School exams cancelled in England after COVID-19 disruption

Schoolchildren in England will not sit formal exams this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, education minister Gavin Williamson said on Wednesday, with teachers to assess students and decide their grades instead.

England entered its third national lockdown on Tuesday, shutting schools and shops and ordering citizens to stay at home as a surge in cases of a new coronavirus variant threatens to overwhelm the healthcare system.

Williamson said exams for 14 to 18 year olds – used to determine entry to colleges and university – would be replaced by teacher-assessed grades.

“Although exams are the fairest way we have of assessing what a student knows, the impact of this pandemic now means that it is not possible to have these exams this year,” he told parliament.

Earlier this year Williamson was widely criticised for relying on an algorithm to determine students’ grades. He was forced to abandon the system after flaws produced unfair results for some students, affecting their admission to universities.

After a public outcry, the algorithm-determined results were replaced with teachers’ predicted grades where students felt they had been marked too low.

Last summer, thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn which allowed them to use teachers’ predictions instead.

There will be no fixed share of grades and schools will not be expected to keep in line with last year’s results or any earlier year.

But the Education Policy Institute think tank has warned the plans for this year risk “extremely high grade inflation”.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already announced that exams will be replaced by teacher-assessed grades.

How will the grading system work?

After last year’s chaos, the exams watchdog Ofqual and the Department for Education say there will be no algorithm calculating results.

Instead, the grading system will be built around teachers’ judgements – with schools allowed to decide on the evidence to be used, such as mock exams, coursework and essays.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said it was the “fairest possible system” to ask “those who know them best, their teachers, to determine their grades”.

He told a Downing Street press briefing on Wednesday there would be “a very clear and robust appeals mechanism”.

If students are unhappy at the outcome of what their school and teachers have decided, they can appeal, with no financial charge expected.

For those still wanting to take written papers, there will be an option of exams in the autumn.

A-level results day will be 10 August, with GCSEs results given out on 12 August.

They are earlier this year to create a “buffer” for appeals, ahead of decisions over university places in the autumn.

Before the end of the school year, teachers can tell pupils how they got on in the test papers set by exam boards – but not their final grades.

Will students still have to sit exams?

There will be test papers set by exam boards for each subject, which are intended to inform the judgement of teachers, but will not decide the final grades.

These have been labelled “mini-exams”, but Ofqual says the tests, which will be optional for schools to use, should not be seen as exams.

Question papers, which could be from previous exams, will be sent to schools before the Easter holidays and can be taken before 18 June, when schools have to submit grades to exam boards.

The intention is that regardless of how much time pupils might have missed out of school, they will have questions on a topic they will have studied.

These tests will be taken in class rather than exam halls, there is no fixed time limit for their duration and they will be marked by teachers.

What checks are in place?

There will be no fixed share of grades – and schools will not be expected to keep in line with last year’s results or any earlier year.

Instead teachers will be expected to award grades based on their professional judgement, drawing on whatever evidence is available.

Schools will be given detailed information about grading and will be expected to ensure consistency between teachers. 

Exam boards will check random samples and if there are specific concerns about unusual results, they can investigate and change grades.

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