Covid-19 Curriculum Watch 2: Changes to assessment in response to the pandemic

Empty exam desks

14 July 2020

This is the second blog in our series in which we are cataloguing the educational responses of each home nation to the current pandemic. Our first blog covered decisions related to the provision of education across the four UK nations. Now we focus on the specific changes to assessment. These include both implemented and anticipated adaptations. Our analysis draws on policy updates, regulator reports and news stories relating to examinations and other types of formal assessment.


The UK nations announced decisions to cancel the GCSE, AS and A Level 2020 summer series in March, in advance of school closures. Assessment regulators, government bodies and other stakeholders worked rapidly together to devise alternative awarding arrangements, based on a combination of centre-assessed grades and rankings decided by teachers and centres, and other statistical data, such as the centre’s historical performance. 

While there are some differences in approach, concerns have been raised in all four nations about whether there is potential for discrimination in centre-assessed grades, and whether the appeals mechanisms are set up appropriately deal with potential bias. In addition, the inclusion of a centre’s past performance under these new arrangements has drawn criticism.

The regulating body in England, Ofqual, announced early on its intention to hold exams in place of the cancelled summer series at the earliest opportunity, and limited the scope for students to appeal their teacher-assessed grades on the premise that sitting exams will be possible. Similarly, in Northern Ireland (NI) students can choose to sit exams in 2021 instead of accepting centre-assessed grades.

Initial response to school closure

In England and Wales, the announcement that summer exams would be cancelled and GCSE and A Level grades calculated was made on 18 March, before official school closures. 

Northern Ireland Education minister, Peter Weir, announced on 19 March that “ sit down exams ” would not take place in NI in the summer of 2020. More information from Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA), the main NI examination board, came in an announcement later that day outlining that all GCSE and A Level written exams would be cancelled. On 28 March, CCEA announced that all oral and practical GCSE and A Level exams would also be cancelled for the summer series. Finally, on 8 April, Further Education (FE) colleges in Northern Ireland announced that all vocational exams would be cancelled for the 2020 summer series. 

The Scottish government convened the Qualifications Contingency Group , invoked in circumstances where there is a system wide risk to the delivery of exams. On 31 March, Scotland followed suit and announced a halt to all school-based exam preparation and coursework submission activities connected with National 5 and Highers qualifications . [1]

On 23 March, Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) and Qualification Wales agreed to stop visits or moderation of internally assessed non-examined assessments and controlled assessments for GCSE, AS, A Levels and Skills Challenge Certificate Wales qualifications .

Alternative awarding arrangements

Between April and June attention shifted to the arrangements for replacing cancelled examinations and assessments so that results could be provided to learners in August. The approaches taken draw on a number of common elements.

Regulators in England , Wales and NI confirmed that Standardised Centre Assessment would be used. Broadly, there are two stages to Standardised Centre Assessment:

1. Centres and teachers would provide the grade that each learner was most likely to have achieved in each subject if they had sat their exams in 2020. Evidence such as prior work and mock exam results is to be used to make the judgements. Each school is also required to provide a rank order list of all students for each subject.

2. Once submitted to the relevant awarding body, additional statistical data such as a centre’s historical performance and a cohort’s prior attainment is to be used to confirm each student’s final grade.

There has been much commentary and criticism about the use of historic data in all four nations. For instance, public critique of this approach emerged in Northern Ireland due to the perceived advantage that grammar school children might have regarding the statistical weighting of their centre compared to non-selective schools. It was also revealed that AS grades awarded in 2020 would only count as a stand-alone qualification and would not count towards A Level grades in 2021.

Scotland decided that different arrangements were needed for different qualification types . National 5 and Highers qualifications (that usually rely on exams) required teachers to provide estimated grades. Applied qualifications, like the Higher National Diplomas and Professional Development Awards, required teachers to use their professional judgement to holistically integrate evidence about learners’ achievements.

