News & Reports

Dave Mellor, Deputy Director of Assessment at AlphaPlus, shares his thoughts on the proposed autumn exam series for GCSEs and A-levels.

Covid-19 has meant that GCSE and A-level assessments have been cancelled this summer. Instead, teachers are estimating grades for their students and exam boards will moderate those grades to bring them into line with the national standard.  This will allow the vast majority of students to be issued with calculated grades to progress to the next stage of education or employment.

The Secretary of State for Education announced this to the House of Commons on 18 March, along with the news that an autumn exam series would be made available to those students who were unhappy with their grades from this summer.

The Ofqual consultation has closed on the delivery of an autumn exam series for those students who are unhappy with their summer grades.  Ofqual will now review the feedback from this consultation and decide whether to allow or require exam boards to offer an autumn series of exams or if just the GCSE English and maths exams should go ahead as usual.

There is an interesting change in emphasis between the original Ofqual consultation [1] on how to deal with the cancellation of this summer’s exams and the latest consultation about an autumn series [2].  In the original consultation, Ofqual cast some doubt about the value and deliverability of an autumn exam series, stating:

“We are mindful that the autumn series will likely take place during the first term for a new cohort of students – who might have been away from school for a prolonged period – when teaching resources will be stretched. In these circumstances it might be beneficial to the system as a whole to allow exam boards to reduce the number of exams taking place, and the consequent impact on teachers who are also assessors, even if this does detrimentally affect some students.”

This seems not to be the position in the latest consultation, and in fact DfE have posted guidance to centres [3] announcing that students should sit the autumn exams in the centre they were due to take them in in the summer.  This appears to pre-empt the outcome of the Ofqual consultation. 

So what difference will an autumn exam make to students?

There will be a number of students who are unhappy with their results this summer, as there are every year.  Offering them an opportunity to take the exams in the autumn may seem superficially attractive, as it will allow them to show what they can really do and potentially improve their grades. However there are some fundamental problems with this approach. 

Those who have achieved the grades they needed to progress but are still disappointed

If the student has achieved the grades they need to progress to their desired next step in education or employment, then why would they want to improve their results by sitting exams in the autumn?  Whilst a student might be disappointed with their grades, would an improved grade really make a difference?  GCSE and A-level grades seem really important when you take them but in reality, they are a stepping stone to further study or work. Unless the qualification is needed to meet a set requirement, simply sitting exams in the autumn to improve grades is not likely to be as beneficial as focussing efforts on the new course of study or work. 

Even if a student wants to improve their grade, how likely are they to be successful?  They will not have been in face to face education studying the qualifications they intend to sit for more than 6 months.  They will not have had that period of intensive revision and consolidation of learning that takes place in schools and colleges in the final months of their course. In many cases once students realised there would be no exams, they downed tools.  Schools may well have focussed their efforts on those students who continue to be in education and working for exams in 2021 and thereafter.  Realistically, it seems unlikely that a student will improve their grade without it being at the expense of their new course of study or work.

Those who have not achieved the grades they needed to progress

For students who do not achieve the grades they need to follow their desired course of action, there is a major problem in taking exams in the autumn.  Results from the autumn exams will not be released until December for A-levels and February for GCSEs.  This means that any student relying on these grades for a university course or an apprenticeship that starts in September would almost certainly not be able to use them for entry this year, and would effectively have to take a year out. 

For students looking to move on to a path without time constraints, such as into employment, it is possible that the autumn exam series may open doors for them earlier than if they sat the exams in summer 2021.  At GCSE, the number of students this applies to is negligible as students have to be in education or employment with training until they are 17 years old.  For A-levels, the majority of students who take them go on to Higher Education, but it is likely that an autumn series would allow a larger proportion of A level students than GCSE students to begin employment in their chosen career earlier than if they sat the exams in summer 2021.  The numbers of students that this will apply to is unknown as it will only affect those who are unhappy with their grades, are not going immediately into HE or employment and who improve those grades in the autumn.  In reality this is likely to be a small proportion of A-level students.

Private candidates without a calculated grade

For private candidates (those not taught in schools and colleges) who are unable to obtain a calculated grade this summer, the autumn exam series will allow them to achieve grades for further progression.  However, as for those students who are unhappy with their results, they are unlikely to be able to access courses of study or work with training for this academic year.  Again, they will be locked into a course of action that they will find hard to change even with their newly issued results.

GCSE maths and English

I believe that GCSE maths and English are different to most qualifications because of the importance placed upon them.  There is an opportunity to sit exams in November every year to allow students a chance to improve their grades; if they reach grade 4 or above, they can then focus their studies on other qualifications.  This is because of the DfE policy that requires students to obtain at least a grade 4 in these subjects if they are continuing to study and – more fundamentally – they are qualifications which are often looked for throughout someone’s education and working life. 

