Minutes from the June 2021 Cambs Exams Virtual Meet Up

Through a virtual meet up, Cambridgeshire home educators were able to pool their exams knowledge and experience to be able to share this with other home educators that are new to or flirting with the world of exams.

These are the minutes from that meeting complete with relevant links.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Thank you to all those that came to share their experience of exams as an HEor, to ask questions or just to listen. It is through coming together in this way, sharing information, experience and thoughts that all our children benefit and get the education that is most suitable for them. 

The order of topics discussed within the meeting was such so that certain people could participate and leave as they needed, however, for someone reading this who is coming in new to exams, to make the most sense of what was discussed the order has been changed to a make it flow more logically. The order of topics is as below.


Where to start with exams

HE exams website:

The exams wiki has a huge amount of information all about taking exams as a home educator, and is nearly always the best place to start.

Following that, joining the HE exams forums, where you can ask any question on anything to do with exams. 

Email forum: 

Facebook forums: 

A local group, which can be useful for very area specific questions, local support and for building links within the community

The national groups have people with many years of experience as parents, tutors and exam centre organisers. Great for very subject-specific questions, past paper access and information about exam boards, specific qualifications, syllabuses etc. Some tutors, group organisers and distance-learning providers will advertise on these groups.


Things to consider when picking subjects, syllabuses and boards

Exam centres:

Not all centres are able to take external candidates for all possible qualifications. Following the cancellation of 2020 and 2021 exams due to COVID-19, the number of centres willing to take home-educated students has plummeted, with the commercial centres picking up most of the excess demand. The feedback from those that have used the commercial centres is mixed, but they do cover pretty much every non-coursework qualification you can do as a home educator.

Schools that only take a handful of external candidates tend to give a more personal service, but are generally unable to take HEors in the years when exams are cancelled. 

Local centres that generally take external candidates in the Cambridgeshire area (in a usual year):

In Cambridge:

Outside Cambridge:

But bear in mind that only some exam centres will take home educators for language exams due to the oral component (usually the commercial ones), and the same is true for A-level sciences (due of the practical component).

Exam boards:

The main exam boards in England are:



Why choose IGCSEs: historically HEors always have done them (used to be only option) so parents are more familiar with them; often offer an ‘alternative to practical’ paper; huge number of past papers; examinations start and finish about three weeks before GCSEs;  some say more difficult and so have greater respect with colleges/unis.

Why choose GCSE: some colleges can be funny about IGCSEs; if going on to college will have covered the same content as other students; course work has been removed from most GCSEs so are now do-able as an HE student; some say more difficult so have greater respect with colleges/unis.

Other things to consider when choosing: 

  • syllabus content and set texts
  • exam style – number of papers, length of papers, length of question answer, how the mark scheme is laid out etc, number of past papers available (fewer for new exam content), grade boundaries, formula sheets in exams (maths), open texts (as in English), course text books, if thinking of joining/working as a group which syllabus everyone else is going with.

When looking through syllabuses and their mark schemes be aware that some subjects/boards mark (or deduct marks) for SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar), but not all.

Where you want to end up:

Knowing what you want to do either as a career or after you finish home ed can help you work out what qualifications you need in order to move on to the next step.

Looking at some of the career websites may help. There is a list here: https://www.thecambridgehomeeducator.com/careers-links/

If going to college, check how many and which qualifications you need to get there.

Most require 6 or more I/GCSEs. Depending which courses you want to do, you may need some specific I/GCSEs, e.g. if you want to do biology at A-Level, you will be expected to have done it at GCSE level. 

If you’re not sure, keep options open, and do the most general courses that keep as many doors open as possible. For most people either GCSE, IGCSE or functional skills English and maths are a must.


Functional Skills

Often done by home educators as 14-16 courses in local colleges (e.g. https://peterborough.ac.uk/course/CC1SCHB1F/1416-year-11-programme/, https://peterborough.ac.uk/courses/subjects/english-maths/).

There are three levels to functional skills maths and English:

Entry Level – KS3 Standard

Level 1 – Equivalent to a low GCSE 

Level 2 – Equivalent to a grade 4 (C) GCSE

It is a pass/fail mark scheme. It can be done online, or as a paper in certain exam centres. Some colleges/councils will offer it to home educators for free, but to sit it as an external candidate costs around £300, which allows you to do a free resit too. 

Pros: can be used as a stepping stone towards GCSEs; equal difficulty to GCSE work, but a shorter syllabus, so doesn’t cover as much content as the GCSE and needs fewer hours to complete it; more real-world based; and can be completed at any time of the year. 

Cons: some courses won’t count it as an equivalent to a GCSE, e.g. teaching.


