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Summer 2021 exam arrangements for private candidates

All the links you’ll ever need to find out about how home educators and other private candidates can get graded this summer, after exams were cancelled.

Grading arrangements and support are slightly different depending on which exam board and qualification you’re sitting. We’ll start with Ofqual regulated qualifications, which include all the English GCSEs, AS and A levels from AQA, OCR, Pearson Edexcel and WJEC Eduqas (the boards that make up the JCQ). Next up we’ll look at Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs (IGCSEs), and then CAIE International GCSEs, AS and A levels. CCEA in Northern Ireland and WJEC CBAC in Wales have their own plans. Scotland Highers were never really accessible for private candidates in the first place…

Ofqual regulated qualifications – English GCSEs, AS and A levels from AQA, OCR, Pearson Edexcel and WJEC Eduqas

In a nutshell:

  • Private candidates need to work with an exam centre to review existing evidence and create new secure evidence, such as sitting a past paper under centre supervision, for the exam centre to use to decide on a grade. Centres can supervise work remotely, but generally the centre or a trusted tutor will need to invigilate an assessment either in centre or via conferencing software like Zoom or Teams. It is up to the centres to decide exactly what they need and how they will set and mark it. Existing work can be used, but only if can be verified by a tutor or course provider that the exam centre trusts – work done just with a parent at home won’t be accepted.
  • Arrangements are varying by exam centres – some will work with existing course providers, some are providing verified tutors for you to get in touch with and arrange an assessment, some are setting their own assessments and will only use those. When the assessments will happen also varies by exam centre – most are doing them very soon so they have time for all the marking and moderation required before final submission of grades by 18 June. Centres are supposed to take account of what the candidate has been able to study and tailor the assessments to this (by cutting out bits of content you haven’t covered and replacing it with bits you have; not by just generally upping a grade assessment). Again how – and if – this happens is varying by centre.
  • This is going to be a lot more work than usual for exam centres, so in order to cover extra costs like paying tutors for a grade, the Department for Education is offering a grant of £200 that centres can claim. Again, it’s up to centres if they claim this and how they use it and arrangements are differing. This is only for the Ofqual qualifications and only in England (or if you were already planning to sit exams in England) – you can’t use it for IGCSEs from either Pearson Edexcel or CAIE (Cambridge), or for International AS or A levels from CAIE.
  • If you haven’t yet found an exam centre or don’t like the approach of the one you have, there is a list of exam centres that have said they may accept private candidates coming from the JCQ very soon. Exam boards have all waived late entry fees for private candidates until 26 April, but exam centres will have their own fees and deadlines too.
  • If you would rather sit a normal exam in the Autumn, that should be possible for all Ofqual GCSEs and A levels, but maybe not AS levels – there is a consultation going on about this at the moment.

The links:

JCQ guidance on how grades will be awarded in Summer 2021

Private Candidate Support Grant

Autumn exams consultation – closes 9th April 2021

The verdict:

It’s a lot of work for exam centres, which has meant many existing centres have been unable to support private candidates this year. Those that are giving it a go are dealing with massive complexity and tight timescales – it’s all a bit stressful and all over the place, to be perfectly honest.

The basic idea that private candidates will be treated the same as school students doesn’t really hold water unless candidates are in the rare position of having an independent tutor or course provider that has been working in a classroom sort of style with them. Otherwise private candidates will end up being judged on a small number of assessments compared to a far wider range of possibilities for schooled candidates; and typically in a different way of working than they would normally expect. In most instances, for the student it means they’re having to sit more exams (via past papers) than usual, and earlier than they’d planned for.

A lot of this is true for pupils in schools as well, as each school is making their own decisions on assessments and they don’t always stack up – but fundamentally a system that is focused around a teacher relationship isn’t likely to work as well for students that don’t have one, and this is being borne out by the experiences of home educators across the board at the moment.

Financially the support grant is very welcome, and it’s going to help some candidates with some of the costs – definitely talk to your centre and get them to claim it if they can! However not covering IGCSEs limits its use pretty considerably, it doesn’t cover centres that have already overcharged, and many costs have already been incurred by home educators such as signing up with more expensive centres and booking courses and tutors that they wouldn’t normally have needed.

Overall – it’s open to more candidates than last year, and if you need a grade this summer you should be able to get one. However how it stacks up against the grade from a normal year, or against the grade a schooled pupil will be getting, is open to debate. Deferring is an attractive option, though has its own knock-on effects. And did I mention it’s all very stressful?

