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Doubt cast over GCSE, A Level and Kent Test exams as education experts question 'fairness'

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A head teacher has called on the government to carefully consider future exam arrangements for pupils across Kent , as schools across the county continue to weather the knock on effects of coronavirus.

Alan Brookes, executive head teacher at Fulston Manor in Sittingbourne , believes centrally-assessed grades for A Levels and GCSEs could work as a back up if examinations cannot take place.

Watch: Alan Brookes, chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers

He said: "There are vice chancellors at universities already saying get rid of A Levels in the summer and use centre-assessed grades.

"GCSEs could go a similar way by centrally assessed tasks - they could send out tasks from the exam boards that schools did when the children were actually there, that were moderated centrally.

"That would give you more robust centrally-assessed grades and it would give you a platform if we do get to a situation - and we may well - when exams cannot take place in the summer or certainly can't take place as a full series."

The head, who is also the chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers, said primary-level tests should be scrapped so teachers can focus their attentions on the wellbeing of pupils.

There is a fear that running exams during this academic year would be unfair
There is a fear that running exams during this academic year would be unfair

He said: " I think in primary schools there seems no clear reason to have any testing at all in terms of SATS or phonic screening through the course of this year.

"Primary schools are focused on the welfare of children, on getting their pastoral care right and getting them back - you could remove that pressure."

Although Key Stage 4 and 5 exams are not typically scheduled until the close of the summer term, it is no surprise teachers are already turning their thoughts towards the tests.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson faced the Education Select Committee in September, following the exam grading fiasco of last summer .

In response to questions over the 2021 exam period, Mr Williamson said: "We will look at making sure that there’s back-ups for exams.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

"So hypothetically, if in a local area it wasn’t feasible to run exams in a town or city, making sure that we do have a back-up on that.

"But I’d like to reassure you that there aren’t any algorithm plans."

There was also a suggestion from the education secretary that exams could be held in public buildings if social distancing is required in local communities.

Although there is no current date set for the timing of exams, Mr Williamson has announced that they will likely be released in October.

Mr Brookes also criticised the government for a lack of clarity on measures to protect the eduction of pupils.

Fulston Manor's executive head Alan Brookes
Fulston Manor's executive head Alan Brookes

He said: "They are very keen to say this is an absolute priority that schools are back, they should not close and they should be the first line that everybody looks at.

"I don't see a great deal in terms of action for the government on that, I think we've spent something like £231bn on the pandemic in the last six months, but we've only spent £1bn on children's education, recovery and looking for ways to plug the gaps.

"I think some more tangible actions from the government would be very much welcomed by schools rather than this continual mantra that of course it's more important, then it's over to the schools to work out how they can do it with existing funds."

There is also a question over the difficulty schools have had in resuming learning in the autumn term, as a number of pupils have been forced to send children home after positive Covid tests .

Mr Brookes believes education staff have worked incredibly hard to get teaching back on track, but virus testing remains a thorn in the side of progress.

Pupils at Solefield School
Pupils at Solefield School

He said: "I think it's becoming increasingly tough. An enormous amount of work went in before the summer and during summer holidays to get the schools as ready as possible for all the guidelines in place.

"Very quickly attendance is falling because children are waiting at home for the results of tests, staff are waiting for the results of test, and they're waiting longer than they need to."

And with the Kent Test due to be sat on October 15, the question has been raised as to whether all pupils are equally prepared enough to take the grammar school exam.

Peter Read, an independent education adviser and former headteacher, has hit out against Kent County Council's (KCC) guidance given to school leaders.

He said: "KCC said three months ago that they would take all steps necessary to avoid disadvantage - frankly, ordinary children and children on pupil premium are massively disadvantaged in the Kent Test. It is grossly unfair.

Peter Read, education expert
Peter Read, education expert

"Most children sitting down to the test will only have had a couple of weeks schooling since last March. Children in many private schools will have had full tutoring, other families who could afford it have had extensive tutoring throughout the summer holidays, but ordinary families have had nothing."

"The Kent Test is two-thirds curriculum-based, so ordinary families are grossly disadvantaged, and nothing has been done to help them."

The former head teacher also explained that guidance issued to primary schools included no information about what would happen if an entire bubble had to isolate.

The guidance also foregoes the need for an external invigilator being present, which Mr Read suggested could leave the test open to abuse.

He said: "No external invigilator is crass, there will be leaks.

"If I look at a private school, whose sole existence depends on success in the 11 plus, the temptation is going to be rather strong."

Craig Chapman, Interim Head of Fair Access at KCC, said: "Kent County Council has been working on arrangements for the Kent Test for many months to ensure contingency plans are in place for a range of different scenarios and that pupils and staff remain safe throughout the testing process.

"In line with national guidance, children must not attend their assessment if they are in a period of self-isolation or exhibit COVID-19 symptoms on the day of the test.

"The Kent Test process has always included provision for pupils who are unable to attend due to sickness, which has been updated this year to account for the increased risk of absence due to Covid-19.

"Parents and carers will be advised on an individual basis what alternative arrangements will be made for their child, as these will be dependent on a number of additional factors.

The government were forced to make a U turn on exams earlier this year after thousands of pupils lost out on university places
The government were forced to make a U turn on exams earlier this year after thousands of pupils lost out on university places

"The Kent Test Head Teacher Assessment stage also remains available where children do not perform as expected on the day of the test.

He added: "KCC has also provided Kent schools and test centres with guidance to help ensure a safe environment for pupils to take part in testing. Parents and carers must follow the safeguards outlined by their child’s school or test centre in addition to wider social distancing requirements."

Despite a continued upheaval of schools due to isolating bubbles of pupils, to date the government believes exams will go ahead in 2021.

A DfE spokesperson said: "We expect exams to take place next year and continue to work with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach, recognising that students will have experienced considerable disruption to their education in the last academic year.

"There are a range of measures proposed by Ofqual following a public consultation, including a possible short delay to the exam timetable and subject-specific changes to reduce pressure on teaching time.

"We will continue to work with school and college stakeholders, Ofqual and the exam boards, to ensure that exams in 2021 are fair."

The department also said is prepare for a number of potential scenarios, including how local lockdowns could affect pupils in the lead up to examination periods.

According to it's plan, dubbed 'The Contain Framework,' they have made clear that when secondary schools need to restrict attendance, they expect year groups with impending exams to be prioritised.

See the full list of schools which have been affected by coronavirus since reopening in September .

News from our universities, local primary and secondary schools including Ofsted inspections and league tables can be found here .

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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