GCSE and A Level Exams: Your Questions Answered

studying for the GCSE exams

We examine A level, GCSE and Btec results in England for the 2019/20 academic year and their impact.   

 
Bright Heart

Bright Heart

We consider questions about the exam results in 2020 and consequences for 2021 exams.

GCSE and A-level Exams: Your Questions Answered

All aspects of our lives under the COVID-19 pandemic have been marked by uncertainty. Education has been hit particularly hard.  School closures have had detrimental effects on learning and mental health for most families in England. The recent announcement of exam results was no smoother. In this blog, we discuss A level, GCSE and Btec results in England for the 2019/20 academic year. This is of particular importance for A Level students, as their university places depend on their grades (UCAS points).

studying for the GCSE exams
It has not been an easy time for students, especially those who were preparing for a final exam.

What role does Ofqual play in regulating grades and why do they intervene?

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England.  They designed a system to regulate teachers’ predicted grades under the premise that teachers tend to overestimate performance. Grades are also meant to be consistent with previous years’ data.   

It is human nature to be optimistic about student progress. Teachers expect their students’ results to improve by the end of each school year when working under normal conditions. However, research shows that teachers’ predictions are usually generous. A recent analysis of schools’ predicted GCSE grades by FFT Education Datalab found that the average grade predicted by teachers in England in 2020 was higher than the average grade in 2019 in every subject.  Last year, only 20% of students applying to university met or exceeded their predicted grades.

Ofqual’s algorithm used a three-prong system. It included historic results of pupils at each school, prior student attainment, and statistical expectations of grades for each subject. The objective was to ensure that results were in line with those from the previous year.

Why were the initial results so controversial?

Controversy arose well before A level results were issued in England on Thursday, 13th August. The Scottish precedent, using the same regulatory framework as in England, featured a deluge of complaints from students, parents, teachers and head teachers. This prompted a government retraction with Nicola Sturgeon apologising to thousands of students and promising to amend grades to reflect teacher predictions.

In England, as expected, there was a similar reaction.  Many students were disheartened to find that 39% of predicted grades had been lowered, some by more than one grade.

Parents and students complained that the system did not do justice to the efforts of many who had worked hard throughout the year, but had been deprived of formal education during lockdown.   They claimed that many brilliant students would see their grades lowered simply because they came from poorly performing schools, against the better judgement of their teachers. This was called a ‘postcode lottery’. It raised the question, should a weak student in a class, who worked hard and was expected to pass, be failed simply due to the school history?

What was the government’s response to the controversy and how did people react?

Just before the A-level results were released on Thursday, 13th August, the government made rapid changes to the grading system. This was an effort to appease potential complaints, in what they described as a ‘triple lock’. Students could opt for the highest of three different assessments: their estimated grade, the result of a mock exam (as part of an appeal), or sitting an exam in October.

This measure brought a fresh surge of vitriol.  Head teachers in England referred to this last-minute arrangement by the government  as a ‘shambles’. The move was also criticised by the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who condemned it as a ‘complete fiasco’ and asked to have it scrapped.  Critics argued that decisions should have been made and communicated in good time, mock exams are not standardised and lowering grades based on school performance is discriminatory against pupils from deprived areas.

There were many protests from students throughout the country. They deemed it unfair to have their grades brought down based on Ofqual’s algorithm and demanded a retraction like that of the Scottish government.  Many also asked for appeal fees to be waived.  However, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson initially refused to use teachers’ predicted grades as final grades in England. Boris Johnson had already stated that the system was ‘robust’ and ‘dependable’.

The government U-turn

On Monday, 17th August, the government caved in to political and student pressure. Students (A Level and GCSE) were awarded grades estimated by their teachers (Centre Assessed Grade or CAG), unless the algorithm grades were higher. Gavin Williamson said he was “incredibly sorry for the distress” caused to pupils after having to make this U-turn.

Btec results were unfortunately pulled at the last minute on the 20th of August. This was as they would also use a CAG to be in line with the GCSE and A Level adjustment.

The political fallout continued with the head of Ofqual, Sally Collier, resigning. A DfE senior civil servant, Jonathan Slater, was sacked over the ‘algorithm’.

