Next year’s GCSE and A-level exams should be sat later in the summer to give pupils valuable time to catch up, according to a proposal by Labour that is likely to be backed by influential Tory MPs and school leaders.
Before the new academic year begins for most schools this week, the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said the two sets of exams should be pushed back by at least a month and begin in June rather than May.
“Pupils across the country who have missed out on vital teaching time will have a mountain to climb to prepare for May exams unless the government steps in,” Green said.
“Ministers had warning after warning about problems with this year’s exam results, but allowed it to descend into a fiasco. This is too important for Boris Johnson to leave until the last minute. Pupils heading back to school need clarity and certainty about the year ahead.”
Labour’s intervention highlights another sore spot between the Department for Education and Ofqual, the exam regulator for England. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has supported the idea of delaying 2021’s A-levels and GCSEs, telling parliament in July that he was consulting with Ofqual “about how we can move those exams back, giving children extra time in order to be able to learn and really flourish”.
But in a consultation document issued several weeks later Ofqual made no commitment to delaying exams, merely saying it would “work with the DfE, exam boards, regulators in Wales and Northern Ireland, and groups representing schools, colleges and higher education to consider the best approach, and we will confirm our decisions as soon as possible”.
Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons education committee, has also come out in favour of delaying exams. Halfon said Ofqual needs to make up its mind by October whether exams will go ahead or even be replaced again by assessments, to avoid a repeat of this year’s turmoil.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said Labour’s proposal was worthy of consideration. “A delay is not without its problems. A consequential delay to the publication of results will put pressure on higher education providers such as universities and colleges as well as employers. All this will need to be dealt with.
“It is not just about timing. It is obvious that learning could be severely disrupted throughout the year and no one can say with certainty that we will be able to run exams in the normal way in 2021,” said Whiteman.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We recognise that students due to take exams next summer will have experienced disruption to their education, which is why we prioritised bringing year 10 and year 12 pupils back to school last term.
“Exams will go ahead next year, and we have been working closely with the sector, Ofqual and exam boards to consider our approach.”
The call for delay came as schools hurry to prepare their buildings and timetables for the new year, as well as organising extra tutoring to help pupils catch up.
Schools also have only a few days to decide if pupils are to be entered for the special exam series for October and November that has been organised for those unhappy with their assessments this summer. Some pupils taking BTec vocational qualifications reported that they had still not received their grades despite a promise by Pearson, the exam board, that they would all be delivered by the end of last week.
Many teachers have been sceptical of efforts to restrict the spread of Covid-19 within their schools. Some 86% who responded to a poll hosted by the TES in July said they thought minimising contact between pupils would not be achievable when schools reopen.
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