Students should not be expected to take ‘mini-exams’ this summer, heads say

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·4-min read

Students should not be expected to take “mini-exams” to help teachers with their grading judgments after this summer’s GCSE and A-level exams were cancelled, a headteachers’ union has said.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is calling for headteachers to be given flexibility on how they use external papers or questions from exam boards when assessing students’ performance.

Students who have suffered the most disruption may find themselves “doubly disadvantaged” if a set of mandatory assessments are adopted in England’s schools and colleges, according to the leader of ASCL.

The warning comes as the consultation by Ofqual and the Department for Education (DfE), on how A-level and GCSE students will be awarded grades after this summer’s exams were cancelled, is closing.

Under the proposals, exam boards would make a set of papers available to schools – with questions similar in style and format to those in normal exam papers – which teachers would mark to inform their assessments.

The consultation seeks views on what form papers should take, when they should be made available, and whether their use should be mandated.

The Education Policy Institute has called for the papers to be “a universal requirement” to help assure students and parents that grading is fair.

The think tank has warned that there are “serious risks” to the credibility of the assessment if the test papers are voluntary, or if they are taken at different times or not under normal exam conditions.

But in its response to the consultation, ASCL has urged for the assessments not to be treated as “mini-exams” and they say they should not be mandatory.

It says schools and colleges should be encouraged to ask students to undertake these papers or questions under reasonably controlled conditions if possible – but there should be “no expectation that students come to these tasks unseen, or that all students sit them at the same time”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said: “We understand that some people will argue that there should be a set of mandatory assessments because this will provide greater consistency.

“However, there is a danger of replicating the very problems that drove the decision to scrap exams in the first place – namely, the fact that students who have suffered the most disruption may find themselves doubly disadvantaged by papers they cannot answer.

“Many of us have mulled over this dilemma for some time, but the Prime Minister’s announcement on Wednesday extending the period of lockdown restrictions, swung the pendulum firmly in favour of maximising flexibility.”

Students could receive their A-level and GCSE results by the start of July, rather than August, under the proposals unveiled by the exams regulator.

But ASCL is also calling for exam boards to release grades to students on the normal results days in August.

The joint consultation, which closes on Friday evening, has already received more than 90,000 responses.

Simon Lebus, interim chief regulator of Ofqual, has insisted that the externally set papers are not “exams by the back door” amid concerns from students.

In a blog, published on Friday, he said: “I want to tackle one thing head on – the proposal to have externally-set papers or tasks to help teachers to assess their students objectively.

“Some have called these ‘mini exams’. This is not what we’ve proposed.”

The Ofqual chief regulator added: “Teachers could use performance on a paper as just one source of evidence to determine a student’s grade.

“Other sources of evidence could include mock exam results, internal assessments or work already completed.”

Mr Lebus concluded: “I hope this explanation goes some way to allay concerns that some students have expressed to us – that these are exams by the back door. They are not.

“But an externally-set task would help teachers by providing them with an external reference point, giving them greater confidence in the grade they were awarding.”

A DfE spokeswoman said: “Fairness to young people has been and will continue to be fundamental to every decision we take on these issues.

“We know how important this is to teachers, parents and students, which is why we have made sure everyone is able to have their say in our exams consultation.

“The impact of the pandemic means it won’t be possible to hold exams this year, and the department is working closely with Ofqual and the sector on arrangements to make sure teachers will be supported in making decisions with guidance and training from exam boards and young people can receive a grade that reflects their hard work and enables them to progress.”