Other qualifications

  • Open Universityhttp://www.open.ac.uk – Permission is needed to do some courses under a certain age, and some courses are only open to 18+. Beyond the usual qualifications offered by a university, they also offer many free courses that are of a very high quality, but they are not formal qualifications, and so are only followed by people for personal interest – https://www.open.edu/openlearn/.
    • Future Learnhttps://www.futurelearn.com – free courses are also delivered by Future Learn, some of which are OU, although other organisations do deliver some of the courses too, so quality of content does seem to vary.

Sadly, anything that requires coursework is really, really difficult to do as a home-educated student.

Exam centres like Faregos, college courses that are open to HE students, and AWE offer groups working towards GCSE that can assess course work, but the choice of courses available is limited. Having your own contact within a school/college can also make course work subjects an option. 


Styles of learning for GCSE/A-level

The style of learning you adopt as a home-educating family going through qualifications is very personal to you and your child. There is no one way that suits everyone. However, it is very dependent on the ed phil (educational philosophy) your family had been following before you reached the exam stage. For instance, whether you had adopted a workbook, hands-on learning, conversational learning, group learning, or one-to-one tutoring style of learning. If your child has recently come out of school, this will also make a huge difference. 

Each child will also learn differently, even within the same family, preferring working at different times of day, orally, videos, workbooks, etc. So you have to stay flexible, giving yourself and your child time to find your feet.

  • Self-directed/self-studied – Very few leave their child to do the whole studying and exam preparation on their own. Most think of self-studying as the child and family doing it together without any other outside person involved, such as a tutor. Many parents leave the child to go through the textbook, and to come to them when there is something they are struggling to understand, they will then go through that bit together, but not the whole book. The student will then start on past papers with the parent marking the papers and going through the mark scheme with the student, so that they can see where they have gone wrong. This will also highlight any big areas that the student has clearly not fully got to grips with.
  • Parent taught – Some parents will go through the subject with the child as one might expect from a teacher, covering each page and section with the student, setting work and marking it as they go along. Often using relevant past paper questions after each topic area is covered.
  • Home ed co-op – Many like to go through the same subject with other students at the same time. The bulk of the work will often still be done at home independently, but the moral support of going through the same thing at the same time can be invaluable. It can also make subjects more fun, learning as a group or organising ‘school trips’.
  • External tutor – Can be expensive. Even if you don’t need one the whole way through, they can be really useful at the end of studying a course to help you improve on your exam technique, often pushing your grade up by one or two places.
  • Distance Learning Providers (DLP) – Generally you send in 10 pieces of work over the duration of the course, that are then marked and returned to you with feedback. The level of the feedback can vary even from the same DLP, as you may end up working with multiple tutors, where some will naturally be better than others. Some are also more supportive and helpful than others. You don’t, however, get to choose your tutor, as they are assigned. The quality of the material each DLP uses also varies. Some use videos, create their own textbook etc., others will just point to bits of a textbook you need to read. You have to follow the schedule as laid out by the DLP, and courses generally run over 6 months, 1 year or 2 years. Some people swear by DLPs, others think they are a waste of money. Reviews are very mixed. Asking on the national exams lists often gives a good idea of what to expect from each DLP.
  • Mark My Papershttps://www.markmypapers.com – Not technically a style of learning, but many home educators use them to supplement whatever style of learning they have chosen, either to mark work as they go along, or to look over a few past papers just before their actual exams. It is a company set up by an ex-HE family, where they organise for tutors and examiners to mark whole exam papers, part papers and essays, giving a huge amount of feedback as to how your work could be improved. They can even create papers especially for you, but the quality of these do vary a bit as they are made by individuals rather than having gone through the rigorous quality testing normal exam papers go through before they get to the exam room. You pay per paper, and normally expect a 3-day turn around on that paper, but obviously it can be longer nearer to exam time when demand is at its highest. It is around £15 a paper, but exact prices are available on request


Practicalities of sitting exams 

Spacing of exams:

Some work best with a narrow focus of work, others are better working over several subjects at once. Which approach you prefer is a very personal thing, however, large content subjects, such as history, may well need a couple of years just for you to be able to get through all the reading. 

All in one go: 

Most schools work over two years, covering 6 to 10 GCSEs subjects, all to be taken in one go. This happens in HE too, but is not so common.

Pros: Exams are all over and done with in one go, so you don’t have years and years of exam stress; A Levels are a lot of content, so many GCSEs in one go might be better preparation for the work load; you are more mature when you take all the exams, which can reflect in the results; no gap between studying a subject at GCSE and then at A Level; some universities are quite picky about a certain number of exam subjects being sat at the same time.

Cons: It is expensive to pay for all the textbooks and then all the exams in one go; it is more tiring for the parent trying to support 8 or so subjects at once; the exams become more about a test of stamina than ability, where you may find your child sitting 20 odd separate exams in the one exam season; it is mentally harder to jump between many subjects than it is just a handful, and this can reflect in the marks.

