How will GCSEs and A levels be awarded in 2021?

Published 06/11/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

This is the big question we are expecting the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams MS, to answer when she makes a statement to the Senedd on Tuesday 10 November.

She is expected to set out the Welsh Government’s approach to qualifications in 2021, which will inevitably be a high profile issue because of the UK wide controversy about what took place in 2020.

The controversy about the summer 2020 qualifications

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were considerable differences in how qualifications were awarded in 2020.

In March the Minister said that the 2020 summer GCSE and A level exam series would not go ahead. Learners were to be awarded a ‘fair grade’, ‘drawing on the range of information available’.

Rather than being based on exams, the Welsh Government decided that learners’ grades would be awarded on the basis of information that schools and colleges submitted to the examination board, the WJEC. These ‘Centre Assessed Grades’ (CAGs) would then be ‘standardised’ using WJEC standardisation models, approved by the regulator, Qualifications Wales.

On A level results day, 12 August, the Minister announced a change of plan so that learners would automatically be awarded the same grade as they achieved in their AS-Level, if it was higher than the standardised grade that the WJEC had calculated. By this point, results had already been issued to schools so the affected learners were going to have to wait for new grades to be re-issued. This, in turn, affected higher education admissions.

Five days later, on 17 August, the Minister announced another change. Grades in Wales would now be awarded on the basis of the information that schools and colleges had submitted to the WJEC, (the CAGs), where these were higher than the standardised grades.

You can read the full background to this story in our blogs:

What are the options for the 2021 examinations?

The series of events surrounding the August 2020 results led to significant concerns about the impact on the well-being and education of individual learners. It has also led to concerns that learners due to sit exams in 2021 should not be disadvantaged by the higher than usual results in 2020.

Back in July 2020, the Minister was hopeful that exams could go ahead in 2021 saying:

It is absolutely my hope and it is my belief that the examination series next summer needs to go ahead, but we need to recognise that some modifications will be necessary for that to be fair.

In August 2020, the Minister commissioned an independent review and appointed Louise Casella, Director of the Open University in Wales, as chair. The review was to look into what took place following the cancellation of the 2020 exams and to make recommendations for approaches in 2021. Louise Casella was asked to focus both on the needs of learners and their progression, and on the need to maintain standards and the integrity of the education system and qualifications.

The Interim report of the Independent Review was published on 29 October 2020, and a final report is expected in December. It recommends that no exams are set, and that assessment is undertaken using moderated assessment within the learners educational setting.

Qualifications Wales, was also asked to provide further advice to the Minister about how assessments should be completed in 2021, given the continuing disruption from COVID-19. It published its letter of advice to the Minister on assessment arrangements for 2021 on the same day as the ‘Casella interim report’. Qualifications Wales also recommends not going ahead with exams for GCSE and AS-Level, but otherwise sets out a different approach to the Casella interim report. Rather, it recommends using a suite of four assessment types, three of which would be externally set by and marked by the WJEC. However, whilst GCSEs would have no exam set, Qualifications Wales recommends that each A level continue to have one externally set and marked exam.

Senedd scrutiny

The Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee has been looking in detail at what has happened since March. It called an urgent meeting in August 2020 to hear from the Minister about the events that had taken place. At its meeting on 12 November, the Committee will be looking in more detail at what decision the Minister has announced, hearing from Qualifications Wales, WJEC, Louise Casella, the Association of Directors of Education, the WLGA and Colegau Cymru. The Petitions Committee is also currently considering petitions calling for the Cancelation of GCSE and A level examinations in 2021and Ensuring fairness for students taking exams in 2021.

The Minister’s decision

Both the Welsh Government commissioned Independent Review and the advice from Qualifications Wales explain the benefits and risks of the approaches they have recommended. It’s yet to be seen whether the Minister decides on one of the approaches they suggest or whether she chooses an alternative model. How to balance the well-being of learners with the need to maintain educational standards and confidence in the system will no doubt be key factors.

You can watch the Minister deliver her statement on Senedd TV at around 2.30pm on Tuesday 20 October.

Article by Sian Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament