Pupils will be given advance notice of topics to be covered in some exams in 2021 © Charles Robertson/Alamy

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Next year’s GCSEs and A-level exams in England will be graded more leniently than usual to ensure pupils can be more fairly assessed after a year of “unprecedented” coronavirus disruption.

The Department for Education on Thursday said pupils will also be given advance notice of topics to be covered and will be allowed to use formula sheets in exams in 2021 in recognition of effect of the pandemic on learning.

The changes are expected to bring about a repeat of this year’s jump in exam results, when top A-level grades increased by 13 percentage points.

“I know students are facing unprecedented disruption to their learning. That’s why exams will be different next year, taking exceptional steps to ensure they are as fair as possible,” said Gavin Williamson, education secretary.

The announcement comes after thousands of students experienced disruption to their schooling this term. Since reopening in September, 73 per cent of secondary schools have sent at least one student home because of exposure to coronavirus, according to government figures. Schools in areas hardest hit by Covid-19 have suffered the greatest disturbance.

The new measures, which fall short of demands for radical changes from some teaching unions, signal the softening of a long-held aversion to grade inflation, which Mr Williamson previously said would “devalue” results.

The government has been anxious to avoid a repeat of last summer’s exam fiasco, when it was forced to scrap a system of grades decided by algorithms after widespread outcry over “inconsistencies” that disproportionately downgraded pupils from deprived areas. Instead, results were based on teacher predictions, which were more generous than in previous years.

Ofqual, England’s exam regulator, confirmed that results would again receive a bump next year. “We have decided to carry forward the overall level of generosity from 2020 through to summer 2021, in recognition of the baleful and continuing impact of the pandemic,” said Dame Glenys Stacey, the interim chief regulator.

“This is an unprecedented step. Having consulted widely, we think it the right thing to do.”

The measures mean that pupils will have advance notice of topics for some exams, and will be able to bring in aids such as formula sheets. Students who miss exams because of coronavirus will have an opportunity to re-sit them or to be assessed on the results of other tests in the same subject.

The decision to maintain grades at higher levels means questions over exam fairness will persist into 2022, when regulators may revert to previous grading, giving students lower grades than pandemic cohorts.

“Once we’re over this year, there’ll be a real question about how much weighting the government will give in future years to the National Reference Test, versus being comparable with previous cohorts,” said Natalie Perera, director of the Education Policy Institute, a think-tank.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, a union, welcomed the announcement, saying it would make exams “as fair as they can be” given the disruption this year.

“Together with making grades more generous and the planned contingency arrangements, this represents a reasonable package of measures to mitigate the damaging impact on learning of the pandemic,” he said.

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