UKLA responds to the Ofqual consultation on proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2021

Exam writing

Ofqual’s Consultation on proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2021 requests feedback on proposals to modify assessment requirements in response to disruption to education caused by a very particular circumstance – the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. UKLA acknowledges current anxieties (not least the personal worries of many students) about how schooling for 2021 examinations has been severely disrupted by the lockdown. Since the pandemic seems likely to continue this coming year with possible further lockdowns, the aim of the consultation is to minimise the adverse impact on students, teachers and schools. Such concern is welcome and UKLA has submitted a response to questions about: next year’s exams including more optional questions than usual; the number and length of exams; the start dates for exams and the timing of results; the impact any modifications may have. Since only two weeks have been allowed for the consultation, there has not been time to discuss its ideas widely within the Association. However, the response draws on some of UKLA’s ongoing principles about assessment and shows how they may pertain to these current unprecedented circumstances. 

In the consultation document, English language and English literature are both represented as high stakes subjects (along with maths and science), so no modifications to examination requirements at GCSE, AS or A Level are proposed (other than in GCSE English language where teachers no longer need to record a sample of their students’ work for exam boards to monitor their assessments). Otherwise, the existing English examination structures are likely to remain as they are. But reducing the breadth of coverage need not adversely affect quality of standards, and UKLA regrets that there appears to be no consideration of lessening examination content to ensure fairness. Instead, many students will be required to cover the same amount in the same depth as usual, but with greatly reduced teaching time.

Some students have had a similar number of teaching hours online each day as they ordinarily receive in school, possibly giving them an advantage in terms of covering subject content. However, a recent report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), Schools Responses to Covd-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning (Lucas, Nelson & Sims, 2020), shows that despite schools’ best efforts, a quarter of students may not have had adequate IT access to be able to engage with online learning during the lockdown. Online teaching itself, of course, may be variable in quality. (For interesting ideas about teaching and learning online, listen to Navan Govender and Sabine Little in the UKLA Conversations Series: Online Teaching & Learning in ITE.) Students in disadvantaged schools may be less likely to engage with online learning than their peers in more advantaged circumstances. It is important to avoid generalising, though, and to remember that, whatever their situation and against the odds, many students have engaged very well with learning under the current extremely difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, reducing the amount of final examinations in English subjects could still prove a fairer basis for assessment overall without a reduction in standards.

While it is not clear whether or how some students in some parts of the country will experience further disruption to their education during 2020-2021, there is another possible solution to the problem. Although not universally popular, non-examination assessment (or ‘coursework’ as it has sometimes been known) has worked effectively in the past, allowing range and flexibility within students’ learning and proving an effective form of educational and professional development for teachers. Therefore, as Barbara Bleiman argues, ‘Coursework, or the work of the course … should play a bigger role in summative assessment’ (Bleiman, 2020, p. 169). It also potentially enables any students who have experienced disruption to their education to demonstrate what they know, rather than being anxious about what they have missed. If ever there was a time to re-introduce it, it is surely now. A further benefit for students would be that they would rely less on teaching and place increasing emphasis on their own learning, something surely to be encouraged as they move closer to the end of formal schooling anyway. 

The May 2017 edition of UKLA’s journal, Literacy, was devoted to assessment, accountability and policy. It included articles covering the issue of assessment by scholars across the globe from the USA, Australia, Iceland, Scotland and England. It was wide-ranging in scope and deeply engaged with recent research into teaching, learning and assessment. Sue Ellis and Vivienne Smith’s article, ‘Assessment, teacher education and the emergence of professional expertise’ (Ellis & Smith, 2017), described an assessment tool used with initial teacher education students to help them understand learners’ cognitive knowledge and skills, their cultural and social capital, and their personal-social identity. What the student teachers appreciated was how the tool helped them move from simplistic assumptions about assessment – at both a theoretical and a practical level – to a deeper understanding of complex interconnections between learning, assessment and professional knowledge. It is these kinds of interconnections, applied and analysed critically by teachers in the light of ongoing research and classroom practice, which UKLA suggests all children and young people – from the early years through to Year 13 – are entitled to experience. 


Bleiman, B. (2020). What Matters in English Teaching: Collected Blogs and Other Writing. London: English & Media Centre.

Ellis, S. & Smith, V. (2017). Assessment, Teacher Education and the Emergence of Professional Expertise. Literacy. 51: 2, 84-93.

Govender, N. & Little, S. (2020). UKLA Conversations Series: Online Teaching & Learning in ITE. Online at

Lucas, M., Nelson, J. & Sims, D. (2020). Schools’ Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning. Slough: NFER.

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