Pearson Edexcel IGCSEs

In a nutshell:

  • Similar arrangements to the Ofqual qualifications, with an additional option for unseen assessment papers as standalone evidence – which looks to the candidate like a normal exam, but a bit earlier than usual. This is just an option and not all exam centres will decide to use it. They have produced a leaflet for centres which explains all the possibilities, linked below.
  • Not included in the DfE support grant. Some centres are charging extra for the additional work of assessing, some are not.
  • There should be a later exam series, but we don’t yet know exactly when or what will be in it – it may not be the full range of subjects. It may also have a knock-on effect on subjects included in the usual January exam series.

The links:

Pearson’s Private Candidate page

Pearson’s support guide for centres accepting private candidates for IGCSEs

Timetable for the unseen IGCSE assessments (from this page)

Full guidance for centres about grading IGCSEs in Summer 2021 (from this page)

The verdict:

There are similar issues for home educators with the overall approach as for Ofqual regulations, and many candidates are still ending up having to pay more for less consistent grades – so deferring is also on the cards for some and it would be very nice to know what the options for later exams will be!

However the unseen assessments provide a route for more centres to be able to support private candidates easily, and the information provided is helpful and welcome. If we end up here again (please no!), a backup system like this from the start would have made things a lot less fraught.

CAIE (Cambridge) International GCSEs, AS and A levels

Cambridge always do things slightly differently to the other boards, as they are not part of the JCQ group and have a much wider international customer base than the other boards. they are continuing to run exams as normal in many countries, but in the UK (and some others) have switched to a school-assessed system, and are not offering normal exams even as an option.

In a nutshell:

  • CAIE require grades to be based on three pieces of portfolio evidence covering as much of the course content as possible. Each of these must be based on 1hr+ focused work under verifiable conditions (preferably in centre, but variations of remote supervision or tutor supervised are also allowed). Ideally one of these will be a full past paper. They could also be pieces of coursework, combinations of past paper questions, or centre set assignments such as an essay question.
  • Again, centres have the final say on how exactly they want to do this and how they determine a grade from these pieces of evidence.
  • These qualifications are not covered by the support grant and most (not all) centres are charging extra for the extra work of setting and marking evidence for grading.
  • CAIE will be running their usual November series (which starts in October) – many but not all subjects are included, so check the timetable to see what’s being offered.

The links:

Cambridge guidance for schools-assessed grades – the bottom of this page includes a link to detailed guidance, and there is also an FAQ page.

Timetable for the CAIE November 21 series

The verdict:

It’s relatively clear what is allowed, which is overall a good thing to reduce the decision-making required from all concerned. All the same caveats apply as for the other approaches though – private candidates will have less information to choose from than schooled candidates, and end up needing to do more exam-like assessments at extra cost in an earlier timeframe, using a more limited range of exam centres than usual. Since CAIE will have exams on hand, it might have been better to leave them as an option for private candidates to at least widen up exam centre access, reduce costs, and stick with the assessment candidates had been preparing for.

CCEA Northern Irish qualifications

In a nutshell:

  • Similar to the Ofqual approach – work through a school to produce evidence – which can be based on just the CCEA provided assessment resource(s), if that is all that is available. This still needs to be marked by the centre.
  • Deadlines for grade submission are earlier – 21 May for A level and 4 June for GCSE – with time required for moderation meaning assessments need to be earlier than this.

The links:

CCEA private candidate arrangements for Summer 2021

The verdict:

All the same issues apply, although being able to be based purely on the board provided assessments reduces the impact for centres slightly – however they still have to find marking resources.

WJEC CBAC Welsh qualifications

In a nutshell:

  • Private candidates can choose two slightly different routes for grading in Summer 21.
    • Centre assessed grades, where they can use the same centre process as internal candidates; this is intended for those who already have a centre in place.
    • Centre hosted grades, where the exam board will provide assessments and marking and the exam centre just needs to host the candidate, like in normal years.
  • Help with finding costs and with funding for centre hosted grades are promised, but no details have been given yet.

The links:

Welsh guidance for grading in Summer 2021 – includes private candidate specific guidance.

Exam centres accepting private candidates

The verdict:

Again, the inherent difference in systems and timescales are still there. But again, the exam board support opens options up for more exam centres.

And that’s it! Whether you’re going for a grade this summer or deferring until the next series, all power to you. It’s been a helluva exam season yet again, and I’m going to award an A* for perseverance to the lot of us.

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