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Changes to GCSE and A-Level Exams 2021: What does the OFQUAL announcement really mean for students?


OFQUAL announces 2021 exam modifications

Yesterday we were finally able to see how the impact of lockdown will change the curriculum for GCSE and A-level students in 2021. Many of us imagined delayed exams, changes to topics covered and even, perhaps, a return to teacher-assessed coursework. Whilst the learning gap caused by lockdown is undeniable, such huge changes in such a short amount of time would have only created more uncertainty and extra work for teachers already stretched to the limit. Instead we have a moderate and fairly hands-off announcement from OFQUAL about what we can expect from September.


Here are the key points summarised from the official consultation document:


Concern: There were a number of concerns raised about the potential issues faced by students and teachers in preparing for the summer exams in 2021. Most significant is the depth and breadth of the content still left to cover for GCSE subjects including English Literature and History. Whilst it's easy to jump to solutions such as cutting topics and texts or changing exam formats, the work already put in by students means that they risk becoming demotivated when their hard work is seemingly rendered redundant. Also, with less detail included within these subjects, students face problems when moving into higher study.


Change: History, Geography and Ancient History

  • Choice of topics to cover to reduce the content required for exams at GCSE.

  • No longer a requirement for fieldwork in Geography at GCSE and A-level.

Geography and History face content changes

Change: GCSE English Literature

  • For 2021 only - students will only be examined on a Shakespeare play and two of the three texts (poetry, 19th century novel, British fiction/drama post 1914). This means that one of the texts will no longer be assessed, but this is the individual school's choice.

A Shakespeare play is the only compulsory text for English Literature in 2021

The above changes to content are the only subjects to be altered in this way. A-level subjects will not be changed in terms of content, with only adjustments to exam procedure as necessary for health and safety reasons and in line with government advice. The other consideration concerning exam format and scheduling was considered, but ultimately OFQUAL have decided not to amend the format of the exams or the number of papers/timings of these.


The summer timetabling of the exams has not yet been confirmed but the document makes it seem unlikely that the exams will be moved later in the year. There are some more minor alterations to other GCSE subjects which I will now explain, but the exhaustive list, which includes details on A-level alterations, is available here.


Change: English Language

  • No longer necessary to record the speaking and listening assessment.

Change: Sciences

  • Practical demonstrations can be viewed in class or remotely, removing the necessity for students to directly participate in experiments.

Change: Art and Design

  • Assessment is only through portfolio to reduce workload and pressure on other subjects as a result.

Change: Design and Technology

  • No longer need to create a functioning prototype

Change: Modern Foreign Languages

  • Formal spoken assessment has been replaced with a casual speaking assessment.

Change: PE

  • Only 2 sporting activities required and both can be individual.

  • Remote moderation of video evidence.

Practical subjects such as dance, drama and film have slight changes in terms of evidence accepted for assessment and alterations to the group performance elements making it more flexible.


Is this enough?

It was always going to be difficult to balance the response to lockdown with the need to maintain standardised, national examinations and as a result there will be casualties in terms of access and equality. Despite the difficulties faced by students without internet connections, students with additional learning requirements, those from areas of economic hardship and even students required to shield or act as caregivers, there is currently no way of making up for the gap created as a result. The National Tutoring Programme offers a small measure to begin closing the gap, but despite the introduction of this initiative as well as exam modifications, the education system for many children in the UK has become that bit more unobtainable.