North East school leaders respond to exams announcement

11th December 2020

Last week a major announcement revealed measures to postpone Ofsted, suspend school league tables and make adjustments to exams and testing. After weeks of speculation over what this could involve, an announcement was a relief for staff, but it is also clear that the measures don’t go far enough. We asked school leaders how they felt about the measures.


For Primary most agreed with the suspension of league tables and cancellation of KS1 SATs. However more than 90% felt that this wasn’t enough, with huge opposition to KS2 SATs going ahead.It was felt that there is not enough time to catch up, with staff needing to cover a full term from last year in two terms, never mind the continued disruption students are facing. It was strongly felt that the disparity in levels of disruption experienced would mean that it wouldn’t be a ‘level playing field’ for students. Moreover, staff felt that this was an additional and unnecessary pressure at a time when the focus should be on learning and mental health and wellbeing rather than exam preparation.

When asked what further support schools need to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on learning, the responses clearly highlighted that a return to ‘normal’ accountability measures must be delayed. Staff called for further postponement of Ofsted to next academic year and cancellation of KS2 SATs. Other popular responses included more financial support and in particular support to maintain staffing.


More measures were announced at a Secondary level, with some exams having advance notice of topics and use of exam aides such as formula sheets. The response to whether this was enough to mitigate the impact that the pandemic has had was slightly more mixed, however no-one felt that it had gone far enough, and two-thirds felt it definitely isn’t enough.

There was an acknowledgement that these measures don’t account for the recent disruption students have faced, with massive difference in student attendance in schools across the country, and indeed at regional and local authority level from school to school and even within individual schools. It was felt that this will adversely affect those from disadvantaged communities impacted most by higher covid infection rates and resulting school absences,  remote learning, the digital divide, and a lack of parental support. Some responses acknowledged that results from this year will not be comparable to other years due to the missed teaching. This is an ongoing concern, given that students may be competing with those who delayed university/apprenticeship places last year.

While there is some support for maintaining exams in order to keep students engaged and motivated, it is clear that even staff who are in support of this want greater clarity on the measures, with clear guidance on what the reduced content will include. In terms of what further support schools need to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on learning at a secondary level, greater consideration of the use of teacher assessments was a key response. Staff also called for more timely communications of policy changes and clarity in guidance, as well as financial support.

Across stages

Some common themes across all stages have become apparent from the feedback from school leaders. Most significantly, since the summer staff have repeatedly highlighted that ‘catch up’ is not an issue which can be ‘fixed’ in one year. We have seen that the pandemic is having an ongoing impact and that much longer term thinking is needed to support students. Equally, the announcement of a group to look at the impact of regional variations was welcomed however there is concern that this the only clear measure aimed at the imbalance across the country, when we know different areas are experiencing Covid very differently. There was also criticism that this measure should have been introduced much sooner, with a full term of disruption already having occurred.

Following the announcement of these measure Ofqual has launched a consultation seeking views on exam advance information. There is once again an issue of timeliness, given that this has been released in the last week of term, despite that speculation over this measure has been ongoing since October. Equally, Ofqual have once again released this consultation, following the announcement of the measure, rather than consulting school staff prior to forming policy. Read more about this and submit to the consultation.

Finally, once again it is clear that the formation of policy is not incorporating voices from the chalkface and that staff strongly feel they need to be listened to as a profession, and trusted to identify learning loss, including social learning/mental health and wellbeing and respond appropriately. This closer consultation with the chalkface is a key recommendation of Schools North East’s Manifesto for North East Education.

Schools North East is continuing to lobby on this issue, representing the views of North East Schools Leaders. Our current series of virtual roundtables with NE MPs are giving our Partner Schools the opportunities to share their concerns directly with their local representatives. Keep an eye out for an invitation if you are a Schools North East Partner School.