believes that any decision to cancel all exams in England this summer would be premature,” said general secretary Dr Simon Hyde. “With the hope of the vaccine on the horizon and the government now taking stringent lockdown measures, teachers and students can be more confident that public examinations can go ahead safely in June. The question is much more what form these examinations should take.”

Dr Hyde said the government should have found other routes to facilitate examinations in the summer, including amending curriculums.

Laptops and WiFi

Despite problems with the rollout of laptops to pupils during the first lockdown, Mr Williamson said England’s schools were better equipped to manage the technological strains of distance working.

“Our delivery of laptops and tablets continues apace. We have purchased more than one million laptops and tablets and have already delivered over 560,000 of these to schools and local authorities, with an extra 100,000 this week alone. By the end of next week we will have delivered three quarters of a million devices.

“We are also working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators, to provide free data for key educational sites. We are very grateful to EE, Three, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile, O2 and Vodaphone for supporting this offer. We have also been delivering 4G routers to families who need to access the internet,” Mr Williamson said.

Sky News today (Wednesday 6 January) reported that a number of headteachers were unable to apply for laptops through the government’s portal after the announcement of the third English lockdown. Michael Tidd, headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex, was instead told to wait to be contacted by the Department for Education.

It is the latest in a string of incidences with the government rollout of technology to support distance learning. At the end of October, it was reported that a number of disadvantaged schools had been told their laptop allocations had been slashed by up to 80%.

Read more: As schools close and move back to remote learning, PM warns coming weeks could be the ‘hardest yet’

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