Students taking GCSE and A-level exams ‘should be prioritised’ for Covid tests

Students due to take their GCSE and A-level exams next year should be prioritised for Covid-19 testing to reduce “ongoing disruption” to their learning, education unions have said.

Five organisations representing headteachers, teachers and school governors have made a series of proposals to the Government and exams watchdog Ofqual ahead of the 2021 summer exam series.

They are calling for the assessment of all general qualifications to be reviewed to allow for “greater optionality in most subjects” and for symptomatic exam pupils to be prioritised for Covid-19 tests.

The proposals – from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), school leaders’ union NAHT, the National Education Union (NEU), the NASUWT teachers’ union, and the National Governance Association (NGA) – have been submitted to schools minister Nick Gibb ahead of a meeting today.

The Government should publish contingency plans “as soon as possible” to outline how pupils who are unable to sit exams, or whose education has been significantly disrupted, will receive robust, reliable grades, the unions say.

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This could include the development of “reserve papers” for students unable to sit exams on a particular date or formal staged assessments undertaken by all students within school under exam conditions.

It comes after the fiasco around grading GCSE and A-level students over the summer after exams were cancelled amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ofqual, which launched a consultation in July which proposed delaying the start of GCSEs by a few weeks to June 7 to allow for more teaching time, has not yet made a decision on the timetable for the 2021 exam series.

The document says: “It is highly likely that some students will have to self-isolate in May and June 2021 due to local or national outbreaks.

“These students must be able to gain their qualifications they deserve.

“In addition, some students may suffer very significant disruption to their studies this year if they are out of school or college for several periods because of illness, self-isolation or local closures.

“Contingency plans for students who find themselves in either of these situations must be confirmed as soon as possible.

“This is urgent for two reasons. Firstly, students need reassurance that their hard work will be recognised, and that they will be able to progress to the next stage of their education or careers.

“Secondly, if these contingency plans involve any form of consistent teacher assessment, schools and colleges need to start doing this now, to ensure it is as accurate as possible.”

On the test and trace system, the unions add: “We would urge the Government to prioritise students due to sit exams imminently, i.e. those in Years 11 and 13, for testing, along with education staff.

“This would not entirely solve the problem, as it wouldn’t help Year 11 and 13 students who are having to self-isolate as a result of other members of their household displaying Covid symptoms or testing positive, but it would be a step in the right direction.”

The paper submitted to the Government warns that moving the timing of exams back slightly is unlikely to make any significant difference to the varied learning experiences students have had this year.

“Any resulting compression of the exam period could also have significant negative consequences on student performance and wellbeing, which may negate the possible benefits,” it adds.

Speaking on Monday, Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said suggestions that exams may be delayed by three weeks would not be enough.

Asked if exams could be pared down, Mr Barton told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we really ought to think about that.

“If the assumption is it can be business as usual but with three weeks extra teaching time you’re going to have some young people who won’t have covered, for example, the Tudors in history or photosynthesis in biology.

“It would be unthinkable that those young people would be tested in the same way that the previous generation would be, and therefore a modification of those exams would be useful.”

In August, exams regulator Ofqual confirmed pupils would be offered a greater choice of subjects in their exam papers for GCSE English literature, history and ancient history in 2021 due to school closures.

But the education unions said Ofqual’s plans to make changes to just a few subjects amount to merely “tinkering around the edges”.

The submission concludes: “Our view is that greater optionality should be introduced across the board, to enable students whose education has been significantly disrupted still to demonstrate their ability.”