GCSE and A Level results

For the 500,000 GCSE students, 79 % achieved a pass which is up from 70 % in 2019.  More than 27 % of students received a grade 7 or above, which is equivalent to A or A*. By comparison, 21 % of students achieved grade 7 or higher in 2019, which was the highest proportion since 2015. This means that more pupils will be eligible to study difficult subjects at A Level. A Level results can be seen below:

A Level results 2020
Comparison of A and A* for 2017 to 2020 (all ages)
A Level Results
Average number of A Levels per student, 2017 to 2020
A Level exam results infographic
Showing the relationship of this year's CAG to final grades, 2017 to 2020

What’s next for students wishing to attend university?

Once a university makes an unconditional offer it is contractually required to honour this commitment, unless the degree is cancelled.  It remains to be seen how universities will handle the surge of applicants who can now claim a place. This means some eligible students with recalculated grades will have to defer to next year. There are also many students (17 % estimated in this Guardian article) choosing to defer as they do not wish for their first year of studies to be online, leading to a possible backlog in 2021.

As an example with Cambridge University:

  • Those with a place already confirmed will be admitted.
  • Applicants who were made an offer and their CAG results meet the required conditions will be admitted.
  • Deferral to 2021 will be required for some offer holders due to limited places
  • Students who have not previously had their place confirmed and who just missed their offer based on CAGs will not be admitted.
  • If students sit examinations this autumn and gain the results required to meet the terms of their original offer, they will be admitted in 2021.

What about GCSE and A Level exam resits?

Due to the recent acceptance of CAGs for students, there is likely to be limited demand for exam resits. However, lockdown was disruptive for students and there may be some who would like to take a resit if their CAG was disappointing.

For students wishing to take ‘resit’ A-level exams, exams run from 5 October to 23 October. The deadline for entries is 4 September. Students will not have to pay for these resits and schools will be able to claim this expense from the government. These results will be announced on 17 December. Any student who is unhappy with their results may still appeal as usual. See A Level exam board timetable links below:

GCSE resits will take place from 2 November to 23 November. The deadline for entries is 4 October for English Language and Mathematics. The deadline for all other subjects is 18 September. GCSE results for English Language, Functional Skills, AQA Certificate and Level 3 Extended Project is 14 January 2021. All other GCSE exams results will be out on 11 February 2021.

For GCSE exam board timetables please see the following links:

What changes will there be for GCSEs and A Levels in 2021?

Concerns were raised about the lockdown challenges for certain students. These include students with no home access to the internet or to a computer, those with caring responsibilities, those most vulnerable to coronavirus and students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). 

In light of this, various changes have been proposed for GCSE exams for 2021. These changes are to address concerns that pupils may have missed out on learning. The changes also enable certain assessments to go ahead in a way that allows for maximum social distancing, e.g. by reducing the need for group performances. A full outline of GCSE/A Level changes can be read online here, with a subject by subject summary provided by Schools Week.

Recently, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Commons Education Select Committee, said there was only a “50:50” chance of A-level and GCSE exams taking place next summer. Labour have also raised concerns with Shadow Education Secretary saying students starting Y11 and Y13 had a “mountain to climb”. They propose that exams should be pushed back to mid-summer (late July) to allow more catch up time.

Gavin Williamson has recently said that Ofqual is working with the education sector to decide about a potential short delay to the 2021 exam timetable.

What about Btec exams?

Students began receiving their revised exam results from Pearson on 25 August. These were adjusted in line with the GCSE and A Level changes made earlier.

How can Bright Heart help?

We recognise that it has been a frustrating and anxious time for students. We are helping students with revision tutoring sessions for Btec, GCSEs and A Levels. Our tutors will do their utmost to help students taking resits get ready in time. Our tutors are also working hard to help students taking 2021 exams catch-up, following a most disruptive year. Please get in touch for your free consultation and find out how our nurturing approach could be perfect for your child.

What has been your experience with the exam results process? We would love to hear about it on our Facebook page, or feel free to get in touch directly to chat.


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Questions (FAQ) about learning, schools and exams during lockdown

GCSE and A Level exams cancelled

In part 2 of our lockdown blog series, one of our directors provides answers to some common questions.    

John Salmon director

In part 2 of this blog series I address common questions students and parents have at this time.

