AoC Chief Executive raises college concerns over assessment and public exams with Nick Gibb MP

15 Oct 2020

Today Association of Colleges Chief Executive David Hughes has written to Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, to express his concerns in organising GCSE English and maths exams in November 2020, and next summer.

Dear Nick,

College concerns about assessment and public exams

I am writing to set out the specific challenges that FE and sixth form colleges face in organising GCSE English and maths exams in November 2020, and next summer.

Colleges have worked hard to safely bring back students for this term and are facing up to the many challenges involved in that. The autumn resit exams and the plans for next summer though are high on their risk registers and students are understandably anxious. The announcement this week about the 3 week delay helped allay some of those concerns, but this letter sets out important issues which I thought you would like to be alerted to.

1. GCSE English and maths resit exams in November 2020
The college GCSE English and maths resit exams in early November will involve the largest volumes of candidates per centre this side of Christmas. The entry deadline for these exams was 4 October 2020 and we have not yet seen entry numbers from all awarding organisations, JCQ or Ofqual. However, we do know the following:

• Over 90% of post-16 students needing to retake GCSE English and maths are in colleges and normally there are over 50,000 college entries in each subject in November; around a quarter of the overall annual entries for these subjects.

• A number of colleges and awarding organisations are reporting substantially higher entries for this November, with several in the 500 plus bracket.

• Many of the colleges with more than 500 entries are in High or Very High tier areas in the North West, Yorkshire and West Midlands.

• Colleges will of course apply the social distancing and health measures recommended by Ofqual / JCQ to minimise the risks, but for many it will result in the closure of entire campuses to other students on the exam days to manage numbers safely. Controlling entry and exit points will be a particular issue because exams have fixed start and end times.

We have serious concerns about the potential public health risks this presents and would welcome urgent discussion about whether going ahead with this series of exams is the right thing to do. The rapid spread of the second wave, and the SAGE advice from 21st September are worrying college leaders who want to make the right balance between safety of students and supporting them to take these exams.

If the November resits do go ahead, we would welcome a rapid review of the guidance, particularly for the highest risk areas and I would ask you to extend the support funding available for the autumn series to include post-16 ‘Condition of Funding’ (resit) candidates.

2. Support for students
As you know, we have seen how this year’s disruption has exposed and exacerbated social inequalities between students which will inevitably impact on student learning and achievement. Colleges have a higher than average proportion of disadvantaged students and they will be disproportionately impacted. Awarding arrangements for 2021 must seek to take these impacts into account.

In particular, with an increased reliance on blended and on-line learning, we know that digital poverty is a barrier to learning. There is an urgent need now for more investment to ensure that every student can access the devices and internet connections which they need. Colleges are also reporting much increased demand for their student mental health support services and this is an area which also needs additional investment.

Many students are already beginning to benefit from the additional small group support made possible by the catch-up tuition fund, but further lockdowns will increase the demand. It would be helpful for this resource to be enhanced in colleges and eligibility extended beyond the current target cohort.

3. Contingency plans
Colleges and their students want to know as soon as possible about the contingency arrangements are for exams and assessments. I know that this is complex, given the possibility of disruption caused by national or local public health crises and lockdowns. The contingencies clearly need to cover whether exams can take place at all, as well as circumstances where individual students or groups of students are unable to sit them due to illness or self-isolation. We would suggest one contingency should include a national system of staged external assessments organised by awarding bodies and combined with moderated teacher assessment to support awarding in 2021. We are keen to work with you to make sure that no student misses the opportunity to be assessed fairly and consistently in 2021.

4. Summer 2021 exams
There will be even greater logistical challenges in summer 2021 than this November due to the numbers of students involved. We would hope that transport and site management issues will be easier by that stage, but for colleges there will be very large cohorts of candidates in popular exam subjects and in GCSE English and maths which will need special planning. At the very least we would urge you to consider supporting the additional costs for these colleges.

We will continue to work on these issues with your officials, with OfQual and with awarding organisations, and we remain committed to helping to find solutions that can work for our colleges and their students.


Yours sincerely,

David Hughes
Chief Executive