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What’s happening with GCSE, A-level and Btec exams in 2021?

2021 exams: here’s what’s happening in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

In England, all schools have been closed from Tuesday 5 January 2021 until at least mid-February as part of a new lockdown, with teaching moving online. 

When making the announcement about school closures, the prime minister Boris Johnson said that “we recognise that this will mean it is not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal. The education secretary will work with Ofqual to put in place alternative arrangements”. 

In Wales, the 2021 GCSE and A-level exams have been cancelled. The Welsh government said that instead, students will sit assessed tasks – although it has not released the exact details of how these will work yet. 

In Northern Ireland, GSCE and A-level exams have also been cancelled. 

Scotland’s government cancelled this summer’s National 5 exams first, before later also scrapping Higher and Advanced Higher exams for 2021. The country’s education secretary, John Swinney, said that instead of exams, students’ grades will be based on “teacher judgement of evidence of learner attainment.”

In Northern Ireland, GSCE and A-level exams are still going ahead, but there will be fewer to sit. Peter Weir, the country’s education minister, said that exams would be “underpinned by contingencies for all scenarios”. 

How will GCSE and A-level grading work this year if exams are cancelled? 

In Scotland, students will be given teacher-assessed grades and in Wales there will be some form of replacement assessments. The finer details of how this will work in both of these countries has not yet been released.

In Northern Ireland, the country's education secretary, Peter Weir, said that plans for how grading will work will be confirmed before the end of January.

In England, the education secretary Gavin Williamson has announced that students will be given teacher-assessed grades in place of exams – adding that no algorithms will be used this time around as they were for 2020's cancelled exams before the government's U-turn

"I can confirm that GCSEs, A-level and AS-level exams will not go ahead this summer. This year we are going to put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms," Williamson said. 

Although the details still need to be "fine-tuned 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," Williamson told the House of Commons on 6 January. 

Ofqual is running a consultation to decide these details, but in an open letter from the chief regulator, Simon Lebus, ahead of the consultation's launch, Lebus said that Ofqual wants to "consider the role of externally set short papers" as part of the arrangements for grading GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels. 

Join the conversation about the cancelled 2021 GCSE and A-level exams in this thread on our sister site The Student Room

When will we know more about what's happening with the 2021 exams? 

Ofqual will run a consultation throughout January before publishing more details about the 2021 exam cancellations.   

What’s happening with Btecs in 2021? 

Btec exams that were scheduled for January might still go ahead, but it will be up to the individual colleges to decide. The January Btec exams can still take place “where they [the colleges] judge it right to do so," the Department for Education (DfE) has said. 

This thread on our sister site The Student Room discusses what’s happening with the January Btec exams.

When it comes to the summer exams for Btecs and other vocational qualifications, it's a little less clear what is happening. In Ofqual's letter to the education secretary, the chief regulator said that "the nature and extent of any changes required will vary, given the diversity of the qualifications landscape". 

How will the summer’s exam cancellations affect my university application? 

The government has not said anything about how university applications could be affected, but last year’s exam cancellations did not affect university start dates. 

Why did the school closures mean that GCSE and A-level exams were cancelled?

Schools and colleges in England were closed from March 2020 until the start of the new academic year in September to help slow the spread of coronavirus – and now schools have been closed again as part of a national lockdown that will last from 5 January 2021 until at least mid-February. 

All these school closures have meant that students who started Year 11 and Year 13 this year and would have been sitting their GCSE and A-level exams in the summer missed out on months of teaching time.

Although some students will have managed to keep up their remote learning and may have had lots of support from their school, this won’t be the case for many others.

At the end of April 2020, Ofsted warned that school closures will widen the attainment gap between students, and in May a survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that “school closures are almost certain to increase educational inequalities”.

Before the latest school closures were announced, the government had originally planned to go ahead with GCSE and A-level exams in a slightly different format, with students being given topics in advance and supporting materials to take into the exams. 

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