Questions (FAQ) about learning, schools and exams during lockdown

The unprecedented actions of the government have left parents with many unanswered questions. In this, the second blog in a 3-part series, I attempt to answer some frequently asked questions (FAQ) about the consequences of the lockdown on education in the UK.

We attempt to provide guidance on some of these questions below and seek to address concerns where possible. This is based on current government guidance about lockdown / COVID-19, although it should be noted that things may change at short notice. If anything is unclear, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me or one of Bright Heart’s other directors.

Can I still get tutoring for my child when the UK is effectively in lockdown?

Lockdown does not mean that schools have ceased to provide education to our children, as assignments are still pouring in and deadlines have to be met. Students no longer have the benefit of direct contact with teachers or peers, however.  Thus, many parents are seeking tutoring to help their families with the added pressure while still respecting the government orders of social distancing.  

Parents have a right to get some help for their children, with many tuition agencies now offering online tutoring. Some tuition agencies are still able to offer in-person tuition in limited circumstances.  Face-to-face lessons are approved by the government for students who are considered vulnerable, in situations where online tuition is not a viable option.

In this regard, the Department for Education classify the following children as vulnerable:

“Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker and those with education, health and care (EHC) plans.

Children who have a social worker include children in need, children who have a child protection plan and those who are looked after by the local authority. We will work with schools, early years, FE providers and local authorities to help identify the children who most need support at this time.”

Read more information about vulnerable children here.

Read more information about the closure of schools here.

How do I keep my child busy and still manage to work from home during lockdown?

We are sensitive to the challenges that are being faced by many parents who are trying to juggle work at home and helping children learn at the same time. To help you cope with these challenges, we have gathered a number of recommended activities and resources that address both the academic and emotional/social needs of your children, including our own top 10 recommendations, found in the first blog of this series. We have also written earlier about some fun activities for children here.

At the same time, despite the benefits of following a daily routine, child psychologists warn that parents should still leave some room for flexibility to avoid pursuing an over-controlled environment. This may lead to more stress and anxiety in children. It is therefore crucial to maintain a healthy balance, which can be achieved through the understanding of your child’s wants and needs. 

Taking some time for a break in Nature can do much to alleviate stress.

Should I give my child an extended break, now that their GCSE or A level exams have been cancelled?

This period of lockdown and school closures will have a substantial impact on children’s education, as stated by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof. Chris Whitty. While many children will celebrate this break from school and welcome respite from the anxiety of preparing for exams, the required levels of education needed for Key Stages 1 to 5 and university (Further Education), will not be changing. Parents therefore need to carefully consider the impact this 3-month period (potentially 6 months until September) will have on their children’s education.

Results will be given by the end of July, based on prior attainment such as mock exams, non-exam assessments and other criteria.  However, if students deem their grades unsatisfactory or not a true reflection of their proficiency, they may appeal and take an exam during the next academic year.  

The lockdown period may lead to a highly detrimental period of inactivity.  Keeping your children busy is crucial if they wish to retain their competitive advantage when they go back to school.

We encourage students to use this time wisely, for example, by focussing on core subjects such as Maths and English, as well as areas of improvement that are important for their future studies and / or career paths.

GCSE and A Level exams cancelled
Students and teachers will need to consider what will be the most effective path with exams being cancelled

Will a GCSE student struggle at A level in the same subject?

Most schools are in revision mode for their GCSE syllabi by the time they reach February. This means students should have covered the required material; however, the level of testing of their knowledge will only be based on internal tests and mock exams. Students and teachers use the latter to get an indication of their readiness and to see where further revision is required. This means the usually intense revision and focus, as well as the opportunity to iron out any conceptual gaps, will be left out for this cohort of students. To miss this period will put students at a disadvantage and it remains to be seen how this is accommodated at the start of A levels.

What does it mean for Y10 GCSE students?

Year 10 students cover important material from February to June (or July) so there will be a substantial impact on their education. It is likely that schools and teachers will consider this in September (Year 11) to help them catch up. However, doing no schoolwork for possibly 6 months will affect retention and practice of concepts. Work potentially provided by schools for homeschooling over this period will also need oversight by parents and / or a tutor. We would recommend that parents take a proactive approach during this time to ensure their children maintain their level of education – see our blog covering 7 homeschooling tips. Another avenue of support is through online tuition  – see more about this in part 3 of our blog series.

