In this first return to examinations following the pandemic exceptional arrangements, here are some of what we think are key considerations for schools in delivering a successful summer exam series.
Staying on top of the guidance is important, but can be challenging. Much has returned this year to the pre-pandemic norms in terms of exam body rules and procedure, but not everything. There are additional exam materials for some subjects, differences in marking and grade boundaries, continuing challenges concerning COVID-related illness and absence and a relaxation of rules for invigilation. You should also familiarise yourself with procedures and key dates for reviews of marking and appeal procedures, as an important element of post exam support. Access the latest Ofqual and JCQ guidance.
Grades are being awarded in the usual way using external marking. However, the boundaries will be set at a mid-point between 2019, the last summer exam sitting, and last year which delivered record results following teacher assessment.
Clear messaging to parents and pupils will be important to ensure that with this adjustment to grade boundaries, expectations and outcomes are not misaligned. This will help to avoid an increased risk of disappointment, which can lead to a greater post exam burden.
Additionally, efficient and high quality post exam support can do much to address disappointment, maximise outcomes and manage risk. Schools should ensure that they have the resources in place they need to meet projected demand on results days (18 August for A-Level, 25 August for GCSE) and beyond, including for routine advice and assistance, pastoral support, and dealing with reviews and appeals, complaints and Subject Access Requests.
The grounds for exam board appeals this year have returned to the pre-pandemic position. They include where a review of marking has not corrected any error and where the exam board has made a procedural error. Appeals are available in respect of marking and administration issues, as well as access arrangements, special consideration and malpractice decisions.
With even the best preparation, candidate and other, malpractice can happen and timely action is essential to ensure the best outcomes for pupils and the school. We remind heads of centre in particular of their obligation to immediately report to the relevant exam board a suspicion or allegation of malpractice and the very broad definition of malpractice (including maladministration), which includes any failure to follow applicable exam board guidance. Even a failure to report or in a timely fashion is itself malpractice and can invite exam board sanctions.
If something does go wrong, as well as taking timely steps to deliver the best outcomes for pupils and parents, do also remember to report to insurers and the Charity Commission where applicable.
Mental health and wellbeing is a key issue for schools with the reported rise in mental health conditions among young people. Schools have a duty of care to ensure that their pupils are supported pastorally and they should maintain vigilance to signs of distress and decline throughout the examination period and following the issue of results.
Timely advice and support can be critical. It is also important to keep in mind that mental health conditions can constitute a disability under the Equality Act 2010, whereby schools have a specific legal duty to address a substantial disadvantage a pupil may face, through reasonable adjustments. You have a duty to consider this as part of and in addition to exam board access arrangements and should also seek special consideration for pupils with health issues and other exceptional circumstances, where appropriate.
As access arrangements are usually in place as a reasonable adjustment for disability, we would also recommend a double check that all access arrangements are approved and the necessary arrangements are in place for exam days to ensure they are administered correctly. Failure to apply for or properly administer access arrangements is likely to constitute disability discrimination and can give rise to complaints and claims.
Given the ongoing spread of COVID, the UK Health Security Agency advises pupils who are unwell with a high temperature on an examination day to stay at home. Schools should seek special consideration in these circumstances.
We hope that this note serves as a useful checklist and wish all schools and their pupils the very best of luck for a successful summer examination series.