UK discusses postponing vital exams and closing schools over coronavirus

Emergency meeting called by UK education secretary to discuss how students will gain university places if exams are delayed

Britain's Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson arrives in Downing Street in London, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain has called an emergency meeting to discuss how students will complete end-of-school examinations and gain university places if institutions are forced to close because of the coronavirus.

International students are already facing uncertainty, with school closures across the world.

Exams need to be completed by August 31 for eligibility into the British higher educational system.

But the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service body told The National exceptional circumstances could be introduced.

Individual universities will decide whether to allow youngsters to take up places by assessing them on expected grades, the regulator said.

On Monday the UK’s Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, held an emergency meeting with school leaders to discuss closures across the country.

The meeting also addressed the possibility of postponing GCSE and A-Level examinations until later in the year.

“I know your pupils will be worried about what all this means for their coming exams," Mr Williamson said.

"This is only to be expected, especially when so much hard work has gone into them.

“I see first-hand the enormous amount of work and effort that goes into exams by children and their teachers.

"I want to reassure you that we are doing everything to make sure that this year’s exams are fair for students and that their efforts will be fairly rewarded.”

Universities across the UK began closing their doors on Monday and moving lessons online.

There have been calls from teaching bodies to shut schools because of staff isolating themselves, and one executive wants to see exams postponed until next year.

"As the leader of an academy trust running 29 state schools in England, my message to the government is clear," Hamid Patel, chief executive of Star Academies, wrote in the Guardian.

"Relieve the burden on schools, pupils and parents by postponing this year’s GCSEs, A-level and Sats until 2021.

“The UK’s worst-case scenario is coming into sharp focus. We will inevitably enter the state of coronavirus lockdown imposed in Italy and Spain.

“Covid-19 is a once-in-a-century pandemic and it requires once-in-a-century responses and solutions to reduce casualties.

"Cancellation is the only sensible and humane option. The national assessment system would lose its integrity if awards were made without examinations being taken.”

GCSEs and A-level exams are due to start on May 11 and finish in mid-June.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said exams were a major concern.

But Mr Whiteman said the main priority was keeping children safe and the association was working with the government for a “credible” plan.

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, told The Sunday Times that he would rather see GCSE exams delayed than A-Levels, because of their importance and as fewer pupils sit them.

“Nothing matters more than safety but everything must be done to try to make certain that A-level exams can take place," Mr Seldon said.

"So much hinges on A-level results. If there has to be slippage, would it be so bad if GCSEs were held in September?

"Schools and colleges will still take young people into sixth forms.”

The Universities UK International, Universities UK and the UK Council for International Student Affairs said the health, welfare and safety of students and staff was their top priority.

“UK universities have been supporting all students and staff who might be concerned about their health with up-to-date advice from health services,” they said in a joint statement.

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Education began a public consultation to decide whether university entrance exams, generally held in June, should be postponed.

No decision has been made on when Chinese schools will reopen.

In France, schools are expected to remain closed until after the Easter holidays.

But the Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said final exams were still scheduled for June.

"We hope that by June the epidemic will be more behind us than in front of us," Mr Blanquer said.

More than 40 schools across Britain have already closed after pupils contracted or came into contact with the coronavirus.

On Monday the number of coronavirus cases rose to 1,543 in the UK, which was an increase of 171 in 24 hours.