What happens if pupils can’t attend exams owing to illness? 

Across the UK, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) sets rules and guidance for exam boards on access arrangements, reasonable adjustments and what’s known as ‘special consideration’.

Special consideration is an adjustment to a student’s mark in recognition of exceptional circumstances affecting them at the time of the examination. There are different types of special consideration. For example, if students sit all their exams but their performance is affected by temporary illness, then they may be awarded a small number of additional marks to reflect this. Where a candidate misses one of multiple papers for the same subject, a candidate could be awarded a grade based on the papers that were completed. Schools and colleges have to apply for special consideration. 

The JCQ guidance for 2022/23 says the special consideration process cannot be used where a student has missed all assessments, nor where performance has been affected by “long term illness or other difficulties during the course affecting revision time, unless the illness or circumstances exacerbate what would otherwise be a minor issue at the time of the assessment”. (p4)

Where special consideration cannot be used, a candidate may be awarded a certificate of recognition, but this is not a qualification certificate. 

 The JCQ guidance for 2022/23 says

Special consideration can go some way to assist a candidate affected by a potentially wide range of difficulties, emotional or physical, which may influence performance in their examinations. It cannot remove the difficulty faced by the candidate. This means that there will be some situations where candidates should not be entered for an examination. This is because only minor adjustments can be made to the mark awarded. To make larger adjustments would jeopardize the standard of the examination. 

How were grades awarded during 2020 and 2021? 

GCSE, A Level and equivalent examinations were cancelled in 2020 and 2021. Instead, grades for all students were based on assessments made by their schools, colleges, teachers and lecturers. 

In 2020, the original intention had been to apply a computerised post-hoc adjustment to ‘centre assessed’ grades generated by schools and colleges themselves, which in turn were based on work completed to date by students. However, this element was scrapped, following concerns and complaints when original A Level grades were issued in England. In the event, GCSE and A Level students could keep whichever grades were higher – the original CAGs or the ones post-algorithm. 2021 saw grades issued based on teacher and lecturer assesment; this time an algorithm was not used at all. 

Recent parliamentary question about centre assessed grades

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March 2023, Caroline Ansell spoke about the issue of young people unable to attend exams such as GCSEs and A Levels, owing to serious illness:

In response, Mr Sunak said:

May I start by sending my best wishes to Lara and thanking my hon. Friend for raising her case in Parliament? Of course, it is incredibly upsetting and challenging for children and young people to be diagnosed with a serious illness, especially so close to their exams. There are allowances that are made, and in the first instance students will speak to their school or college to make those reasonable adjustments, but I will be happy to ensure that we work with my hon. Friend to find a resolution in Lara’s case.

Calls for changes for pupils with serious illnesses

Given the fact that grades were awarded without examinations in 2020 and 2021, there have been renewed calls for more flexible approaches to grading in individual situations where pupils can’t sit exams for medical or other serious personal or family reasons.  

petition launched in 2022 on the change.org website by parent, Emma Sanderson, called for exam boards to award “fair teacher assessed grades as they did throughout covid”. It attracted over 200,000 signatures.

An article in the journal, Schools Week, of 24 June 2023, discusses the petition, and the wider issue of awarding grades to pupils with serious illnesses. 

more recent petition was launched in spring 2023 by school student, James Jewell, who argues: 

There are arrangements for exam boards to make special arrangements for students affected by illness, injury, or other events outside of their control, but we do not think these go far enough.

During the pandemic Centre Assessed Grades were used to give students grades based on their previous work, so there is already an established process for granting grades where it is not possible for a student to sit exams.

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