Pupils taking GCSE and A-level exams in England next year will be given advance notice on the focus of exam papers and more lenient grading than before the pandemic to make up for Covid-19 disruption.
Students will also be offered exam aids and a choice of topics in some exams during the 2022 summer series, the Government has confirmed.
More pupils are set to be given higher grades next year than before the pandemic to provide a “safety net” for the cohort of students who have missed out on learning during school and college closures. But results are expected to return to normal standards by 2023, according to the Department for Education (DfE) and exams regulator Ofqual.
The DfE and Ofqual have confirmed a choice of topics in some GCSE exams, such as English literature and history, will be offered, and support materials in exams, such as formulae and equation sheets in maths and physics, will be provided.
For subjects where a choice of topics are not provided, advance information on the focus of exam content will be given in early February to help students with their revision.
But education unions say giving advanced information about exam content in the spring will be too late for teachers to prepare their pupils for the exams.
Grade boundaries will be set by exam boards reflecting a midway point between 2021 and 2019 results – so more students get higher grades in 2022 than before the pandemic – to reflect the recovery period.
It is understood that overall next summer’s results are likely to be higher than in 2019, but not as high as in 2020. But the grading standards for students who are due to sit their exams in summer 2023 are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels.
This year, 44.8% of UK A-level entries were awarded an A or A* grade, compared with 38.5% entries which achieved the top grades in 2020.
In 2019, when exams were last run before the pandemic, 25.5% of entries achieved the top grades.
It is the Government’s intention that exams will take place next year, but the Government and Ofqual have also published proposals for using teacher-assessed grades as a contingency measure if exams cannot run.
A consultation on proposed contingency plans will run until October 13.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “We’ve put fairness at the heart of our approach and listened to pupils, teachers and parents.
“The measures we’re putting in place will help reduce the impact of the significant disruption this group of young people have had to face – allowing them to move on to the next stage of their lives.
“We are committed to rigorous standards being fairly applied, and exams are the fairest way to assess students, which is why they will take place next year.”
Dr Jo Saxton, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said: “Our grading approach will recognise the disruption experienced by students taking exams in 2022.
“It will provide a safety net for those who might otherwise just miss out on a higher grade, while taking a step back to normal.
“Exams and other formal assessments are the best and fairest means of assessing students’ achievements.
“Choice in some subjects and advance information to support revision are intended to provide support for all as we emerge from the pandemic.”
But Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the Government’s decisions for exams in 2022 will not “allay the anxiety or answer the questions” that many teachers have.
She said: “Only giving advanced information about the exams in time for revision will result in a ‘topic lottery’ where some students will have happened to have covered the topics on the exam in sufficient depth and others may well have not.
“Being told what the focus of the exam is after teaching and learning has finished is of no use if the focus of the exam is something you haven’t had a chance to cover in sufficient depth, which would be the case for many due to the pandemic.
“This will have a disproportionate impact on those who suffered the greatest disruption to learning due to Covid – more often than not, the most disadvantaged students.”
On grading plans, Dr Bousted added: “The Government and Ofqual are picking an arbitrary number out of the air in order to determine how many of each grade will be issued next summer. Such a random act undermines their argument that exams are the fairest way to assess students.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, was concerned that schools and colleges will not be given advance information on exam content to help with revision until February 7.
He said: “Providing this information sooner would help to reduce the differential impact of the pandemic on students so far.”
Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “Labour set out a comprehensive plan for 2022 exams weeks ago but students have been left anxiously waiting while the Conservatives dithered and delayed.
“Over the next three years over 1.3 million children will leave school with no recovery support under the Conservative’s failing tutoring programme.
“In contrast, Labour’s ambitious recovery plan – extending the school day for new activities, tutoring for all who need it, mental health support in every school – will deliver the new opportunities to learn, play and develop every child needs. It’s time the Conservatives match Labour’s ambition for children’s recovery and their futures.”