It is important to maintain learning and revision during the lockdown period
It is important to maintain learning and revision during the lockdown period

What will happen regarding GCSE and A level exam marks?

GCSE, A level and AS level students will be awarded a grade by Ofqual which reflects their current school performance. There will be an option to sit an exam early in the next academic year for students who are not happy with this awarded grade. The exam boards will be asking teachers, who know their students well, to submit their judgement about the grade that they believe the student would have received if exams had gone ahead.

To effect this, teachers will consider a range of evidence and data, including performance on mock exams and non-exam assessments – clear guidance on how to do this fairly and robustly will be provided to schools and colleges. The exam boards will then combine this information with other relevant data, including prior attainment, and use this information to produce a calculated grade for each student, which will be a best assessment of the work they have put in.

The plan is to provide these calculated grades to students by the end of July. In terms of a permanent record, the grades will be no different from those provided in other years. The distribution of grades will follow a similar pattern to that in other years, so that this year’s students do not face an inherent disadvantage due to the current circumstances.

For some students, producing extra course material and assignments will be better than facing the anxiety of exams. However, some schools have already started planning for a mock exam in the summer term (should schools reopen) to provide further evidence of their students’ grades. Click here for more details about grading policies.

What will happen with International Baccalaureate exams?

IB exams will be cancelled for the first time in their history. Assessment scores will be considered, using predictive analytics tools and engaging the 15,000 examiners. The IB intends to release results as planned on 5 July. All student coursework and associated predicted grades will need to be uploaded by 20 April, if not sooner, in order to guarantee delivery of results by 5 July.

For further details regarding International Baccalaureate exams please click here.

International Baccalaureate

My child is not interested in doing Maths or Science for A levels – is there still a need to get to grips with the rest of the GCSE curriculum, now that a guaranteed grade is being offered?

Most schools would have covered the GCSE curriculum, so they should not be covering any new content by February of this academic year. However, students who know already that they would like to do a numerical or scientific related discipline at university should take stock of any concepts that they did find tricky. This may mean doing some revision during the lockdown period. For many students who did not enjoy these subjects, this will be a welcome relief. 

exam revision
Students will need to take stock of possible gaps and how this could affect their education journey.

Is there any news from universities?

University representatives have confirmed that they expect universities to be flexible and do all they can to support students and ensure they can progress to higher education. In general, the government’s stance is to ensure affected students can move on as planned to the next stage of their lives, including going into employment, starting university, college or sixth form courses, or an apprenticeship in the autumn.

However, we do advise those students who have chosen their university course to examine the module requirements if they did not complete their A level syllabus in the associated discipline.

Cambridge University
Cambridge University is working to better understand the effects of exam cancellations on new applicants.

Should I still be sending my child with an EHC Plan to school during this period?

Children with education, health and care (EHC) plans, along with those who have a social worker, are classed as vulnerable (up to the age of 25).

Those with an EHC plan should be risk-assessed by their school or college in consultation with the local authority (LA) and parents. This is to determine whether they need to continue to be offered a school or college place to meet their needs, or whether they can safely have their needs met at home. This could include, if necessary, carers, therapists or clinicians visiting the home to provide any essential services. Many children and young people with EHC plans can safely remain at home.

Where parents are concerned about the risk of their child contracting COVID-19, the school or social worker should talk through these anxieties with the parent, following the advice set out by Public Health England.

Local authorities will work with trusts and education settings to ensure that settings are kept open, but in some cases this will not be possible. Local authorities and education settings will make the most appropriate arrangements and talk to parents about this. It may not always be possible for children to attend their usual setting in order to ensure that children and staff are kept safe.

How many hours a day should my child devote to academic activities until he or she goes back to school?

We are the first to recognise that each child has a unique learning style and will therefore devote a different number of hours to any given task.  There are, however, some general guidelines that can be followed, based on my own experience and various other experts:  

2-3 hours a day for EYFS and Key Stage 1

3-4 hours a day for Key Stages 2 and 3

5-8 hours a day for Key Stages 4 and 5

homeschooled boy
Homeschooling can be more effective than school contact time with the right support.

When do schools go back?

The short answer is that no clear date has been set and predicting one would be pure speculation on my part.

