28th January 2021
With exams cancelled for 2021 and replaced with teacher assessment, private candidates are left without any idea what will happen to their GCSE and A-Levels. We don’t expect to see a repeat of last year’s catastrophe that left 5,000 A-Level students without grades in the summer – but what could the options be? Our Head of Academia, Simon Pedley, explains.

What’s The Issue?

Last summer, roughly 5,000 A-Level students were left without grades when exams were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Exams regulator Ofqual has officially recognised that private candidates were the biggest losers from the scrapping of exams.

Without a formal plan in place, private students don’t have any reassurance that 2021 will be any different – but there is hope.

Who Does This Affect?

This issue affects private candidates, who enter into an exam series without being enrolled in a school or college.

Students in this situation find a centre nearby, typically a school, college or specialised exam centre, and sit the exam there. The centre sends off the private candidates’ exam along with their other students. It is not usually a big deal, and in 2019 there were about 8,500 private candidates for A-Level.


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What Happened Last Year?

Private candidates, apart from a small number for whom a centre was found, did not receive centre-assessment grades because they didn’t have a centre that would hold any evidence on them – and teachers couldn’t make a judgement about how they could have performed.

Furthermore, the need for these centres to rank students also created a perception that the inclusion of any private candidates would disadvantage their own students by pushing them down any rank order.

But not all private candidates were disadvantaged. UCAS has given a number of examples of universities being flexible in cases where applicants did not have grades. It was far from an ideal situation and created a lot of heartache and stress.

What’s The Hope For 2021?

The good news is that, possibly, things will not be as bad for private candidates this year.

The big difference between this year and last year is that even though we don’t know exactly what the government’s plan will be, we do know that schools, and by extension students, will need to provide some evidence to show that they are working at the grade they are allocated.

This might come through a collation of evidence, similar to a portfolio, or it might be informed by performance in mooted ‘external assessments’ provided by the exam boards. Or it might be something else.

The important point is that it won’t be nothing, as it was last year. This gives private candidates a chance because centres will be able to base the grades on something.

Further good news is that the government is at least aware of the problem. A section of the consultation explicitly asks about what should be done about private candidates.

What Could Happen?

The government is currently considering four key options. Of these, three solutions will allow private candidates to get a grade this summer – but one does not.

The options are:

1. ‘For private candidates to work with a school or college willing to assess the standard at which they are performing – using the same type of evidence the school and college is considering for its students.’

If an external candidate can match the quality of that evidence then, theoretically, there is no reason why a school could not issue a grade. Furthermore, the lack of an algorithm would mean that internal candidates are not disadvantaged by having another student included in the school ranking, whether or not that was a real issue to begin with.

The problems will be whether schools have the capacity to do this and whether external exam organisations can do this internally and to a high enough standard. It will also depend on what the guidance actually is around allocating grades; if it’s based on students having sat internal mocks, that is unlikely to be helpful.

2. ‘For private candidates to complete the papers set by the exam boards for use in schools and colleges. The exam boards would mark the papers (and any completed non-exam assessment) and issue a grade to the private candidate based on their performance.’

This is more encouraging for private candidates. If they can sit exam board-written assessments at home, as is being considered for internal candidates whose school may have closed or are otherwise isolating, then the exam board could issue them a grade as they would any other student.

The issue here is whether the overall plan can work, given concerns around schools setting the timings of the exams – for example, students could share answers after the event – and whether sitting exams at home can be made to work.

Another problem for private candidates is whether these assessments will be able to form the basis of an entire grade or whether they will need to be considered in addition to any work a student has completed. This is the approach the Welsh government is taking.

3. ‘For the exam boards to run normal exams for private candidates to take in the summer of 2021 – appropriate venues would need to be provided.’

This would be the ideal option as far as private candidates are concerned. All a private candidate would need to do would be to find a venue to sit an exam externally, as would be the case normally, and then they could be allocated a grade by the exam board.

4. ‘For the exam boards to run normal exams for private candidates to take in the autumn of 2021 – appropriate venues would need to be provided.’

I would be optimistic that this is not the approach likely to be taken. If it were, then there would really be no difference between how private candidates were treated this year as opposed to last year.

What Can You Do?

Keep studying! No option presented will save you from having to do some work.

Unlike last year you will need to either present work of an appropriate standard, or to sit an external assessment at some point. There is literally no reason not to keep studying to ensure that you can demonstrate how much you have learned. It is almost certain you will be assessed in some form.

If you need support in doing this, you might want to consider our science and maths tutoring. The teaching is tailored to specific exam boards and developed by leading Teachers – and you can choose from one-to-one tuition or small-group learning.

You also need to keep an eye on entry dates. An obvious concern many people may have is that the result of the consultation is due after the deadline for entry for most exam boards. Hopefully, these deadlines will be relaxed, but even if they aren’t, the mid-February deadline is not the last opportunity to enter. Exam boards will accept entries after that date – but please be aware that they are more costly.

Finally, keep an eye out for updates. We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, but the first indication of a plan will be towards the end of February. Make sure you’re signed up to our Medic Monday newsletter, to get the latest updates every Monday.


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