What are the purposes of exams? They are qualifications associated with a degree of terror and concern. A person imminently sitting such qualifications spends hours revising to try and ensure they know the necessary details to pass with flying colours. An older person, looking back at results from years gone by, will either reflect on the hard work put in or perhaps spent elsewhere. We all have a connection to them. 

The results they offer are a vital indication of how society is structured. If someone performs well in their GCSEs, they are likely to attend a Sixth Form of their choice. Following Sixth Form, good A-level results will mean a person can attend a better university, achieve a well-respected qualification and have greater life chances. All from the results on a piece of paper. That is why they hold such salience. The cliche of moments being life-changing is often overused. For exam results, that is no exaggeration. 

Before 2020, nobody would have thought of any legitimate reason for cancelling exams. Their undertaking and results day was an established part of the academic calendar. However, Coronavirus altered this. Exams were cancelled entirely in 2020, leading to an unreliable algorithm taking someone’s class background into their academic qualifications. Though exams in 2021 aren’t until May, that date will come around quickly. Much as we might like to imagine the Covid-19 vaccines will mean the virus has soon vanished, the impact of Coronavirus on education will be felt for many years. 

So, how are governments responding to the importance of exams and education in 2021? Planning needs to be as quick as possible to ensure another year of learners isn’t abandoned. The Scottish government have confirmed that National 5 exams, Higher and Advanced Higher exams will be cancelled. They have argued this is not because of safety concerns for undertaking exams but the immense disruption of Covid to the education system. With more than 200,000 entries for Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications, those pupils will feel neglected and cheated.

Teacher predicted grades will instead decide their qualifications. This raises numerous questions, not least over how marks can be verified to ensure fairness and equal chances for all. Invariably, teachers are generous with their marking. It makes them look effective as teachers and means their pupils have greater chances. One of the brilliant things about exams is anonymity. Markers did not know the background of the person who’d written the paper they were assessing. All they had was the words and ideas expressed in front of them – with no preconceptions.

Despite England following this pathway in 2020, where, following the algorithm outburst, governments agreed to have teacher predicted grades, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has reemphasised that exams will go ahead in 2021. To take account for lost time, they will commence three weeks later. Despite at one point, according to the Department for Education’s figures, 22% of secondary school pupils being absent, Williamson has argued that exams are the best way for assessment.

However, there will be differences. Students will be provided with aids like formula sheets to reduce the amount of information they need to memorise. Contingency measures have been provided for those who are clinically vulnerable or miss an exam to ensure they can receive a grade. Receiving a mark based on teacher predictions will only be used as a final result once all other opportunities to sit an exam have been exhausted.

Education shouldn’t merely be viewed as a memory test. The announcements made by the government with regards to exams appear to view the process of attaining knowledge in this way. Students will receive advance notice of specific exam topics with papers graded more generously because of Coronavirus. In the short term, this might help pupils to ensure they are awarded higher marks. Longer-term, it could make them suffer when seeking employment.

Of course, education should be about more than receiving the necessary qualifications to earn a living. Nonetheless, a person’s job is an essential part of their life. Employers use GCSE, A-level and degree qualifications (or the absence of them) as a means of assessing whether prospective employees are suited to their line of work. With the last two cohorts, it’s tricky to see whether students will be treated sympathetically or harshly. Sympathetically, because they were the Covid generation, undertaking qualifications at an impossible time. Or will they be treated more harshly precisely because they had access to help no previous cohorts were given? 

Education is far more than a memory test, forgotten as soon as the exam is over. A reductive, instrumental way of viewing learning – only for students to memorise the textbooks – neglects a  more critical part of any skill. Of course, writing a good essay by making clear arguments is admirable. But it’s also about the transferable skills that learning provides – such as debate, critical thinking, and analysis. Given the broad range of qualifications, it is these skills employers may value more than the precise subjects a student chose. 

Indeed, these are qualities that can only be adequately learnt in the classroom. If someone has the discipline, it’s possible to learn and memorise a textbook for any exam.  Enough online tutorials and YouTube videos exist to allow everyone to have a grasp of the essential content in preparation for exams. The classroom as a physical space was supposed to provide more than this. Indeed, it was the place where critical thinking, challenging others and investing in the academic intricacies of a subject was celebrated.

Given the clear focus on memorising for exams and the number of students self-isolating, it is clear that approach to education is in decline. This should concern those who value knowledge and requires a broader rebirth long after Covid has finally gone.

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