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

close up of student writing an exam

Here’s how this year’s school closures might affect next year’s exams

Schools have been closed since March to help slow the spread of coronavirus, and plenty of Year 10 and Year 12 TSR members who are sitting their GCSE and A-level exams next year have been wondering how this will affect the 2021 exam season.

“Everyone is very focused on the people that were supposed to do exams this year, which is fair. But also we now have to teach ourselves… which I think puts us at a disadvantage for next year,” commented ashleyyy.x.

The good news is that you haven’t just been forgotten – the exams regulator, Ofqual, has said that it is “working closely with the Department for Education (DfE), exam boards and groups representing teachers, schools, colleges and students, to carefully consider a range of possible measures,” and it will be publishing its proposals before the end of summer term.

Here’s everything that the government and the regulator has said so far about the 2021 exams. We’ll keep updating the article as more information is released. 

student writing exam paper

Why would the 2021 GCSE and A-level exams be affected by school closures in 2020?

The school closures mean that students in Year 10 and Year 12, who will be sitting their GCSE and A-level exams next year, have missed out on months of teaching time. Although some students will have managed to keep up their remote learning and may have had lots of support from their school, this won’t be the case for many others.

At the end of April, Ofsted warned that school closures will widen the attainment gap between students, and in May a survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that “school closures are almost certain to increase educational inequalities”.

On 8 June, the DfE released a statement that said: “we recognise that students who are due to take exams in 2021 will have experienced disruption to their education this year and we are committed to ensuring they are not disadvantaged.

“We expect exams to take place next year and are working with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach.”

More like this: what kind of support should you expect now that schools have reopened to some students?

stack of exam papers

Will students be getting calculated grades in 2021 instead of having to sit exams?

No. Assuming that we’re not in lockdown, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said that GCSE and A-level exams will be going ahead in 2021.

When will the 2021 GCSE and A-level exams be held?

GCSE and A-level exams are usually held between mid-May and mid-June – but in 2021, they might happen later than usual to give students a bit more teaching time.

At the time of writing, nothing has been decided and no dates announced but on 22 June, Williamson said he is in talks with the exams regulator Ofqual to decide whether delaying the 2021 exams would be a possibility, to allow students “extra time in order to be able to learn and really flourish”.

If the exams are delayed, would that have an impact on 2021/22 university admissions?

Some students have been wondering if a delayed exam season would mean that A-level results day 2021 would have to be later than usual, in turn possibly affecting 2021/22 university admissions.

As of 24 June, the government has not yet made any announcements about how far back exam season would be pushed and whether this would significantly change results day. We will update when we have more information.

students in exam hall

How will the 2021 exams be different from previous years?

As well as considering later exams to allow students more teaching time, Ofqual has also reportedly been looking at other ways it could adjust next year’s A-level and GCSE exams to take into account the disruption caused by coronavirus this year.

Shortened papers and open-book exams are two of the other possibilities being discussed, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton has said.

Will there be any difference in the way the 2021 exams are marked?

The DfE and Ofqual have not spoken about any plans to mark exams in 2021 differently than in previous years.

Will schools definitely have reopened by September?

The government has always said that schools will be fully reopened by September, and on 23 June, Boris Johnson again confirmed that “primary and secondary education will recommence in September with full attendance” and that “it is our intention to get not just schools but FE colleges back as well in September”.

Johnson made his comments at the same time as announcing that the distance that needs to be maintained between two people will be reduced from two metres to one metre from 4 July.  

Teaching unions have been critical of the government’s plans to fully reopen schools by September. Geoff Barton said that it was “pure fantasy” to think that reducing the social distancing rule would mean everyone can return to school in September.

“We need a proper strategy to bring [students] back into schools and colleges based in reality and on public health guidance,” he commented.

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