This is the last year we’ll go easy on exam marking because of Covid, promises Nadhim Zahawi

Lenient marking of GCSE and A-level exams to take account of the impact of the Covid pandemic on children will end next year, the Education Secretary has said.

Nadhim Zahawi said the move to full-blooded exams in 2023 was part of a “path” towards living with Covid as an endemic rather than pandemic disease.

However, he said it would be staggered, with GCSE and A-level exams going ahead this year in a hybrid form, balancing the teacher assessment of 2021 with full-blown pre-covid exams.

The move is likely to raise concerns among parents that children sitting exams in 2023 could be disadvantaged in the jobs market by being awarded lower grades.

Mr Zahawi said detailed plans for this year’s examinations would be revealed on February 7 as he gave an “absolute commitment” that they would be going ahead this summer.

“We’re going to do it with two steps. So we’re going to go to the mean between the teacher assessment and the pre-Covid for this summer. And then we’ll go to pre-Covid the year after. So we’re doing it in two steps,” said Mr Zahawi.

He was confident of a new “endemic” phase in the battle against Covid but pledged there would still be “contingency” plans in case of a new variant or surge.

Ministers are desperate to avoid a repeat of the debacle that saw exams moderated by an algorithm that produced unfair results and are prepared to fall back on teacher assessment if there is no alternative.

“There’s always contingency planning because we know with Covid there are always variants. We keep a close eye on it. I’m certainly confident that we are on a path towards transitioning from pandemic to endemic, but you’ve got to make contingency plans,” he said.

“My absolute commitment is that exams are going ahead, both this January and for the summer for GCSEs and A-levels, but we’re putting in mitigations to make sure that we recognise that those students have had their education disrupted.”

The “mitigations” to take account of disrupted learning will include a choice of topics or content in GCSE English literature, history, ancient history and geography.

Students and teachers will also be told on February 7 the focus of exams to support students’ revision in subjects where there is not a choice of topics.

Students will get formulae sheets in GCSE maths and revised equation sheets in GCSE combined science and physics. Assessments of practical science work and practical art and design are being adapted to “ensure fairness”.

Grading will be close to a point midway between last year’s teacher assessments and pre-Covid exams, according to the Department for Education.

Grades are likely to be higher than in 2019, but not as high as in 2020. The exams watchdog Ofqual will aim to return to results that are in line with pre-pandemic years in 2023.

A-Level U-turn 2020 vs 2019

Exams will be held this summer, with A and AS level results out on August 18 and GCSEs on August 25. If the exams cannot go ahead, the results will be based on teacher assessment, similar to 2021.

Mr Zahawi said he was committed to restoring full “face-to-face” education to deliver the “best outcomes” for pupils, with retired teachers being brought back into the classroom to plug shortages and with the removal of masks in classrooms as soon as possible.

Absence rates for teachers crept up from eight per cent at the end of last term to 8.5 per cent last week. The Education Secretary accepted it “will increase, no doubt” as schools were now back, increasing the risk of Covid transmission.

But he hailed a “Dunkirk spirit” that had seen hundreds of retired teachers come forward to join supply agencies to fill gaps in the classroom, adding that he would publish figures for the number this week.

And he hoped the need for masks in the classroom would be removed on January 26 when the current Plan B Covid restrictions were reviewed. “I don’t want to see masks in the classroom for a day longer than is necessary,” he said.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Mr Zahawi also urged universities to deliver face-to-face education, with reports that more than 100 are offering blended learning, in which some lectures and tutorials are delivered online.

He urged students to protest to the watchdog, the Office for Students, if they felt they were not getting value for money.

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