There’s no doubt about it, the class of 2020 had it tough. GCSEs and A-Levels are tough enough, even at the best of times, and for those who envisaged a struggle in getting the grades they wanted even before a terrible virus was designated COVID-19, the global pandemic that swept across the world and into the UK made things unimaginably worse.
Firstly students had to contend with the uncertainties of the UK government’s “will they, won’t they?” approach that meant candidates didn’t know if their exams would even take place as little as 8 eight weeks prior. Once it had been decided that exams weren’t going ahead, there was more apprehension as Boris Johnson was unable to initially give any firm details of how students would be assessed, fairly or otherwise. Which then brings us to the crux of the whole episode where once ascertained that candidates’ awarded grades would be a mixture of teaching GCSE assessment and rankings moderated by computer algorithm, it was clear the process was in no way fair or representative of most, if not all, of their true ability. Using factors such as postcodes and a school’s previous performance, almost forty percent of school-assessed grades had been adjusted downwards. Not only this, but it was disadvantaged students that bore the brunt of this negative impact.
In that light, no one (the government, parents or the most importantly the students themselves) wants to see that happen again in 2021. However, with COVID-19 still prevalent across the country, what is being done to make sure GCSE candidates don’t suffer the same debacle in 2021?
GCSE Changes to 2021 exams
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is clearly determined to ensure exams go ahead next year. Quite correctly he states that exams are the fairest way to determine a student’s exam qualifications, and no doubt this formed a large part of why the government is so intent on restoring a semblance of normality to next year’s proceedings. On the other hand, one can’t help but think Williamson doesn’t have faith in alternate GCSE assessments based on the fallout from 2020’s attempt.
Either way, GCSE exams are primed to happen in 2021. Even in light of current circumstances (i.e. the UK’s second national lockdown starting from Thursday 5th November) the government has not said anything otherwise, with a spokesperson from the Department for Education saying on the 1st November “exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance, which is why they will go ahead next year.”
England’s GCSE candidates will take most of their exams three weeks later than usual. The dates of GCSE Exams 2021 are Monday 24 May 2021 to Friday 2 July 2021. Students will take two papers before the May half term break: English Language Paper 1 on Monday 24th May 2021 and Maths Paper 1 on Tuesday 25th May 2021. Schools then break up for two weeks before the GCSE exam timetable resumes on 7th June 2021.
What about GCSE (or equivalent) students in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
It’s important to note that this is applicable to England’s students only. In Wales, whilst A-Levels are going ahead, the Welsh exam regulator, Qualifications Wales have recommended that GCSEs are awarded on coursework and new form of GCSE assessment set externally instead (at the time of writing, the Welsh Government is still deciding what to do). Scottish students will see their exams cancelled, with grades being awarded on the basis of teacher GCSE assessment and coursework. Northern Ireland’s exams will go ahead, starting one week later than usual (on 12th May 2021), but still finishing by 30th June.
Results day comes a week later than usual for GCSE candidates, but with less time after the exams themselves have been taken. England and Wales will have their results day on Friday 27th August 2021 (2020 GCSE results day was 20th August) - A-Levelers might usually expect to have their results released on a different day, but they will know their exam outcomes on Friday 27th August also. Brace yourself parents, it could be quite a raucous day in your household…! The push for swift exam results is so that there’s no delay in students getting their results needed to progress to the next stage of their higher education or lives.
In Scotland, results day for National 5 exams will be 10th August, around a week later than this year.
GCSE assessment and teacher endorsement
Whilst unmoderated teacher GCSE assessment seems to be the most popular choice amongst parents for the awarding of grades next year, the government has seemed to have double-downed on their position that exams for England’s students will go ahead for GCSE 2021 even in the midst of UK’s second national lockdown.
This does not mean that the government won’t change its mind (after all Boris Johnson did rule out a Lockdown 2.0 previously before U-turning). If this should happen, England’s GCSE candidates could follow something similar to what Scotland has planned for its National 5 awards (GCSE equivalents). National 5 awards are due to be based wholly on coursework and teacher GCSE assessment . What does this look like practically? It can differ from school to school, but the recommendations are that a student’s score should come from a formal teacher-graded process of two to four pieces of work per subject. So as to ensure some degree of uniformity across schools and students, the Sottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has stated they “will publish guidance for teachers on evidence gathering and estimation, and subject-specific guidance on the key pieces of work that young people will need to complete”.
In terms of GCSE latest news, currently no continuity plans in place for England’s students, but the Department for Education is currently working on them. The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed on 1st November that his decision on exams, but they were still looking at further advice on contingency plans so as “to ensure the GCSE assessment experience is as fair and accessible for all students as possible”.