Coronavirus

COVID-19: pressures on the education system

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On Friday 20 March, schools in Britain were closed as an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. What followed was a tsunami of doubts, questions, criticisms and assurances. The timing of the pandemic is inconvenient for the British education system. Along with schools being closed, GCSE and A-Level exams, which children were meant to sit this summer, have been called off disrupting the annual process of teenagers moving through the education hierarchy.  

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, stated around 10% of pupils will continue attending school however they will not be taught the usual curriculum. This means key workers won’t have to go back home and take care of their children allowing the country to keep functioning. A 2009 study showed that if schools were to close for a month roughly six to nine per cent of essential health care workers would stay at home to look after their children.

The government declared students would have their grades determined by exam boards, who will work with teachers to ensure the effort students put in is represented. Despite this, experts have questioned the reliability of predicted grades, arguing research shows a student’s background influences their teacher’s predictions.

Research by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills in 2011 showed that 41.7% of grades were over-predicted, and 6.6% were under-predicted. Black applicants had the least accurate predictors at 39.1%, compared to 53% amongst white applicants. In 2019, Labour planned to completely scrap the predicted grades system and alter the University/A-Level timetable due to the inaccuracy and prejudice of the system.

However, the government addressed these concerns arguing that they are not simply rewarding predicted grades and that Ofqual will ‘develop a fair and robust process that accounts for a broad range of evidence, including teacher assessment and prior attainment’ and that their system will not ‘disadvantage any particular group of students’.

The message ‘trust us’ doesn’t inspire much hope, especially for students who are currently holding offers to universities and are told to wait whilst the government decides the direction their life will take on the basis of exams they didn’t think mattered. There is also the option of being able to appeal the decision if students believe the assigned grades don’t reflect their abilities. The options of sitting exams as soon as schools are open or in the 2021 exam season.  

A lot will depend on how Ofqual determines grades and how much they account for the unconscious bias present in the predicted grades system. The ability to sit exams at some point in the future is a step in the right direction, students should have the ability to prove themselves whilst being fully aware of the consequences of their work.

However, delayed exams for those who wish to take them are a two-sided coin. On one hand, the extra time seems like an unfair advantage, especially since a lot of A-Levels and GCSEs is a memory game which can be won through months of memorising content. Yet, students will be expected to study for these outside of the classroom environment, alone without external resources and a doubtful online teaching scheme.

If those who chose to sit their exams in summer 2021 are allowed to repeat the year or repeat what they have missed due to school closures the education system would be strained under the higher number of students. If students were only offered exams in 2021 they would again suffer the disadvantage of being out of the academic environment for a year, which would have a horribly negative effect on their work ethic and general motivation.

However, even after taking all these criticisms into account, the government’s plan seems reasonable. If we are to operate under the assumption that closing schools will stop the spread of the virus, then disruptions will be inevitable. The government’s goal here should be slowing the spread of the virus whilst allowing the current generation of students to move onto the next stage of their education.

Though there are many doubts and details to sort out the government’s plan roughly does this, its long term success will be determined by the accuracy of Ofqual’s grade prediction system.

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