‘Terrible blow’ averted for distance learners


U-turn on new guideline that would have put private candidates off taking exams

Contentious changes that could have jeopardised the ability of thousands of distance learners to sit GCSE and A-level exams have been averted, TES can reveal.

Guidelines on the new qualifications, published by the regulator Ofqual earlier this year, stated that learners taking them independently would have to find a single exam centre not only to sit their exam but also for their non-examination assessments (NEAs). These include oral language exams, science practicals and English coursework.

In August, the National Extension College (NEC) – the distance learning college that was the forerunner of the Open University – warned that the change would create “another barrier” that could deter many students from remaining in education.

According to the NEC, about 50,000 students take GCSE and A-level exams as private candidates each year. These are people who enter exams through a school or college but are not enrolled as a student there. Many of them are distance learners.

But TES can reveal that an agreement has been reached between exam boards AQA, OCR, Pearson, WJEC Eduqas and the NEC, representing distance-learning providers. This means that students will be allowed to take written exam papers and NEA components of their courses at separate approved centres. Rather than entering as private candidates, the learners will be formally registered with the distance-learning provider offering the NEA.

These arrangements will take effect next summer, when the first candidates will sit the new GCSE and A-level exams.

Widening participation for distance learners

The agreement follows months of negotiation. This summer, university admissions service Ucas waded into the debate. Chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said that the organisation was “a strong supporter of widening participation, and ensuring that private candidates are able to undertake qualifications independently plays a key role in this”.

NEC chief executive Ros Morpeth told TES that the original plans did not create a problem for students attending a mainstream school or a college but would have made the assessment of distance-learning students “almost impossible”.


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