The government will decide “very soon” whether to delay next year’s GCSEs and A-levels to give students more time to prepare, a minister has confirmed.
As children started to return to classrooms across England and Wales on Tuesday, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said the government would decide “as soon as we can” whether to push back the date from May.
Labour has called for the exams to be delayed by at least a month because students have missed so much teaching. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, is expected to be pressed on the matter in the Commons later on Tuesday.
The pressure to delay next year’s exams came as a large study found that most pupils had lost at least three months of learning due to the coronavirus lockdown, with more than half of students in more deprived areas losing four months or more compared to just 15% of those in the least deprived areas.
Gibb said the issue of delaying exams was complicated by the time needed for marking as well as the pressure it would place on the university admissions process.
“The issues are not simple,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We have to take into account the other nations in the UK which also use the GCSEs and A-levels in their term dates; you have to take into account the time for marking, making sure results are delivered on a certain date for university admissions and so on.
“There are a whole range of factors that the exam boards, Ofqual and the Department [for Education] are looking at, but we will form a decision very soon.”
Pushed on whether a decision would be made by October, Gibb added: “It will be very soon because we know schools need to know the answer to this question and we have been working on it since mid-June.”
Gibb insisted that classrooms were “very safe” environments for children. He said any pupil showing coronavirus symptoms would be asked to return home and advised to take a test, when they would be “given priority”.
It emerged last week that schools and further education colleges would receive “an initial supply” of just 10 Covid-19 testing kits each.
Asked why the government had not set up a rapid testing system for schools, Gibb said health officials would swing into action and trace the contacts of any pupil who tests positive and mobile testing units could be brought in if required. “We will take swift action in any school where there are positive tests,” he said.
“Whenever a pupil or member of staff show symptoms, they will be asked to return home and then to take a test. They will be given priority in the testing regime – we have capacity for 300,000 tests a day,” he said.
Gibb said there was an onus on parents to get their children tested if they showed symptoms. He added: “If a school is concerned that the parents are unable to get to a testing centre, every school has been sent a small number of home-testing kits that can be used for those families.”
Gibb repeated Boris Johnson’s pledge that schools would be the last institutions to close in areas where local restrictions are in place. He said the government had acquired more than 100,000 computers for disadvantaged pupils in areas affected by a local lockdown.
“The important thing is for all young people to return to school where they can be taught directly by their teachers to help them catch up and over the course of this week I’m confident we will see schools open and pupils returning,” he said.
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