What’s happening with GCSE, A-level and Btec exams in 2021?

close up of student writing an exam

Teacher-assessed grades to replace 2021 exams

GCSE and A-level exams have been cancelled - so what happens next?

The government has now detailed how exam grading will work in 2021, with teachers deciding the grades that students will get.

Here’s the key information you need to know about exam grading this year.

This piece covers the situation in England - specific info on other UK countries can be found at the end of the article.

How will GCSE and A-level grading work this year without exams?

GCSE, A-level and Btec students will receive grades awarded by their teachers in place of exams this year due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Teachers will be asked to base your grades on work you've done (or will do) during the whole of your course. This could include coursework and mock exams, as well as essays and in-class tests. You'll only be assessed on topics you've been taught.

Your teachers might also choose to set you short assessments provided by the exam boards. These will not take place under formal exam conditions. 

Exam boards will provide teachers with guidance on how to most effectively assess your grades. However, there will be no return to the controversial algorithm that was used last summer to moderate teachers’ predicted grades.

Teachers have until 18 June to submit their assessed grades, so any work you do up until that time may be considered as part of your final grade.

Results will be published earlier than planned, so that students have more time to appeal any grades they are unhappy with. This is particularly intended to help students with university applications.

A-level results will now be published on Tuesday 10 August. GCSE results will be published on Thursday 12 August. Some vocational exam results (including some Btecs) will also be published during that second week of August, although a specific date has not yet been announced. 

For more detailed information on how everything will work take a look at Ofqual's guide for students.

What will teachers base my grades on?

Teachers can choose whatever form of assessment they think is best, but they have to evidence whatever decision they make regarding your grades. They can use evidence from across the time you’ve spent on your course. 

In its guidance, the government has recommended the following range of evidence that teachers can draw on:

  • assessments provided by the exam board, including exam questions, past papers, practice or sample papers
  • coursework, even if this has not been fully completed
  • substantial class or homework (including work you’ve done during remote learning)
  • any tests you’ve taken in class
  • any mock exams you've taken
  • records of your capability and performance during the course in performance-based subjects like music, drama and PE
  • records of your progress and performance over the course of study
student writing exam paper

Will I have to sit exams?

Formal exams will not take place this year. However, the exam boards will be providing assessment papers that teachers may choose to use. 

This could be short papers or questions on specific topics rather than full exam papers. These will be provided to schools and colleges by the end of March.

These tests would not be taken under formal exam conditions and there are no rules on where these need to be completed. Any set questions will be marked by your teachers instead of external moderators.

Once results are published, you have the right to appeal any of your grades. Details of how the appeals process will work are available on the Department for Education website.

You also have the option to sit full exams in autumn if you’re unhappy with the grade your teacher gives you.

What will the assessment materials look like?

The exam boards have released additional assessment material for GCSE and A-levels which can be used by teachers. 

  • AQA (All Levels) - Scroll down to 'Get Assessment and Support Materials' select your level and the subject you are looking for and select 'see materials'
  • OCR (All Levels) - Select your level and subject and download the ZIP file provided.
  • Pearson Edexcel (All levels) - Select your level and then subject underneath the header "Summer 2021 assessment materials for students" Then simply open up the tab called 'Summer 2021 assessment materials for students'
  • Eduqas (All levels) - Select your subject, then click the tab resources and finally the Summer 21 Assessment Materials tab that will appear below.

It’s worth noting that the use of these assessment materials is optional, so your teacher might not use them or might alter them to suit their own plans, so memorising all of the questions is not an advisable way to prepare for your assessments. We advise using them in the same way you’d use past papers to revise for exams. 

For more advice and discussion about these assessment materials visit our thread here.

Why has this system been chosen?

Exam regulator Ofqual ran a public consultation to help it plan how to manage the cancellation of this year’s exams. It says there were more than 100,000 responses, with more than 50% of those from students.

Ofqual’s interim chief regulator Simon Lebus said: “In normal years, we rely on exams to support students’ progression.

“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.

"The aim is to make it no harder overall for this year’s students to receive a particular grade than students in other years.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Young people have shown incredible resilience over the last year, continuing with their learning amidst unprecedented challenges while the country battles with this pandemic. Those efforts deserve to be fairly rewarded.

“That’s why we are providing the fairest possible system for those 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.”

When will my teacher decide my grade?

Teachers need to submit your grades to the exam boards by 18 June. 

Before that they will need to go through an internal process to make sure they’re meeting the requirements of the exam boards and awarding grades consistently. Every school and college will have their own schedule for this but it should be as close to that 18 June date as possible.

