Education leaders believe next year’s exams will need to be adapted or delayed to allow more teaching time and reflect the disparities in school provision during lockdown © Luke MacGregor/Reuters

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Students completing GCSE and A-levels exams next year could be allowed to complete “open-book” examinations as regulators and teachers look for ways to compensate for school time lost during the coronavirus crisis.

The proposals, such as allowing students some access to text books and notes to tackle questions, will be on the table as the exams regulator Ofqual begins a formal consultation in the coming weeks on how secondary schools can fairly assess students in 2021. 

The discussion comes amid growing doubt that schools will be able to return to normal in September, with educational experts warning that it would be “grotesquely unfair” to forge ahead with exams as normal.

“Our overriding aim is to ensure exams and assessments are as fair as possible and we are working closely with the Department for Education, exam boards and groups representing teachers, schools and colleges, to carefully consider a range of possible measures,” an Ofqual spokesperson said.

People close to the discussions said other proposals on the table included narrowing the number of topics to be examined, or offering more question choices on each paper. 

Although nearly 90 per cent of secondary schools and sixth-form colleges will open to year 10 and 12 pupils next week, the levels of provision will still vary widely, with some students receiving just an hour or two of face-to-face lessons before the end of the summer term.

Education leaders believe next year’s exams will now inevitably need to be adapted or delayed to allow more time for teaching and reflect the disparities in school provision during lockdown.

Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility and former director of the Sutton Trust charity said the “huge variation” in learning this year made it important that next year’s GCSE and A-level students should be given other forms of assessment alongside core tests. “For this group of children, I think it’d be grotesquely unfair for them to do full exams,” he said.

Despite widespread misgivings in the profession, education secretary Gavin Williamson this week told the House of Commons exams would go ahead in 2021, while committing to “doing all we can to minimise the effects” of lost time.

The timescales for making the changes are tight. Sally Collier, the chief regulator at Ofqual, told a select committee on Thursday that teachers would need to be informed of plans by the summer.

Teachers unions argue that tweaking examinations will only go some way towards addressing disparities between schools and students.

“Realistically it’s going to have to be a real combination of lots of things put together for next year,” said Sarah Hannafin, senior policy adviser at the National Association for Headteachers. “Anything on its own isn’t going to solve the problem.” 

Teachers representatives have also discussed delaying exams to allow teachers more time to prepare, or allowing schools more flexibility in the curricula they teach.

“It’s a real challenge, and there are no obvious solutions to addressing the gap through exams,” said Becky Francis, chief executive of the Educational Endowment Fund, an equality charity. “We’re going to need really creative thinking. Otherwise we risk harming or limiting the life chances of a whole generation of young people.”

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