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Covid-19: Wales A-level and GCSE decision to be announced

By Bethan Lewis
BBC Wales education and family correspondent

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image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSome pupils have faced more disruption than others due to self-isolating

A decision on whether GCSE and A-level exams will go ahead next summer will be announced later.

There have already been strong indications that GCSE exams will be replaced by grades based on coursework and assessments.

Two recent sets of recommendations to Education Minister Kirsty Williams said either all or some exams at A-level should also be cancelled.

It comes amid ongoing disruption to schools as a result of coronavirus.

Plaid Cymru called for a decision to be made quickly to remove anxiety.

Courses have already been modified because of the learning time lost over the summer term.

But since schools returned full-time in September, many pupils have had to self-isolate for a fortnight or more because of positive cases of Covid-19 in their "bubble".

Grade concerns

media captionCoronavirus: Pupils in Wales react as schools close

This year's exams were cancelled after schools were closed in March, but the system of awarding "standardised" grades descended into chaos.

Decisions on exams have already been announced elsewhere in the UK.

In Scotland, National 5 exams - the equivalent to GCSEs - have been replaced by coursework and teacher assessments but Highers will go ahead.

Exams are still scheduled in England and Northern Ireland but they will be held later in the summer.

In its advice to Wales' education minister, regulator Qualifications Wales said there should be no GCSE exams this summer, with grades for both GCSE and AS-levels based on coursework and assessments set and marked by the exam board WJEC.

At A-level, it recommended one timetabled exam per subject, with a second opportunity for pupils to sit if they were self-isolating.

Coursework and set tasks would also be taken into account.

A separate report by an expert panel said all exams should be axed, with grades based on nationally agreed assessments done in schools and colleges.

'Worrying time'

image copyrightCerys Harris
image captionCerys Harris has had to study at home while self-isolating for a total of four weeks since September

Seventeen-year-old A-level student Cerys Harris from Rhyl has had to self-isolate for four weeks in total since September.

She lives with three family members who have been furloughed, so it has been "hard to find space around the house".

While under normal circumstances she would like to sit her exams, she thinks it would be best to cancel them because of the disruption.

"It's been really worrying. It will be good to know what the decision is," she said.

"We've been told to think about our Ucas [university application] forms. It's hard to make a decision for the rest of your life not knowing if you're even sitting the exam."

Year 13 A-level student Jonathon Dawes, who studies at Coleg Cambria in Rhyl, said there was now "a disparity between so many young people."

"Some of my friends have been in every day, others have had to self-isolate for four weeks, sit at home and do virtual learning, it's put them behind on their classmates.

"If all the four nations do take different routes, ultimately it will leave young people advantaged and disadvantaged when moving on and applying for jobs," he said.

'Struggling'

The NASUWT teaching union agrees exams cannot go ahead as normal for safety, but it is worried about the potential for a "massive increase" in teacher workload.

Its national official for Wales Neil Butler said there was a lot of work to be done in a short space of time and it would be "highly inappropriate" and "unfair and unwise" to place an extra burden on schools.

"Schools at the moment are having to work in extraordinary conditions, and they're struggling with that," he said.

"[It] must be done by the exam board and Qualifications Wales."

Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders in Wales said exams could not go ahead as in 2019.

"We feel there is certainly merit in having a distinctive approach for Wales which recognises the expertise of our teachers.

"What we need is a B grade in a school in Llandudno needs to be the same as a B grade in Swansea - now that is not the job of individual teachers in those schools, that is the job of the regulator," she said.

Plaid Cymru's education spokeswoman Sian Gwenllian said a decision should be made quickly.

"The longer this is dragged out, the more uncertainty it brings to our learners, most of whom have already had a disrupted educational year, and many of whom are still experiencing the anxiety that comes from living through a global pandemic," she said.

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