This summer hundreds of thousands of students won’t be sitting their A levels and GCSEs because of social distancing measures introduced to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
This would have presented a problem for universities as nearly all places are allocated on exam grades. So the solution, announced by the regulator Ofqual in March, is for students to be awarded centre assessed grades which are predictions based on mock exams and assessed work from a school or college.
While this appears to be a sensible compromise, the situation is a little more complex. The awarding bodies can only accept predicted grades submitted by approved exam centres such as schools and colleges. However, this presents an issue for most students who are studying independently and classified as “private candidates”.
Falling through the cracks
Because they are being home schooled or following a distance learning course, the exam centre is simply the building where they go to sit the exam. They have no relationship with the teaching staff there. Many of these independent students are aiming to go on to higher education and the majority are the non-traditional students targeted by the widening access work of universities
A small number of trusted distance learning providers have been given centre status by awarding bodies. The National Extension College is one. Yet we will still not be able to assess all our students for two reasons. First, some may not have submitted enough coursework to be used as evidence. And second, we cannot be confident that students’ work submitted after the Ofqual announcement on 20 March is their own work.
We have had to advise those students to defer and to take the exams at the next available sitting, which we hope will be in the autumn. We now have the complex task of providing grades for both GCSE and A level subjects for over 500 students to meet very tight deadlines in June. This is challenging because students did not submit work expecting it to be used for assessment purposes. The role of their tutor has been to work alongside their student, not as an assessor.
We know that we are meeting the needs of only a fraction of these independent students (those who are not taught at a school or college) as there are very few distance learning providers like the National Extension College that have centre status. Our exams inbox is full of desperate requests for help from students who are not in a position to submit centre assessed grades. The result is that thousands have been left in limbo.
One option is for students to simply take their exam at the next sitting in the autumn. But this may mean postponing entering higher education for a year – something that may be feasible for younger students considering a gap year but won’t work for older students needing to make long term decisions about their jobs and families.
Look with favour
All independent students have been disadvantaged by the cancellation of the summer exams. In our experience these students are generally very determined, motivated and have had to overcome numerous obstacles in order to study. We are also aware that many students did not expect their work would be used for assessment and therefore did less well than they would if they had taken the exams. We have seen year on year that our distance learning students generally perform higher than the national average in the exams.
Despite pleas from adult distance learning students and parents of home schooled children, Ofqual has said that given the “lack of any credible alternatives identified” exam boards will only be allowed to issue grades to students from a head of centre that has provided an assessed grade and ranked order.
This means that unless universities are flexible, very few independent students will be able to take up their conditional offers of university places this autumn. Ofqual and the awarding bodies have been aware of this problem from the beginning and have worked hard to find alternative solutions for this group, but without success.
We are looking to the future and are calling for a more flexible and resilient exam system where students have the option to be assessed at a distance, possibly using a combination of coursework and proctored exams. This would also open up a route to national qualifications for people who need special access arrangements or are institution- bound like prisoners.
Universities should consider giving a place this year to a student who has a conditional offer on the basis of an academic reference or an assessment such as an essay set by the university. This could work well providing it is planned carefully and well in advance.
We want universities to be aware that all independent students have been disadvantaged this summer and to be as understanding as they can when considering their applications. If not the hopes and dreams of thousands of deserving students who have been disadvantaged through no fault of their own, will be dashed. This will be a significant setback to widening participation and lifelong learning