Prioritisation of applications for FRCA examinations in academic year 2020/2021

Published: 26/08/2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has created tremendous challenges across anaesthesia, intensive care and pain medicine training and examinations. In addition to the tireless efforts of our staff and volunteers who are acutely sensitive to the impact of any necessary changes to the training and examining processes during this COVID era, The Royal College of Anaesthetists takes all such decisions incredibly seriously. All decisions will continue to be made in full collaboration with a range of fellows, members and external stakeholders to ensure changes are balanced and fair to all our members, while also importantly ensuring the College’s examinations remain internationally recognised for their fairness and high standards.

The largest challenge for our exams has been to find alternative methods of delivery that will protect against further cancellations. For our written exams, this has meant a move to online testing with remote proctoring. Although a big change from current practice, this format of testing already existed, so it was simply a matter of finding a suitable system. More information on our written examinations is available at COVID-19 and Examinations.

For our clinical exams, there had not been a demand for online, virtual testing until now. A few organisations have addressed this demand and from these we identified a suitable platform to deliver our clinical exams in this new temporary format. Further information and statements on the clinical delivery will be released soon.

Within these sets of exams, there will be a huge challenge in scheduling candidates due to the high demand expected for examinations over the next 12 months. We recognise that the FRCA examinations are major life events in their own right, and that applicants are usually afforded the autonomy to choose when they sit these exams, fitting them around other important events in their personal and working life. We regret that given the pressures created by COVID-19 in terms of cancelled sittings, back log of applicants and finite resources in terms of examiners, it is highly unlikely we will be able to protect this choice over sittings in the coming months and for the first time will need to introduce prioritisation of applications. This prioritisation of applications to sit our examinations is a temporary measure we need to implement due to the issues outlined above.

Details of examination prioritisation remain available in section 4 of the examination regulations, on the College website.

In terms of managing capacity in exam sittings, we felt it was fairest to prioritise those candidates who would have sat their exams in the cancelled sessions in May and June 2020, for the new virtual sessions in November and December 2020. This move is supported by the GMC. We also need to prioritise those with the most time-critical need to obtain a pass in the exam to allow progression in their training, such as candidates who have received an ARCP outcome 10.

Our goal is to be as fair as possible to everyone and this means that some exam sessions that would normally be open to all prospective candidates will not be available to everyone this year. These cohorts will, however, be prioritised for the next exam. For example, the SOE in December 2020 will prioritise those candidates who would have sat the cancelled session in June, and who have waited up to a year for an opportunity to take their exam. Candidates sitting the Final Written in September 2020 will be prioritised for the new SOE sitting in February 2021, occurring shortly after the December session. This was the earliest opportunity we were able to schedule in another sitting of the exam.

To offer examination slots to as many candidates as possible, we have expanded our pool of examiners during this period. We have had a wonderful response from examiners, who despite struggling to get study and annual leave, have been able to volunteer additional days for us. This has resulted in extended exam weeks for Primary and an entirely new exam week in February 2021 for the Final SOE.

We also wish to highlight that the derogations to the Anaesthetic Curriculum that the GMC permitted for the Summer 2020 ARCPs currently still apply for future ARCPs, and this allows Core Trainees to apply for and progress to ST3 without the full Primary exam, and allows Higher Trainees until the end of ST5 to achieve the full Final. We are in active discussions with the GMC to make these changes permanent, as this would be in keeping with the changes set out in the new Anaesthetic Curriculum, and would relieve some of the time pressure on trainees to sit and pass these examinations in the coming year.

We are aware that the planned increase in examination fees will affect those who sit examinations in 2021. It is important to note that the College does not make a financial profit from examinations, and the incremental fee increases were part of a longer term plan to help recoup increasing delivery costs. When examination cancellations due to COVID-19 became necessary, we took the decision to delay this fee increase until 2021 so that those who had applied for (or were eligible to apply for) the cancelled sittings were not forced to take the rescheduled exam sittings at the higher fee rate. Sadly it is not financially viable to continue this protection beyond January 2021. It is important to note that delivering the examinations virtually comes with very significant costs, and will be more expensive to run than face to face examinations. These new costs are being absorbed by the College and not passed on to candidates.

These decisions have been incredibly difficult to make and we understand the ongoing disruption that will be caused as a result. However we believe that the changes we have put in place will ensure that all those who need to sit exams during this academic year will be provided an opportunity to do so in the fairest way possible. 

For more information on changes to exam, please see our website COVID-19 and Examinations.

Thank you.

Dr Chris Carey
Chair, RCoA Education, Training and Examinations Board