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The end of pen and paper? Outdated GCSE and A Level “Fort Knox” Exams could go Online with “switch flipped” within 5 years to make Exams fairer.

The end of pen and paper? Outdated GCSE and A Level “Fort Knox” Exams could go Online with “switch flipped” within 5 years to make Exams fairer.

by Jon WestleyMay 5, 2022

In a major announcement, OFQUAL, the UK’s qualifications regulator, has announced a three-year, root and branch review to gather “hard evidence” of the mechanics of how, currently tired and outdated, British examinations for A Level and GCSE should be conducted in future. Up for consideration is the radical move to conducting all GCSE and A Level exams online to secure the following benefits:

  • Students will be assessed on what they know rather than how legibly they can write. The move to online examinations will particularly help children with dyspraxia – but all children will benefit from removing variables like the speed with which children can write and removing subjective evaluations of the quality of each child’s handwriting. Read more on the blight of handwriting and dyspraxia in our Guide.
  • Adaptive testing will be used so that questions are altered incrementally and progressively according to the level of knowledge shown by applicants in preceding questions. With the introduction of AI, exams will be able to far better interrogate knowledge and its application by focusing on areas of knowledge that the applicant excels in, whilst also highlighting gaps in education.
  • Remote testing will remove the need for students to sit for exams in Exam Centres so that student learning is measured in environments in which they are comfortable and can be assessed at their best. The move to remote testing will also remove the sorts of administrative challenges we have seen over the last two years with Covid-19 which has seen unwell children being unable to sit examinations with other students – or exams being cancelled altogether.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“Our current reliance on a pen-and-paper exam system, organised at an industrial scale with Fort Knox-style security arrangements around the transportation and storing of papers, is hopelessly outdated and ripe for reform.

“The recent experience of the pandemic has shown just how vulnerable it is to unexpected events. If online assessment had been available, it might not have been necessary to cancel all summer exams for two years in a row.”

All three of the UK’s leading examination boards, including OCR, Pearson Edexcel and AQA are already running trials.  The TES quotes Colin Hughes, Chief Executive of AQA:

“… let’s say over the next two to three years, we run a series of pilots, schools get used to using online assessments, they prove to be reliable, then there comes a moment where you can flip the switch”

Pearson-Edexcel has run its A Level and GCSE mocks examinations online in England since 2020 and OCR has already started a two-year trial of “digital-first” GCSE examinations which will see the way students are examined subject to a root and branch review of the best ways to examine students for fairness and accuracy.

Photograph of Geoff Barton and questioning of whether online exams reform is going far enough

Geoff Barton questions whether OFQUAL’s review of the potential move to online examinations for GCSE and A Level goes far enough.


But many say the OFQUAL review is not going far enough. Mr Barton says that there should be “less emphasis on a huge and relentless set of terminal exams” and Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the NEU, emphasises that:

“Education, and the proof of what a student has achieved in their time at school and college, is about far more than showing what can be remembered in an end-of-course exam.”.

Read more on the Telegraph (paywalled) here or here

Read more on TES here (paywalled) or here

Read more in the UK’s Guardian broadsheet here.

© Photo Geoff Barton TES. 2022. All rights reserved.

About The Author
Jon Westley
Jon Westley is the Editor of and UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at]

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