Exams in core subjects may still go ahead in England this summer despite the extended lockdown, according to plans being considered by Gavin Williamson.
The education secretary is due to make a statement in the Commons on Wednesday after the prime minister called for schools to close and said summer exams were likely to be cancelled as part of a third national lockdown.
Williamson will tell MPs he has directed the English exams regulator Ofqual to come up with a contingency plan to replace this year’s GCSEs and A-levels, which the government had hoped to retain despite concerns about pupils’ lost learning during the pandemic.
One of the options under consideration is holding exams in core subjects such as English, maths and possibly science at GCSE, with school-assessed grades for other subjects, though there are concerns this could lead to pupils neglecting non-examined courses. Ministers are also worried pupils might stop engaging with their studies without the goal of exams.
It is understood Ofqual may also look at online assessments as one possible option, though access to laptops remains a problem in schools. Teachers could also be asked to prepare and assess portfolios of students’ work, a sample of which could be moderated externally to try to ensure fair grades.
The government will be desperate to avoid a repeat of last year’s exams fiasco, when ministers cancelled exams and were then forced to scrap GCSE and A-level grades generated by an Ofqual algorithm. They finally resorted to school-assessed grades, causing chaos for university admissions.
The Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, told Sky News on Tuesday: “Obviously we can’t have A-levels, GCSEs or BTecs in the way that we have had them in the past but there are ways of ensuring that we can assess the work that students have done, give them a fair recognition of that and help them on to the next stage of their education.”
Before the announcement of the latest lockdown, the government resisted calls for summer exams to be cancelled for the second year running, with Williamson saying last month he could “absolutely” give a cast-iron guarantee that exams in England would go ahead.
The vow came as Williamson unveiled plans for pupils to be given advance notice of topics and to be allowed to take in exam aids including formula sheets.
Asked about plans for summer assessments, an Ofqual spokesperson said: “We know how difficult this must be for students, teachers and lecturers. We wish at all costs to avoid arrangements for this summer’s GCSEs, A-levels and vocational and technical qualifications inflicting further disadvantage on students. We are considering a number of options to ensure the fairest possible outcome in the circumstances.”
Meanwhile, college leaders in England have urged the government to cancel this month’s vocational exams, which are due to get under way this week, saying it is neither safe nor tenable to press ahead in the context of a national lockdown.
Hundreds of thousands of students are due to sit vocational exams in schools and colleges this month. Announcing the lockdown last night, Boris Johnson said the exams should proceed as planned.
The Association of Colleges’ chief executive, David Hughes, has written to Gillian Keegan, minister for skills and apprenticeships, calling for an urgent rethink. He said the prime minister’s message was that everyone should stay at home to help defeat the virus.
Hughes added: “Asking college staff and students to ignore that message to sit exams is simply untenable. It is patently not safe for them and their families, even with the best mitigations a college can put in place. To go ahead with this exam series now would also be unfair on students.”