Regulator recommends scrapping next summer’s GCSE exams in Wales

By Rod Minchin, PA
·4-min read

Next summer’s timetabled GCSE examinations in Wales should be scrapped, with grades awarded based on coursework and common assessments, an exam regulator has recommended.

Qualifications Wales said students should continue to sit summer A-level exams as in previous years, but the testing regime for GCSE and AS-level students would be different.

This summer’s exam season turned into a fiasco after tests were cancelled because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Grades were instead awarded by a controversial algorithm before that was scrapped and replaced by teacher assessments.

Kirsty Williams
Kirsty Williams (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Education minister Kirsty Williams commissioned an independent inquiry into what went wrong and also requested advice about how next summer’s exams season could look, if there were future lockdowns or students were self-isolating.

Qualifications Wales is recommending that external assessments be retained for GCSEs, AS and A-levels next summer but that there should be no timetabled exams except for A-levels.

Grades for GCSEs and AS-levels will instead be awarded based on coursework and a set of common assessments taken during the year.

The exam regulator is also recommending schools and colleges are given “windows of opportunity” for when assessments take place within which there will be some flexibility.

For A-levels, in addition to coursework and set tasks, students would need to sit one exam per subject but with a backup opportunity to take the exam if the pupil is ill or is self-isolating.

Qualifications Wales is working on plans with fellow regulators in England and Northern Ireland for how vocational qualifications serving the three nations will be awarded next year.

They said that whichever model was adopted for next year, it was likely to impact on 2022 as well and had concluded there was not a “sufficiently robust mechanism of moderation that can be put in place effectively for next summer”.

In the letter of advice to Ms Williams, David Jones, chairman of Qualifications Wales, and chief executive Philip Blaker said: “Should you decide to take this path, then we and (exam board) WJEC will work to implement as robust a solution as possible in the circumstances, but cannot guarantee that it will address the inconsistencies and inherent unfairness experienced in summer 2020.”

They added: “We are proposing different assessment arrangements that provide greater flexibility, without the need for significant additional contingency measures.”

Meanwhile, an independent review commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended that students should not sit exams at all next year and qualifications awarded on the basis of “robust and moderated assessment undertaken in schools and colleges”.

“Following extensive consultation with a wide range of stakeholders across Wales, the panel strongly believes that to proceed with any form of an exam series in 2021 would be both unfair to the young people of Wales, and would carry high risks of further disruption,” they said.

Ms Williams said she would announce a final decision on next year’s exams on November 10.

Welsh pupils are currently on their half-term holiday and Wales is at the beginning of a 17-day firebreak lockdown.

Primary school children and Years 7 and 8 will return to school on November 2, while Years 9, 10, 11 and sixth formers will go back on November 9.

“I know how important an issue next year’s exams are for many learners and their families,” the minister said.

“Last week, I said that I would soon make a decision on what qualifications in Wales would look like next year and that I would announce that decision on November 10.

“The reason for waiting until then is so that all learners will be back in school following the firebreak, with access to and support from their teachers.

“I also said that I was awaiting important information and advice relating to qualifications before making any decisions.

“This included the interim recommendations of an independent review I commissioned and further advice from Qualifications Wales with a specific focus on deliverability and equality in any approach.”

Suzy Davies MS, Welsh Conservative shadow education minister, said: “It really isn’t helpful that these two reviews solve nothing, with both fundamentally disagreeing with each other.

“I hope that the education minister shows some leadership on this issue, unlike earlier in the year when she pushed decisions onto teachers and school leaders instead of leading from the front.”

Plaid Cymru shadow education minister Sian Gwenllian endorsed the findings of the independent review and said next year’s exams should be replaced with centre assessment grades.

She added: “Theirs is a proposal that places the wellbeing of the learner at the heart of the system and recognises the devastating impact of the pandemic on this cohort.

“A ‘one size fits all’ exam approach is not what this cohort needs right now.”