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Wales scraps end of year exams for 2021

Pic: David Davies/PA Wire

By Gabriella Peralta and agencies

End of year exams in Wales will be scrapped in 2021, Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams announced on Tuesday as Gibraltar schools prepare for a potential upheaval in exams.

GCSE, AS-level and A-level exams in Wales will be replaced by coursework and assessments amid ongoing disruption to schools caused by the coronavirus.

Ms Williams said the ongoing pandemic made it “impossible to guarantee a level playing field for exams to take place” and the decision “removes pressures from learners”.

Despite England pushing ahead with exams, locally Bayside and Westside Schools have prepared a ‘Plan B’ in case exams are shelved.

Last week Gibraltar’s comprehensive schools unveiled they are laying the groundwork to offer centre assessed grades if key exams next year were cancelled.

Bayside Head Teacher Michael Tavares and Westside Head Teacher Michelle Barabich had told the Chronicle students and teachers were prepared for this scenario.

“We are regularly assessing and monitoring the work that is being handed in so there is clear evidence of what students are doing and whether they are achieving the targets they are set and what their attainment is,” Mrs Barabich said. 

“If we needed to go back to centre assessment grades like last [exam] year, our head of departments are very aware of this and have already started to monitor very closely.”

“Last [exam] year it was sprung on us, but this year we already are aware. We hear the rumblings in Scotland and Wales, and we look at what is being released by the boards.” 

“If it goes in that direction, we also have to be ready.”

But the centre assessed grading system proved controversial last August.

The grading system sees students graded based on assessments by teachers reviewed by a central body, instead of sitting exams.

Many results were overturned in the UK and Gibraltar after students felt their grades had been unfairly downgraded.

Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams ensured fairness in the grading system.

“The well-being of learners and ensuring fairness across the system is central in our decision-making process,” she said.

“In line with the recommendations of both Qualifications Wales and the Independent Review, there will be no exams for GCSE or AS level learners next year. A-level students will also not be required to sit exams.

“We remain optimistic that the public heath situation will improve, but the primary reason for my decision is down to fairness; the time learners will spend in schools and colleges will vary hugely and, in this situation, it is impossible to guarantee a level playing field for exams to take place.”

Ms Williams said universities across the UK had been consulted and had confirmed “that they are used to accepting many different types of qualifications.”

“They expect a transparent and robust approach which provides evidence of a learner’s knowledge and ability,” she said.

“Our intended approach does just that, as it is designed to maximise the time for teaching and learning.

“Cancelling exams provides time for teaching and learning to continue throughout the summer term, to build the knowledge, skills and confidence in our learners to progress in whatever they decide to do next.”

Teacher-managed assessments will include assessments that are externally set and marked, but delivered within a classroom environment under teacher supervision.

Teachers will also have flexibility when it is best to undertake the assessments.

The Welsh Conservatives’ shadow education minister Suzy Davies said it was a “shame” that A-level students in Wales would not get a chance to sit exams before heading to university.

Ms Davies said: “The critical issue for me is that assessments are externally set and externally marked. This will give them some comparability with previous years’ exams and protect teachers against any accusations of unintended bias.

“It’s a shame that A-level students won’t get a chance to sit at least one exam. This will be the second year where sixth formers and college students won’t have the experience of sitting exams when they will be competing for university places with others who have.”

Neil Butler, national official for the NASUWT teaching union, told the PA news agency: “The good news is that there’s been a recognition on the serious impact that school-based assessments will have on workload for teachers. Talk of externally marked and externally set assessments is helpful.

“The bad news is the Welsh Government has got this idea that co-construction means just talking to school and college leaders, which it doesn’t because the people who are going to have to put this into practice are the classroom teachers and middle leaders in schools.”

Ruth Davies, president of school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru, said: “We welcome the acknowledgement that things need to be different in 2021, but there is a real concern that we will end up with exams by stealth.

“It has been announced that pupils will still be given externally set and marked tests, just in the classroom. We can’t see how that isn’t an exam.

“There is an awful lot of detail still to be determined, and we await further clarification, but we are worried we will end up with exams in all but name.”

