The announcement in January that this summer’s GCSE and A level exams were to be cancelled caused me considerable concern – which wasn’t allayed by the subsequent publication of a joint Ofqual/DfE consultation on ‘How GCSE, AS and A level grades should be awarded in summer 2021’.

The most frustrating aspect of the decision to cancel the planned exam schedule is that this very situation had been anticipated by school leaders back in September 2020, when ministers were announcing that exams would proceed as normal in 2021. Despite an array of educational organisations and individuals urging the government to adopt a ‘Plan B’, the DfE, as usual, chose to press ahead and ignore the profession.

Student readiness

Indeed, this government seems to hardly respect its school leaders at all. On multiple occasions, important announcements affecting schools have been communicated via national media first, without any advance warning or consideration for the resulting impact on schools and teachers.

It’s therefore hardly surprising that headteachers have received this latest consultation with a strong degree of scepticism as to what extent their views will actually be considered.

I accept that unlike in Scotland and Wales, most qualifications in England are largely assessed through linear examinations, making it significantly more difficult for the English system to move away from exams. The centre assessed grades (CAGs) used in last year’s exam round produced outcomes that appeared to reflect an 11% grade inflation compared to 2019.

The worry is that if we were to adopt CAGs again in 2021 they would be equally generous, even if moderated. At the same time, however, the notion that providing a slimmed-down exam model will create a more level playing field for all English schoolchildren simply isn’t true. As one of my colleagues recently put it, “The playing field may well be level, but the players using this field are at very different levels of fitness.”

All schools and students have missed considerable amounts of time as a consequence of isolations, closures and lockdowns.

For some, however, this experience has been compounded by a lack of high quality remote learning, ICT provision and/or connectivity. Our students’ readiness for these coming exams is a direct consequence of their own particular circumstances, provision or school, which is clearly neither equitable nor fair.

Collective expertise

I don’t believe that exams should be adjusted in order to rebalance inequalities and address disadvantage within our education system, but nor should they be allowed to further increase educational inequality during this pandemic.

The alternative could be for Ofqual to apply some sort of assessment mechanism or formula to key groups within regions, areas or schools that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, thus limiting the impact these inequalities are undoubtedly having on our most disadvantaged and vulnerable students.

The general feeling among headteachers is that they’ve been ‘stitched up’ by the proposals contained within the January consultation. The strategy of this government is now clear – to direct as much work and accountability as possible towards schools, and away from awarding bodies. Take responsibility for marking, for example – assigning this to schools is simply wrong, and may well lead to a repeat of the grade inflation fiasco we witnessed in 2020. All exams should and must be externally marked by awarding bodies.

The only thing that can be guaranteed is that all headteachers, school leaders and teachers across the country will do their best to ensure that whatever ill-thought out plan we end up using this summer actually works, for the good of their students. It’s just a shame that their collective expertise and advice are so often ignored.

Nick Hurn OBE is CEO of the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust; for more information, visit