Over several years:

Most home educators do their GCSEs in two or three sittings over two or three years.

These may be May/June, October/November or January exam sittings.

Pros: In the short-term it is easier to budget for; doing one or two straightforward and ‘unimportant’ GCSEs first, can be a good introduction to exams if your child has never done any before; if you are supporting, teaching or marking papers it is less stressful to only do a few at anyone time; you can re-take GCSEs sat ‘early’ and still finish all your GCSEs at the same time as your contemparies; lack of accepted predicted grades by colleges for HEors can be a problem, so applying to college with several qualifications already under your belt can make it easier.

Cons: There can be big time gaps between doing a GCSE in a subject and then moving up to that same subject at A Level; essay subjects done too early can show up in the grades awarded, as maturity does play a big part in the ability to do well in these types of GCSE.

If you do have a gap between a GCSE and taking the subject further at A Level, CGP do some workbooks to help bridge that gap. For those who have done maths early, many go on to do a further maths GCSE or statistics GCSE. Otherwise some just start the A Level syllabus before they go to college, and get a head start on their contemporaries. 


Even the most independent child is usually better off with an adult planning the time frame for working through an exam. DLPs do this for you, but if you are self-studying you will want to create a time table for the student to pace out their coverage of the course book, to make sure the student neither goes too fast or too slow to get through the content. Many need a lot of repetition before information and concepts get absorbed, so finding a pace of work that allows for that, but keeps you moving forward is really important.

You will also need to leave plenty of time for past papers. How many past papers you do can make a huge difference to the student’s final grade. Depending on how intensely your child likes to work, if you are sitting an exam in May, you will probably have wanted to have been doing past papers since February/March time.

Past Papers:

They are the only way to really bring all the learning together and perfect your exam technique, with the mark schemes being particularly helpful.

Some subjects are so prescriptive (e.g. Latin) that the only way to achieve a good mark in that subject is to understand the exact hoops they want you to jump through, even to the point of learning specific phrases. 

A couple of years ago there was a big jump in the level of difficulty in exams for many subjects. Consequently, you need to be aware that some of the earlier past papers may not be enough to bring you up to scratch and you need to really scrutinise the more recent papers.

  • AQAhttps://www.aqa.org.uk/find-past-papers-and-mark-schemes – These past papers can be a bit of a hassle to get hold of if you are not attached to a school. You can email AQA and sometimes they will send them to you, otherwise ask your exam centre to send them to you (Hill’s and most other schools won’t, but Tutors and Exams and other commercial centres will). You can also ask on the exam forums where there is usually someone who has those papers and is willing to share.
  • Edexcelhttps://qualifications.pearson.com/en/support/support-topics/exams/past-papers.html – Past papers can normally be found in the assessment section of the Pearson website, however, with exam cancellations many have recently been ‘locked’, so that they can be used by schools for assessment. To access some of these papers you can ask your exam centre to send them to you (Hill’s and most other schools won’t, but Tutors and Exams and other commercial centres will), or you can ask on the exam forums. There is usually someone who has those papers and is willing to share.
  • Papa Cambridgehttps://pastpapers.papacambridge.com – Poor layout, advertising everywhere, pop up boxes all the time, but they have the biggest range of papers from all boards.

If you are still struggling to find a specific paper, try googling it (you’ll be surprised what turns up where), ask your exam centre (if you have an amenable one) or ask on the HE exam forums (someone is nearly always able to help).


Access Arrangements

In order to get access arrangements you need to have completed a Form 8 assessment  with the exam centre you are using, or by someone who is affiliated with the exam centre. Tests completed with people outside of the centre are no longer supposed to be accepted by the centre. 

This is the form that will be filled in by the assessor:

The assessment itself will include a number of activities such as, timed reading, timed writing, repeating lists of numbers back to the assessor in reverse order etc. Each task is scored and standardised to ascertain the exact arrangements you qualify for. They may also ask you to bring in evidence, which could be showing your usual way of working, or something like a completed past paper done in two pens, one showing the work you did within the time limit, and the other showing how much you completed after the time limit.

The access arrangements you receive might include:

  • 25% extra time
  • 26-50% extra time
  • Someone reading out to you
  • A scribe
  • A computer (with spell check on or off depending on what you need/want)
  • Private room
  • Rest breaks
  • A “prompter” (to help you get back on topic if you look like you’re staring out of the window vacantly).

Access arrangements can take a long time to put in place, so you really need to be thinking about getting one done six months to a year before your first set of exams. However, some centres will get on with them really quickly, so you might be able to do it a bit nearer to exam time. Although you do also have to bear in mind that the deadlines for applying to book exams with access arrangements are often considerably earlier than without.

