9th November 2020

Education Policy Institute position on testing and examinations in 2021

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has published its recommendations on how the government should approach GCSE and A level exams in England in 2021, including a back-up plan in the event that exams are cancelled again in the summer.  

National exams were cancelled in the summer of 2020, which led the government to opt for a number of alternative grade arrangements, before finally deciding in most cases to fall back on pupils’ teacher assessed grades.

In contrast to other UK nations, the government has announced that all major summer exams next year are set to go ahead in England – but they will be delayed by three weeks to give schools and pupils extra time to prepare.

The government is yet to set out a Plan B for summer examinations, in the event that they are unable to take place again due to the pandemic. It continues to consult with Ofqual and exam boards on “contingency plans”, which are expected to be announced before Christmas.

The new EPI report contains recommendations on how the government should proceed with testing and examinations next year, including a contingency plan, designed both to ensure fairness for pupils and be deliverable given the short timescales involved.

The report also considers how the government can mitigate against lost learning time as a result of the pandemic, which is likely to have disproportionately affected the most disadvantaged pupils.

You can download the paper here


Key recommendations: 2021 exams

Recommendations for changes to summer 2021 exams

If summer exams are able to go ahead next year, it is essential that they are fair, fully deliverable within a short timeframe and have the confidence of the public. We recommend that the government:

  • Consider greater optionality in exam papers so that pupils have a better chance of answering questions on the content they have covered. While delivering optionality presents some challenges for exam boards, it will ensure fairness for pupils who have lost learning time. The government should consider a short-term funding increase to ensure that exam boards can accommodate this.  
  • Ensure that multiple papers covering a single subject are as spaced out as much as possible during the exam period. This ensures that if a pupil misses an exam to comply with Covid-19 guidance, they have another one to fall back on.
  • Allow some grade inflation. Given that the 2021 cohort will have also experienced lost learning time and will be competing with the 2020 cohort for jobs and places in further and higher education, pupils’ grades should be allowed some inflation, pinned between the 2019 and 2020 cohorts.


Recommendations for alternatives to summer 2021 exams

In the event that summer exams are cancelled next year, the government urgently needs to set out a back-up plan for exams. We recommend that the government:

  • Introduces a new series of benchmarking assessments to provide “contingency grades” if summer exams cannot take place for the majority of pupils. These new assessments would replace existing mock exams and would take place in the spring term. They would be set by the exam boards with an accompanying marking scheme – thereby providing greater consistency than traditional mocks. Schools would however have flexibility to only give pupils content they have covered.
  • Urgently pursue further research on the impact of using teacher assessed grades on pupil outcomes, particularly for the most disadvantaged. Questions remain over reliability, teacher bias, and the impact of grade-inflation for predicted grades. Exam results from 2020 present an ideal opportunity to conduct such research.


Recommendations to support pupils experiencing lost learning time

Pupils will have lost months of learning time in the previous school year, while hundreds of thousands of pupils have not attended school during the current autumn term. In both cases, there is evidence that the poorest pupils have been most affected. To mitigate against the impact of lost learning time, we recommend that the government:

  • Provide additional and urgent catch up funding for disadvantaged pupils this year, totalling £1.3bn. The majority of the government’s £1bn catch up funding is not targeted to disadvantaged pupils or specific year groups. Instead, we recommend a targeted approach of doubling the Pupil Premium for pupils currently in years 1, 7 and 11 and doubling the disadvantage weighting for those in year 13.
  • Consider using the £143m under-allocation from the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) to further subsidise tuition so that schools only contribute 10% rather than 25%. The NTP launched last week, offering subsided tuition for disadvantaged pupils. However, a significant proportion of the funding has not yet been allocated. Given that schools may find it difficult to provide 25% of their own funding for the cost of tuition, the £143m available could be used to lower the cost, enabling more pupils to access this tuition.
  • Ensure that higher education and further education institutions make greater use of ‘contextualised admissions’ – so that they place greater weight than usual on pupils’ backgrounds and the likely impact of the pandemic on their education when making decisions on admissions to their courses.
  • Provide catch up support for the 2021 cohort once they are in further or higher education. Pupils are still likely to be at a disadvantage when moving to the next level of education. Additional funding should be made available in the next academic year to support catch up for students in their first year of college or university.