Teacher assessments will replace GCSE and A-level exams this summer – Williamson

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·6-min read

GCSE, AS and A-level exams in England this summer will be replaced by school assessments, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has confirmed.

Mr Williamson told MPs that the Government will put its “trust in teachers, rather than algorithms”.

The Education Secretary acknowledged that exams are the “fairest way” of assessing what a student knows, but said the impact of the pandemic meant it was not possible to hold exams in the summer.

Mr Williamson told MPs that SATs exams in primary schools will also not be going ahead this year.

His comments in the House of Commons came after the Government announced that schools and colleges in England would be closed to most pupils until mid-February amid the new national lockdown.

The grading of GCSE and A-level students in England became a fiasco last summer when end-of-year exams were cancelled amid school closures.

Thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn, allowing them to use teachers’ predictions.

But speaking on Wednesday, Mr Williamson said he wishes to use a form of teacher-assessed grades to award results rather than an algorithm.

He told the Commons: “While the details will need to be fine-tuned in consultation with Ofqual, the exam boards and teaching representative organisations.

“I can confirm now that I wish to use a form of teacher-assessed grades with training and support provided to ensure these are awarded fairly and consistently across the country.”

A detailed consultation on the options for alternatives to the exams will be launched by Ofqual next week, he said.

Mr Williamson added that schools watchdog Ofsted will enforce legal requirements for state schools to provide high-quality remote education.

He said: “We expect schools to provide between three and five hours teaching a day, depending on the child’s age.

“If parents feel their child’s school is not providing suitable remote education they should first raise their concerns with the teacher or headteacher and, failing that, report the matter to Ofsted.”

He told MPs that three-quarters-of-a-million laptops and tablets will have been delivered by the end of next week to help pupils access online learning.

The Education Secretary said that a national voucher scheme will also be in place so that all eligible children can access free school meals.

Last month, Mr Williamson gave an “absolutely” cast-iron guarantee that exams in England would not be cancelled this academic year.

Addressing his previous pledge, shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “At that moment we should have known they were doomed to be cancelled.”

Speaking in the Commons, Ms Green said: “It was disappointing (Gavin Williamson) did not make a new year’s resolution to avoid U-turns or chronic incompetence.

“Once again where the Secretary of State goes, chaos and confusion follows and it’s children, families and education staff across the country who pay the price for his incompetence.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), has called on Ofqual and the Government to avoid “a repeat of the shambles of last summer”.

Mr Barton said: “The Education Secretary’s vague statement does not take us a great deal further forward other than to set out the broad parameters for the exam regulator Ofqual to work out a detailed plan.”

He added: “It is frustrating that there is not an off-the-shelf Plan B ready to go. We have repeatedly called on the Government and the regulator to prepare such a plan in the event of exams being cancelled, and have repeatedly offered to work with them in doing so.

Exams protest
Students protested last summer (Victoria Jones/PA)

“However, ministers have been so busy insisting that exams will take place that they have failed to ensure that there is a contingency system which can be immediately rolled out. This is, frankly, a dereliction of duty.”

On Wednesday, Ofqual urged students in England to engage “as fully” as they can with learning amid uncertainty about GCSEs and A-level assessment.

Simon Lebus, interim chief regulator of Ofqual, said exams are “the fairest way” of determining what a student knows, but the exams regulator is discussing alternative arrangements with the Department for Education (DfE).

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “We are mindful of the Secretary of State’s preference for teacher assessment to play its part.

“We are not starting from scratch: we have been considering different scenarios for some time and we have, of course, learned lessons from last summer.

“We will work towards the best approach for students so that they can progress on to the next stage in their lives.”

The regulator’s message came after schools and colleges were given the flexibility to decide whether they want to run vocational exams this month, despite pressure from MPs, college leaders and students to cancel them.

On Tuesday evening, hours before Btec exams were due to start, the DfE announced that schools and colleges could continue with the January exams series “where they judge it right to do so”.

Pearson, which runs Btec exams, said it was working to award a grade to any student who is unable to take their exams during the lockdown and who has enough evidence to receive the certificate they need for progression.

Conservative Peter Aldous (Waveney) said the Government’s policy on Btec exams this month has led to “worry, confusion and uncertainty”.

But addressing calls to cancel vocational exams, Mr Williamson said: “There are many colleges that know for their students’ future prospects that they need to complete those assessments during this month if they are going to be able to access work and employment opportunities.”

The DfE has confirmed that the rapid testing programme for secondary schools and colleges will continue for those on site, with daily testing of close contacts available to students and staff and weekly testing available for staff.

On Wednesday, Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir confirmed that all scheduled GCSE and A-level exams will be cancelled in Northern Ireland.

In November, education minister Kirsty Williams announced that GCSE, AS level and A-level exams in Wales would be scrapped.

Last month, Education Secretary John Swinney said all exams in Scotland were cancelled because of the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on pupils.