Westminster Education Forum

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England’s exam system - the impact of COVID-19, priorities for the 2021 summer series, and the future use of technology

Morning, Wednesday, 3rd March 2021

Online Conference


***Full-scale policy conference taking place online***

This conference will examine the priorities for England’s exam system.

It will be an opportunity for stakeholders and policymakers to discuss key issues - and further options for the system going forward - following the disruption to the 2020 summer exam period due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the autumn 2020 series, and a period of wider reform to the exam system.

Sessions will include discussion on:

  • the impact of COVID-19 on the exam system, lessons learnt during 2020, and preparations for the 2021 series
  • next steps in ensuring a high quality exam system that is accessible for all students
  • the future use of alternative summative assessment
  • latest thinking on opportunities for utilising technology

It comes as GCSE and A Level students will be awarded calculated grades this summer based on assessment of their performance provided by schools and colleges, with all assessed grades then being put through a process of standardisation using a model being developed with Ofqual. There will be an opportunity for students to appeal if they are unhappy with their original calculated grades.

The seminar will also follow a full autumn 2020 series where students who wish to improve their grades will have an opportunity to re-sit their exams in all subjects at GCSE in October and A-Level in November.

Why this is relevant to discuss now - the context:

  • concern from some headteachers that having a full autumn series will make it difficult for schools and colleges to accommodate both exams and the challenge of bringing all students back to school in September, identifying potential learning gaps following the pandemic, and putting in place catch up measures
  • Ofqual activities and studies:
    • recent survey indicating that headteachers confidence in A Level standards being maintained year after year has declined and a lack of awareness amongst the public regarding the new numbered grading system for GCSEs
    • consultation on the appeals process for this summer’s GCSE and A-Levels, and the 2021 summer exam arrangements
    • recent survey on perceptions of the examination system which was undertaken prior to the pandemic, which found that whilst confidence overall in GCSEs remained consistent, confidence amongst headteachers has decreased
    • launch of a competition to examine the potential use of AI in marking
  • Ofsted warning that some schools are in danger of ‘gaming the system’ by seeking to maximise attainment data and league table positions

Key areas for discussion:

The summer and autumn 2020 exams series

Adapting the system to meet the challenges created by COVID-19:

  • lessons that can be learnt from the exams season this year, including the awarding of calculated grades, the appeals process and the autumn 2020 series
  • how the measures taken in the autumn series - following responses to Ofqual’s recent consultation on an additional GCSE, AS and A level exam series in autumn 2020 - including social distancing can be applied to the summer 2021 series and key lessons that can be learnt in terms of exam timing and the future provision of re-sits
  • whether the measures put in place to award students’ calculated grades this summer were sufficiently robust and had the confidence of both students and parents

Adapting the exam system to deliver high quality and accessibility, and options for the 2021 exam season

  • looking ahead to the 2021 summer exam series as Ofqual consults on the arrangements, including whether it should be delayed to later in June, after half term for GCSEs and A-Levels
  • proposals to adapt exams in 2021 in some subjects, and the potential impact on:
    • freeing up time for teachers to deliver the full content
    • relieving pressure on students through cutting the spoken language assessment in GCSE English language and allowing the observation of science practical work rather than undertaking it,
    • the work being done by subject associations to adapt
  • challenges for specific subject areas and options for new approaches to teaching and assessment:
    • adapting to the potential need for social distancing measures, in subjects including dance and drama
    • potential use of content sampling
    • increasing the use of optional questions in subjects such as history
  • whether potential changes to the 2021 series including the timing of the final exams and proposals to adapt courses could be used as an opportunity to reform future exam series
  • how a balance with positive exam results can be achieved - particularly in light of challenges presented by the pandemic - with Ofsted’s new education inspection framework including an increased focus on ensuring that schools deliver a broad and balanced curriculum

The future role of technology to improve the exam system and accessibility

  • use of technology and improving the exams process, looking at:
    • testing and marking
    • the likely impact of the pandemic, and how what has been learned from the utilisation of technology can be built upon - including the future of paper as part of exams and in marking practices with Ofqual exploring the potential future use of AI in marking
  • improving the accessibility of the exam system - including for pupils with SEND and learning difficulties - particularly in the forthcoming autumn series with the Department for Education issuing guidance for exam centres in light of the pandemic
  • allowing young people to better demonstrate the skills they use within and outside of the classroom - opportunities edtech solutions and other assessment models can provide, particularly through the use of course work - and how these models can be better implemented within the overall system

The agenda:

  • Lessons learnt from the 2020 exam season and key priorities moving forward
  • The impact of COVID-19 on the exam system - identifying areas for improvement, evaluating the response of stakeholders and students and preparations for 2021  
  • The future direction for the exam system
  • Key priorities for reform post COVID-19
  • The next steps in developing a high quality, accessible exam system and the future use of alternative summative assessment models
  • Evaluating the current and future use of technology
  • The future for England’s exam system - building on best practice from the 2020 series, the role of technology and ensuring qualifications equip young people with the skills to succeed post-18

Policy officials attending:

Our forums are known for attracting strong interest from policymakers and stakeholders.

Overall, we expect speakers and attendees to be a senior and informed group including Members of both Houses of Parliament, senior government and regulatory officials involved in this area of policy, as well as from senior officials from the DfE, Ofsted, Ofqual and other Government departments and agencies, schools and teaching professionals, education consultancies, university academics and lecturers, alternative teaching providers, exam boards, edtech and assessment providers, multi-academy trust and free school representatives, education suppliers, social mobility and widening access charities, local authorities, subject specialists and associations, representatives of trade unions and local government, groups representing parents and students, specialist academics and charities, together with reporters from the national and specialist media.

This is a full-scale conference taking place online***

  • full, four-hour programme including comfort breaks - you’ll also get a full recording to refer back to
  • information-rich discussion involving key policymakers and stakeholders
  • conference materials provided in advance, including speaker biographies
  • speakers presenting via webcam, accompanied by slides if they wish, using the Cisco WebEx professional online conference platform (easy for delegates - we’ll provide full details)
  • opportunities for live delegate questions and comments with all speakers
  • a recording of the addresses, all slides cleared by speakers, and further materials, is made available to all delegates afterwards as a permanent record of the proceedings
  • delegates are able to add their own written comments and articles following the conference, to be distributed to all attendees and more widely
  • networking too - there will be opportunities for delegates to e-meet and interact - we’ll tell you how!

Full information and guidance on how to take part will be sent to delegates before the conference

Keynote Speaker

Jill Duffy

Chief Executive, OCR

Keynote Speakers

Jill Duffy

Chief Executive, OCR

Dr Philip Wright

Director General, Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ)


Rt Hon the Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

former Shadow Spokesperson on Education


Dale Bassett

Director, International and Curriculum Strategy, AQA

Dr Mary Richardson

Senior Lecturer (Assessment) and Associate Professor of Education, UCL Institute of Education

Duncan Baldwin

Deputy Director of Policy, ASCL

Roy Blatchford

Chair, ASCL Independent Enquiry into the ‘Forgotten Third’

Professor Sandra McNally

Director of Education and Skills Programme, Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) and Director of Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER), London School of Economics

Matt Wingfield

Chair, The e-Assessment Association

Alexander Shea

Senior Policy Analyst, BESA