Planning the path to next summer’s GCSEs, AS and A levels

As schools and colleges return and start planning for September, we know there’s a keen appetite for clarity on qualifications for the next academic year.

exam  By Kerry Davies, Head of Standards, Qualifications Wales 

We shared early thoughts on this a few weeks ago and understand that learners, families, schools and colleges are worried and want to know more.  

No one yet knows what lies ahead in the next academic year. Centres are preparing for September, but the public health context will remain volatile for some time and we all need to be conscious of the fact that things can change very rapidly. This makes planning for next year difficult, for all of us But we continue to work with WJEC on various scenarios, and to discuss issues and concerns with other regulators and Welsh Government. The situation continues to be complex and there are no easy, quick solutions.  

Aside from qualifications, we must remember that high quality, rich learning is at the heart of good education, and planning for that should still be taking place, whatever proposals we make. Even so, we understand that qualifications are valued and are important for young people’s progression. 

Although we don’t yet have final proposals to share with you, we thought it might be useful to give some examples of the areas that we are looking at, so that you can understand the challenges and the need for careful thinking. 

As the regulator for qualifications in Wales, we need to ensure that qualifications continue to meet the reasonable needs of learners and protect public confidence in our qualification system. There is a fine balance between making adjustments to support learners who have lost some face to face teaching time and changing a qualification so much that it is no longer reliable, valid and credible. 

We need to take into account the fact some assessments will have to be adjusted, because of social distancing. We must factor in that disruption to teaching and learning may continue in the autumn term. Finally, we are also acutely aware that some learners are affected by this disruption much more than others.  

GCSE possibilities  

We have been considering some options involving possible reductions in content of qualifications and/or adjustments to assessments. There are also some wider changes that might support centres and learners, in addition to what can be done with qualifications 

Some of the options we are considering for GCSEs are outlined in the table.  

POSSIBLE adjustments to GCSEs for summer 2021 




Reducing content across the qualification takes into account the disruption to teaching and learning, whilst maintaining the broad nature of the GCSE.  


This could be complex to introduce and could risk confusion for centres and learners.  

This would require adjustments to much of the assessment structure and could make standard setting more difficult.  

The order of teaching of each qualification can vary across schools. This means that taking off a topic might help some centres, but not others.   

As well as being fundamentally useful, some elements of content are required for progression to AS or A Level, so cannot be removed.   

Introducing some options within exams/assessments might help centres that have taught content in different orders. 

Allowing optionality could impact on standards and comparability issues or be confusing for centres and learners 

There could be more risk of errors when completing the assessment. 

Learning outcomes and assessment objectives are covered differently in different qualifications e.g. one unit may cover one learning outcome, but other units contribute to multiple learning outcomes. 

Changes to assessments could increase security risks and the risk of error in question paper production. 

Removing entire units rather than content spread across the qualification is simpler to implement for centres, and to understand for learners.  

It would also involve fewer security risks or risks of error, than other approaches 

There are fewer operational challenges and fewer risks to standard setting.  

Deciding which units are removed is difficult if schools deliver content at different times  

Some units are reliant on learning from earlier units, which needs consideration when deciding what to remove.   

Removing some units could risk changing the level of demand of the qualification, more than others.  

Removing whole units could have too much impact on the coverage of assessment objectives.   

Reducing or removing NEA units could help with some GCSEs since NEA requiring group work or specialist resources and equipment could be difficult if social distancing rules continue. Completion of some NEA tasks is time consuming, so it allows for loss of teaching time 

There is a risk that some learners are disadvantaged more than others if too much is changed - in some qualifications, NEA is critical to the nature of the GCSE and the aspect that learners enjoy most and do best in. It may also be the key reason the GCSE was taken. 

There is a risk that too much change would impact on prior learning and skills required at AS or A level. 


AS and A levels 

For AS and A levels, we have to balance all the aspects outlined above with the critical need for us to take into account the plans for AS and A levels outside of Wales. 

The content of A levels has remained more similar across UK jurisdictions than for GCSEs since the reformed qualifications have been introduced.  A levels are important qualifications and learners from Wales will be competing with learners from England and elsewhere for university places and employment, and we must ensure our A levels remain credible. 

Whilst we can assume the increased levels of maturity of AS and A level learners means that independent and blended learning is more feasible than perhaps at GCSE, we also need to ensure our learners are not disadvantaged relative to others. 

Other possible adjustments that might help 

As well as considering options related to qualifications, there are also a number of other wider areas, some of which are outside of our powers, that could also be considered. These include: 

  • The exam timetable – the timing and length of the exam series could help to give back some teaching and learning time.  
  • Considering any national requirements on the curriculum studied in schools in 2020/21 
  • Reviewing the number of qualifications that learners intend to take. 

Ongoing disruption caused by Covid-19 

As well as the above, we are also working on options for scenarios that could involve even greater changes to the exam series in summer 2021, as the consequence of further increases in Covid-19 infection rates in the autumn or spring, leading to further school and college closures. In those options we will be looking at ways of further supporting the production of centre assessment grades and rank orders, should they have to be used in some, or all cases, in summer 2021.  

We are conscious of the potential impact further disruption could have on future year groups in schools and colleges and will also consider those issues as necessary.   

Next steps 

WJEC will be sharing information and engaging on proposals for qualification amendments very shortly. We will continue to share updates in July.