NEU demands reduced content in 2021 exams and less focus on exams

Now unions want to overhaul next year’s exams: NEU demands reduced content for A-levels and GCSEs in 2021 because students find end-of-year tests ‘too stressful’

  • Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney have today written to Education Secretary
  • The NEU chiefs warn coronavirus spikes could lead to ‘further loss of schooling’
  • They have warned the Government needs to begin contingency planning now
  • Also call for GCSE and A-Level review with less content and less focus on exams 

Education union chiefs have today demanded an overhaul of next year’s GCSE and A-Level exams over fears coronavirus could cut school contact time and called for an emphasis shift away from end-of-year exams – because students find them ‘too stressful’.

Bosses at the National Education Union (NEU), the UK’s largest teaching union, have written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, warning new spikes in Covid-19 could lead to ‘further loss of schooling’.

The union has warned the Government should already be making contingency plans and have called for changes to next year’s exams, in the hope education chiefs can ‘build confidence’ in the grades awarded.

These include reducing the amount of content assessed in 2021’s GCSE and A-level exams, working with teachers to develop a ‘robust’ system for moderated centre-assessed grades.

The NEU also wants an independent review into the assessment methods for GCSEs and A-levels, warning that the current system is ‘over-reliant’ on end of year exams, which ‘increase student anxiety’. 

The calls comes after the government’s dramatic U-turn over A-Level exam grades earlier this week, which saw a controversial algorithm system scrapped after thousands of students had their teacher-assessed grades lowered – mostly based upon their school’s previous set of results.

In their letter, NEU chiefs Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney said the controversy around last week’s A-level results ‘must never happen again’. 


NEU chiefs Kevin Courtney (left) and Dr Mary Bousted (right) have written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, warning new spikes in Covid-19 could lead to ‘further loss of schooling’.

The union has warned the Government (pictured: Education Secretary Gavin Williamson) should already be making contingency plans and have called for changes to next year’s exams, in the hope education chiefs can ‘build confidence’ in the grades awarded

Militant teaching union threatens to keep schools SHUT in September 

Militant teaching unions who openly bragged about a ‘win’ over the government’s u-turn on bringing students back before summer have threatened to keep schools closed in September.

Bosses at the National Education Union (NEU), the UK’s largest teaching union, say it may be ‘impossible’ for ‘many’ schools to reopen at the start of the new academic year.

It comes as ministers admitted they were powerless to force schools to reopen in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said ministers could not ‘decree’ that schools open, while Dr Mary Bousted, joint head of the NEU, agreed the government could not ‘carry out its threats’.

In a recorded Zoom meeting, seen by the Daily Telegraph, Dr Bousted also told members they could not ‘trust’ the government’s current guidance and called for the decision on bringing all pupils back to be taken locally.

In the letter, they said: ‘It is clear to the National Education Union that Government needs to make much bigger changes to next year’s exams in order to build confidence that the grades awarded, upon which young people’s life chances are determined, properly recognise and reward their achievements.

‘You should be working, now, to examine different possible scenarios and to develop contingency plans in case of further school and college closures.’ 

They added: ‘The current over-reliance on end of course exams increases student anxiety and fails to give a fair reflection of what students can achieve.

‘All options should be considered to ensure that young people are rewarded for their achievements, supported to fulfil their potential and not held back due to their background.’  

The calls by the NEU, who earlier this month threatened to keep schools closed in September if safety standards for coronavirus weren’t met, comes after top universities called on the Government for additional funds to take on more students.

Universities also called for the cap on the number of pupils studying medicine to be lifted amid fears ministers face a £3billion bailout.

Thousands of students are scrambling to get places at their first choice university after the Government’s screeching u-turn on A-Level results means they now have the grades to get into their first choice places.

But top schools are struggling with the sheer volume of demand as the 55,000 who accepted a place at another university or bagged a new course at clearing are now abandon those decisions to try and get into their top choice.

Students from Codsall Community High School protest outside the constituency office of their local MP, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

A number of universities, such as Cambridge, have already said that some students will have to defer until next year.

The government previously urged universities to honour the offers they made to pupils, but Vice-Chancellors were last night in talks with ministers to secure additional funding to take on thousands of additional students.

Top civil servant at Department for Education ‘is facing axe’ over series of school disasters 

By Claire Ellicot, Political Correspondent for the Daily Mail

The top civil servant at the Department for Education could be in line for the sack after ministers raised concerns about a series of fiascos.

Jonathan Slater has been permanent secretary at the department since 2016, serving under four education secretaries.

However, his future is reportedly in question – despite Government denials that he will be leaving his post.

Ministers are said to be concerned about the recent failure to reopen schools before the summer, and exam grading.

Should he leave, Mr Slater would be the fourth permanent secretary to vacate their post within seven months.

Sir Philip Rutnam left the Home Office in January after sensationally accusing Home Secretary Priti Patel of bullying. He also said he would take the Government to an employment tribunal.

