Will next summer's exams be cancelled?

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News family and education correspondent

A Level protestsImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There were protests over replacement grades this summer. But how will next year's exams be run?

Even after a summer of U-turns, it seems unlikely that next year's exams in England will be completely cancelled.

Not least because of the chaos and protests that followed attempts to produce estimated grades this year - and all the political signals are for pushing ahead with A-levels and GCSEs.

But after months of lost teaching time there will be modifications and a slimming down of course content and ministers have already proposed a later start date - and an announcement could appear next week.

Even before anything has been officially decided, the results days for next year's exams already seem to have been set a week later than this year.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Can there be a level playing field for exams if some pupils miss school in Covid outbreaks?

GCSE results for 2021 have been scheduled for 26 August, just before the long bank holiday weekend and only a couple of days before schools go back again.

A-level results, on exam board websites, are pencilled in for 19 August.

When these later than usual dates were pointed out, an exam board said they were unconfirmed and would take them down to "avoid confusion".

Missing more school

The problem for students, families and schools, is that they are already confused about these exams.

"Teachers are being asked by students what's happening about exams next year and they can't tell them," says Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers' union.

Like shopping days before Christmas, the exam season is always nearer than you expect.

Once you subtract the holidays and half terms, there are only about 130 school days before the first exams begin in May.

With year groups being sent home in local Covid outbreaks, it will be even less for some students - with 16% of secondary pupils now out of school.

Two weeks of self-isolation becomes a big slice of the time left.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
England's Education Secretary Gavin Williamson faces more questions about next year's exams

Mr Barton says school leaders are exasperated at the lack of urgency in a decision being made about how A-levels and GCSEs will be adapted.

And as a back-up, what evidence on achievement should schools be gathering and should mock exams be standardised?

Two university leaders this week - Sir Chris Husbands of Sheffield Hallam and Sir David Eastwood of the University of Birmingham - called for exams to be scrapped next summer and to switch to teachers' assessments.

The biggest teachers' union, the National Education Union, also called for exams to be cancelled and to use teachers' grades.

Image caption,
It's been almost a month since schools went back - and teachers are waiting for the exam plans

They argue that so much time has been lost - and there are still so many risks of disruption - that it's not realistic or fair to hold exams.

But the government shows no signs of accepting this.

Exams 'fairest'

The Department for Education says exams will take place - although possibly with a "short delay to the exam timetable and subject-specific changes to reduce pressure on teaching time".

This is backed by academy leaders such as Dame Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust.

"Exams are the only fair way," she said, warning of the "unintended consequences" of attempts to estimate results, particularly for disadvantaged pupils.

She argued, on BBC Radio 4's World at One, not to "under-estimate" the capacity of schools to adapt and to shift to online learning.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There are worries about disruption to next year's exams after the confusion over grades this year

But what form will exams take?

Schools, watching the time available shrinking, have been waiting for the exams watchdog Ofqual and the Department for Education to make a decision.

But both organisations had resignations over the exams fiasco and have been bounced around all summer like dodgem cars going against the traffic.

Sources close to the discussions suggest that significant decisions now involve 10, Downing Street - bringing pressure for exams to go ahead as close to normal as possible.

Cutting exam papers

Ofqual, before the summer meltdown, had put forward ideas on slimming down exam courses, such as dropping fieldwork for geography and trimming back English literature.

These were relatively minor changes - and ideas for much more substantial reductions are being circulated among school leaders.

Image caption,
The latest attendance figures show more pupils being sent home from school because of Covid

The challenge isn't just that so much teaching time has been lost, but that it's been lost so unevenly.

There have been big differences in how much pupils have been disrupted during the lockdown.

And it remains unknowable how much time will be lost in the months ahead.

A proposal being floated is to have fewer exam papers for each subject, but more options in questions - so that all candidates will have something to answer from a topic that they will have covered. It's an idea previously rejected by Ofqual.

Another proposal is to make the timing more flexible, meaning not just a delayed start but more back-up dates available with alternative questions, if for instance there are local Covid flare-ups.

And for those who are still not in a position to take exams, or because lockdowns become so disruptive, there would be a safety net of more robustly scrutinised teacher assessed grades.

It would mean a "mixed economy" - not just all exams or all teacher assessments.

Covid 'chaos' for schools

Steve Chalke, chief executive of the Oasis academy trust, says it is "theoretically possible" to run exams next summer with such "boiled down" content, but is wary of the pitfalls that could emerge.

He wants a pragmatic recognition of how much time is being lost to the "chaotic" impact of Covid outbreaks.

Out of his trust's 52 schools, so far 28 have had to send home pupils this term.

He gives an example of a GCSE year group sent home after only four days of school - and asks how it can be "equitable" for them to face exams alongside pupils who haven't missed school.

"School attendance is falling," Mr Chalke warns, making it "impossible to establish a level playing field".

He argues it would be safer to stick with teacher assessments and says that if Ofqual gets this wrong, it will be hard for them to survive.

The exam hall clock is ticking - and the pressure is on to provide clarity at a time of continuing uncertainty.