On the 6th of January 2021, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that all GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled for the 2020/21 academic year.
Announcing his plans to the House of Commons chamber, he stressed that the government would be putting their faith in teachers to award students grades instead of any algorithm that caused the A-level grade fiasco last year. The teachers would use evidence from a students’ previous work to calculate the grades.
Many pupils let out a sigh of relief across the country as this news rolled in. The studying that they had carried out in isolation during a grueling pandemic would be used as evidence by teachers to award them a particular grade, and they could finally progress on to the next step of their educational journey.
All students believed there would be no exams.
They were wrong.
Despite what was stated by Williamson, schools were given some flexibility so they could decide their exam plans, meaning that plans differ from school to school. Some are choosing to make their students undertake lots of exam papers across a number of weeks for ‘evidence’ and others are opting to help their students build up to final assessments in the final weeks of term.
One key principle remains in the varying plans; students ARE taking exams. Previous ‘evidence’ for grades such as essays and mock exams undertaken during isolation still hold some weight, but it differs according to schools how much weight these have. Many schools are opting for exams to be the base of the calculation for a student’s final grade. We are talking about plans for a cohort of students that have missed key academic content and were promised by the Education Secretary that exams would not take place.
GCSE and A-level students are being put through a rigorous, appalling testing process. In an ordinary academic year, students usually have mock exams so they can learn what areas they need to focus on in their revision in the lead up to the exams that determine their official grade. Under this year’s model of assessment, students are being made to sit controlled assessments in exam conditions everyday.
To avoid doubt, let me make that clear: pupils as young as fifteen are sitting exams all throughout the day on a continuous daily basis. All of the controlled assessments matter because they are all going towards their final grade. Everything counts.
This is appalling and it is an exploitation of a young student’s academic ability. In addition to this, many students have ended up taking multiple vital tests on the same day due to the volume of educational subjects that they take. This is particularly the case for GCSE students, the youngest of the cohort that are being put through this horrendous procedure.
The shocking reality of the situation hits home when one speaks to students about it. One GCSE student, aged sixteen, told me recently that he had sat through nine hours of exams within two days. He would be sitting through another eight hour of assessments, all under exam conditions, the next two days after that. The pupil told me that many students were ‘being sick, not coming into school because they were too anxious and having panic attacks’ due to the continuous pressure of the ‘mini exams’ schedule. He went on to say that one girl had even fainted before an exam due to overwork. These are fifteen and sixteen year old students going through this stress.
What will the long term implications be for these young people that are being put under so much unnecessary pressure?
They have been nicknamed ‘ Mini Exams’ by many mainstream media commentators but the reality is they are much more than just ‘mini’ academic assessments. They are full assessments in all but name, packed into a short period of time. The tests are being taken at such a rigorous pace to fulfill the need for ‘evidence’ to award the grade. The students that are currently under this stress have had to spend their past academic year during lockdown. For the most part, all of their interaction has come through a screen.
Some pupils have had to teach themselves entire syllabuses due to their teacher being absent. Young people have been, and are, grieving over the loss of loved ones. They are physically and mentally exhausted after being under challenging circumstances for over a year. When the exams were cancelled in January, students were under the impression that essays, coursework and previous mock exams would be used as the only evidence to award grades. Instead, they are under immense pressure to complete assessment after assessment; some on syllabus content they have not been taught because there has not been enough time.
I have no doubt in my mind that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson knows that exams are happening in schools all across the country.
The only individual who benefited from the (false) announcement that exams were being cancelled in the House of Commons was himself. It has allowed him to appear like he has taken the moral ground to help the well-being of students, whereas in reality the opposite is happening within exam-taking classrooms in all corners of the country.
I also have no doubt that the ‘Mini Exams’ scheme will have its implications come Results Day when pupils receive their grades. Students may miss out on a university offer because they had to take an assessment on something they had not been taught due to this rigorous procedure. This will particularly impact the pupils in lower achieving schools who have had their learning affected by pandemic complications.
We may not see an appearance from a disastrous algorithm, but the awarding of grades this year will once again be stained by injustice and unfairness.