More exams in A-level and GCSE contingency plan to pandemic threat

Plans include advice for schools to collect evidence so they can assess grades accurately

Students taking A-level exams and GCSEs will be asked to sit a series of mock exams as part of contingency plans to cope with a future pandemic, new guidance recommends.

Head teachers' unions say that hosting a series of mock exams – that will not necessarily be used in grading – could place students “under a great deal of pressure” and create “significant additional workload for teachers".

The contingency plans include advice for schools to collect evidence so they can assess grades if schools are again shut for normal business.

When Covid-19 spread around the world, lockdown measures in the UK closed schools and forced exams to be abandoned. Ripple effects were felt in schools globally where the exams are also used.

The Department for Education and Ofqual, the department that regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England, have agreed the guidance for schools.

Under the confirmed contingency measures, teachers are being advised to assess students “under exam-like conditions wherever possible” to help inform teacher-assessed grades if needed.

“Assessments should, therefore, be similar to full or parts of the exam papers they are preparing to take next summer. Past papers could be used, in full or part, where appropriate,” according to the guidance.

The guidance says a “sensible approach” may be for teachers to plan to assess A-level and GCSE students in the second half of the autumn term, the spring term and the first half of the summer term.

It says that teachers should “guard against overassessment” and tests should be “as useful as possible” for pupils preparing to take summer exams.

But school heads and leaders have questions about the exam contingency plans.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “These plans involve students having to sit a series of mock exams which may or may not count towards their final grades, as well as then probably having to take formal exams next summer.

“This is far from ideal and places them under a great deal of pressure.”

ASCL wants exam boards to produce banks of assessment questions “that can be used flexibly by schools and colleges to construct exam-style papers” in an attempt to mitigate additional workload.

Sarah Hannafin, senior policy adviser for school leaders' union NAHT, was concerned the contingency planning was creating more work for teachers and students.

“This would create significant additional workload for teachers and add pressure to students who are working hard to complete their courses, detracting from teaching and learning and using up valuable lesson time,” she said.

The Government is committed to GCSE and A-level exams going ahead in England in summer 2022, with adaptations to take account of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on this year's cohort.

In a letter to students, chief regulator Dr Jo Saxton said: “We don't want to add to your workload, which is why any additional assessments should help you prepare for your exams, and not create a distraction.”

In a separate letter to heads of schools and colleges, Dr Saxton said: “We hope that the guidance will help you take a proportionate approach in gathering evidence, and avoid an unnecessary assessment burden on either staff or your students.”

Updated: November 12th 2021, 1:06 PM