Cancel the 2021 GCSEs to save our future

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The government has turned crisis into catastrophe by deciding to retain the 2021 GCSE and A Level examinations and institute rigorous mock exams beforehand. It displays a woeful ignorance of teaching and learning, combined with a total failure to learn from past mistakes.

Students have not been at school for six months and their return this autumn is marked by further periods of absence due to Covid-19 outbreaks and quarantine requirements: something highly likely to increase as autumn turns to winter.

The current pressure on both students and teachers to catch up on missed learning, while managing ongoing disruptions in attendance, is doubled by a requirement to revise for their mocks what they may have not yet sufficiently covered in class, and then for exams that may still have to be cancelled – whatever the government says.

Another U-Turn is required because teachers need whatever time will be available to concentrate on teaching and to support students who are undergoing the biggest disruption to education since World War II.

The strains on the mental health and emotional well-being of children and young people are already a cause for concern, as are those of teachers and school administrators.

At the launch of the UN’s Save Our Futures campaign, General Secretary Antonio Guterres said:

Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.

Scotland has been wise and recognised the real crisis facing our young people. Deputy First Minister John Swinney told MSPs:

Due to the level of disruption already caused by Covid-19 and due to the likely disruption faced by some or all of our pupils and students this academic year, a full exam diet is simply too big a risk to take.

He added that the Scottish government “..could not plan for business as usual” in next year’s exam timetable.

Not so for England, and we await a decision from Wales.

There is no justification for imposing these conditions on England’s students and teachers. Every pressure should be brought on this government to change its mind.

​Liberal Democrats should heed the words of Guterres and lead on this issue . Cancel the 2021 GCSE’s and A Levels; trust the dedicated professionalism of teachers and school administrators.

* Ian Jones is the Chair of North East region Candidates Committee

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I couldn’t agree more with Ian Jones. We are the only country in Europe to set public exams at 16, so it would make sense to grasp this opportunity to see what happens if we cancel them. As far as A levels are concerned, this year the role of examiners could be changed to one of moderators, as for BTEC qualifications, which would ensure consistency across centres.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Oct '20 - 4:03pm

    @Joe Otten
    “The whole education system is stacked against poor kids and state schools. ”
    “Exams are the least stacked element of that which is why they should be defended against all the groups that bend and break the rules in the rest of the system in their own favour.”
    I think you need to justify this statement – seems to me it is better off people who can get extra pre-exam coaching for their kids and hence stack the system in their favour.

  • Peter Watson 13th Oct '20 - 5:27pm

    @Nonconformistradical “I think you need to justify this statement …”
    Intuitively, Joe Otten’s statement “feels” correct.
    In the exam room, all of the kids are sitting the same question paper under the same conditions. Obviously some will have had better resources to prepare them for that, but one could imagine ways that teachers and schools can be equipped to help level the playing field. The quality of a child’s course work could depend a lot on the access they might have to things like a good place to work, a computer or other equipment, books, holidays and trips to relevant places and events, family connections, etc., as well as the interest, involvement and academic ability of parents.
    It would be interesting to know of any research to support or contradict my gut-feeling on this.

  • John Marriott 13th Oct '20 - 5:34pm

    Don’t just cancel GCSE’s SCRAP THEM altogether! And do the same with A Levels. In their place introduce a comprehensive Diploma to be awarded at 18, where the vocational enjoys parity with the academic. If you say that it’s never been suggested before, well just have a look at the 2003 Tomlinson Report, which Labour commissioned and then kicked into the long grass. It still makes sense today – in fact, even more so, in my opinion.

  • Nonconformistradical 14th Oct '20 - 10:54am

    “Continuing with a narrow A level specialisation and without GCSEs there would be no verified record of achievement in key subjects.”
    Which is why our education system needs to become much less specialised.

  • Peter Watson 14th Oct '20 - 11:18am

    @Steve Comer “I seem to remember that when my daughter did her GCSEs coursework was a bigger element than it is now. The Tories scaled that back in the name of ‘rigour.’”
    I seem to remember that the Tories had some apparently enthusiastic help with that back in 2012 when Nick Clegg and Michael Gove wrote:

    We believe that if we remove modules and reduce coursework, get rid of the factors that encourage teaching to the test and, above all, ensure there is just one exam board for each subject, we can restore faith in our exams and equip children for the challenges of the 21st century.