There was speculation in the Sunday Times (19 April) that senior ministers had drawn up a three-phase plan to lift the coronavirus lockdown that would see schools reopen as early as May 11. It was suggested that the first pupils invited back would include primary school children and those in years 10 and 12 who are due to sit GCSEs and A levels next year. However, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, issued a statement shortly thereafter that he could not give a date for when schools will reopen.

The Department for Education (DfE) published a blog on 21 April addressing the question, entitled Schools reopening conditions. It explains that the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), sent a letter to the Secretary of State setting out five conditions to be met before schools should reopen – including social distancing guidelines, access to PPE /  employment protections for teachers and a recognition of the “depleted” teacher workforce.

The DfE has also reiterated its position in the blog about the matter:

“Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has not set a date for schools reopening.

They will remain closed, except for children of critical workers and the most vulnerable children until the scientific advice changes, and we have met the five tests set out by Government to beat this virus.

We will work in close consultation with the sector to consider how best to reopen schools, nurseries and colleges when the time is right so that parents, teachers and children have sufficient notice to plan and prepare.”

With regards to the five tests that need to be passed in order to avoid a second peak of COVID-19, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has summarised them in the following manner: ‘First, that the NHS can continue to cope, second, that the operational challenges can be met, third, that the daily death rate falls sustainably and consistently, fourth, that the rate of infection is decreasing, and most importantly, that there is no risk of a second peak.’

Thus, reopening schools will be a slow and challenging process for all parties involved, under the principle that safety must come first.

What is Bright Heart doing to help during lockdown?

At Bright Heart, we have been closely monitoring developments with respect to the coronavirus (COVID-19) in order to keep our tutors, clients and students safe and well informed.

Our policy since early March has been to encourage the adoption of online tuition to ensure that our student’s one-to-one tuition is not disrupted during this period. We took the decision before Boris Johnson announced lockdown to require tutors to provide online tuition where possible and supported this adoption by offering clients a 10% discount for online tuition. The government does still permit in-person tuition where a student is described as vulnerable, for example, when a student has an EHC plan, but this is still only possible where the tutor is able to travel safely to the student’s home, and nobody in either the tutor’s or student’s household has any COVID-19 symptoms.

For those who are less familiar with online tuition, part 3 of this blog series discusses some of the pros and cons of online tuition and tips for parents using an online tutor.

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Is your child ready for their GCSE exams?

exam revision

Good planning and structure can reduce exam anxiety with GCSEs fast approaching.                                                          

Bright Heart

Bright Heart

Preparing for GCSE exams need not be an anxious time with appropriate planning and structure.

Is your child ready for their GCSE exams?

It can be scary how quickly the year flies by, with the days already feeling longer as we approach summer.

 

For many children, GCSE exams are fast approaching. With only a few months to go before exams start in May, it is important that students have a revision plan in place. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Instead, helping your child find the tools to become self-sufficient in their learning is a sensible approach.

exam revision
While GCSE revision can appear daunting, it can be more easily achieved with a structured plan.

At Bright Heart, our experienced and trained tutors can design bespoke plans to give your child all the necessary tools to create structured study timetables and adopt a good work ethic. Our more nurturing approach to tuition is also sensitive to their emotional well-being.

Our tutors cover a variety of subjects (in addition to English, Maths and Science) for many different students; ranging from students in school just looking for a little help and encouragement, to children who are homeschooled or who have special educational needs (SEN). With one-to-one tuition beneficial to students of all abilities, we can help your child realise their potential. Year 11 students who receive this level of personalised tuition tend to perform better in class and also retain more information.

teenager prepared for GCSE exams
Revision is a work habit that can be learned and which eases anxiety.

GCSEs can be an anxious time for students and parents alike. An integral part of our heart-based tuition involves preparing our students emotionally for facing exams. This can be a hugely stressful time for 15 and 16-year-olds. Bright Heart’s nurturing approach helps to build confidence and self-esteem so our pupils can tackle the exams with reduced levels of stress. Our blend of structured planning, tailored tuition and self-development through embodying a holistic approach provides our students the tools needed to achieve longer-term success.

Your child can benefit from your encouragement and understanding as well as the support of a patient tutor at this often anxious time.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela

Get in touch to discuss how Bright Heart’s unique heart-based approach can help your child with their GCSE preparation.

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