GCSE and A-level exams chaos may linger around until the summer of 2021 – when will full time schooling resume?

As the hullabaloo surrounding the cancellation of this summer’s GCSE   continues, the message that is becoming clearer is that this may go beyond this summer, and there is a distinct possibility that the present Y10 and lower sixth students may face the same predicament in the summer of 2021.

Quoting from yesterday’s Sunday Times, “Parents have been told A-levels and GCSEs are likely to be disrupted again next summer with some secondary schools in England unlikely to fully reopen until January.”

What is clear is that social distancing will remain in place for a very long time, even if and when the lockdown is fully lifted. This means there will not be full time schooling for some time, as schools use a rotation system to manage the number of students that are in school at a given time.

OFQUAL – the examination regulation authority, is considering two main possibilities for 2021 summer examinations:

  1. No examinations for the second year running – meaning that, like this year, teachers’ calculated grades will be used to award GCSE and A-level grades next summer
  2. Postponing the summer exams, so that they start in July 2021, instead of May.

On top of the above two options, another possibility that is being debated is the reduction of the specification content, as there is not enough time to fully cover the requirement of the existing syllabi (specifications). I must say that I have a very strong objection to this, as it will have a knock-on effect on the next level of education. Reducing GCSE content will affect standards at A-level and reducing A-level content will affect the first year of university and so on. In an increasingly competitive global environment, there has to be great care before going down this path.  

I do not consider teachers estimating grades a fair and just system, as it opens the door for favouritism and unfair bias for or against a particular student or group of students. Planning should begin right, just in case there is any possibility of 2021 summer exams for GCSE and A-level being disrupted due to COVID-19. There is plenty of time to put contingency plans in place, which should include some sort of examination. There may not be a need to take so many exams – perhaps one paper per subject for GCSE and two for A-level, instead of the usual two or three for GCSE and between three and five for A-level.

I do not think there is the need to reduce the volume of the content of GCSE or A-level, as this underestimates the ability of teenagers to cope with rigorous academic demand. As long as everyone is in the same boat, the awarding of exam grades will take into account the fact that everyone is equally affected. Some will argue that leaving the content of the specifications the way they are, with less time to cover the content due to the disruption by coronavirus, will give unfair advantage to private school students. I do not agree at all with this. For over two decades, the top universities have been using positive discrimination to demand higher A-level grades from candidates from private schools than they do for young people from state schools. If any large discrepancy between the grades achieved by state and private schools shows up, the universities will, again, find a way to adjust accordingly in their admission requirements.

My recommendations on how to mitigate against the likely disruption to GCSE and A-level education in 2021 academic year.

  1. If you have a child in either in Y10 or the first year of A-level, consistent performance, right from now and all the way to the end of the next academic year, is of the essence. This is in case teachers’ estimation will again be used to award grades in 2021
  2. Ask of the school that your child be set assignments and classwork that includes writing with a pen on paper, as this reflects the way the final exam will be done. It also means less screen time…
  3. Encourage your child to find a way to reduce the amount of time they spend sitting down behind the screen. They should quite frequently get up and try to get some fresh air. They can go for short walks, ride a bicycle, walk up and down the stairs or walk around the block, play with the dog or just do something to have a break! This is necessary for good mental health and productivity. They should also take a short break between lessons, if they are receiving proper lessons online

Digital detox – many young people find it difficult to cope or to work effectively and productively with so much screen time, as sadly, most spent a lot of time playing on their devices before the lockdown. Since the lockdown, not only is there less physical activity, no walking between classrooms, there is a huge proportion of time being spent on the screen for school work. In addition, they still play their games, do social media and watch TV – all on the screen!