    An LDV thread on the same day as that article is a nice trip down memory lane (

  • I think some here haven’t really grasped the real challenge of the current situation and gone off half-cocked about next summer’s exams.
    The primary challenge is ensuring students actually properly cover the syllabus within the normal 2 year window; an A in maths is worthless if the pupil didn’t cover calculus. Remember those aiming for exams in 2021 lost more teaching time due to lockdown than those who sat exams in 2020 and are likely to suffer further reductions in teaching time due to new lockdowns.
    The secondary challenge is creating a framework of assessment that can be relied upon and is consistent natiowide – something from the 2020 results is clearly absent. Without this we can expect universities and employers to reintroduce entrance exams aka backdoor GCSE’s/A-levels…
    Now we come to the challenge of next summer’s exams and how they might be held and or reformulated in to a series of continuous assessment papers, given the known variables of the current situation and the experience of 2020.

    What is clear to me is the idea of making wholesale changes to the A-level/GCSE system (ie. changing it to something else) for those finishing in 2021 is madness.

  • Peter Watson 14th Oct '20 - 11:32am

    @Martin “Other countries may well do without exams at 16, however they have baccalaureates …”
    @Nonconformistradical “Which is why our education system needs to become much less specialised.”
    I appreciated Gove’s notion of an English Baccalaureate as it reflected the same sort of balanced mix of GCSEs I encouraged my children to do, but it seemed more of a branding exercise than a reform.
    But for me, it is the specialisation post-16 that I feel is too extreme and the Coalition’s reforms to A and AS-levels were a step in the wrong direction. The previous system was not ideal but it made it easier for children to begin with four subjects instead of three, keeping more options open (and even opening additional ones in year 13) while they were still trying to decide what to do after leaving school.

  • Peter Watson 14th Oct '20 - 11:47am

    @Roland “What is clear to me is the idea of making wholesale changes to the A-level/GCSE system (ie. changing it to something else) for those finishing in 2021 is madness.”
    You are right. It is good to be reminded of the need for well thought out long-term policies to reform exams at 16 and 18, but that should be separate from how we deal with children in Years 11 and 13 this year (so apologies if I’ve contributed to diverting the thread in that way).
    You highlight very clearly two of the main challenges this year: ensuring that children do not miss important parts of their syllabuses, and ensuring sure that any assessment is robust and fair for everybody (including those not being examined in this academic year).

  • Nigel Jones 14th Oct '20 - 2:09pm

    On 2 October the 4 main teacher unions and the National Governors Association sent a joint statement to government calling for exams to take place, but including some syllabus and exam paper options to provide a fair allowance for having had less time to prepare. They also proposed various preparations be made to cover those students who end up not able to take the exams. I understand they are unhappy with Gavin Williamson because he has not taken on board their other points (especially the reduction in compulsory syllabus covered) and has proposed a three week delay in the exams which they explicitly said would not help much in making them fair.
    John Marriott mentions a completely new system like the Tomlinson proposals and that is very much in line with Lib-Dem approach to the qualifications system, but as Roland says, it absolutely cannot be an option for 2021 (nor 2022).The unions and NGA view is apparently backed up by the views of students and parents, many of whom would be unhappy with the exams being cancelled.

  • Ian G L Jones 15th Oct '20 - 11:29am

    Thank you for all your contributions. in simplist terms my argument is that to have GSCE Exams in 2021 is ‘inhumane’ – as Swinney said ‘this academic year, a full exam diet is simply too big a risk to take.’
    We have a growing crisis of mental health and well-being evident in our schools amongst students and staff.
    By cancelling exams now we give schools certainty and remove a further threat to well-being.
    Discussions can follow on what form school-based assessment can take – though that discussion needs to begin now.
    This is not the time or place for a deeper consideration of serious issues related to the structure of education and assessment, though that debate is needed.
    This is a humanitaran argument – it is morally wrong to add exam pressures onto our schools AT THIS TIME.
    Thank you again.

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