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2021 Exams for home educators – where are we now?

So, the long awaited Ofqual/DfE consultations about alternative arrangements for summer 2021 exams is out… what’s the news for home educators?

This applies to AQA, Pearson (Edexcel), OCR, and WJEC Eduqas GCSEs, AS levels and A levels, ie all the Ofqual regulated qualifications. Welsh and NI GCSEs have their own rules, and IGCSEs don’t have the follow the same rules – more about those below.

The DfE has this to say:

Private candidates will be assessed in a similar way to other students, by a recognised exam centre using an adapted range of evidence, which includes taking the exam board provided assessment materials in a suitable form.

Centres will be asked to assess candidates based on what they have been taught. They will be allowed to conduct assessment remotely if necessary.

DfE will ensure that sufficient centres are available to assess private candidates and that the costs are not significantly increased compared to a normal year.

There will be a process for centres to express interest before the list is published. Following this, a list will be made available of centres willing to assess private candidates.

Ofqual will work to ensure exam boards provide sufficient guidance on an assessment approach and support materials to those centres that wish to carry out this role.

They have also separately said that they want there to be a full exam series in the Autumn, for anyone who wants to improve their grade or was unable to get a grade in the Summer series.

So what does this mean? Let’s break it down.

‘Teacher assessment’, with exam centres responsible for deciding a grade based on their own process

Bottom line is it will be up to each exam centre to decide what they’re going to do. They will have to decide on and manage the process. They have plenty of options, which should be helpful for some candidates – but they’re also shouldering all the responsibility, which means not many will be prepared to take this on. Those that do may have extra requirements (like providing tutor verified evidence), that may involve extra costs. It should be possible for exam centres to do something fairly simple and therefore cheap that doesn’t need tutors; but this hasn’t been specified very clearly and so many are requesting more evidence to be on the safe side.

We’re hoping more detailed guidance will come down the line, but decisions need to be made now, so these are some of the suggestions exam centres have made so far.

  • Many see this as the same teacher assessment as last year, and so have said they can’t support it – they are suggesting candidates find a new exam centre or defer to the Autumn exam series
  • Some are requiring you to have a pre-existing tutor who is prepared to verify evidence and come up with a predicted grade for you.
  • Some are requesting new pieces of evidence such as coursework assignments to be provided and verified by an external tutor – the number varies but can be substantial.
  • Some will arrange past paper/exam board based assessments to be taken either in the centre, or at home under verified conditions (for example, by filming the student from the time papers are opened, throughout the assessment, and until the papers are sealed in an envelope to be posted back).
  • Some will work with tutors and course providers to determine a predicted grade if you have them, and will arrange past paper/exam board based assessments if you don’t.

It’s a bit of a lottery, depending on what your centre is prepared to do, and details about anything are quite sketchy at the moment. If you haven’t got a centre yet, it’s even more nerve wracking!

What about IGCSEs and International A levels?

International qualifications aren’t regulated by Ofqual, so they are responsible for deciding their own rules. Both boards have already said that in the UK, they will not be running exams in summer 2021 and will be using a process of teacher assessment instead.

At the time of writing (Feb 28th), Pearson/Edexcel haven’t announced the details of the process they’re planning on – however expect it to be very similar to the Ofqual one. They have also said they will run a replacement exam series later in the year, but haven’t yet decided when it will be or what subjects it will contain. It is most likely to be around October/November, with a reasonable full range of subjects – but that’s not something we can count on just yet.

Cambridge (CAIE) have said that they want to see three pieces of substantial work from each candidate as evidence in support of the grade awarded. This means something like a full past paper, a coursework assignment, or a similar assessment created by the centre, which should take at least an hour of focused time to complete. Combined, these should show broad coverage of the syllabus. It doesn’t have to be completed in any particular conditions, but the centre needs to be reasonably sure it was the candidate’s own unaided work – for private candidates this effectively means either verified by a tutor or Distance Learning Provider that the exam centre trusts, or completed under the supervision of the centre (which may involve remote arrangements like using Zoom, or filming of the work being done).

What are your options?

It depends on whether you have a centre prepared to support you, and whether you have been working independently or not – and how important it is to you to get a grade this summer.

If you’re already booked into a centre

If you are with a centre, they may have been in touch to explain their process, or they may be waiting for more information and guidance, which has been promised to arrive in the next few weeks. It should theoretically be possible for any centre to support any private candidates, for example by using past paper assessments sat in the centre or remotely verified.

However some centres don’t have the required expertise to set or mark such work, and some centres simply don’t feel they can have a reasonable level of confidence in the judgement made for a candidate that they haven’t been directly working with. It’s a very different situation to teachers assessing students they have been working with for years, but centres are being asked to do the same thing – some won’t be able to.

