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GCSEs, A-levels and Btecs in 2021: the exams regulator proposes short set papers, earlier results days and sets out how the appeals process could work

Ofqual has opened a consultation on its proposals and is asking students to share their views on its ideas

The summer 2021 GCSE, AS and A-level exams have been cancelled because of Covid-19, and England’s exams regulator, Ofqual, has launched a consultation on how students could be graded and assessed instead.

This consultation covers Ofqual’s ideas for the kind of alternative arrangements that could be put in place, and asks for students, teachers and parents to give their feedback on these proposals.

The consultation was published on 15 January and will be open for responses until 11.45pm on 29 January 2021.

You can find the full version for GCSEs and A-levels here, alongside a link for sharing your views on the proposals with the regulator. This is the link for the separate consultation on Btecs and other vocational qualifications.

None of these proposals are definitely happening yet, so this is your chance to have your say before anything is finalised. Ofqual has said that it aims to publish the next steps by the end of February.

Here are the key suggestions that Ofqual has made for summer 2021 – including the possibility of the exam boards setting assessments for teachers to mark, how appeals will work, what will happen with private candidates, when results day might fall and how Btecs will be assessed.

Exam boards could set papers for teachers to grade

In its consultation, Ofqual suggests that the exam boards could set “shorter” papers for students to take as part of their assessment.

Ofqual is not proposing that the results of these papers would decide the entirety of a student’s grade though – rather, that they could be used alongside other work to help teachers assign their students a final grade.

“If teachers do not use the exam board set of papers, or even where they do, they should use additional ways to assess students and gather evidence of the standards at which their students are performing,” the consultation says.

The papers would look “similar in style and format to those in normal exam papers” and should “cover a reasonable proportion of the [subject’s] content and teachers should also have some choice of the topics on which their students could answer questions,” the consultation proposes.

Instead of one or two long papers, these could be made up of “a set of shorter papers, based on topics, to allow teachers options to take account of content that has not been fully taught due to the disruption”.
This could mean that students take “multiple papers” to “ensure sufficient coverage of what is assessed,” the proposal continues.

When and where would students sit the GCSE and A-level papers?

Ofqual proposes that these assessments could take place throughout May and June. Teachers would then grade the papers and submit the grades to the exam boards by mid-June, at which point the exam boards would run quality assurance checks on the grades.

In its consultation, Ofqual also says that if exam papers are used, it should be within a set period of time, to avoid the “risk that students taking the papers later in the window might be at an advantage”.

Any assessments would take place at the students’ school or college, unless the pandemic makes that impossible, in which case “the papers could be completed at an alternative venue, including the student’s home,” the consultation suggests.

GCSE and A-level results days could be moved forward to July

Before the 2021 exams were cancelled, GCSE and A-level results days were scheduled to happen at the end of August.

But in its consultation, Ofqual proposes that this date could be brought forward to July – one reason for this would be to allow any appeals to start as early as possible.

Students would be allowed to appeal their grades

Ofqual suggests in its consultation that any student who thinks their grade is wrong should be able to appeal to their school or college.

This appeal would involve a review of how their papers were marked, how any non-exam assessments were marked and any other evidence the teacher used to decide their grade.

If the student went through this process and still felt unhappy with their grade, Ofqual’s consultation says that they should be able to appeal to the exam board.

But an appeal to the exam board would only be allowed on the basis that “the school or college had not acted in line with the exam board’s procedural requirements,” and not because the student thinks their teacher’s judgement was wrong, the consultation proposes.

Options being considered for private candidates

In its consultation, Ofqual suggests four possible approaches for grading private candidates.

The first of these is that private candidates could sit the papers set by the exam boards for schools and colleges to use, and the exam boards would mark the papers.

The next possible approach is for private candidates to “work with a school or college willing to assess the standard at which they are performing” the consultation says.

Alternatively, Ofqual says that the exam boards could run “normal exams” for private candidates in summer 2021, or in the autumn of 2021.

Separate consultation for students taking Btecs and other vocational qualifications

Ofqual is also running a separate consultation on alternative arrangements for Btecs. This consultation says that “it is not viable for external exams to go ahead for some” vocational qualifications.

The consultation suggests that written exams for vocational and technical subjects that are “taken instead of, or alongside, GCSEs, AS and A-levels” should be scrapped and alternative arrangements put in place.

But practical exams that are needed to “demonstrate occupational competence” could continue, with appropriate safety measures in place, Ofqual says.

And internal assessments “should continue to go ahead remotely,” the consultation proposes. 

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