A-level and GCSE results are to be brought forward this year amid fears a second summer of exam chaos could result in a high number of appeals.
In a bid to avoid a repeat of last year’s fiasco, pupils will receive grades from their teachers, based only on those parts of the curriculum they have been taught in a year disrupted by repeated coronavirus lockdowns.
Externally-set “mini-tests” will not be mandatory, but an optional part of the teacher assessment process, ministers announced.
There was widespread outcry in August when an algorithm downgraded four in 10 teacher-assessed marks.
Within days, education secretary Gavin Williamson had been forced to bow to pressure to restore hundreds of thousands of results across the country. But the chaos meant many still missed out on their first choice of university.
On Wednesday, Mr Williamson confirmed algorithms will play no part in determining results this summer.
Instead, a system driven by individual assessment will offer the “fairest possible system for … pupils, asking those who know them best – their teachers – to determine their grades, with our sole aim to make sure all young people can progress to the next stage of their education or career,” he said.
Simon Lebus, from exams regulator Ofqual, said: “This year it is teachers’ judgement that will be used to assess what has been learned and determine student grades.
“Assessment cannot itself serve as an instrument to recover lost learning and compensate for the different experiences students will have had in different parts of the country, and the arrangements being put in place will therefore only take into account what students have been taught, not what they have missed.”
Ministers had hoped to be able to stage GCSE and A-level exams as normal this year, but had to abandon that plan in January when rising numbers of Covid-19 cases forced schools to shut.
In response, Mr Williamson pledged to trust the judgement of teachers and not use an algorithm to correct this year’s results.
He did float the idea of using externally set “mini-tests” to assess pupils, however. But the official plan for this year’s exam season shows those tests will be optional, with teachers under no obligation to use them.
If they are used, they will not have to be sat under exam conditions and teachers will have the flexibility to choose how long students have to complete the task, and even where they can carry it out.
Teachers will also be free to draw on a wide range of other evidence when determining grades, including already-sat mock exams, coursework or other work, such as essays or in-class tests.
However, pupils must only be assessed on what they have been taught.
Exam boards will also still conduct their own checks, in a bid to keep a check on grade inflation.
Results for GCSEs, A-levels and some vocational qualifications will be brought forward to the week of 9 August amid fears boards will be inundated with a large number of appeals again this year.
The earlier dates will allow extra time for appeals to be completed, in a bid to ensure students do not miss out on university places.
All pupils in England will be allowed to appeal their grades at no extra cost.
If they are still unhappy with the result they can sit exams in the autumn.
Schools in England are due to reopen for the first time since January on 8 March.
The education secretary told a 10 Downing Street press conference that there were no plans to ask schools to work longer days or cut their summer holidays short in order to make up for lost time.
But he said a £700m package would allow summer activities to boost education and well-being, as well as tuition for the pupils most disadvantaged by lockdown.
And a longer-term review, by education recovery commissioner Kevan Collins, will look at ways to close the education gap experienced by “generation Covid”.
“We’re willing to look at every single matter in order to be able to drive their attainment into the future,” said Mr Williamson.
“And we are not going to be timid, in terms of our aspirations for them, and the actions that we’ll have to take to deliver for them.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said it was concerned about the change to results’ day.
“Although earlier results for students seeking to start university could be beneficial, cramming GCSE results into the same week will place unnecessary pressure onto the system,” he said.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he supported the government’s approach to assessing students in lieu of exams, saying it was the “fairest way of giving them grades in these very difficult circumstances”.
Meanwhile, Natalie Perera from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) said while the government had made the right decision to opt for teacher assessed grades, the EPI had concerns over the outlined approach.
“There is still a very high risk that we will see inconsistences in the grades among different pupils and schools,” the think-tank’s chief executive said.
“Without timely and detailed guidance for schools on how this year’s grades should be benchmarked against previous years, and with classroom assessments only being optional, there is a significant risk that schools will take very different approaches to grading.”
She added: “This could result in large numbers of pupils appealing their grades this year or extremely high-grade inflation, which could be of little value to colleges, universities, employers and young people themselves.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies