Gavin Williamson confirms potential plan to push back next year's A-level and GCSE exams

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

The government is continuing to consult with the exams regulator on whether or not to delay next year's A-level and GCSE results, the education secretary has confirmed.

In a statement to the Commons, Gavin Williamson said Ofqual has been looking into the idea after warnings about a loss of education for millions of pupils caused by the coronavirus crisis.

His comments come as students throughout England return to school this week, many for the first time in more than five months.

Labour has been calling for a delay to exams, saying pupils entering Year 11 and 13 who have lost up to six months of teaching time face “a mountain to climb” unless the timetable is changed.

Despite Labour taking credit for the idea, Mr Williamson claimed it has been being considered by the government since June.

"This is something that we highlighted that we'd be doing," Mr Williamson told MPs in a statement to the Commons.

But he said Labour did not support the idea when "Ofqual did a public consultation about potentially moving the exam dates back" on July 2.

Most students have missed more than five months education due to the coronavirus crisis. Credit: PA

"I've been to check as to whether the Labour Party made a submission as to whether they supported this.

"The Labour Party did not make a submission supporting the idea of moving exams back, so I very much welcome the Labour Party to our position."

Mr Williamson appeared to welcome a suggestion from Tory MP Bob Blackman that school days could be extended by 30 minutes to allow extra teaching time for those who have missed out.

Responding to Mr Blackman, the education secretary said: "As part of the advice that was worked up along with the Education Endowment Foundation, one of their key recommendations was looking at how you can extend the school day, how you can look at provisional weekends in order to support children who really do need that little bit of extra help in order for them to have a real impact in terms of their educational attainment.

"All of these measures can have an enormously positive effect and that's why we developed a £1 billion Covid catch-up fund because schools then have the ability to take such action."

Mr Williamson's appearance in the Commons was the first since MPs broke for summer recess, a period which was littered with government U-turns.

Among a handful of policy shifts was the A-levels results U-turn, which saw hundreds of thousands of students have their scores downgraded and then for them to be reverted back to teachers' predicted grades.

The education secretary said he is "deeply sorry" about what happened.

“This situation has, I know, caused a great deal of stress and uncertainty, and I am deeply sorry that those who have borne the brunt of it have been students themselves.

“I can only apologise to them again for this," he said.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, earlier confirmed to ITV News that the government has been considering whether to delay the exams period so next year's pupils have the same chance at success as previous years.

"In mid-June we wrote to Ofqual asking them to look into this very issue and how we can free up teaching time from the assessment process next summer," he said.

"So they are looking, we have been looking, over the last few weeks into the prospect into delaying the exam period.

Millions of pupils are returning to school this week. Credit: PA

"There are a range of issues to consider, the marking time, the results dates, the effect that has on university admissions and also the term dates of the other nations in the UK that use GCSEs and A Levels."

His comments follow calls from Labour for a delay to next year’s exams.

Dr Mary Bousted, the joint General Secretary of the NEU, told ITV News that disadvantaged children who have not had access to the internet, or laptops, or tutoring during the coronavirus crisis will find it "almost impossible" to catch up "through no fault of their own".

She said her union is "concerned that the education attainment gap between the more advantaged pupils and less advantaged pupils will be wider" unless GCSEs and A-levels are "altered to reflect that reality".

Mr Gibb said ministers are working with exams regulator Ofqual to get a decision on whether to delay next year's exams "as soon as we possibly can".

But he could not confirm whether a decision would be made before Christmas.

Asked if there will be an answer by the festive period, Mr Gibb said: "I absolutely would have said so, we need to make sure we come to a decision as soon as we can.

"But it has to be the right decision and it has to take into account the other nations in the UK that use GCSEs and A-Levels.

"It has to take into account marking time and results date and the effect that has on entry to universities."