A-level and GCSE results will be decided by teacher-assessed grades this year after the exams were cancelled because of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, education secretary Gavin Williamson has announced.
The move is designed to avoid the chaos seen last year when an algorithm downgraded the results of tens of thousands of pupils.
A resulting outcry forced ministers to perform a high-profile U-turn, but not before the computer programme had created misery for many.
Labour accused the cabinet minister of “incompetence” over its handling of schools, which were closed across England on Monday night just hours after Boris Johnson declared them safe.
Just last week Mr Williamson himself said: “I’m confident that we won’t be moving into a national lockdown situation because the tiering structure is the right place to be.”
Announcing the new plans, Mr Williamson told MPs he was unveiling “the contingency plans I had prepared but had hoped (I would) never had to implement”.
He vowed not to “let schools be closed for a moment longer than they need to be”.
But he conceded exams could not go ahead as planned this year. A form of teacher-assessed grades would ensure grades are awarded “fairly and consistently”, he said.
He told the Commons: “While the details will need to be fine-tuned in consultation with (the regulator) Ofqual, the exam boards and teaching representative organisations I can confirm now that I wish to use a form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided, to ensure these are awarded fairly and consistently across the country.”
In August Mr Williamson bowed to intense pressure from pupils, parents and even other ministers to upgrade hundreds of thousands of A-level and GCSE results.
The system, introduced at short notice after the coronavirus pandemic cancelled last year’s exams, used an algorithm which had downgraded four in 10 teacher-assessed marks.
In the end pupils had their original grades restored, but too late for many to take up their original first choice of university course last year, even after ministers removed a cap on the number of places.
Mr Williamson also told MPs that this month’s exams for technical qualifications could go ahead but added that no college should feel pressured to offer them.
But he said the government would not proceed with primary schools SATS exams this year.
He also confirmed that free school meals would be available while schools are closed and said there would be “extra funding” to pay for them.
One student, Mana Ali tells The Independent she wants an option to be able to sit exams in 2021. She was planning to resit her A-levels last year before they were cancelled – and had been revising to take them this year instead.
“I am resitting to prove what I am capable of hence why I want to sit my exams and not rely on Centre Assessed Grades,” she says.