What will be the impact on the education system of delivering the exams?

Exam boards

The most obvious impact is on the boards who will have to set and mark these exams.  The logistics of organising a full exam series are huge.  They will need to recruit examiners, many of whom are teachers and who are unlikely to be available, and plan and deliver a full suite of exams.  This is not only time consuming but also costly.  The boards are very unlikely to recoup the costs of this work as the entries for most subjects are not likely to be sufficient to cover the fixed costs of running them, even if they repurpose the papers from this summer’s exams.  However, it is the boards’ business to run exams, and they should be and do appear to be prepared to do so, if it is for the good of the students.

Schools and colleges

The burden on schools and colleges is perhaps less obvious but would be significant.  There may be pressure applied to schools and colleges to support teaching and learning for students for the autumn exam series, but this is just not feasible for most.  Even in a normal year, it would be hard for most schools and colleges to provide support for students with revision sessions as the teachers would be teaching current students.  Given the uncertainty that schools and colleges face this autumn, it is almost certain that students will be on their own with their revision studies.

Even assuming there is no pressure on schools and colleges to support students, they will need to plan for the exams and make arrangements for an unknown number of students to potentially sit all the exams the school offers, in what will already be a very difficult term.  The focus of schools and teachers will, and in my opinion should, be on those students still in schools who are preparing for examinations in 2021 and thereafter, so as they can make up the lost ground caused by an extensive period of remote learning.  Just finding space for students to sit the exams when there are no students on study leave may well be very difficult for some schools and colleges and additional staff will need to be recruited and trained to manage making entries for students who have left school or college and organise and deliver the exams in a busy teaching term.  This all carries cost and risk for the schools and colleges.

It is unclear whether conditions in the autumn will allow schools to even admit outsiders (as these ex-students will now be in the case of all 11-16 schools) because of potential social distancing, site security or other measures. The proposed autumn exam series risks promising something which cannot then be delivered by schools, if for example the school is closed because of a coronavirus outbreak or if there are wider measures still in place which restrict access to schools.  This will create a false hope for some students which may well be worse than the certainty that if they wish to sit the exams they will have to wait until summer 2021.

Maintaining standards

It is unlikely that students will perform in the autumn series at a level that they would have done in a summer exam series unaffected by coronavirus.  Without the extensive teaching and support through targeted revision and exam preparation usually provided by schools and colleges, most students will not be sufficiently prepared and are likely to perform at a level below their capability.  This causes significant difficulties for Ofqual and exam boards in maintaining standards. 

Ofqual use a mechanism called comparable outcomes to maintain standards over time.  This assumes that if the national cohort of students taking the exams are the same ability this year as last, then the exam results will be the same nationally.  Any changes in ability of the students can be factored in using changes in key stage 2 performance for the cohort for GCSE subjects (or GCSE performance for A-level).  For large subjects such as GCSE English and maths, the cohort ability is relatively stable, but for smaller subjects it changes and therefore so do the results.

The problem for an autumn exam series is that the cohort of students sitting the autumn exams will almost certainly be unrepresentative of the cohort that would have taken them for the summer, as they will only be those students disappointed in their grade.  The level of preparation for these students will almost certainly be less than is typical, as schools and colleges are very unlikely to be teaching them for these autumn exams and students will have missed out on significant teaching and revision in the spring and summer terms.  Therefore it is likely that overall the students sitting the exams in the autumn will perform less well in absolute terms than the overall cohort had the summer exams taken place.

If comparable outcomes are used, pass marks on the papers may need to be very low to achieve the required numbers of students at each grade.  This likely effect of this would mean that students would achieve a grade with a much lower absolute performance in the autumn exams than those students who sat the exams in previous years, or who would sit them next year.  This approach would be inherently unfair on all students who did not take an autumn exam as the schools will have judged their grades against the historic requirements to achieve particular grades.

The use of comparable outcomes does not seem tenable, but it is hard to identify another approach that would maintain the grading standards for the autumn series, save using grade boundaries from last summer which may be problematic.  Whilst the boards try to maintain the demand of the papers from year to year there are inevitably some papers which are slightly harder or easier.  This is why the grade boundaries are set once the papers are sat.  If the grade boundaries from summer 2019 were used, then there is a risk that for some subjects the standards would not be maintained and that some students would be either advantaged, if the papers were slightly easier, or disadvantaged, if the papers were harder.

