Students urged to engage with lessons amid uncertainty over GCSEs and A-levels

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The exams regulator has urged students in England to engage “as fully” as they can with learning amid uncertainty about GCSEs and A-level assessment.

Simon Lebus, interim chief regulator of Ofqual, said there is no “straightforward” solution for ensuring pupils receive their grades in the summer in light of school and college closures.

He said exams are “the fairest way” of determining what a student knows and can do, but Ofqual is discussing alternative arrangements with the Department for Education (DfE).

His plea for students to keep working came as the Government announced the summer’s GCSE and A-level exams in England had been cancelled,

All pupils – except children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters – have moved to remote education until February half-term amid the national lockdown.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is due to set out his plans for pupils in the Commons on Wednesday afternoon.

Senior Conservative MP Robert Halfon has described the situation with schools as “a mess”, while the former head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, called for Mr Williamson to take “final accountability” for the DfE’s actions.

On Wednesday morning, Mr Lebus said: “We know that this is a difficult time for students, their parents and carers, teachers and trainers. Our message to students is this: please continue to engage as fully as you can in your education.

“That will be online for the majority of students, or face-to-face for those students still going in to their school, college or training provider.

“This will put you in the best position, whatever arrangements are made for your qualifications.

Gavin Williamson
Gavin Williamson (Parliament TV/PA)

“We need to consider a wide range of qualifications – from A-levels and GCSEs to many different vocational and technical qualifications – and the solution won’t be the same for all.”

His message came after schools and colleges were given the flexibility to decide whether they want to run vocational exams this month, despite pressure from MPs, college leaders and students to cancel them.

On Tuesday evening, hours before Btec exams were due to start, the DfE announced that schools and colleges could continue with the January exams series “where they judge it right to do so”.

The Association of Colleges warned that many centres were likely to cancel.

Pearson, which runs Btec exams, said it was working to award a grade to any student who is unable to take their exams and who has enough evidence to receive the certificate they need for progression.

“But I think now we have to move on and make sure we have an exam system that is a level playing field for students and fair to the disadvantaged.

“We know that in the last lockdown millions of students did hardly any learning at all, despite the individual efforts of many teachers and many schools.”

He added that teacher-assessed grades “often discriminate against disadvantaged pupils” and called for “independent assessors” to provide “a check and a balance to those teacher-assessed grades”.

Mr Halfon called on the Government to consider “whether it’s still possible to have exams in maths and English perhaps, or the core subjects”.

“Employers value exams, students want exams because they know it gives them structure and something to work towards,” he said.

The grading of GCSE and A-level students in England became a fiasco last summer when end-of-year exams were cancelled amid school closures.

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

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