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Revision help for students for summer exams – Sector Response

Nadhim Zahawi, Education Secretary

Students will have access to information from today (7 February) to help focus their revision for summer GCSE, AS and A level exams, as part of a range of adaptations to maximise fairness following the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic. 

Some of the exam content, texts, topics and sub-topics, themes and skills due to be assessed have been made available for the majority of GCSE, AS and A level subjects, including maths, biology, chemistry and languages.

The additional information aims to focus students’ revision without providing exact questions that will appear.

Advanced sight of the content is one part of the adaptations in place to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on education, recognising this cohort of students were affected by school closures during periods of lockdown and disruption due to absences. Other adaptations include a choice of topics in some GCSEs like English literature and history, and support materials like formulae sheets in maths.

Exams and formal assessments will go ahead as planned this summer. More than 500,000 exam entries for vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) successfully took place in January, giving confidence in the exams system.

A common set of principles has been developed for the advance information, for example avoiding providing so much detail that answers could be pre-prepared and memorised, but the information will look different for each subject and exam board, reflecting the nature of those subjects and their assessments. 

Students will also benefit from other adaptations to exams and the approach to grading this year to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on their education.

There will also be choices of topics or content in GCSE English literature, history, ancient history and geography, and a formulae or expanded equations sheet available in exams for GCSE maths, physics and combined science. There are also changes to the requirements for practical assessments in sciences and art and design, recognising how the pandemic will have affected students’ opportunities in these subjects.

Ofqual’s plan for grading being more generous recognises the challenges these students have faced.

Ofqual wants to get back to normal grading but over a two-year period. This summer will be a transition year, to be fair to this year’s students. Examiners will be asked to be more generous when setting grade boundaries, to provide a safety net for students who might otherwise just miss out on a higher grade.

The Government is fully committed to exams going ahead this summer, and does not expect that to change except in the very unlikely case of a public health emergency which would prevent students being able to physically sit exams. GCSE, AS and A level exams for each subject have also been spread out to maximise the opportunity for students to sit exams this year.

Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi said:

“Exams are the best and fairest form of assessment, and we firmly intend for them to take place this summer, giving students a fair chance to show what they know.

“We know students have faced challenges during the pandemic, which is why we’ve put fairness for them at the forefront of our plans. The information to help with their revision published today, as well as the range of other adaptations, will make sure they can do themselves justice in their exams this summer.”

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Ofqual Chief Regulator Dr Jo Saxton said:

“Students have shown so much resilience during the pandemic and we know that they are seeking certainty. Advance information published today is one of the ways we are supporting students to have that certainty as they prepare to show what they know and can do.

“We are also ensuring there is a safety-net for students with a generous approach to grading.”

Sector Response

Stephen Morgan MP, Labour’s Shadow Schools Minister, said:

“Students and teachers have had weeks of needless stress and uncertainty awaiting the information being published today, which for many pupils will feel like scant compensation for months of missed learning and development.

“Labour has set out a clear, costed and ambitious recovery plan for young people’s learning and wellbeing but half a million sixteen year olds will sit exams this summer having had no government support to recover their lost learning. The Tories’ tutoring programme is failing and time is running out to stop a Covid legacy of lost learning.

“Our children are paying the price for the Tories’ poor planning and repeated incompetence, with inequalities in exam results soaring over the last two years. Ministers must deliver a level playing field for the students who’ve had most disruption this summer.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“We look forward to seeing the information being published to help students focus their revision for this summer’s exams. It is extremely important that this really does help to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on learning, and we will be studying it in detail to ensure that it provides fairness to students of all ability levels.

“This is clearly a very difficult situation because students have been affected to such hugely varying extents by the pandemic. Creating a level playing field in these circumstances is exceptionally challenging. However we hope that, taken together, the mitigations that are being put in place will provide fairness.

“On balance, we support the decision to go ahead with adapted exams this summer. Students deserve the opportunity to show what they can do in formal public exams, and it seems right also to be taking a step back towards normality. That doesn’t, however, mean that the exam system as it currently stands is right for all students, and we continue to support the case for longer term reform.”

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“The release of this ‘advanced’ information comes too late. There are grave concerns amongst teachers of exam groups that this will not be enough to fairly mitigate the disruption these students have experienced over two academic years.

“The Government’s intention of releasing this information only in time for revision and not to aid teaching and learning, always carried with it a critical flaw. If one of the topics you see on the list today is one you couldn’t cover at all or in as much depth through no fault of your own, due to Covid-related disruption, what do you do now? There is just one half-term left until Easter, close to when exams begin, and little time to rush through any content. Yet this is the situation many students will face, which is going to create stress and pressure.

“Had the information come at the start of the academic year, as NEU members were calling for, teachers could have used it to plan powerful learning and maximise classroom time.

“The mental health and wellbeing impact for exam classes this year is really significant. This isn’t a normal year. Many exam classes have needed supply teachers and students have learned from home for periods. It is hard to fathom why the DfE can’t provide more support, flexibility and compassion for young people in how it has responded.

“Last week both the Independent Assessment Commission and the Times Education Commission released reports highlighting flaws in the broken exam system. They concluded that secondary assessment must be modernised if we’re serious about skills and creating citizens for the future. It’s time to rethink secondary assessment and to invest in – and value – teachers’ assessment skills.”

Sarah Hannafin, senior policy advisor for school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“We welcome publication of the advance information on the content of most GCSE, AS and A-Level exams this year, which should now provide teachers and students some help on where to focus their teaching, revision and exam preparations.

“Advance information is not a simple list of what is assessed in the exam; the information is more complex, covers only high tariff questions and might relate to only a particular exam paper or section of it, with different approaches between specifications and subjects. We need to remember this is new to teachers so it will only be over the coming days that we learn whether they believe it will be sufficient to counter the levels of disruption which students have faced due to Covid. 

“We would urge everyone to recognise that students have endured during one of the most pivotal period of their lives which can be pressurised even in ‘normal’ years.  They simply want a fair shot at success in their exams this summer.”

Simon Carter, Director at RM, explains how digital technology can play an important role in assessment:

“It is clear that today’s students need every advantage they can get. After almost two years of disruption to learning and exams, and many conversations sparked about grading for A-Levels and GCSEs, Ofqual’s decision to lower grade boundaries comes as no surprise. While there were elements of grade inflation last year – especially at A Level – that should not deter schools and teachers from supporting students in every way possible.  At RM we are delighted by the plans to proceed with exams this summer, and are encouraged by the conversations that we are hearing about using the last two years of cancelled exams as a reason to revisit the way that future exams are undertaken in this country. This is because we believe that the best assessment is authentic assessment – which is where we feel digital technology can play an important role.

“Businesses, government and educational institutions need to come together to implement a long-term plan that will help eliminate any accusations of unfair grading, as well as prepare the next generation of workers. This is particularly vital against the backdrop of a digital skills shortage disaster.  By adopting a greater use of technology, digital assessment and invigilation that uses assistive technologies not only improves inclusivity and reduces bias, but ensures the system equips students with the digital skills to succeed in the future.

“Another benefit is the increase in the number of digital tools being utilised to provide ‘checkpoint’ assessments.  This method helps to notify a student when they are ready for their final assessment, which provides both students and teachers valuable insight; and allows students to better understand their level of knowledge so they can build the confidence they need before an important exam to secure the best grade possible.”

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