The vocational qualifications (VQs) taken in England, Wales, and NI are similar, and those nations made similar awarding arrangements . The arrangements were determined by the VQ’s purpose . VQs used primarily for progression to Further/Higher Education (FE/HE) were to have a similar awarding arrangement to GCSE, A Level and AS. For VQs principally used to signal occupational competence, awarding bodies are to adapt assessments to fit Covid-19 public health restrictions. FE re-opened in Wales on 15 June to conduct such assessments.

Appeals and autumn exam series

In England and Wales, guidelines under the new arrangements state that students have the right to appeal grades through their centre, on the grounds that a technical error may have been made by either the centre or the awarding body. In addition, Ofqual has stipulated that there is an avenue to challenge grades on the basis of perceived discrimination or bias. Campaigners have nonetheless pointed out that instances of discrimination could be difficult to prove, and some have suggested that pupils and families may not realise they have a case for an appeal .

Some stakeholders in Wales argued that individual learners dissatisfied with their grade should have a right to appeal. It was decided that learners would be able to appeal their grade within the centre, and centres may be called upon to justify their own decisions. This is not the case for English exam boards, as the Department for Education asserted in early March that students not content with the alternative awarding arrangement would have the option to sit an exam at the ‘ earliest reasonable opportunity ’.

Following a consultation with stakeholders in April-May, and in contrast to arrangements made by regulators in the other three nations, Ofqual subsequently ruled that an additional autumn series would take place in England. The dates for these exams have since been confirmed for October and November. However, schools and colleges have expressed concerns about the logistical requirements of an autumn exam series alongside schools re-opening, and about the extent of support available for delivering these exams, calling for the associated costs to be borne centrally by government.

Northern Ireland has excluded the possibility of exams in the autumn of 2020. Students will instead have the opportunity to sit their GCSE or A Level papers in 2021 and will be awarded whichever grade is higher. On 23 April, it was announced that most vocational students will also receive centre-assessed grades or, for those qualifications requiring occupational competence or a licence to practice, a delay in the result would occur while alternative options are being considered on a qualification by qualification basis.

In early June, SQA announced arrangements for appealing assessment outcomes in Scotland. There would be two post-certification review types using senior subject-specialist SQA examiners: a priority review (for candidates with a conditional university or college offer); and a standard review. Appeals would be submitted by a head of centre and supported by alternative evidence. In Wales and Scotland there are calls for more transparency about exactly how the awarding bodies will go from a centre’s judgements to the grade awarded to each learner.

Plans for examinations in 2021

In June, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said exams in England would ‘ take place as normal next summer ’. However, it now appears likely that arrangements for next year’s exams will be subject to revision. Exam boards in England have been asked to consider: how the 2021 exam timetable could be adapted to free up additional teaching time; what adaptations can be made in different subjects in terms of ‘trimming’ requirements; and in particular, whether GCSE exams could start after half term, on 7 June 2021.

Inconsistencies and a lack of clarity around plans for exams in 2021 are also evident in the other UK nations. In June, John Swinney, Deputy First Minister of Scotland and Cabinet Secretary for Education, announced that it was anticipated that exams for 2021 would be carried out as usual, but that teachers would also need to gather evidence of their students' progress in the coming year as he could not provide "absolute certainty" that SQA exams would go ahead in 2021 . Shortly afterwards, Mr Swinney suggested that exams for 2021 ‘might be delayed by a matter of weeks’ to allow more teaching time in 2021

Meanwhile, the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association education union called for the exams for 2021 to be cancelled . At the end of June, SQA provided an update on assessment for 2021 . This suggested that the timetable for exams may be prone to change, and that support would be provided to clarify the arrangements for Applied and Regulated Qualifications over the coming months. 

The arrangements for 2021 examination sessions in Wales and Northern Ireland also remain unclear at this stage as no further definitive assessment decisions have been revealed. This delay in decision-making appears to be strategic: for example, as the public health situation remains fluid, Qualification Wales considers that adjustments may be needed at any time .

If you are interested in contacting our team around any of the issues discussed in this blog, or if you want to suggest topics for our future blogs, please get in touch with us at

[1] These are roughly equivalent to GCSE and A Level in the other nations.

Photo credit: Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

Research Matters

Research Matters 32 promo image

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.