English literature and history GCSE exams will change in 2021 amid Covid-19

GCSE students taking English literature exams next summer will no longer have to cover all the topics as planned due to lengthy school closures, England’s exams regulator has announced.

Ofqual has confirmed pupils will be offered a greater choice of subjects in their exam papers for GCSE English literature, history and ancient history in 2021.

But school leaders have criticised the regulator’s decision not to offer optional questions in exams for the remaining GCSE and A-level subjects after students have faced months out of the classroom.

The watchdog, which launched a consultation on next year’s exams last month, has not yet made a decision on whether to delay the 2021 summer exams due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ofqual’s consultation originally proposed that there should not be any changes to the GCSE English literature assessment next year, but now the regulator has decided to offer a choice of topics following “significant concern” about the ability to cover all the required content in the time available.

Nearly half (48%) of consultation respondents opposed the plans to leave the English literature assessment unaltered, as they highlighted difficulties with pupils trying “to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely”.

Amid these concerns, the Government has agreed that there can be a choice of topics on which students are required to answer questions in their exams so schools have the option to focus on particular texts.

All students will have to be assessed on a Shakespeare play, but they can choose to answer from two of the three remaining content areas: poetry; 19th century novel; and post-1914 British fiction or drama.

Ofqual also confirmed there would be a choice of topics on which students have to answer questions in GCSE history and ancient history to give schools more choice over the content that must be taught.

The consultation had proposed delaying the start of the GCSE exam series to June 7, after the half-term break – but the watchdog said it is still working with the Government and the exam boards “to consider the best approach”.

“While there was general support for a delay to the exams, to allow more time for teaching, respondents were less positive about this if it meant a potential delay to results,” the regulator said.

Schools will also no longer be required to declare to exam boards that they provided GCSE and A-level geography students with the opportunity to undertake fieldwork as part of the changes being introduced.

But Duncan Baldwin, deputy director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the plans for the 2021 exam series “amount only to tinkering at the edges when it is clear that students could experience widespread ongoing disruption over the course of the next academic year.”

He added: “Everybody can see that the situation with coronavirus remains precarious. It appears to be likely that students will have to intermittently self-isolate, and that schools will be required to fully or partially close in response to local infection spikes.

“This makes it extremely challenging to deliver all the content for GCSEs and A-levels to all students, on top of the disruption that has already taken place to their learning.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Regrettably, these plans are essentially a case of ‘too little, too late’. NAHT believes these proposals are unambitious and do not go far enough.”

He added: “Part of the rationale for adapting assessments for summer 2021 must be to support young people’s wellbeing and mental health. Ofqual’s plans for next year don’t contain sufficient adaptations proposed to achieve this.

“Instead, schools and students are now being left in the unenviable position that they will be expected to cover as much content as possible in a reduced amount of time. This is unfair on students and it is unfair on schools and colleges.”