Covid: A-level and GCSE pupils could still face papers despite exams being cancelled

A-level and GCSE students could still sit exams this year - despite their official papers being scrapped in light of the continued coronavirus pandemic - under plans set out by education secretary Gavin Williamson.

Mr Williamson, in a letter to Ofqual setting out his plan to replace this year's exams, suggested students could be made to sit externally-set papers to help teachers with their assessments.

The education secretary has promised not to use algorithms to standardise teacher assessments this year, after the fiasco last summer which was pupils have their scores downgraded, before the government was forced to perform an embarrassing U-turn.

But to ensure students are given their "deserved grades", they may have to sit mini-exams, with Mr Williamson saying he would like "to explore the possibility" of using externally set tasks or papers to inform teacher assessments.

In the letter to Ofqual he said: "A breadth of evidence should inform teachers' judgments, and the provision of training and guidance will support teachers to reach their assessment of a student's deserved grade.

"In addition, I would like to explore the possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers, in order that teachers can draw on this resource to support their assessments of students."

Gavin Williamson has been under pressure over school exams. Credit: PA

Mr Williamson said external checks would be designed to support fairness and consistency between different institutions and to avoid schools "proposing anomalous grades".

Mr Williamson said: "My view is that any changes to grades as a result of the external quality assurance process should be the exception: the process will not involve second-guessing the judgment of teachers but confirming that the process and evidence used to award a grade is reasonable.

"Changes should only be made if those grades cannot be justified, rather than as a result of marginal differences of opinion. Any changes should be based on human decisions, not by an automatic process or algorithm."

Mr Williamson also made a number of pledges while being quizzed at the Education Committee on Wednesday morning, telling MPs schools will be the first to reopen after England's lockdown ends.

He said mass testing will be used to ensure schools can return safely, with primary school staff set to be tested from next week.

Ofqual is considering the options for exam alternatives and a consultation is due to be published later this week.

Last week the body urged students in England to engage "as fully" as they can with learning amid uncertainty about GCSEs and A-level assessment.

In the letter, Mr Williamson added: "It is my view that a teacher's final judgment on a student's grade ought to be as late as possible in the academic year to maximise remaining teaching time and ensure students are motivated to remain engaged in education."

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "We are relieved to see confirmation that no algorithm will be applied this year following last summer's grading debacle.

"One of the key issues, however, will be precisely how any system of externally set assessment would work and how this can be done in a way that ensures fairness for students who have been heavily disrupted by the pandemic.

"It is vital that the final plans not only provide fairness and consistency but that they are also workable for schools, colleges and teaching staff who will have to put them into practice."