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Ofqual launches consultation on 2021 exams and assessments

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Our proposals for assessing general qualifications in 2021 and the direction ahead for vocational and technical qualifications.

Students expecting to take exams and assessments next year, and their teachers, tutors, parents and carers, are understandably concerned about the disruption to their education caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Department for Education (DfE) has already introduced a number of measures to support schools and colleges and help reduce the impact on learning due to the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19). Our focus is on exams and assessments – and ensuring they are as fair as possible and support students to progress to the next stage of their lives. We have today (Thursday 2 July) published our consultation on proposals designed to support students taking GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2021 – alongside our initial plans for other general, vocational and technical qualifications.

In line with the Secretary of State for Education’s letter to Ofqual, we are planning for exams and assessments to be taken next year. We have been working across the sector to consider a range of possible measures to free up teaching time and, in limited subjects, allow teachers some choice in the topics they teach.

We are consulting on a range of proposals for general qualifications including:

Adaptations to free up teaching time

We have proposed adaptations in a number of subjects to give teachers more time to cover the full content and help relieve the pressure on students. For example, removing the requirement to record the spoken language assessment in GCSE English language; allowing GCSE students to observe (rather than undertake) practical science work; and assessing art and design students on their portfolio alone. We are discussing with subject associations how they might be able to support teachers in making these modifications.

Adaptations to allow for future public health safeguards

We have identified those subjects which we believe could be particularly affected if public health safeguards were needed in the next academic year, and suggested how these might be addressed. This includes changes to performance rules in dance and drama, and permitting design and technology students to watch teachers demonstrate the use of machinery, rather than to use the machinery themselves.

Sampling of subject content

The Secretary of State has explained in his letter that he is not minded to specify changes to DfE content which forms the foundation for GCSE, AS and A level qualifications, but he has asked us to explore use of content sampling in question papers and increasing the use of optional questions.

The DfE, which is responsible for content, has confirmed this option should not be used in GCSE English language, English literature, maths and the sciences, because these core subjects are so fundamental to students’ ability to progress successfully to further study; nor should it apply at AS or A level. While our proposals already introduce opportunities to free up teaching time in many subjects, without needing to make changes to content sampling, this has not been possible for GCSE history, ancient history and geography. We appreciate that students taking these subjects may benefit from their centres having greater choice over what they are taught and we have set out proposals to allow for this.

For GCSE history and ancient history, we are seeking views on proposals which would introduce a choice of topics on which students would be required to answer questions in their exams, with one topic remaining mandatory. For GCSE geography, we propose that the content relating to fieldwork should not be assessed in 2021. We believe that, in the circumstances, this is acceptable and the fairest way to mitigate the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) for students taking these subjects in summer 2021 and that the proposed changes will not have an undue impact on students’ successful progression to A level.

Changes to the exam timetable

We have asked the exam boards to consider how the 2021 exam timetable could be changed to allow more time for teaching – in particular, whether GCSE exams could start after half term, on 7 June 2021. We are also seeking views on whether such a change would be appropriate for the AS/A level exam timetable, and the impact of any delay in issuing results.

Sally Collier, Chief Regulator, 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.

The consultation is open until Thursday 16 July, with final decisions announced in August.

Vocational and technical qualifications

Learners taking vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) have also experienced lost teaching time and appropriate arrangements need to be put in place to mitigate the impact of this disruption. Any mitigations will need to account for the complexity of the VTQ landscape, and the different ways in which the qualifications are used. We have already heard useful feedback from our engagement with the sector and we have set out today the guiding principles which will determine our approach. We will continue to discuss these principles with colleges, employers, representative groups and awarding organisations as we formulate our plans, which we expect to publish in more detail in the coming weeks.

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