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Gavin Williamson

Gavin Williamson. Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / cropped from original / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

GCSE and A-level exams going ahead in 2021 shows that the government has learnt nothing from the chaos they caused this year, argues Jamal Elaheebocus

The Department for Education has announced its additional measures for GCSE and A-level exams and predictably, they are woefully inadequate.

The main measures that have been put in place are: more generous grading in line with 2020’s exams (because that went so well); advance notice of some of the topic areas which will come up in exams; availability of extra exam aids, and a group of experts to assess the variation in the impact of the pandemic. There are also contingency exams for students who are ill or self-isolating. These measures come after the government postponed the exam season by three weeks.

So it seems the DfE have learnt nothing from the catastrophic management of the exams this year. The DfE relied on a blatantly classist algorithm from Ofqual to determine predicted grades, which favoured students from high-achieving (usually private) schools and downgraded students from lower-achieving (usually state-funded) schools, sometimes by as much as two grades. This denied many working class students the chance to go to the first university choices, or to go to university at all.

This outrageous system was met with protests across the country and massive public pressure, forcing the government into a U-turn, which meant that predicted grades decided by teachers would be used and the results given by the algorithm were completely scrapped.

None of the measures outlined by the DfE in any way solve the issues that will come up if the exams go ahead. This year’s exams are set to be the most unequal yet, even with these added measures. Thousands of pupils have been forced to self-isolate, either because of testing positive or coming in close contact with people who have tested positive. Areas worst-hit by the second wave of the pandemic, such as the North-East and the North-West, will have had much higher absence levels than areas like the South-West, which have been less severely affected.

Some schools have been so badly affected by Covid that they have had to close completely for several weeks. Ofsted regional directors in the West Midlands and the North-West, for example, have said that education in these regions has been “completely disrupted”.

Those who have been isolating will have missed out on weeks of lessons which other pupils have not and are therefore much further behind in their courses than those who have been in school for the whole term so far.

Furthermore, there will have been many students who have not been able to access online lessons and resources while isolating because they might not have a laptop or good broadband. Most of the state-funded schools, which have been starved of cash for the last decade, have not been able to miraculously provide laptops and internet access, which the DfE has suggested they do. Many schools may not have been able to provide online learning at all, due to staff shortages, which have been made worse by the fact that many teachers have had to self-isolate.

Those at private schools will almost certainly have been able to access online lessons and resources if they have been isolating. They will also have a much better chance of catching up on the four months of teaching they missed out on, since they will have better access to resources, more teachers and smaller classes than underfunded state schools.

Therefore, awarding more generous grades across the board will do nothing to lessen these inequalities. It will not solve the fact that those who have only missed a couple of weeks of school, or none at all, by the time exams come will perform much better than those who have missed several weeks of education. It also does nothing to solve the fact that working class students will not have been able to catch up on the months of work missed.

This is the same for the other measures, such as giving information about what topics will be in exams in January and the extra aids that will be available during exams. They will not solve the inequalities been state and private schools, between areas badly affected by the second wave and areas less badly affected. The inequalities in results will still be there; the only change will be that everyone’s grades will be slightly higher.

The only measure that is intended to deal with these inequalities in any way is the introduction of this so-called expert advisory group. The DfE devotes a whole two lines to explaining what this advisory group actually is, saying:

“An expert advisory group made up of a wide representation from across the sector is being established to consider these issues.”

Considering this group will be put together by the DfE, I highly doubt that it will be focussed on making these exams as fair as possible for the poorest in society, who are going to schools most deprived of funds.

All of this means that for many working class students, they will receive grades which are unfairly lower than others. This will lead to many of them not getting into the universities they have applied to and then having to deal with the anxiety of the clearing process and possibly the devastation that will come with not getting a place at all at university. GCSE students will also have the same anxieties with trying to get into colleges and sixth forms.

It is also worth noting that this guidance gives no consideration to the differences between the devolved administrations. Wales have cancelled their GCSE and A-Level exams and are using in-class assessments to award grades at the end of the year. Scotland have cancelled their National 5 and now also their Higher exams. Students from Wales and Scotland will be applying to English universities and vice-versa, so universities will have to choose from students who have taken exams and students who have had in-class assessments. This is undoubtedly going to deny many students the chance to go to university based on which type of exams they have done.

We, as students, have dealt with a considerable amount of anxiety and stress this year: many young people have suffered bereavement due to the pandemic and its atrocious management by the government; we have had months off school, unable to see friends and access the usual mental health support available at schools. And now we have to deal with the stress of taking exams when we have had much less teaching time than normal and have been trying to learn in the middle of the second wave of the Covid pandemic.

The only fair way of resolving the whole exam saga is to cancel them and use teacher-assessed grades. The NEU has rightly taken the position that exams should not go ahead and responded to the government’s announcements by saying:

“What Government should be putting in place is a robust system of nationally moderated centre-assessed grades, rather than relying solely on exams at all costs.”

This is the only way to avoid all the inequalities mentioned above and give all students a fair chance of getting into colleges and universities, not just students at private schools. It will also avoid worsening the mental health of so many young people who are already struggling to deal with the stress and grief caused by the pandemic, as well as the usual stress caused by the exam factory education system.

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