So the decision has been taken that GCSE and A-level examinations will take place in 2021, with contingencies in place. The delaying of these exams by three weeks, along with some changes to specifications, highlights the concern about the amount of material to be covered in a reduced time scale.

But it will not take account of those schools who have had to ask some of their year group "bubbles" to stay at home owing to Covid outbreaks. As more areas are moved to higher alert levels this problem is only going to get worse.

However there will be some wider concerns. One must be the implication for broader study. If the foundations for GCSE are slightly shaky or pared back, how might that impact on A-level performance in the future? Whilst there may be a reduced expectation from awarding bodies, many teachers in the independent sector pride themselves on going above and beyond what is asked by a specification. This results in students having a thorough understanding of scientific concepts, or a real feel for the place in history or literature of a theme being studied. This has to have an impact on further study, in the sixth form or at university.

Also, what of the timeframe for marking the external examinations?  Whilst the results days are being delayed to the final week in August, the schedule for marking is still compressed. The quality of marking has been under scrutiny and, in spite of Ofqual tightening remarking guidelines, there are still a significant number of grade changes each year. With greater time pressure next year, this has to be a major concern. And who will be undertaking the marking? There are thousands of markers, many of whom are practising teachers, but many of whom have left the classroom, who undertake this onerous task.  Many, particularly those no longer teaching, could be balancing the workload of marking for more than one awarding body, possibly for both GCSE and A-level. 

Some experienced markers will be disillusioned since they count on the money from marking for a specific part of their outgoings, a family holiday or a fund for Christmas presents etc. This income, which many will have had annually over several years, was suddenly not there in 2020.  Whilst some awarding bodies did recompense the markers in some way, it will not make up for the perceived loss of earnings. 

This means that some, having not had the money this year, may decide not to join the fray for 2021, lacking certainty that the work, and the money, will be there next summer. In the light of so much uncertainty, this could generate a need for more markers.

Marking for awarding bodies is a highly valuable undertaking. It is clearly very stressful, standards have to be very high and there is constant quality control. But it does give markers a real insight into the nuances of the specification which even close reading of the chief examiners’ reports cannot duplicate.

For teachers at the start of their career, learning exactly what is required from questions, having a full understanding of the assessment objectives of the specification and a clear idea of how level marking is undertaken can only enhance their performance in the classroom.  As continuing professional development this is something that forward-looking leadership teams will be encouraging their staff to undertake.

The health warning that comes with this is to ensure that all parties are aware that the work is being undertaken; all markers are obliged to share the names of examination centres and individual students where there may be a conflict of interest. There is also a commitment to ensure that the school leaders are aware of exactly which specifications are being marked by an individual teacher. There is a need for everyone to be absolutely open about such sensitive matters in a world where cheating is certainly not unheard of.