In an article explaining the arrangements for 2021, Ofqual’s chief regulator Simon Rebus wrote:

“The arrangements for this year are designed so that teaching and learning can continue for as long as possible, so your teachers’ judgement of your work should take place as late in the academic year as is practical.”

Teacher looking at calculations on a blackboard

What’s happened to the algorithm and how will moderation work without it?

When teachers provided grades in place of last year’s exams they were moderated by an external algorithm. There’s no algorithm this year. Instead, schools will carry out their own internal moderation processes which will be signed-off by the exam boards.

According to the government guidance:
“Exam boards will publish requirements for schools’ and colleges’ quality assurance processes. Exam boards will review all schools’ and colleges’ quality assurance processes before they submit grades.”

On top of approving the moderation processes for all schools and colleges, exam boards will also be doing random checks. 

The guidance says: 

“As well as the checks of schools’ and colleges’ quality assurance processes, exam boards will complete checks of the evidence for a sample of student grades in a sample of subjects, in a sample of schools and colleges over June and July.”

Can I appeal my grades?

Every student will have the right to appeal their grades if they want to.

Before submitting your grade to the exam board your teacher will let you know what evidence they are using. At this point you will be able to confirm that it is your work and make your teacher aware of any issues you feel should be taken into account.

Once you’ve received your results, you can appeal to your school or college if you want to. They will first check whether any mistakes were made in submitting the grade. If an error is found, schools and colleges can submit a revised grade to the exam board.

If you still want to appeal your grade, your school or college will submit a formal appeal to the exam board for you. The exam board will review the school or college’s marking process and the evidence submitted to determine whether your grade is reasonable and justified. If the exam board finds that your grade is not reasonable, they will decide an alternative grade for you and inform your school or college. 

Grades can go up or down as the result of an appeal.

More detailed guidance on appeals can be found here.

Will these changes affect my university application?

A-level results day has been brought forward to 10 August to allow time for any appeals to take place. Appeals for students waiting on results to progress to university will be prioritised.

This plan should hopefully mean there’s as little disruption to university applications as possible.

For more about how this year's system will work for uni applicants, check out this video from our sister site The Uni Guide.

When is results day 2021?

Results day for AS and A-levels is 10 August.

Results day for GCSEs is 12 August.

What’s happening with Btecs?

Btec students will also receive teacher-assessed grades this year and can expect results during the same week as A-level and GCSE candidates.

The exception to this is Btec students doing occupational training whose qualification includes a License to Practice, where assessments are the only practical way of checking skills. These assessments will continue as long as they can be carried out in safe conditions. They may be adapted to allow for social distancing or be done remotely.

Ofqual have created a qualification explainer tool where you can check what the plans are for assessment of your specific qualifications, which you can find here.

Further info: how your Btec and other vocational and technical qualification grades will be decided this year

A classroom full of empty desks

Will exams be cancelled in 2022?

The government hasn't made a decision regarding next year’s exams yet but it’s possible that they may not be back to normal.

Schools minister Nick Gibb was asked this question in an interview at the end of February. He told BBC Breakfast:

“It’s an issue we are addressing. We know that the current Year 10s and current Year 12s have also had disruption to their education.

“For this current year we thought that we would be able to hold exams, if you think back to the autumn the plan was to have exams in 2021 and we had put in place measures to make those exams fairer given the disruption.

“So we are working now on what decisions we will take for 2022 because we know there has been disruption.

“But we will have more to say on that later in the year.”

Exam changes around the UK


In Scotland, final grades for National 5, Higher and Advanced courses will also be decided by teachers who will use students’ classwork and tests as evidence to determine estimated grades. 

Like in England, schools and colleges will perform internal moderation with a later deadline of 25 June for submitting grades to the exam board. 

Students will be able to appeal their grades but this process for this is yet to be announced.

Latest news on exam changes from SQA


In Wales, GCSE, AS and A level grades will also be decided by teachers, based on a range of evidence including classwork, coursework, mocks and classwork. The WJEC will provide adapted past papers that can also be used for assessments but there will be no formal exams. 

Grading guides and assessment materials will be provided to schools and colleges in mid-March. The window for teachers to submit grades is 14 June to 2 July. 

Schools and colleges will moderate internally and students can appeal to their school or college if they’re unhappy with their grades.

Information on exam changes from the Welsh government

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland will also be using teacher assessed grades for GCSEs, AS and A-levels. The CCEA will be providing optional assessment materials and asking teachers to draw on a range of evidence from across each course. 

Teachers will be expected to submit grades towards the end of May. Exact dates and full guidance documents are yet to be published, but will be updated here. 

Latest news from the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment


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