The decision to suspend examinations and switch to online learning was announced by Boris Johnson on Monday in a last-minute reversal in the face of soaring coronavirus infection rates © Joe Kirby/Alamy

Teacher assessments will replace GCSE and A-level exams in England this summer, education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed on Wednesday, as criticism of the government’s handling of school closures grows. 

In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Williamson told MPs the Department for Education and exam regulator Ofqual had drawn up a “range” of contingency options for secondary school examinations.

“Although exams are the fairest way of assessing what a student knows, the impact of this pandemic now means that it is not possible to have these exams this year,” he said, adding that the government would be putting its “trust in teachers rather than algorithms”. 

A-level and GCSE exams were abandoned last year but the replacement assessed results were scrapped when it emerged that they skewed against disadvantaged pupils, in part because of an algorithm used in the process. They were replaced by teacher assessments.

Mr Williamson also confirmed that SATS exams would not take place this year, arguing that to do so would place “an additional burden” on primary schools. 

The decision to suspend examinations and switch to online learning was announced by Boris Johnson on Monday, the first day of the new school term, in a last-minute reversal in the face of soaring coronavirus infection rates. Until then, the education secretary and prime minister had insisted that pupils should be in the classroom.

Mr Williamson’s comments were strongly criticised by Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, who urged him to provide clarity on what support teachers would receive to make their assessments.

“Once again, where the secretary of state goes chaos and confusion follows and it is children, families and education staff across the country who pay the price for his incompetence,” she said. 

Ms Green also accused Mr Williamson of failing to “show leadership” on BTec exams, after the DfE on Tuesday evening announced that schools and colleges would be able make their own judgments on whether or not to hold them and other vocational examinations.

Simon Lebus, interim chief regulator of Ofqual, urged students to “engage as fully” as possible with their studies and stressed the complexity of the assessment process. 

“The way ahead is not straightforward: exams and standardised assessments are the fairest way of determining what a student knows and can do”, he said ahead of the education secretary’s announcement. “We need to consider a wide range of qualifications . . . and the solution won’t be the same for all.”

Some within Ofqual have privately expressed concern over the DfE’s failure to have contingency plans for exams in place and accused ministers of dragging their feet at the expense of students and staff.

Education leaders and unions have criticised the last-minute announcement on exams and urged the government to co-operate with them to find the fairest solution for GCSE and A-level students.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union said Mr Williamson’s “vague statement” did not provide useful information about what headteachers could expect.

“Ministers have been so busy insisting that exams will take place that they have failed to ensure that there is a contingency system which can be immediately rolled out. This is, frankly, a dereliction of duty,” he said.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, who has advised the government on exams policy, said the “big challenge” for ministers would be ensuring assessment system was fair and did not penalise poorer students.

“At the very least the system will need external moderators to ensure standards are consistent across schools,” he said.

The prime minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said Mr Johnson had full confidence in Mr Williamson and his schools plan. “It’s a huge brief and the PM believes the education secretary is doing it [the job] to his utmost ability,” she said.

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