Valid outcomes

For me though, one of the most significant impact of the autumn series is on the validity[4] of the assessment in a number of subjects with practical or performance assessments.  These are normally assessed through non exam assessment (NEA) which is supervised by teachers and often marked by teachers and moderated by the boards.  NEA only exists where key parts of the curriculum cannot be assessed using an exam.  For some subjects this is such a fundamental part of the qualification, it would be hard to argue that any assessment which excludes NEA would be a valid assessment of the subject.  Subjects in this category include design and technology, food and nutrition, music, dance and drama where 40-60% of the marks are for NEA. 

In their consultation Ofqual have rightly pointed out the difficulties in assessing NEA in the autumn series.  The work produced for summer 2020 assessment was – to varying degrees – incomplete and using this for the autumn would be unfair to those students who had completed less work.  It is not possible to set, supervise, mark and moderate new NEA in the short time allowed for an autumn series, even if schools had the teachers and resources to manage its completion and mark it, so the proposal is that the grades for these subjects will be issued on the basis of the exams only.

It is hard to see how the grade for, say, GCSE music, awarded for only the theory paper and not taking into account the performance and composition, is a fair or valid reflection of the student’s ability.  By issuing results on the basis of the written exam alone, it will change the rank order and some students will achieve much higher grades and others much lower than if the full range of content was assessed.

Whilst this may seem a little academic, it has significant repercussions for how the outcomes of these assessments are used.  With a little work I could pass GCSE music if it was an assessment by written exam alone and yet I play no instrument and have very limited musical ability.  It does not seem fair to all those students who do have an ability in music that I should receive a grade based on only a proportion of the content of the course.  The grades issued on the basis of the written exam alone will be indistinguishable from those issued in other years and therefore the users of these qualifications such as colleges, universities and employers will be making decisions on suitability for further study and work based on a very distorted picture of the students abilities.  There is therefore a significant risk that this undermines confidence in the grades awarded, and in the qualifications overall, if the outcomes are not a fair reflection of the students’ abilities.

Given this, it is hard to see how assessment of subjects with a significant proportion of NEA can be successfully completed this autumn, though it also seems unfair that students wishing to take those qualifications with significant NEA will have to wait until summer 2021 when all other subjects can be sat in the autumn.

Why have an autumn exam series?

If for the majority of students it is unlikely to change the course of action available to them, then why go ahead with the autumn exam series?

One reason is that the Secretary of State for Education has instructed Ofqual to do so.  Whilst Ofqual are answerable to parliament, not the secretary of State for Education, there is facility for the Secretary of State, which he has used, to instruct Ofqual to deliver an exam series in the autumn under section 129(6) of the apprenticeships, skills children and learning act 2009 [5].

Another possible reason for the autumn exam series is that, for a small number of candidates who were not planning to use the outcome of the exams to progress to further study or work at the start of the academic year, they will sit their exams closer to their original timeframe and could still achieve grades for use later on.

For those private candidates who will not be awarded a grade this summer (Ofqual has estimated there are 10,000 private candidates sitting various exams, around half of whom it is likely will not receive a grade), they may be able to achieve closure earlier than waiting for summer 2021.

So what is the answer?

As with all things related to the impact of this global pandemic, there is no simple solution.  If you have an autumn exam series, it may allow a small number of students to progress that would not otherwise have been able to do so before the summer 2021 exam outcomes.  This is particularly true of A-levels.  However there are significant issues in offering and successfully awarding exam results that are fair and valid that do not seem possible to overcome.  Also the impact on the system of running an autumn exam series is significant and the delivery of the series could even be at the expense of those students continuing in education and working for exams in 2021 and thereafter.

My personal feeling, as the parent of a 16-year-old who is impacted by all of these issues, is that there should not be an autumn exam series.  The risks and impact on the system outweigh any potential benefits.  My advice to my daughter will be that she will get the grades she gets from the calculation process this summer, which is as fair as it can be.  Hopefully they will enable her to progress as she has planned to the next stage of her education but if this is not the case then she needs to put it behind her.  She needs to focus on a course of action for next year that will help her achieve her desired course of study for the year after.  Taking a year off whilst she sits exams in the autumn is not an option and is a high risk strategy as she may not improve her grades anyway and legally she should be in education or employment with training anyway.  It is far better that she follows a different course and use this to progress in 12 months time.

Even for A-levels, though the circumstances are different, I would still not support an autumn exam series.  I believe the negative impact on the education system and all the students in it and the challenge of delivering valid assessments and results are greater than the potential benefits for a relatively small number of students.  


[1] Ofqual consultation on exceptional arrangements for assessment and grading in 2020.

[2] Ofqual consultation on autumn exam series.

[3] DfE Guidance to centres on autumn exam series

[4] Validity of an assessment can be defined in a number of ways but key aspects of validity are that the assessment measures what is important in a subject and the results of the assessment are such that better students at what is important in a subject get higher marks and hence higher grades. 

[5] Letter from Secretary of State for Education to Ofqual