GCSE exams should be replaced with school assessments, says leading head teacher

Jane Prescott, headmistress of Portsmouth High School GDST Credit: PA Media

GCSE exams should be replaced by school-based assessments next year amid coronavirus disruption, a leading headteacher has said.

Changes could also be made to A-level exams so there is less content or fewer papers so students spend less time being examined, according to Jane Prescott, headmistress of Portsmouth High School GDST.

Mrs Prescott, president of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), said she thinks centre-assessed grades should not be submitted until June, if GCSE exams do not go ahead, so young people “don’t take their foot off the pedal now”.

The private school head acknowledged that students’ results could be higher if formal GCSE exams are replaced with school-based assessments in 2021.

“I think that’s because you’ve ruled out the anxiety that goes from taking exams, so children will do better in school-based assessments because they’re less stressful, anxious environments,” she said.

This current cohort have had huge disruption, not just in the summer term, but in this term too. So they are feeling quite unsettled

Jane Prescott, president of the Girls' School Association

Mrs Prescott told the PA news agency: “As a country, we are a bit odd because we don’t praise or celebrate if we get a lot that achieve a certain level.

“We tend to look at ‘oh it must have been easier, or the teaching was easier, or somehow or another we cheated the system’.

“Why can’t we celebrate the fact that these young people have worked very hard and they’ve achieved a certain standard, which was the standard we were aiming for.”

Her comments come after the fiasco around grading of GCSE and A-level students this summer, when end-of-year exams were cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic and school closures.

Thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by an algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn, allowing them to use teachers’ original predictions instead.

On Tuesday, Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams announced GCSE, AS-level and A-level exams in 2021 will be replaced by coursework and assessments amid disruption to schools.

In England, the Government has said next year’s A-level and GCSE exams will go ahead, but most exams will be pushed back by three weeks to give pupils more time to catch up on their learning.

But speaking ahead of GSA’s virtual conference, Mrs Prescott said a three-week extension was “not enough” for a cohort who have been affected by months of closures and further disruption this term.

“For me as an independent school, it’s probably only about five days more teaching. It isn’t three weeks. So I don’t think that that’s the answer,” she said.

What this pandemic has shown is that young people are more resilient than they have been given credit for previously

Jane Prescott

Mrs Prescott said the more detailed plans from the Government on next year’s exams could not come early enough.

She said: “This current cohort have had huge disruption, not just in the summer term, but in this term too. So they are feeling quite unsettled.

“There is a degree of anxiety, a degree of stress over how are they going to be examined. And what they don’t want is to have that rug pulled late in the day, nor do we, because we need to be able to plan.”

She said it was still unclear what the disruption will be in the spring term.

School staff should be put “high” on the list for accessing any vaccine when it becomes available to ensure children are kept in school, Mrs Prescott said.

The plan put forward by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) will see vaccines rolled out to older members of society, alongside care home workers and health care staff.

Mrs Prescott said: “It’s quite surprising how many people don’t put teachers higher up that list – and it’s not just teachers, it is everyone who works in schools, from invigilators to minibus drivers.”

“We are the people who then keep the children in schools, and if children are still in schools, then they’re learning and that’s good for them, but also their parents are often working then, which is good for the economy. So I’d like to see that that is put as a priority for us.”

In a speech to the GSA conference on Monday, Mrs Prescott will praise school pupils for their response to the “worst global crisis in most people’s memory”.

She will tell headteachers: “Children today are not the ‘snowflake’ generation. They are, in fact, ever resourceful given the right environment and the right support; the kind of support typically given by teachers and other professionals for whom schools are the hub of communication.

“What this pandemic has shown is that young people are more resilient than they have been given credit for previously. They have suffered family bereavement, been unable to comfort each other, and been denied the ability to visit elderly relatives.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance, which is why Ofqual and the government all agree they should go ahead next year.

“We are working closely with stakeholders on the measures needed to ensure exams can be held, and will set out plans over the coming weeks.”