An Alternative to External Summer Exams – Take 2

Following the cancellation of external summer exams for the second year running Michael Evans looks at the alternatives for 2021.

Papering over the cracks

Months of remote learning caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have disrupted the education of millions of UK children. Amanda Spelman, chief inspector of Ofsted pointed out that remote learning was little more than a sticking plaster that did nothing to replicate good teachers and the social benefits of being in a good school.

“Older pupils,” she continued, “have got a real hole in their preparation for the next stage in their education... what’s important is to make sure that we’ve really planned for what those young people haven’t had, to make sure they do as well as they can in future.”

Avoiding the disaster of 2020

Of immediate concern is the question of 2021 external summer assessments. It is universally agreed that the 2020 assessments were a disaster after an unsuccessful attempt was made by Ofqual to use an algorithm to standardise the grades that students had been given by their schools or colleges.

The result was that thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded, leading to an inevitable outcry and an embarrassing U-turn by Ofqual, with students being informed that they would be awarded the original grades that had been given by schools after all.

Such confusion must not be allowed to happen in 2021.

Should there be a Plan B for 2021?

Some form of normality had returned by the start of the autumn term and dates were set for exams and assessments in summer 2021. Despite this, there was concern about what might happen in the event of another lockdown. Was there to be a Plan B?

Throughout the Autumn Term, although concerns were repeatedly being raised, the DfE remained upbeat and in December the Education Secretary gave an "absolute cast-iron guarantee” that summer 2021 exams would not be cancelled.

By January, a further rise in Covid-19 cases led to another lockdown and on 6 January 2021 the Education Secretary announced that summer GCSE, AS and A-level exams in England would not now take place and would be replaced by school-based assessments, with teachers tasked with deciding how their pupils should be graded.

A consultation and the response

On 15 January, a consultation was launched by the DfE and Ofqual on how the 2021 assessments should be awarded. Many teachers and students wondered why this consultation had not taken place four months earlier at the start of the academic year and more than 100,000 submissions were received, of which 52% came from students.

After due consideration of these submissions, the DfE’s response was published on 25 February. The Education Secretary described this response as an example of “Fairness and Flexibility”.

Key highlights were:

  • No national exams in 2021.

  • All grades to be determined by teachers with pupils only assessed on what they had been taught.

  • Teachers to be free to choose how to assess students. For example, by:

    • mock exams and in-class tests,

    • optional use of questions provided by exam boards,

    • coursework,

    • class books,

    • general data trend from KS3.

  • No algorithms to be used.

  • Teachers to prepare and mark the material used to assess students, including internal exams.

  • A broad range of evidence across the taught content to be used to determine grades before these are submitted to the exam boards.

  • Teachers to submit grades to exam boards by 18 June 2021.

  • Results day for AS and A-levels to be 10 August 2021 and for GCSE, two days later.

  • Private students to be treated as per students attending schools, colleges and approved centres.

  • There will be a set of 2021 autumn exams.

To ensure as much fairness as possible, schools, colleges and other educational settings to conduct multiple checks on consistency of judgements and the correct following of processes. Exam boards to conduct their own checks, both by random sampling and by more targeted scrutiny where cause for concern is identified.

Every student will have the right to appeal their grade. Appeals will be based on challenging teacher judgement, plus school, college, or centre administrative errors. If the centre feels that no error has been made, evidence will be submitted to the exam board. The exam board will determine the final grade based on the evidence that is submitted.

Detailed guidance followed in due course

It had been announced that detailed guidance to support teachers in making their judgements would be provided before the end of the spring term. This guidance finally came from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) on 26 March after many schools had already broken up for the Easter Holiday.

  • It is a lengthy document running to 54 pages, but several important areas can be highlighted. Each centre must produce and submit a Centre Policy and a Policy Summary by 30 April. Roles and responsibilities of staff should be included, plus details of their training. There should be an explanation of how grades will be determined, with details of internal quality assurance.

  • Teachers involved in determining grades should be provided with centre-based training to help them to achieve consistency and fairness to all students.

  • Random quality checks will be made of full Centre Policies. Where checks suggest that further support and guidance might be required, centres will be contacted to arrange a virtual centre visit in May or June.

  • Following the submission of grades on 18th June, sampling will be carried out by exam boards. Checks will take place where a Centre’s overall results profile for this year’s cohort appears to diverge significantly from exam results of previous years.

  • There are five steps in determining a grade.

    • Consider what has been taught

    • Collect evidence

    • Evaluate the quality of the evidence

    • Establish whether proposed range of evidence is appropriate for all students

    • Assign a grade.

  • Schools should also have received additional assessment materials from exam boards for all GCSEs, AS and A-levels, except for art and design. This material can be used in a variety of ways, such as in the form of a test, or in class or as homework. It can form part of a student’s assessment, but this is not mandatory.

  • If it is decided that all students in a cohort sit the same activity under test conditions, this should happen on the same day to maximise fairness for all students in a centre.

  • As part of the monitoring process, exam boards will investigate credible allegations of malpractice. A list of examples is given that includes exam entries for students who have not studied the course, intentional inflation of grades, fabrication of evidence of candidate’s performance and a Centre’s failure to submit an appeal when requested to do so by a student.

Possible problems ahead

Since students have effectively been working in isolation for so many months, problems of restoring motivation are likely to be considerable and getting back into the swing of school discipline will not be at all easy for many pupils. In a speech to the Foundation for Educational Development on 1 March 2021, the Education Secretary spent much time stressing the need for good discipline in schools and how schools should work in conjunction with parents.

As a result of lockdown, many students will have become disengaged and disheartened and with no exams now taking place a significant number will see no point in returning to school. For those reluctant to return to school, fines will undoubtedly be an option to further encourage parental co-operation.

With so little time before the need to submit pupils’ grades and with no national standard being set by the DfE, many teachers will be faced with problems in assessing pupils’ work. Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute, expressed concern about the significant risk of schools taking different approaches to grading, leading to inconsistencies in the grades of different pupils and schools.

Some pupils will have completed comprehensive portfolios of work during lockdown, while others will have accepted the Secretary of State’s “absolute cast iron guarantee” that the summer exams would definitely be going ahead and will have neglected coursework in the belief that a period of crash revision immediately before exam-time will be all that is necessary.

A word of optimism

With the futures of so many young people depending on getting it right this year the assessment debacle of 2020 must be avoided at all costs.

A word of optimism came from Ofqual’s chief regulator, Simon Lebus, when he affirmed that the aim is to make it no harder overall for this year’s students to receive a particular grade than students in other years.

An optimist has been described as someone who starts a crossword with a fountain pen, so let’s hope that Ofqual’s metaphoric fountain pen is up to scratch and able to ensure a better completion this year than last.


  • For the second year running there will be no External Summer Examinations.

  • Remote learning is no substitute for good teachers and a good school.

  • The disaster of 2020 must be avoided at all costs.

  • This year teachers will decide how pupils should be graded and no algorithm will be used.

  • Detailed guidance has been published by JCQ but with no national standard set by the DfE, there is concern about the risk of inconsistences in the grades of different pupils and schools.

  • Ofqual’s chief regulator says that the aim is to make it no harder for this year’s students to receive a particular grade than in previous years.