Hundreds of thousands of GCSE students in England will be told their exam topics in advance and marked more generously under plans expected to be unveiled this week.
Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, could also announce that students who have had their teaching time heavily disrupted by coronavirus could also be given grades with asterisks to indicate to higher education colleges that they should look kindly on applicants.
It comes as universities began reducing entry requirements for undergraduate degree courses starting next year in recognition of the disruption to education caused by the pandemic.
The move by ministers will put an end to speculation that GCSE exams in England could be cancelled altogether, following the examples set by Wales and Scotland.
Under a plan due to be unveiled by the Department for Education and the exams regulator, grading will be made more generous for students taking GCSEs to allow for the fact that many of them will have had disrupted learning in this academic year.
Students taking exams will also be told in advance which topics will appear on 2021 exam papers. Exam boards will be required to tell schools which subject areas will be covered in GCSE and A-level papers, to allow teachers to prepare pupils to answer particular questions.
Education minister Nick Gibb said in the House of Commons this month that the Government was working to ensure that 2021 exams are "fair" and more details will be published "shortly".
A Whitehall source said: "This has been looked at intensively over the past few months. Ministers, Ofqual, exam boards — everyone working together trying to work together to come up with a package to offset and compensate for kids who have been self-isolating."
In Wales, all exams have been cancelled on the basis that disruption caused by the pandemic has made it "impossible to guarantee a level playing field”.
In Scotland the National 5 exams — which are equivalent to GCSEs — will not go ahead but the Highers and Advanced Highers — equivalent to AS and A-levels — will take place.
The news came as a survey of Year 11 students found that they are calling for a range of fairness measures to be introduced for GCSEs in Summer 2021, reflecting the disruption to learning since lockdown in March this year.
The news will be welcomed by students in England. A survey of 2,649 16-year olds carried out by leading online content provider GCSEPod, found that “knowing which topics will be in the exam” scored highly as a fairness measure, with 66 per cent of teens believing this would make exams fair.
A similar proportion — 67 per cent — said that they would like to see grades being more generous, whilst a just over quarter — 26 per cent — favoured having more options on which questions to answer in the exam.
Anthony Coxon, chief executive of GCSEPod, said: “It’s clear teenagers are really tuned in to the fairness debate around their exams, and have clear views on what would make exams fairer. It’s important that amidst all of this we don’t forget who matters the most – the students.”
On Saturday, the University of Surrey said it will reduce its entry requirements by one grade for most undergraduate courses starting next year, in recognition of the disruption to education caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Grade requirements will be lowered to help "relieve the pressure and anxiety" faced by young people who will have seen their learning affected by the pandemic across two academic years.
Entry grades will be reduced by one grade for the majority of undergraduate programmes starting in September 2021, except for regulated courses such as Veterinary Medicine, foundation year courses, four-year integrated masters programmes and audition-based performance courses.
Earlier this month, the University of Birmingham also revealed it planned to reduce entry requirements for 2021 by one grade in recognition of the impact of coronavirus on A-level students.