UK: Flawed 2021 exam arrangements will lead to inequality, say education unions

published 20 October 2020 updated 4 November 2020

Assessment arrangements for students in 2021 will increase inequality and pressure on students and teachers in the UK, according to education unions.

Both the National Education Union (NEU) and NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union have reacted negatively to the UK government deferring the 2021 second-level exams by three weeks. The announcement was made on 12 October by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

NEU: Government’s announcement is a “dereliction of duty”

The announcement amounted “to a dereliction of duty by Government to pupils, parents, and education professionals,” said Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) and a member of Education International’s Executive Board.

“Pupils taking GCSE and A levels next summer are in a terrible position. They have missed five months of in-school teaching – a loss which impacts most severely on disadvantaged pupils, 700,000 of whom have no access to the internet, which denies them access to remote learning.  Many pupils are missing further schooling, now, as they isolate at home waiting for COVID-19 test results. It is completely unrealistic, and unfair, to expect these pupils to take exams which make no compensation for disruption to school teaching time.”

A greater choice of topics

Bousted highlighted that the NEU, along with other teacher and leader unions, had advised the Education Secretary that GCSE and A level exams must be altered to include a greater choice of topics. This would enable pupils to be examined on what they had been taught, not on what they have not been taught, according to the unions.

Asking why the Government was consulting now on how exams will be graded and what the fall back would be if exams cannot be taken, she insisted that ministers have had months to plan for these contingencies. These contingencies become ever more likely as COVID-19 levels increase in communities.

Bousted said the Government’s announcement was “another appalling example of political ideology trumping practical reality”.  According to her, it demonstrates that this is not a Government which is interested in levelling up because the impact of these decisions will impact most severely on the most disadvantaged.

Exams may not be tenable

“It is critical for avoiding the great unfairness felt by many students last summer that Government reconsider this position immediately and introduce greater topic optionality into the exams. If the Government will not reconsider and change its mind quickly, members tell us that exams, even with greater optionality, are no longer tenable. In which case, the only route to fairness would be a complete cancellation of exams and the use of robustly moderated, externally quality-assured teacher judgements,” she concluded.

The NEU proposal for awarding exam grades in 2021, released on World Teachers’ Day, 5 October, can be found here.

NASUWT: Moving the timetable for exams leads to additional time pressures

Also reacting to Williamson’s statement, Patrick Roach, General Secretary of NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, said: “The announcement of a three-week delay to the timetable for most GCSE and A level exams next year will not provide meaningful additional time for students whose preparation for examinations has already been disrupted over a number of months”.

“Moving the timetable is unlikely to create much additional teaching time per subject and will place significant pressure on the awarding system,” he said. And, “the additional time pressures in turning around exam papers risks a reduction in the number of people willing to work as exam markers”, he stressed. “Reducing content in examinations and enabling greater scope for students to answer optional questions must also be strongly considered in order to reduce the pressures on students and teachers.”

Unclear contingency arrangements

He also noted that “it is of equal concern that the Education Secretary has failed to set out any detail on what contingency arrangements are to be put in place should exams not be able to go ahead in the revised timetable next year or to clarify what measures will be put in place to ensure pupils are not disadvantaged in any way due to the high likelihood of further disruption over this academic year.”

“We cannot risk a repeat of the chaos which engulfed this year’s exam results. It is imperative that a range of robust and transparent contingency measures are developed, in consultation with the teaching profession, to address the wide range of possible scenarios schools and pupils may find themselves in over the coming year which could impact on exams and the fair assessment of pupils’ abilities,” he warned.