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GCSE exams could start later in 2021 amid Covid-19 disruption

Ofqual has launched a consultation on its plans for the exam series next summer.

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The exam timetable could face a shake-up in 2021 (David Jones/PA)

The exam timetable could face a shake-up in 2021 (David Jones/PA)

The exam timetable could face a shake-up in 2021 (David Jones/PA)

GCSE exams could be delayed next year and more optional questions could be adopted in test papers under proposals unveiled by England’s exams regulator.

Ofqual has launched a two-week consultation on its plans for the GCSE and A-level exam series in 2021 after students have faced months of school and college closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The watchdog is considering how next year’s exam timetable could be changed to allow more time for teaching – and it is proposing delaying the start of the GCSE exam series to June 7, after the half-term break.

Ofqual is looking at using “content sampling” in question papers and using more optional questions in a number of subjects at GCSE – apart from English language, English literature, maths and the sciences.

The watchdog is also proposing removing the need for GCSE students to undertake science practicals and it has suggested that work relating to GCSE geography fieldwork should not be assessed in 2021.

It comes as the Government has released guidance on reopening schools in England to all pupils from September – which says schools will be expected to deliver their full curriculum ahead of exams in 2021.

But in exceptional circumstances, the advice says a Year 11 pupil could be allowed to discontinue a subject if the school judges that they would perform significantly better in English and mathematics.

School leaders are expected to make these decisions in discussion with pupils and parents, the guidance says.

Ofqual said in its consultation that it is looking to introduce a choice of topics for GCSE history and ancient history on which students would be required to answer questions in their exams, with one topic remaining mandatory.

But the Government has ruled out the use of content sampling in question papers for GCSE English language, English literature, maths and the sciences – and it says it should not apply at AS or A-level.

These plans appear to amount to little more than tinkering at the edges of next year’s exams, despite the massive disruption to learning caused by the coronavirus emergencyGeoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL

On the proposals, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “These plans appear to amount to little more than tinkering at the edges of next year’s exams, despite the massive disruption to learning caused by the coronavirus emergency.”

He added: “We note that exam boards are being asked about the implications of moving the start of the exam series to June and this may help if it proves possible, but it adds up to a few weeks more learning time to compensate for a shutdown which has lasted for four months.

“The young people who will take these exams have lost a huge chunk of face-to-face teaching time, and there is likely to be more disruption next academic year, with the possibility of localised full or partial closures in response to coronavirus outbreaks, and students who have to self-isolate.

“We understand that it is difficult to scale back exams in a way that is fair to all pupils, but we fear the very minor changes in this consultation fail to recognise the enormous pressure on schools and their pupils to cover the large amount of content in these courses.”

Sally Collier, chief regulator of Ofqual, said: “We have considered a wide range of options before coming forward with a set of proposals for next year’s GCSE, AS and A-level exams which will help reduce the pressure on students and teachers, while allowing them to progress with valid qualifications which higher educational institutions and employers can trust.

“I would encourage all those with an interest in our consultation to give us their views.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The range of measures proposed by Ofqual, including the possible short delay to the exam timetable and subject-specific changes to reduce pressure on teaching time, will further ensure those young people taking exams next year have the same opportunities to progress as the students before them.”

PA