If your centre is prepared to support your child given the study situation they are in, the centre will be setting their own rules. You may be able to persuade them to do something different if they’ve misunderstood (for example, some centres are asking for work over a long period of time, which isn’t an Ofqual requirement), but you may not – bottom line, they can decide what they’re comfortable with, and you can agree, defer, or look elsewhere.

If you haven’t got a centre or they can’t support you any more

If working with your current centre isn’t possible, or you’re not booked with one yet, then the window is tight but there may still be options. The fact remote assessment is possible opens up any exam centre from around the country, so ask on the national groups and you will find out who is helpful and still taking candidates – and what they charge.

The exam boards have extended their entry deadlines until 21st March for private candidates only (in slightly complicated ways), so there is still a small window to change or register with a centre at the normal exam fee prices. However be aware that exam centres set their own deadlines and fees which are usually in advance of this – and for CAIE (Cambridge) exams the entry deadline is 7th March. Even though there are no actual ‘exams’ this summer, in order to get a grade your child will need to be assessed, so exam centre registration is still a must. It may end up being important to be registered this summer in order to sit the autumn exams, too.

The DfE has also said that it will be preparing a list of exam centres that will support private candidates, and that it will come up with something to ensure costs are kept to the normal range. It’s difficult to know what this will mean at the moment, but they may yet come through for those who are currently left stranded. Fingers crossed.

How will the assessment process and grades compare to schooled children?

In theory, it’s the same process. And if you’re one of the few home educated students who were already working in a school-like fashion with a tutor or course provider who is able to give you a predicted grade, and you have a centre prepared to take it – it’ll be quite similar.

For most though, it won’t. Partly this is an issue of the whole system that’s been decided on – there deliberately isn’t any standardisation, in order to take account of the different circumstances schools and students have had over the last year. There are processes in place to ensure grades aren’t completely off the wall, but each school will be setting their own assessment process and they may look very different from each other. It may seem unreasonable that home educated students have to sit a full specification past paper mock, for instance, but it’s quite likely a good chunk of schooled children will have to as well. If you have a super flexible exam centre, they can take advantage of that flexibility too, but the chances of a completely individual process are small – and children in school will mostly be treated on a whole class or whole school basis as well.

However, whatever the process is, schooled children will be assessed in their normal way of working, by someone who knows them and their circumstances, and home educated children won’t. Everyone is subject to the same uncertainty about what exactly will happen, but home educators are also under time pressure to make decisions with significant costs and implications for their children’s futures, and those with children in school aren’t. Children in school will get something sorted out, even if it’s not ideal. We may not.

What if I just want to do exams?

In most cases, it’s likely there will be the option of deferring to exams taken in Autumn, although there are some unknowns here too. DfE have said that they want there to be a full exam series for GCSEs, AS and A levels, so that’s almost certainly going to happen. We don’t know exactly when, but the same November time period as last year is likely. We also don’t know if you will need to have been registered for the Summer exams in order to sit in the Autumn ones – which was the case last year.

Pearson (Edexcel) IGCSEs will have a later exam series, but haven’t yet confirmed when or what subjects will be included – it may not be the full range. They also haven’t confirmed whether it will be open to everyone or only those with summer exam entries, though they’re more likely to keep it open. Edexcel usually have a January IGCSE series for some subjects, so there’s a good chance all the subjects will be available in one or the other series (as happened last year); but we don’t know yet.

CAIE (Cambridge) always run an exam series in October and November, and haven’t announced any changes to this. This doesn’t include all subjects though, so it’s worth checking if the subject you were planning on is normally included or not.

Deferring exams has a lot of knock-on effects – if your child needs summer grades for a college course or university place then deferring may not be an option. Even if they don’t, it can be hard to keep motivation up for a moving target, and the delay will impact on existing study plans. It’s not an easy option, but it is an option.

Isn’t this just the same as last year?

Honestly, it looks pretty much like it from here. Drilling down though, there are some differences – exam boards aren’t requiring existing work and have options for those without tutors (though exam centres aren’t all supporting this). There’s a bit more time to get our heads round it, albeit still not enough. A few more exam centres may be able to take candidates on, and there’s still the chance the DfE will come up trumps with some affordable exam centre options. There has been engagement with groups like HEQA, Education Otherwise and CPE throughout the process – though little sign this helped much in the end!

Personally though, I think we’re looking at Autumn exams again, which will mean a brutal schedule next year and cutting it to the wire with college applications. All with a sinking sense of unease about what may happen in Summer 2022, and costs already at least four times higher per exam as our local school couldn’t commit to the uncertainty. It’s not the result I’d hoped for.

How about you? Will you be able to make the summer arrangements work out? Are there any questions you have about the process? Let me know, and I’ll do what I can to help. (First step is often the wonderful HE Exams Wiki.)

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