Headteachers in England call for refund of £220m summer exam fees

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: David Jones/PA</span>
Photograph: David Jones/PA

Headteachers in England are calling for examination boards to refund half of the fees charged for A-level and GCSE entries this summer, arguing that schools are doing the bulk of the work to decide this year’s grades following the decision to scrap exams.

The Worthless? campaign group of headteachers said it wanted the examination boards to give back 50% or more of the fees for the summer exam series, estimated to total more than £220m, with the money needed to plug holes in school budgets caused by Covid-19.

“Schools should gain at least a 50% rebate on their normal exam costs. This funding rebate would then allow the additional exam work to be adequately paid for,” said the group, which is supported by hundreds of secondary school leaders in England.

Related: Few schools and colleges will rely solely on exam results to set grades

“Crucially any extra money left over should be diverted towards supporting the many students who have suffered so badly as a result of the pandemic."

“Schools have to be pragmatic and ensure that exam boards cover their costs in a reasonable and fair way. Equally, teachers, school leaders and examination support staff have picked up an abundance of extra work as we prepare to deliver teacher-assessed grading for years 11 and 13, and manage both results and appeals.”

Last year, the three major examination boards that administer the exams – AQA, OCR and Pearson – refunded about a quarter of exam fees, and many heads are expecting more this year because the government cancelled formal exams earlier.

Each A-level and BTec entry costs about £60, while GCSE entries cost £30 to £40 each. A pupil entered for nine or 10 GCSEs can cost a school well over £300. A school with a sixth form is likely to spend more than £100,000 a year on exam entries.

But representatives of the exam boards say they have incurred substantial costs this year despite not having to print and mark millions of papers.

The assessment guidance announced by the exam regulator, Ofqual, and the Department for Education included the use of test questions produced by the exam boards, while the boards are also responsible for quality assurance of the final grades submitted by schools.

One exam board source said that while refunds were likely, a 50% rebate was “not realistic” because of the costs the boards were experiencing, including preparing a full suite of exams to be run in autumn for the small number of students who wish to take them.

A spokesperson for AQA, the largest exam board in England, said: “We’re hugely grateful for all the extra work that teachers are doing. It’s important to remember that entry fees aren’t just for exam papers and marking, though – we’re still incurring substantial costs in delivering qualifications this summer.

“It’s still too early to know the full cost but, as with last year when we returned £42m to schools and colleges, we have no wish to profit. We know schools are under financial pressure, so this year we gave them the option to pay 50% of our published fees when they made their entries and any extra when we know our full costs.”

Pearson said: “We have no wish to benefit financially from the cancellation of exams. As with last year, we will pass any savings from the cancellation of summer exams back to schools – although it’s too early right now to know the exact amount this will be.

“Exam fees don’t just cover exams. This year alone we issued nearly 14,000 questions for teachers to use to assess students, provided comprehensive support and training for grading and ongoing access to customer and support services. We will also be supporting quality assurance and running an appeals service.”

Related: Heads in England fear pushy parents will demand better exam grades

But headteachers who spoke to the Guardian said they had received little support from the exam boards in assessing grades.

Alan Brookes, the executive head of Fulston Manor academy trust in Kent, said this year’s assessments had caused a dramatic increase in workload and additional costs for schools, while the sample questions provided by the boards had been “shoddy”.

“The heads I’ve been talking to would like to see a substantial refund because we can’t see what [the exam boards] are spending their money on,” Brookes said.

The campaign for larger refunds is supported by the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Association of Head Teachers. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of ASCL, said: “We would urge two things – one, that this happens as early as possible, and, two, that it reflects the fact that schools and colleges are shouldering the majority of the burden.”

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