Pupils sitting GCSE exams. Exam regulator Ofqual and the Department for Education will take weeks to make a final decision on a range of options for replacement assessments
Exam regulator Ofqual and the Department for Education will take weeks to make a final decision on a range of options for replacement assessments © Keith Morris/Alamy

The plans of secondary school leaders and pupils across England were in disarray on Tuesday as ministers discussed replacement assessments for GCSEs and A-levels and reversed a decision to go ahead with vocational exams, which were due to begin on Wednesday.

Boris Johnson’s shock announcement on Monday of a national lockdown and the requirement that all schools switch to online teaching came after the UK prime minister had insisted for weeks that schools were safe. The cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams in England, which was announced as thousands of pupils were preparing to sit their mocks, also placed a question mark over how exam-year students would be assessed.

On Tuesday evening the government announced that it would allow colleges to cancel vocational exams, which they had the day before insisted should take place during January. Speaking at a televised press briefing Mr Johnson also defended his decision to close schools.

“The tier 4 system without taking schools out of the equation was just not going to be enough on its own,” he said.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is expected to outline a way forward on GCSEs and A-levels in the House of Commons on Wednesday, but exam regulator Ofqual and the Department for Education will take weeks to make a final decision on how pupils will be assessed.

In his statement, Mr Williamson will also provide an update on the education support packages being offered to pupils, which is likely to include additional resources for remote learning such as government partnerships with mobile operators EE and Three to provide free data. 

Education advisers and unions had for months urged the government to detail a clear “plan B” in case exams were cancelled, but ministers did not publish any contingency measures.

People familiar with the current discussions said options include holding exams for a small number of core subjects, such as English and maths; providing schools with adapted, centrally devised assessments or activities; or using some form of moderated teacher assessment.

Commenting on the possibility of a return to teacher-predicted grades, education insiders stressed the importance of giving teachers adequate guidance and training, and students and parents reassurance about the reliability of results.

Also being discussed is the possibility of including “flags” with grades, indicating that a student or group or students has been particularly disadvantaged by Covid-related disruption. Ministers are eager to avoid forms of algorithmic moderation, which resulted in some inaccurate exam results last year.

Becky Francis, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, which works with the government to address inequality in education, said lost learning might be best addressed by providing opportunities to catch up at a later stage, rather than through assessment at school.

“We’re very focused on exams — but we mustn’t get caught with the tail wagging the dog,” she said. “This is really about coverage of the knowledge and skills that young people need to thrive in the future. If that learning hasn’t been covered, we need to find ways to support kids to catch up on that learning loss.”

Teachers expressed relief at the cancellation of exams, but the uncertainty has brought continued anxiety for young people.

Anita Ellis, headteacher of Royal Wootton Bassett Academy in Wiltshire, said “a decision as soon as possible is vital”. “We’ve been inundated with questions from students who are asking what’s going to happen.”

She added that some sixth formers at the school had been due to sit vocational exams, which involve 135,000 students nationwide.

The government on Monday had insisted exams would go ahead, but after widespread outcry the DfE on Tuesday changed its guidance and will now allow schools and colleges to decide whether or not they should be cancelled.

“In light of the evolving public health measures, schools and colleges can continue with the vocational and technical exams that are due to take place in January, where they judge it right to do so,” a statement said.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said it had been “bonkers, unfair and wrong” to expect students to sit exams, but said the decision would cause more confusion.

“A national decision would have allowed for more fairness for all students across vocational and general qualifications — this compromise does not achieve that and I suspect that will cause more problems over the coming months,” he said.

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