Each Form 8 lasts for two years, but they can be extended without any further assessment. Unfortunately, they are not transferable to other centres, however, your subsequent centres may use your first/earlier Form 8 as ‘evidence’ to apply for new ones, meaning you may well only ever have to do the one actual assessment. 

CAIE have a different assessment – https://www.cambridgeinternational.org/exam-administration/cambridge-exams-officers-guide/phase-1-preparation/access-arrangements/

You can generally expect to spend about £200 on getting this assessment. For the exam itself, you might find you also have to pay for computer use, the private room or extra invigilating time. This can mount up to quite a bit more on top of the normal exam fees. Prices vary between centres, but the Tutors and Exams fees list might give you a bit more of an idea of what you could be paying out – https://www.tutorsandexams.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Tutors-Exams-Fees-2020_21-1.pdf 

Some things are at the centre’s discretion, for instance, some students may need to wear ear buds to cut out all noise, be placed near the edge of an exam hall or sat in a side room. Just by asking, a centre may make these small changes for you free of charge. Smaller centres have a lot more flexibility on this point than the larger commercial ones. Producing a doctor’s note saying a child has e.g. autism, high anxiety etc. may also help.

Although SPaGs (spelling, punctuation and grammar) are a consideration for some subjects, for others such as chemistry, biology and physics poor spelling is not a major issue. As long as words are phonetically legible, a student will not be penalised for poor spelling. However, there does need to be a distinction between similar terms, e.g.  meiosis and mitosis.

Where SPaGs are marked (or marks deducted), using a spell check can lose you up to 15% of the marks, so if you are using a computer, it is worth thinking about whether to  opt for the spell check to be on or off.


2020/21 Exams and what to expect for 2021/22

This year summer exams were cancelled at the very last minute. Both the autumn and winter exam sittings carried on as (COVID) normal. The autumn sitting had a larger range of subjects due to the cancelling of the 2020 summer exams, but the January sitting ran exactly the same as in a normal year.

For the 2021 summer exams, teacher assessed grades (TAGs) were used in schools. Some home educators could get TAGs through their distance learning providers (DLPs), or their teachers if they were affiliated with a school or exam centre. For those that had no tutor, or one not approved by a centre, centre assessed grades (CAGs) had to be used. A tutor proved by the centre would assess three or more pieces of work by the student to see what level that student was working at. This would include past papers, home work, and other assignments. 

The assessments for all home-educated students was on the entire syllabus, occurred about six weeks before the actual exams would have been and was marked in line with previous exam years.

Virtually every home educator found gaining qualifications more costly this year than they are in a normal year. This was partly due to many worrying about the cancellation of exams in September and so turned to DLPs and tutors instead of self-studying, local centres not accepting home educators for TAGs/CAGs, so people were forced to use the more expensive commercial centres, and the assessments themselves costing extra despite a government grant – CAIE and Edexcel IGCSEs weren’t covered, some centres charged too much to apply for the grant, and any grant went to exam centres not private tutors, who were often the ones doing the actual assessment.

The extra costs, stress and lack of faith in the final results this year, led many of those that could defer to the autumn 2021 sitting to do so.

There is already talk of cancelling the 2022 summer exams, and most educators’ faith in the government to handle the exams situation given past performance is minimal. Consequently, home educators have become very quick to adapt to the new challenges facing those trying to gain qualifications in this coming year. 

The general advice circulating for those who were hoping to take an exam in 2021/22 is:

  • Things change very quickly, with many government U-turns, so even when you are hoping for the best, prepare for the worst.
  • Plan for, and be ready, for your final exams a month or two early.
  • Consider sitting exams in the Oct/Nov or Jan sittings. They are both more subject limited than the summer sittings (January is just maths, English and the three sciences and languages only run in the summer), but they appear to be more reliable.
  • DLPs and tutors are no guarantee that you will be able to get graded in the summer, but in some cases they might help. Tutors that have been able to award TAGs this year will probably be able to next year if needed as well.
  • Be ready to defer to the autumn 2022 sitting, if you are not needing qualifications in order to move on to the next stage of your education/career for September 2022.
  • Budget for quite a bit more than you normally would. Possibly £100-150 more a subject, as you may need to change exam centres or organise last minute assessments. 
  • Changing exam boards didn’t help anyone last time, but some are covering multiple syllabuses should one exam board be running exams and another not.
  • Stay flexible. Gavin is not planning with you in mind.

Other HEors are there to support you, so stay connected. Aside from the exams forums there is also the email forum for the Home Educators’ Qualifications Association – https://heqa.uk – who are working to ensure fair access to qualification for home-educated children, and were specifically set up to help home educators navigate their way through the cancellation of exams in 2020. 

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