Sir Simon McDonald said in June that he was going to leave the Foreign Office in the autumn, and Sir Richard Heaton said earlier this summer he was standing down at the Ministry of Justice.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill was ousted earlier this year – and is being given a £250,000 payout. He is due to step down in September, and his replacement has not yet been announced.

Helen McNamara, who was head of propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office before her promotion to de facto deputy cabinet secretary, is reportedly set to be transferred to a job as permanent secretary for a large Whitehall department.

Meanwhile there are fears that students leaving lower-ranked institutions to go to their first choice could leave them vulnerable financially, with research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggesting this could cost £140million.

They previously warned the loss of the university sector in total could run to as high as anywhere between £3billion and £19billion.

In a further briefing note today the think tank warned that while leading universities would now be ‘awash’ with students, many lower-ranked universities risked losing a substantial share of their intake, which could be ‘financially crippling’.

Report authors Jack Britton and Ben Waltmann said: ‘Lower-ranked universities could dip into the pool of potential students who got no offers or have not yet applied.

‘These students will have much better grades than usual this year, and many might be interested in going to university given the exceptionally tough labour market.

‘Attracting these students could help the lowest-ranked universities avoid large losses. It would also pose a new challenge, as many of these students could be underprepared for their courses, especially having missed out on the experience of actually sitting their A Level exams.’

It comes as the government has been urged to take on more students at medical school, where places are highly-competitive and much of the cost of training doctors is met by the taxpayer.

Institutions are currently in a bind because the number of places at medical schools are capped by the government because of cost – the amount to train doctors exceeds the amount paid by undergraduates in fees – and there are restrictions on NHS work placements.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock this morning told Sky News he acknowledged calls to increase student places and promised that the Government is working on the issue.

A number of students who were planning to study medicine had their grades lowered by the standardised algorithm.

The government has removed the cap for other subjects so universities can take on more students, but kept it in place for medicine and dentistry.

The u-turn by under-pressure Education Secretary Gavin Williamson means students now have significantly improved grades and can try and get into the school of their choice.

Universities UK has written a letter to Mr Williamson to seek ‘urgent assurances’ that he is talking to the Department of Health about increasing the number of medical school places from the current number of 7,500, as reported by the BBC.

The letter also said: ‘The role of universities in training the medical workforce is essential for all regions and nations of the UK, as clearly shown by our members’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic.’

The Royal College of GPs and British Medical Association have also backed calls for more places for medics.

A number of universities, such as Cambridge, have already said that some students will have to defer until next year

But Dr Helena McKeown, BMA representative body chair, said additional places would require more funding and support from the government.

She said: ‘The BMA has long-campaigned for widening participation in medicine so that all those with the ability and desire to become doctors are given the opportunity to do so. The medical workforce needs to be far more reflective of the diverse patient population it serves, and following the U-turn by Government earlier this week, we have urged medical schools to review the applications of those who were earlier denied places due to the unfair grading process.

‘The UK is vastly short of doctors so increasing the number of medics in training makes sense, however this must be followed up with support and funding for both the universities sector and the NHS further down the line.

‘Extra students will require more clinical placements during medical school, more places in the foundation programme for new doctors, and ultimately the need to create more jobs when they fully qualify.

‘We cannot afford to have new doctors finding themselves unemployed in five or 10 years’ time.’ 

The University and College Union (UCU) and National Union of Students (NUS) have also signed a joint letter to Mr Williamson, warning the lifting of the student cap – which had aimed to prevent institutions from over-recruiting to make up for lost revenue as a result of Covid-19 – would ‘remove one of the only interventions that the government has made to help mitigate the financial impact of the Covid crisis on universities’.

The letter said: ‘While it is still unclear exactly what the distribution of domestic students across higher education will be, it is widely anticipated that institutions will move as much as possible to honour their offers.

 ‘This will likely lead to expanded recruitment at high-tariff institutions at the expense of lower-tariff universities, shifting the financial pain from the Covid crisis onto many of the institutions that play a vital role in widening participation and social mobility.’

British Medical Association backs lifting cap on medical school places 

Dr Helena McKeown, BMA representative body chair, and BMA lead for education, training and workforce, said:

‘The BMA has long-campaigned for widening participation in medicine so that all those with the ability and desire to become doctors are given the opportunity to do so. The medical workforce needs to be far more reflective of the diverse patient population it serves, and following the U-turn by Government earlier this week, we have urged medical schools to review the applications of those who were earlier denied places due to the unfair grading process.

‘The UK is vastly short of doctors so increasing the number of medics in training makes sense, however this must be followed up with support and funding for both the universities sector and the NHS further down the line. 

‘Extra students will require more clinical placements during medical school, more places in the foundation programme for new doctors, and ultimately the need to create more jobs when they fully qualify.

‘We cannot afford to have new doctors finding themselves unemployed in five or 10 years’ time.’

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