A package of support is set to be outlined for young people in England after schools and colleges were closed under the rules of the new Covid-19 lockdown and this summer’s GCSE and A-level exams were cancelled.
Exams regulator Ofqual and the Department for Education (DfE) will work together to consider how to grade pupils in a way that reflects their hard work, the department said.
Ahead of the statement in the Commons, the DfE said it recognises this is “an anxious time for students who have been working hard towards their exams”.
It added: “The government position is that we will not be asking students to sit GCSE and A-levels.
“Working alongside Ofqual, the department will consult on how to award all pupils a grade that reflects the hard work they’ve done and will continue to do.”
In a televised address on Monday announcing England’s third national lockdown, Boris Johnson acknowledged that shutting schools meant “it’s not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer, as normal”.
In a statement, Mr Williamson said: “It is now vital that we support our young people at home, including making sure all students are receiving the best possible remote education, and that those students who were due to take exams can still progress to their next stage of education or training.”
Cancelling all exams this summer would be “premature”, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) – which represents almost 300 leading private schools, said.
The organisation’s general secretary Dr Simon Hyde said: “Whilst it is important that the learning loss which some students have experienced is accounted for, and that disadvantaged pupils are not further disadvantaged, HMC believes that any decision to cancel all exams in England this summer would be premature.”
He added: “The best way of ensuring fairness is not by cancelling all examinations but by externally moderating assessment in whatever form it takes.
"We require decisive leadership and a willingness to compromise to bring about such a system.
"Our students deserve no less.”
Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, said there is no “perfect solution to assessment arrangements for Year 11 and Year 13 pupils given the current course of the virus” and acknowledged there is a range of views across the education sector and “many students will be disappointed to lose the opportunity to put their learning to the test through traditional exams”.
He added: “It is now for the government and Ofqual to work with education professionals to produce a fair system of assessment that will reward all our young people with the grades they deserve.”
Despite facing calls to cancel this month’s Btec exams in light of the lockdown, the government has left it to school and college leaders to decide whether they want to go ahead with the vocational exam series which is taking place this week.
In a statement issued on Wednesday morning, Pearson, the exam board which runs Btecs, said students can postpone their exams, but if that is not possible, they will make sure "no learner is disadvantaged" and any student who cannot take their exams but has "evidence" of performance will be certified.
Elsewhere, the issue of whether exams such will go ahead in Northern Ireland has not been resolved, with a decision expected to be taken by Thursday.
It was announced last year that GCSEs and A-levels in Wales would not go ahead in summer 2021, while Highers and Advanced Highers have been cancelled in Scotland.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson has declined to guarantee that all children in England will be back in classrooms before the summer holidays.
But the prime minister said he is full of “optimism and fundamental hope” that things will be different in the spring.
All pupils – except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – have moved to remote education until February half-term at the earliest amid tighter restrictions.
School leaders have said they are expecting a high turnout of children of key workers and vulnerable pupils onsite amid the national lockdown in England – with one school expecting hundreds to attend.
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Charitable Trust – which has 53 schools across England, said heads were preparing for a greater number of pupils to turn up to school on Wednesday than in the lockdown in March as more children were classed as vulnerable and more parents who were key workers wanted a place.
The government guidance now says vulnerable children may include “pupils who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study)”.
Some school leaders could see up to 70% of their pupils in class, if all eligible children attend, prompting concerns about social distancing, staff shortages and the ability to balance remote education with in-person teaching.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) was also hearing from headteachers that more parents who were classed as critical workers were wanting to take up places during the new national lockdown.