GCSE and A-level exams will be delayed next summer to give children the chance to catch up on lost lesson time, Gavin Williamson has indicated.
The Education Secretary told The Telegraph he was studying plans for a “short delay” to public exams “with the aim of creating more teaching time”.
Sources suggested exams could be pushed back to June and July, but would not cut into the scheduled summer holidays.
Around four in 10 schools in England will reopen fully on Tuesday for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown in March, with the remainder opening by the start of next week.
Mr Williamson said the new term brought a sense of “fresh hope” after months of turmoil, and called on the “whole nation” to get behind the millions of children returning and “help them learn, play and be kids again”.
Ministers also hope Tuesday will mark the start of a mass return of workers to their offices, as parents who have had to work from home to look after their children are finally freed to go back to the workplace.
Addressing parents’ worries about the effect of lost classroom time on their children’s futures, Mr Williamson told the Telegraph: “I know there’s some concern about next year’s exams, and that’s why we’ve been working with [the exams watchdog] Ofqual on changes we can make to help pupils when they take GCSEs and A levels next year.
“Ofqual will continue to work with the education sector and other stakeholders on whether there should be a short delay to the GCSE, A and AS-level exam timetable in 2021, with the aim of creating more teaching time.”
Allies of Mr Williamson said any delay would involve exams being taken in June and early July, rather than starting in May, and that Mr Williamson was “emphatic” they must not encroach on the summer holidays.
A delay in exams being taken could also lead to a delay in results being published, sources said, though the universities admission service UCAS would have to agree to it so that enough time was available to allocate university places, including the clearing process for students who fail to get into their first choice institutions.
Labour said on Monday it would support a delay to exams, as shadow education secretary Kate Green said pupils had a “mountain to climb” after being out of the classroom for six months.
Mr Williamson first mooted the idea of an exams delay in June, but this summer’s chaos over exam results has made him all the more determined to do everything possible to avoid another fiasco.
Ofqual announced earlier this month that it needed more time to decide whether it would recommend an exam delay, though the decision ultimately rests with the Government.
The National Education Union’s joint general secretary Mary Bousted said a delay was “part of the solution”, while the head teachers’ union the NAHT said a delay was “worthy of serious consideration”.
Mr Williamson said he was “determined that no child will be left behind”, and urged schools to use the £1 billion Covid catch-up fund to help disadvantaged children close the gap on their peers with one-on-one tutoring.
He said: “Now is the time for all children to resume their education, and be with their classmates and inspirational teachers again. We need the whole nation to get behind them, to help them learn, play and be kids again. It is, quite rightly, a national priority.
“I do not underestimate how challenging the last few months have been, but I do know how important it is for children to be back in school, not only for their education but for their development and wellbeing too.
“The start of a new school year always brings with it an uplifting sense of fresh hope and new opportunities. This year, as we move forwards and get all our children back into their classrooms, we feel that optimism more than ever.”
Children will be taught in “bubbles”, usually consisting of year groups, to prevent the spread of coronavirus, with extra hygiene measures in place. In local lockdown areas they will have to wear face masks in corridors and shared spaces, and in the rest of the country it will be up to head teachers whether face coverings are required.
The Department for Education said it expected all pupils to return, and that parents would only be fined for their children’s non-attendance as a “last resort”.
The NAHT called for an amnesty on fining parents to be put in place for the whole of this term, suggesting its members would be refusing to impose the £120 penalties.