MOST A-level and GCSE exams in England will be delayed by three weeks next year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said.

The 2021 exams will go ahead, but the majority of tests that students in south Cumbria and the rest of the UK face will be pushed back to give pupils more time to catch up on their learning following school closures.

The exams, which usually begin in May, will be delayed to June and July - apart from the English and maths GCSEs which will take place before the half-term.

GCSE and A-level results will be given out to students in the same week in August following the change, Mr Williamson announced.

But education unions have accused ministers of an “inadequate” response” to the scale of disruption that students due to take exams next year are facing.

In a written ministerial statement on Monday, Mr Williamson said: “We know that exams are the fairest way of measuring a student’s abilities and accomplishments, including the most disadvantaged.

“We want to give our young people the opportunity next summer to demonstrate what they know and can do.”

The announcement comes following the fiasco around grading of GCSE and A-level students this summer after exams were cancelled amid Covid-19.

Chris Brooksbank, Cumbria NEU Secretary, said: "There are a lot of difficult issues at the moment and we fear that education, both for our young people and staff is being badly let down by government soundbite politics, and confusing and irrational policy. 

"Schools are under incredible stress and need to be trusted more.

"With regards the exams next summer the DfE's latest statements are reinforcing the fact that they don't really understand education to most of the professionals doing the job.

"The suggestion that exams will be delayed by three weeks will almost  definitely change over coming months. There will be yet more confusion, stress and additional work for schools and teachers.

"Having spoken with secondary colleagues, a three week delay is not enough. It fails to recognise the impact of the pandemic so far, let alone over coming months.

"Teachers prefer to talk about solutions, and certainly our union has gone to great lengths to set out alternatives.
"The NEU have been calling for a wholesale review of the exams system for months and have given suggestions. Unfortunately, the DfE, under the current Ministers, don't seem to listen to the professionals.

"We hope to see far more engagement with the professionals, and not just hand picked leaders of Academies who do not represent the whole of education.

"Teachers up and down the country will now be revisiting their plans for the year, while trying to prepare for online/remote learning and cope with the massive impact of Covid. This is work that could have been started in April or May not now while they are teaching as well. 

"We only hope that their work, even if it is then undone, will be acknowledged.

"Schools are doing there best for all their pupils."

Thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by an algorithm, before England’s exams regulator Ofqual announced a U-turn allowing them to use teachers’ predictions.

Mr Williamson has said the 2021 exam series for the majority of A-levels and GCSEs will start on June 7 and end on July 2.

Students will receive their AS and A-level results on Tuesday August 24 and GCSE students will receive their grades on Friday August 27.

One maths and one English GCSE exam will take place before the May half-term to give pupils who may need to self-isolate during the exam period the “best chance” of sitting a paper in these subjects, Mr Williamson said.

Some AS-levels and A-levels with very small numbers of students will also be scheduled before half-term.

It comes after Scotland’s Education Secretary John Swinney announced last week that National 5 exams would not go ahead in 2021 and Higher and Advanced Highers would be delayed until May 13.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, warned that a “compression” of the exam series may impact student wellbeing.

He said: “Announcing a delay is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the planning that now needs to be done.

“This step does not address the disparity between different student’s different levels of disruption to learning; much more needs to be done to ensure that the qualification system takes account of this so that students can have confidence that the grades they are awarded in 2021 are fair.”

Dr Philip Wright, director general at the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents exam boards across the UK, said: “A significant delay to the start of exams without significantly delaying results means that exams will have to take place in a compressed window, rather than being spread out to maximise a student’s chances of sitting at least one paper per subject.

“Even with a compressed exam window, delivering GCSE results on August 27 will be a challenge.”

In June, Mr Williamson suggested to MPs in the Commons that GCSE and A-level exams could be pushed back next year.

England’s exams regulator Ofqual launched a consultation in July which proposed delaying the start of GCSE exams by a few weeks to June 7.

On the announcement, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It has taken the Government an eternity to reach a very inadequate response to the scale of the challenge which lies ahead for students who are taking GCSEs and A-levels next year.

“Delaying the start of exams by three weeks is of marginal benefit when compared to the loss of learning from the national lockdown and ongoing disruption.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “Today’s announcement amounts to a dereliction of duty by government to pupils, parents and education professionals. Pupils taking GCSE and A-levels next summer are in a terrible position.”

The watchdog had previously announced that pupils will be offered a greater choice of subjects in their exam papers for GCSE English literature, history and ancient history in 2021 due to school closures.

On Monday, the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that no further subject-level changes will be made to GCSE and A-level exams.

Dame Glenys Stacey, interim chief regulator of Ofqual, said the three-week delay would “optimise the time now available” for teachers to help pupils to catch up with their learning.

She added: “Of course, we will need contingency plans. We are discussing with government, exam boards and the sector, the detail of that - taking into account the risk of disruption at an individual, local and regional level.”

The Government has said it will engage with the sector over the next six weeks to consider measures needed to address any potential disruption.

This could be a student unable to sit exams due to illness, or schools affected by an outbreak during the exam season, meaning centres cannot open.