Are A-Level and GCSE Plans for 2021 Realistic, Given Lockdown Learning Inconsistencies?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 15 July 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Educational Standards; Disadvantaged Pupils; Shifting Priorities

Exam regulator Ofqual has suggested that GCSE and A level examinations scheduled for May 2021 should be put back a month to allow for more teaching time in the forthcoming academic year. The Guardian on July 8th however reported that thousands of headteachers across England believe that more drastic changes are needed and are asking that the number of exams be cut back in 2021 amid fears of a mental health crisis among pupils who have lost months of learning because of Covid-19. They argue that the government’s assumption that pupils can catch up on lost lessons when they return to schools in September and sit GCSEs and A-levels as normal in summer 2021, is neither realistic nor workable.

Ofqual’s concessions to the effect of the pandemic include reducing the topics covered in some subjects like history and geography, removing the requirement for spoken language assessments and science practical work and assessing art on portfolio work. School leaders in England however propose also reducing the number of papers sat by pupils, for example in maths from three to two and slimming down set texts in English by 25%. They insist that a full roster of examinations will in particular, add pressure to disadvantaged pupils who have especially struggled to benefit from online learning and will actually widen the attainment gap between them and more affluent social groups.

Taken together with the recent report from  the UNESCO Education Centre at Ulster University (UU), "Experiences of supporting children's home learning during Covid-19", which is based on detailed responses from more than 4,600 parents of pupils attending primary, post-primary and special schools across Northern Ireland, it makes very worrying reading.

Robbie Meredith, the BBC Education correspondent, highlighted these findings online from the Northern Ireland research which revealed that while many parents spoke positively about learning through apps and online activities, others described difficulties in navigating online resources. As in England, there were insufficient devices available to pupils in some homes, particularly where parents needed them to work from home.

The report concluded that schooling across Northern Ireland in recent months could not truly be characterised as online learning and teaching, rather it had been: “a reactive form of emergency remote education”.

Many parents felt that they lacked the skills to effectively teach their children and a majority felt that keeping their children's attention had been difficult. Expectations for learning also differed between schools, with some expecting too much work to be completed, while others appeared less engaged after an initial period of support. In all cases the parents of children with SEN reported greater difficulties than parents of children with no SEN. The researchers make some important recommendations for the new school year, including tackling the "digital divide", organising more online skills training for teachers, and re-opening special schools as a priority.

Their findings are supported by preliminary research carried out nationally on a similar-sized sample by the office of The Children’s Commissioner in June, which also found big variations in the amount of help children got from parents. The majority of older children were receiving none or less than an hour of help per day. There were also big differences in the level of work provided by schools and inconsistency in remote school experience was evident in the proportion of children having their work marked by teachers. Some were getting nothing marked, some were getting everything marked and some had no work that was expected to be assessed.

The most common amount of time spent on schoolwork per day was 1 to 2 hours for young children and 2 to 3 hours for teenagers, a substantial reduction from the 5+ hours children would have been spending at school per day.
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In response, Education Minister Peter Weir has acknowledged that schools will need to prepare for these learning challenges posed by the lockdown and has offered significant support.

He acknowledges that internet access is an issue for many vulnerable and disadvantaged children and announced on July 8th that the Department of Education, working with BT and the Education Authority, will deliver access to free wi-fi which will be available from the middle of August onwards to eligible pupils who meet the necessary criteria. This involves supporting the provision of up to 2500 MI-FI devices which is a mobile connectivity solution to support those children who are not within a BT wi-fi hotspot; and providing 8,300 wi-fi vouchers for disadvantaged children with up to eight month's internet access. This is in addition to the proposals outlined in May to lend digital devices, such as laptops, to those children who would benefit most in terms of supporting their learning.
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Interviewed by Simon Doyle in The Irish News back in May, Professor Tony Gallagher from Queen's University Belfast reminded us of the link between disadvantage and educational outcomes. He warned that the lockdown had exacerbated this relationship and risked doing untold damage into the future and that there was plenty of evidence emerging of the negative effects on educational opportunities of the most disadvantaged children. He pointed out that these children are less likely to live in households where there are the type of computer facilities and access that allowed them to engage with online support and that the parents of children in disadvantaged circumstances are less likely to see themselves as having the confidence, ability or resources to support their child's learning at home. Poorer families are also more likely to suffer uncertainties due to poverty, food insecurity, financial worries and cramped conditions.
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Professor Gallagher’s opinion is certainly supported by the findings of the UU and Children’s Commissioner’s reports.

The realities are that despite the best efforts of schools, the catch-up challenge is a significant, multi-layered problem. At the high end of the achievement spectrum are the aspiring medicine, dentistry and STEM related post primary students who in spite of their best efforts will not have covered as much coursework and curriculum as pupils in previous years. They will be putting themselves under intense pressure to get ready both for A levels and the university courses that follow. At the other end are the underachieving pupils who without direct teacher guidance and supervision will probably have regressed in terms of their command of the core basics of Maths and English. As former Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw pointed out in a recent interview, the painstaking work in closing the attainment gap between pupils from more and less affluent backgrounds has been set back by years.

A radical rethink of our school curriculum is clearly needed, slimmed down, particularly for the underachievers with a focus on core subjects of Maths English and Science. Given the distinct possibility that pupils will not be able to access a full school week in the coming term this is a number one priority. If as expected the attainment gap has widened even further between affluent and economically disadvantaged pupils, remedial help must be targeted on those that need it most and access to online learning secured for all.

This has of course implications for staffing levels in schools and could be seen as an opportunity rather than a problem by giving valuable experience and income to the high number of under-employed newly qualified teachers here. Minister Peter Weir has again indicated that he wants to support schools in meeting the costs of these proposals, but in a recent letter to school principals on July 8th he indicated that:

"There is presently no additional funding in the education budget to address the level of pressures anticipated,"

The Minister said the Executive would have to decide if it could make more money available for schools. Let us hope that both the plans for digital support and extra staffing become a reality and that children’s mental health is prioritised as exams are planned.


This article is correct at 15/07/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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