A-levels: 2021 and beyond

Education was already one of the stories of this strange, hot summer, doing well in an unusually crowded field; but the last week has pushed it to the top of the public agenda as rarely before. If the government has now done enough to contain the story as it affects GCSEs this week, we might expect the news focus to shift to universities.

Those of us who plan and produce (and market and sell) educational materials for schools have had a lot to absorb and to judge already this year; but this disruption will throw some of these existing issues into even sharper relief, and opens up more possible futures that we need to think about.

Ongoing uncertainty

Schools have already been thinking about how those students returning to unfamiliar conditions for years 11 and 13, having missed a good chunk of years 10 and 12, are going to prepare for their exams. Those preparing for the 2021 A-levels in particular are likely feeling a great deal of uncertainty and perhaps stress. Depending on the messages that come in the next few days and weeks from government and from the university sector itself, they will worry that their competition for university places (particularly at the top institutions) isn’t just with their peers, but with deferred entries from the class of ‘20. What will their attitude to mock exams be, knowing that a stroke of luck could turn these once again into high-stakes tests? How will the newly apparent power of a teacher’s judgement affect the classroom relationship?

In the slightly longer term, will we see a shift back from grades 100% based on a final exam? Right now, this seems a likely eventual policy outcome. But even before policy change, will teachers, many of whom feel their professionalism has been under attack, begin to think about how what happens in the classroom might better evidence their students’ abilities and progress? And with “algorithm” currently a dirty word, what will attitudes to grade standardisation be in future exam years?

Reaction to change

Any changes in university admissions policy will also have a big impact on schools: the question of a move to post-exam applications will draw much more attention in days ahead; some institutions may see unconditional offers as a solution. The government has already announced it has lifted the admissions cap this year, but when and how will it return?

As with so much this year, schools and universities will need to be “flexible”. Of course they will be, but a feature of this story is that when we move quickly and pragmatically, we risk fairness, and in particular we risk exacerbating existing inequity in the system. Furthermore, with so much to do, specific groups might be left behind (for example, BTEC candidates and private A-level entrants were both left out yesterday). 

We should remember that for some children, school is the best source of stability in their lives. Schools will be looking to do the best by their students moving into exam years, and to everyone else already at school, whose education has already been disrupted and faces more disruption. As we move into an uncertain and shifting future, this is the opportunity and the challenge for everyone in education.