Exams could be held in public buildings in 2021 if social distancing is required

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A-level and GCSE students could sit their exams in public buildings next summer if social distancing is required in local communities, the Education Secretary has suggested.

Gavin Williamson said a “reserve set” of exam papers may be introduced next year if pupils are unable to sit a test on a given day if they are unwell or self-isolating as a result of coronavirus.

The Government is still “actively considering” pushing back exams to give pupils more time to catch-up on learning – and an announcement on the timetable will be made by next month, Mr Williamson said.

His comments to MPs come after the fiasco around grading GCSE and A-level students this summer after exams were cancelled amid the pandemic.

Thousands of A-level students saw their results downgraded from their schools’ estimates by an algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn allowing them to use their teachers’ predictions.

“We’re also planning for the fact that there may need to be a different approach in terms of creating extra capacity within schools and a wider use of public buildings for exam centres, if that is required and that is needed in local communities as a result of further social distancing.”

He told the Education Select Committee: “We will look at making sure that there’s back-ups for exams.

“So hypothetically if let’s say in a local area it wasn’t feasible to run exams in a town or city, making sure that we do have a back-up on that. But I’d like to reassure you that there aren’t any algorithm plans.”

The minister also faced questions from MPs over the exam grading fiasco over the summer.

Mr Williamson defended the principle of using moderated calculated grades after exams were cancelled, but he said there were too many “inconsistencies” in the A-level grades.

Questioned on “blurred lines of accountability” between ministers and Ofqual, the education secretary emphasised that Ofqual was “independent”.

Students from Codsall Community High School gather prior to marching to the constituency office of Gavin Williamson as part of a protest over A-level results
Students from Codsall Community High School gather prior to marching to the constituency office of Gavin Williamson as part of a protest over A-level results (Jacob King/PA)

But Mr Williamson told MPs on Wednesday that Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, made it clear to the DfE on March 18 that running an exam series was not something the watchdog “thought would be viable”.

When asked whether Ofqual’s reputation had been “damaged beyond repair” by the exams chaos, the minister said: “What we both failed to recognise was the fact that we weren’t in peace time.

“But we were in a very different situation in terms of the global pandemic and we needed to have systems and operations that needed to reflect the fact that we were in a very different situation.

“Some of the systems and structures that were historically in place were probably not always best designed for when you’re in that global pandemic.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The Government maintains its insistence that all exams and assessments will take place this academic year come what may.

“But many of the factors that led to the cancelling exams in 2020 – including the potential for lockdowns and other disruption to students’ education – still persist.”

He added: “Schools and colleges need certainty now. They are operating in the dark and we are already three weeks into the new term.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are not sure that we are very much further forward in understanding what went wrong with the grading process this summer.

“The Secretary of State for Education’s evidence seemed to boil down to calculated grades being the right approach in the circumstances but there were ultimately too many inconsistencies. Ofqual’s evidence earlier this month was that it did its best with what proved to be an impossible task.

“Pupils, teachers, parents and taxpayers deserve better answers than this.”

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