Covid UK: Pupils taking exams next year will be given ‘mitigation’

Summer exams had to be cancelled for a second year in a row in January when the country went back into lockdown

Pupils taking exams next year will be given ‘mitigation’ due to Covid disruption, the education secretary has said.

Exams in 2020 were called off when the pandemic first took hold due to the amount of time children spent off school. They had to be cancelled again in January when the country went back into lockdown, with teachers told to assess pupils instead.

Education Minister Gavin Williamson said he wants schools to move back to an exam system in 2022 but with mitigations to help students.

However he did not specify what this would mean and said more details would be given before summer.

Conservative chairman of the Education Committee Robert Halfon asked in the Commons: ‘What assessment has the Government made of the impact on children not at school in exam years and what remedial action are they going to take to ensure there’s a level playing field for these children who’ve missed so much school, they have a level playing field for next year’s exams?’

Mr Williamson replied: ‘It is our intention to move back to an exam system, but we do recognise that we need to ensure that there are mitigations that are put in place for pupils who will be taking that assessment in the next academic year.

‘We will be looking at sharing more information as to what those mitigations are before the summer and will obviously update his committee and the House accordingly.’

Labour’s Vicky Foxcroft raised similar concerns, saying ‘many young people are extremely worried about next year’s exams’.

She said: ‘I ask for 2022 GCSE exams to be simpler, easier and adapted to our lack of necessary education out of compassion. When will schools get certainty about changes to next year’s exams and assessments?’

Mr Williamson replied: ‘We’ll be looking at giving further guidance and information to schools imminently and we are very much looking at what are the measures to put mitigations there, but recognising the best form of assessment is always examination.’

Year 9 students take part in a class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 17, 2021. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Exams will return in 2022 after two years of cancellations (Picture: AFP)

This year teachers will have to submit decisions on their pupils’ grades, drawing on a range of evidence from mock exams to coursework and in-class assessments.

The new system was created following backlash from the algorithm used to determine grades in 2020, which led to student protests and calls for Mr Williamson to resign.

Headteachers have urged the government to set out plans for exams in 2022 by September, after an analysis found that Year 10 pupils have missed one in four days of GCSE teaching this year.

The study, by Labour, found the average secondary pupil missed 46 days in 2020-21 out of the 190 days in the school year, meaning students missed 24% of the days available. 

Schools reopened in March this year under the first phase of the roadmap out of lockdown, but pupil absence has hit a new record high amid a rise in cases and rules around self-isolation.

New Department for Education figures show an estimated 83.4% of state school pupils in England were in class on July 1, down from 87.4% on June 24 and 89.7% on June 17.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 22: Students take part in a protest through central London over the government's handling of exam results after A-level and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in London, United Kingdom on August 22, 2020. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Students take part in a protest through central London over the government’s handling of exam results last summer (Picture: Getty)

Mr Williamson confirmed today that the use of ‘bubbles’ in schools and colleges will be scrapped when the country moves towards the final easing of lockdown restrictions on July 19.

At present, children have to self-isolate for 10 days if another pupil in their bubble – which can be an entire year group at secondary school – tests positive for coronavirus.

From so-called ‘Freedom Day’, schools will no longer be expected to undertake contact tracing and NHS Test and Trace will instead identify close contacts of positive cases.

Then from August 16, under-18s in England will only have to isolate if they have tested positive for Covid-19 themselves.

Mr Williamson said: ‘We recognise that the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education.

‘That is why we’ll be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS Test and Trace system for early years settings, schools and colleges.’

Face coverings will also no longer be advised for pupils, staff and visitors, either in classrooms or in communal areas.

But the Education Secretary said ‘some protective measures’ – such as enhanced hygiene and ventilation – will remain in place for the autumn term

Education leaders have criticised the government’s plan, which comes as case numbers continue to rise.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: ‘We must seriously question the wisdom of the government’s decision to take away so many safety measures. The government should publish the results of its trials on daily contact testing as an alternative to self-isolation before changing the system.

‘This is not a government which oversees, but one which overlooks. It has failed to take account of the alarming deterioration in self-testing numbers among school-age children.’

But some have supported the planned changes, arguing they would reduce ‘disruption’ of education.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘We have to put an end to the educational disruption that has blighted the lives of children and young people during the pandemic, and it simply would not be fair to them to continue with the current controls when the adult population is largely vaccinated.’

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