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

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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.

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 in the autumn or spring term 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.

“However, we are increasingly frustrated at the ongoing lack of clarity from the Government over what it plans to do about these exams to mitigate the impact of the ongoing disruption caused by the Covid pandemic.

“We are aware of speculation that exams may be delayed by a few weeks to allow for more teaching time. But it is important to understand that the benefit of doing this is marginal compared to the disruption that has already taken place and is likely to continue over the coming weeks and months.

“It doesn’t go far enough and more will need to be done.”

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.”

An Ofqual spokesman said: “Exams are important. Students, now in their second year of study for these qualifications, need a chance to show what they can do.

“We’re working with Government and exam boards on the basis that exams run next summer with contingency arrangements in place.

“Students will have missed out on some teaching and learning – but we can take the truly exceptional circumstances of this academic year into account as we set standards.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We are committed to the exams going ahead next year.

“We are working with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach, recognising the disruption they have experienced over the last academic year.

“We will continue to work with schools and colleges, Ofqual and the exam boards to ensure that the exams that take place in 2021 are fair.”

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