By John Nichols, co-founder and Director of Get My Grades and President of The Tutors’ Association.


All parents are naturally concerned about their children’s education and there are few periods that are more significant than final GCSE and A Level exams. GCSE and A Level examinations lead to qualifications that go a long way towards deciding future progression and employment prospects that are available to a young person.

In 2021, examinations have been cancelled – for the second year in a row – due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. What would normally be a stressful but predictable process is now completely up in the air, with no firm plan. Given that 2020 ended up being a bit of a last-minute fiasco when it came to awarding qualifications it certainly isn’t a model to follow. So what do we know about exams and qualifications in 2021?

What do we know about qualifications in 2021?

At the time of writing (7th of February 2021), here’s what we know about exams and of qualifications:

  • Exams for most students across the UK (including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have been cancelled for 2021. Some exam boards (notably Pearson – see here) have cancelled international examinations as well (IGCSE/international A/AS Levels).
  • The Department for Education (DfE) launched a consultation which ran between the 15th and 29th of January to gather views on its alternative proposals, which received around 100,000 responses (around half from students). Everything that has been proposed so far is subject to change/be amended.
  • Qualifications for most students are expected to be awarded based on teacher assessment – meaning that subject teachers will probably decide what grade each student will receive. They will be required to provide evidence for the grades they are proposing and there will be an appeals process (of some kind).
  • A prominent aspect of the DfE’s proposals is to provide ‘exam board papers’ (which seem to be mini-exams) which could either be optional or mandatory and we don’t know who will mark them.
  • Private candidates, such as home-schooled students, are likely to be assessed with some kind of examination – either the ‘exam board papers’ above, or a full exam either in summer or autumn.

How will ‘teacher assessment’ work? Will it be fair?

Since the fiasco in 2020, Gavin Williamson MP (Secretary of State for Education) has gone to great lengths to stress how much he wants to trust teachers to decide the qualification grades students should be awarded – with grades awarded “by teachers not algorithms”. The DfE wants teachers and schools to collect evidence for the grades they propose for each student.

However, there are two main risks with this approach: firstly that it may not be entirely fair and that some teachers may inadvertently be too generous or harsh. There is an obvious conflict of interest between schools’ desire (and need) to see their students pass critical examinations and the need to objectively assess each student’s capability. There’s not even a clear understanding of exactly what the students should be assessed on – part of their course? All of their course? Certain parts of it? Who picks what is important? What would stop teachers assessing only the easier parts of a course to help their students produce ‘better evidence’ and higher grades?

Secondly, passing this off to teachers involves the risk of piling on a lot of extra workload. The teaching unions have published a joint letter to highlight their views – broadly speaking, there is concern that the workload for teachers could be made completely unmanageable if the DfE offloads all responsibility to them. A more cynical view is that the DfE is deliberately passing this onto teachers so that it can let itself off the hook, as far as possible, for anything that might go wrong (a lot can go wrong).

At the moment, teaching unions are crying out for clear and consistent guidance from exam boards, exam boards have their hands tied until the DfE decides what to do and the DfE is processing the results of the consultation.

What are the mini exams (exam board papers)?

The consultation explained that the DfE proposed to get exam boards to provide ‘papers’ to schools for them to use to assess parts of the course. These seem to be ‘mini exams’ without so much of the rigour and probably modular (i.e. exam boards will produce a paper for each part of the course and teachers set the appropriate papers for their students). The consultation asked for opinions on whether the use of these papers would be optional or compulsory, but did not express a preference.

There are problems with this approach but it is likely to be the best of a set of bad options. If exam board papers are used, it will be better for them to be compulsory across the country so that students have an opportunity to improve their grade.

What about private candidates?

Private candidates are students who are studying for their course outside separately from the school or college where they will sit their exams and possibly with the help of one or more tutors.

Private candidates are not currently being well-catered for; they are a bit of a blind spot for the DfE in all fairness. The proposal for private candidates is weak, consisting of four undeveloped proposals:

  1. Private candidates are set the mini exams by the exam boards (and a grade provided based on these alone).
  2. Private candidates have evidence collected on their attainment by a school or college.
  3. Private candidates sit normal exams in the summer, as usual (most likely someone in the DfE asked how option 1 would be different from this anyway – we’re not sure).
  4. Private candidates sit normal exams in the autumn (and would be unable to obtain qualifications in the summer).

Option 1 is at least mostly fair, the rest make little or no sense and are unlikely to be workable.

The Tutors’ Association’s (TTA’s) response to the consultation advocated strongly that private candidates should be able to receive assessments from professional tutors, possibly with additional training, in order to put them on a level playing field with students from schools. When TTA asked its members about this the results were:

  • 78% of professional tutors strongly agreed or agreed that tutors should be allowed to submit evidence on behalf of private candidates, in conjunction with the use of online assessments (15% had no opinion and 7% disagreed).
  • 61% of professional tutors strongly agreed or agreed that tutors should be used to carry out online verbal exams for private candidates (who they have not taught themselves; 28% had no opinion and 11% disagreed or strongly disagreed).
  • 82% strongly agreed or agreed with TTA offering online training for tutors in awarding grades (possibly in conjunction with exam boards; 12% had no opinion and 2% disagreed or strongly disagreed).

Forcing private candidates to undertake a completely different form of assessment to everyone else lacks any pretence of fairness at all.

What to look out for now.

The exams consultation closed on the 29th of January and, at the time of writing (7th of February), there has not yet been any announcement from the DfE; we might expect to hear more details by the end of February, if not sooner.

For parents and students (in school or private candidates), there is little that you can do about this other than one thing: keep working hard on your course as though you were going to have to sit an exam anyway. Indeed, if the exams for 2021 are messed up completely then you may well need to sit an exam at some stage anyway. Whatever form of assessment is used to establish your final grade (and whatever you want to do beyond this year), a solid understanding of the majority of each subject will be the only reliable way to get the best for yourself.

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