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Coverage of this briefing

This briefing looks at the awarding of qualifications in summer 2021, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. It mostly covers England, but has some information on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It also provides background information on qualification awarding in the summer of 2020.

Cancellation of exams in 2021

The Government has announced that GCSE, AS and A Level exams won’t go ahead in England in summer 2021. Prior to the announcement of the spring 2021 restrictions on school and college attendance, the Government had planned for exams to take place, albeit with most slightly delayed. Exams in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the summer of 2021 have also been cancelled.

Some students were due to take vocational exams and assessments – for example, BTECs – at the beginning of the spring 2021 term. The DfE confirmed that these could go ahead where schools or colleges judged this to be in students’ best interests.

How will students get their grades?

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) and exam regulator, Ofqual, are consulting on their proposals for an alternative system of awarding grades for both vocational and general qualifications. The consultation runs until 29 January 2021.

For GCSEs, AS and A Level, the proposals would mean:

  • Teachers and lecturers making judgements on attainment, potentially using assessment papers provided by exam boards.
  • All students having a right of appeal.
  • No universal statistical adjustment process or ‘algorithm’, unlike the original system put in place for summer 2020.

Proposed arrangements for vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) depend on the nature of the qualification:

  • Some would be awarded on a similar basis to GCSEs and A Levels.
  • In cases where occupational competency is assessed, or where the award serves as a license to practice, assessments should continue where possible, or be delayed if not.

Similar alternative arrangements are also being developed to award students undertaking qualifications regulated by Ofqual’s equivalent bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Awarding in summer 2020

When exams were cancelled in summer 2020, all UK nations planned to use centre assessment followed by statistical adjustment to issue grades. However, this approach proved highly controversial, with reports that some students had been “downgraded”. In England, nearly all Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) that were changed were adjusted downwards. More CAGs were adjusted down in FE colleges and least in independent schools. The final results showed an increase in top grades at A level and GCSE, particularly in independent and grammar schools. The smallest increases in top grades were in FE colleges.

Students in all four UK nations eventually received calculated grades based on teacher and lecturer judgements, or a statistically adjusted grade, if higher.


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