GCSEs and A-levels should be cancelled. Anything else will put lives at risk

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Department for Education is holding a crucial meeting on Monday with school leaders over how to handle the coronavirus outbreak. As the leader of an academy trust, running 29 state schools in England, my message to the government is clear: relieve the burden on schools, pupils and parents by postponing this year’s GCSEs, A-levels and Sats until 2021.

The UK’s worst-case scenario is coming into sharp focus: we will inevitably enter the state of coronavirus lockdown currently imposed in Italy and Spain. Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, speaking on 12 March, predicted the UK would reach the peak of the outbreak in about 10 to 14 weeks: between mid-May and mid-June, coinciding precisely with the GCSE and A-level examination season.

The Department of Health advises that about 95% of infections will take place within this period. As the prime minister noted, “the dangerous period is not now, but some weeks away, depending on how fast it spreads”. The government’s strategic aim is to push the virus peak into summer, when the NHS will be under less strain.

So, what can we do to make the delay phase successful? How can we flatten the peak? How about doing the unthinkable and cancelling exams?


We have four options.


1. Maintain the status quo: persuade ourselves that the current national panic is hyperbolic and that normal pre-Covid-19 life will resume soon, so there is no imperative to change examination arrangements. Science tells us that this position is impossibly flawed.

2. Delay examinations. This solution only works if we actually believe that the nation will have emerged from the coronavirus crisis by June. We need a full six weeks to implement the examination schedule. A delay to public examinations would need to be announced now for it to make a difference.

3. Use previous results to establish pupils’ performance and make awards. We cannot do this fairly. Modular exams are a thing of the past.

4. Cancel the exams, repeat the season, repeat the year.


Cancellation is the only sensible and humane option. It will go a long way to ensuring the success of the “delay” phase of the government’s strategy. It could save tens of thousands of lives because it will ensure good decision-making, and good decision-making by individuals is central to how we manage this crisis. We are relying on one another to make the right calls. That is how we can help make the delay phase successful, how we can flatten the peak and push it in to the summer, when the NHS will be under less strain. Without this measure, we risk students avoiding self-isolation because they are conscientious. We risk staff avoiding self-isolation because they feel under pressure to teach their examination classes.

Imagine the scene if examinations were to proceed as normal. Would infected students arrive to sit the examinations that they have prepared so hard for? Would infected invigilators supervise them? Would all students be required to have their temperature checked before entering the exam hall, or would they simply be allowed to cross-infect their peers?

It goes without saying that the most vulnerable in our communities will be hardest hit by the current crisis: young people who live in temporary or overcrowded homes where self-isolation is an impossibility; young carers; students who do not have access to online learning. Coronavirus will not be restricted to those who are socially disadvantaged, but it is likely to affect them most severely.

So, I want to see a decision now that all these tests and exams are deferred to summer 2021, with every year group repeating the same year again from September 2020. It will mean children currently at school, in college or at university spend an extra year in education and four-year-olds due to start reception in September doing another year in nursery and starting school a year later.

If there is no appetite for such a drastic measure as repeating an entire school year, we should still cancel examinations. The national assessment system would lose its integrity if awards were made without examinations being taken – but colleges and universities could offer students places unconditionally based on their predicted grades from schools. Young people would not be externally assessed, nor would they receive their GCSE or A-level certificates: this would be disappointing but not life-threatening. What is important is that they progress to the right college and university courses. Our school leaders will wish to make accurate predictions that will set pupils up for success. There are precedents from previous years where pupils who have been ill have been offered places based on school predictions. We need to level the playing field this year.

The practice of making unconditional offers has received criticism during “normal times” as being potentially demotivating, or even elitist, but we are in abnormal times now: unconditional offers are preferable to avoidable fatalities.

Covid-19 is a once-in-a-century pandemic and it requires once-in-a-century responses and solutions to reduce casualties. They may not be the only solutions, but they need to be seriously considered by parliament if we are to avoid students and staff putting their own and others’ lives at risk because of the allure of high grades or a prestigious university place.

Source: The Guardian