How Will GCSEs, AS & A Levels Be Awarded in 2021?

March 2, 2021
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One year on, COVID-19 continues to change life as we know it. GCSE and A Level students, who would have been taking exams this summer and have further education opportunities resting on them, are facing further uncertainty this year. 

We know that this is a worrying time for both students and their parents or carers. As a result, we’ve pulled together information from the government, including the Department for Education, to provide you with some guidance about what to expect over the next couple of months and how your child will receive their grades.

Will GCSE & A Level Students Sit Exams in Summer 2021?

Students will not sit exams this summer. Rather, they will be provided with a grade based on their teacher’s assessment of the standard at which they are performing.

This is due to the disruption to learning – both last year and this year – and the uncertainty that schools have faced since January 2021 over when it will be safe for face-to-face teaching to resume. The Department for Education has decided that cancelling exams is a way to regain some surety for students, parents, and teachers during this time. 

What is Replacing the Exam Series for Summer 2021?

Ofqual has set out details for schools and colleges, as well as for students, parents, and carers, about how GCSEs and A Levels will be awarded following the cancellation of this year’s exams.

For this year’s GCSE, AS Level, and A Level awards, schools and colleges are providing centre assessment grades for students. This temporarily replaces the standardised assessment process for this summer. 

The centre assessment grade will be a formal grade and so will have the same status as grades from any other year. This means that they will be accepted at all further education institutions, like colleges and universities, so students should still be able to complete further study as they would have previously. 

A group of students heading into school

How Will Grades Be Determined with the New System of Assessment?

Despite the Department for Education announcing that students will still be awarded a grade, and can still access further education, understandably students, parents, and carers still have many questions. We’ll aim to answer some of the most common below.

What Information Will the Grades be Based On?

Ofqual has stated that the grades that students receive should be fair, objective, and carefully considered. The grades should mirror the level the student is performing at, indicating their demonstrated knowledge, understanding, and skills. There will be some generosity (just as there was in 2020) to recognise that learning has been lost across the nation, meaning that students will not need to demonstrate the same level of knowledge as they did pre-2020 to get a particular grade.

Exam boards are asking schools, colleges, and any further exam centres to submit the following a centre assessment grade for every student in each of their subjects in June. This is the grade that the student is judged to be performing at. This centre assessment grade is based on a teacher’s professional judgement and the following:

  • Classwork and bookwork from throughout the year and how this compares to the overall level the student is working at.
  • Any participation in performances, for example in subjects like drama, music, and P.E.
  • Any assessments that are not exam based, such as coursework or portfolios.
  • The results of any mock exams and assessment papers which the exam boards will provide – it is the teachers’ choice whether they use these or not.
  • Any previous exam results, such as if a student is resitting, or A Level students who have grades from AS levels.
  • Any other relevant information about student performance over the course of their study.

Schools and colleges will be responsible for agreeing on their approach to assessment – which must meet exam boards’ requirements – and standardising this system internally. The Head of Centre will have to agree with and sign off the grades submitted by the teachers.

Who Will Determine These Grades?

Teachers are the ones who will assess the grade they think a student is performing at, based on their overall professional judgement and the work they have seen over the rest of the academic year. Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) are also permitted to provide grades for students, but they will need support from their head of department.

Paul Whiteman, who is the leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, has commented that there is no “perfect solution” for grading students in the light of cancelled exams. However, he believes that teachers grading students, based on their work throughout the year, is “pragmatic and the fairest approach to take in these exceptional circumstances”. 

Female teacher assisting students in the classroom

How Will Grades Be Standardised?

Ofqual and exam boards have worked together to develop a system that provides students with grades that are fair and reflective of their achievements. This system will ensure that students are not disadvantaged in progressing onto college, sixth form, university, apprenticeships, training, or work because of the pandemic.

To ensure that the grades provided are as fair and accurate as possible across all schools and colleges within the country, exam boards will use a quality assurance process. This involves them asking for samples of evidence which teachers based the submitted grades on – from a sample of schools and colleges – to ensure that the grades are accurate and fair.

If an exam board found that grades were not accurate, they would ask the head of the school or college to investigate and make any necessary changes to the grade before re-submitting it.

Does the Same Process Apply for all Students?

The process we have outlined above applies to the majority of students. However, it may be slightly different for private candidates, such as those who have been homeschooled, follow distance-learning programmes or study independently.

Heads of centre have still been asked to provide centre assessment grades for private candidates who are registered to take exams in their centre. They will be asked to assess the candidates based on what they have been taught – this assessment can take place remotely if necessary. 

Is this Process the Same for all Four Nations of the UK?

Each of the four nations are approaching the cancelled exam season in a similar way this year. To summarise:

  • In England, teachers will decide what level a student is performing at for each subject at GCSE and A Level. This will be confirmed by exam boards as their overall grade, as we have set out above.
  • In Scotland, teachers will also decide final grades for National 5, Higher, and Advanced courses, using students’ classwork and tests as evidence.
  • In Wales, a range of evidence (including classwork, coursework, mocks, and past papers provided by the WJEC) will be used to help teachers decide on students’ grades. 
  • In Northern Ireland, teachers will use similar evidence (as well as optional assessment materials provided by the CCEA) to grade their students. Grades will be submitted earlier, with a deadline of the end of May.

When Will Results Be Released?

Results will be released earlier than originally planned, giving students more time to appeal grades that they are unhappy with.

A Level results will be published on Tuesday 10th August. GCSE results will be published on Thursday 12th August. Some BTEC results will also be published during that week, although a specific date has not yet been released.

A group of female students opening GCSE exam results

What Happens if You Are Unhappy with the Calculated Grade?

The Department for Education and exam boards are working hard to ensure that students are not disadvantaged by the cancellation of exams and they receive a fair and accurate grade.

However, if a student is unhappy with the grade they receive, they will be able to appeal. Their school or college will need to review their grading process to check that no errors were made and all procedures were followed correctly, and if they find an error, they will be able to submit a revised grade to the exam board.

If the school or college does not find an error in their grading, the student can ask them to submit a formal appeal to the exam board, who will decide based on the evidence they have whether a grade was reasonable or not. The exam board can determine an alternative grade and inform the school or college of this.

How to Support Students Who Need Help During COVID-19

If you’re a parent of a student whose GCSE, AS or A Levels have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable that you might be concerned. Your child is also likely to be feeling concerned and pretty distressed, too. Feelings of worry, frustration, and anxiety are bound to be high at this time, especially after working so hard for so many years only to have it all disrupted at the final exam time.

Looking after a teenager’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic is hugely important. The closure of schools during one of the toughest years of their education, alongside the cancellation of exams which could determine their future, has put a huge strain on teenagers and their mental health.

Encourage your child to take time away from thinking about COVID-19 and the effect it’s had on their exams. Discourage them from frequently reading the news and try to distract them from worrying about things that they can’t control. Consider going out for exercise, reading books, baking, being creative, or taking up a new hobby. Encourage them to keep in touch with their friends and discuss how they’re feeling. You should also reassure them that you understand and empathise with what they’re going through, and you’re always there to listen to them and talk to them about any concerns they have. 

Finally, if you’re worried about your child’s mental health, don’t let them struggle in silence. Reach out to external support networks, such as contacting their school or teachers remotely, or speak to your GP. There are many people who are available to help, so your child should never have to struggle in silence.

COVID-19 has caused a huge disruption to the education system, particularly for those students who were going to sit exams in the summer with the hope of progressing onto further study or a career. However, each of these students will still receive a formal grade, based on their work throughout the year, that they can use to progress and fulfil their ambitions.

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