David Evans, Wales secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) Cymru, said: “We welcome that the minister has made an announcement on this – it is critical that we don’t have a repeat of what happened this summer, which was exceptionally difficult for those who should have been taking exams.

“We must ensure that young people have a consistent assessment process in place which means their abilities are recognised for their next steps. But this must not mean extra work for everyone involved – both staff and students alike. The education system is already struggling.”

Becky Ricketts, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) Wales, said: “This decision will give students certainty about how they will be assessed and I welcome that students and teaching staff now have the time to plan and prepare.”

Downing Street said there was “no change” in relation to exams in England despite their cancellation in Wales.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We’ve set out that they will take place slightly later this year to give students more time to prepare.

“I think we fully understand that they’ve experienced considerable disruption and it’s right that we get them and their teachers that extra time.”

Schools fear some pupils may not return for rest of year if exams axed – Ofsted

By Eleanor Busby

Schools are worried that a significant number of students would not return to class for the rest of the academic year if this summer’s exams were cancelled, the chief inspector of Ofsted has said.

Amanda Spielman has warned that scrapping A-level and GCSE exams could do “real harm” and said she has not seen any evidence to suggest taking the same approach as last summer would be “sensible”.

Her comments came just before it was announced that end-of-year exams in Wales will be scrapped in 2021.

GCSE, AS-level and A-level exams will be replaced by coursework and assessments amid ongoing disruption to schools caused by coronavirus, the Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams said.

In England, the Government has committed to next year’s A-level and GCSE exams going ahead, but most exams will be pushed back by three weeks to give pupils more time to catch up on their learning.

Downing Street said there was “no change” in relation to exams in England, despite their cancellation in Wales.

When asked whether she approved of the plans to push ahead with exams in England amid the pandemic, Ms Spielman told the Education Select Committee: “I have not yet seen anything that suggests that pulling exams as we did last year is the sensible default route to go down this year.”

Her comments come after the fiasco around grading of GCSE and A-level students this summer, when end-of-year exams were cancelled amid the pandemic and school closures.

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

Ms Spielman, who is also chair of a new committee which is overseeing the work of exams regulator Ofqual, told MPs: “I think it’s very important before making sudden, drastic changes in how a system works to think about how it will go down at the receiving end with children and parents.

“One of the messages that came across really strongly from young people themselves last summer in the face of the calculated grades model was how much they resented not having the chance to show what they could do for themselves.

“There were many, many who believed that they could do better than their teachers had suggested that they could, so taking away the opportunity of young people’s own agency in demonstrating what they can do is something that we should think very carefully (about) before doing.”

Addressing MPs, she added: “We also know that many, many schools strongly believe that with so much of the structure and motivation for young people having been designed around exam specifications, to say at this point ‘well, we won’t do that’, many schools fear that a large proportion of older students simply wouldn’t return to school for the rest of the academic year.

“So if you pull out something that is a pillar around which the system is organised without something else in its place, you could well end up doing, possibly inadvertently doing, real harm, so these are decisions with many, many consequences.”

Last week Dame Glenys Stacey, acting chief regulator of Ofqual, suggested that students taking exams next year should be compensated for the impact of the pandemic through more generous grading.

When asked about the impact of lost learning, Ms Spielman said: “It’s very clear that those coming through for exams this year have actually had a tougher time than last year’s Year 11s and Year 13s.

“There are difficult and conflicting issues of fairness here which everybody involved is doing their utmost to balance, to come to something that does everything that can be done.”

Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, asked Ms Spielman whether exams could be held in the core subjects next year, with centre assessment grades used in the remaining subjects.

She said: “That is the kind of option that is under consideration, but every option creates some unfairnesses.”

Speaking after end-of-year exams were scrapped in Wales in 2021, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “The current position in England of a three-week delay to 2021 examinations is simply not good enough.

“Education is not as normal. Months of classroom learning have already been lost and many young people will continue to have to spend varying degrees of time out of school.”

She called on the Department for Education (DfE) “to alter their course” and ensure England has a system in place that “ensures every young person has a fair chance to achieve their potential”.

(PA)