The looming exams crisis caused by COVID-19

By Noah Keate

Although schools remain open during the second nationwide lockdown, questions have been raised over the looming exams crisis casting a shadow over the state of GCSE and A-Level exams next summer.

The whole debate revolving around education during the pandemic has prioritised pupils that were meant to take their exams in 2020. With exams cancelled, grades were determined by a complex algorithm that took into account the previous performance of the school. Despite a government U-turn to allow teacher predicted grades as the sole determinant, class bias was laid bare.

Students hoping to gain their qualifications next year have been, to say the least, almost forgotten. Yet this is likely to spark another exams crisis next year; after losing months of in-person teaching, those individuals will have missed out on such a wide range of content vital for a high performance.

Of course, students were still learning during that period. Many will have had access to online education. But this is likely to have formed another class divide: those who come from families with a more comfortable socioeconomic background will be able to afford the best technological equipment and high quality WiFi. Similarly, online learning can never compensate for being in the classroom, an environment where it is possible to see who understands the content and who requires extra help.

Can term dates avoid the crisis?

Schools are therefore playing catch-up. The government have said that exams will go ahead next summer, but that students will have more time to prepare. Starting three weeks later, the summer exam series will commence on 7th June 2021 and finish on 2nd July 2021.

On the face of it, a shorter summer break in exchange for more revision time does not seem like a bad idea. Yet far more than three weeks of teaching time was lost earlier this year. Schools are very much having to play catch-up, trying to work out which bits of content are relevant to their learning. This comes as teaching unions, like the National Education Union (NEU), condemn the plans and pledge to stand up for teachers.

The government’s investment plan

The government have tried to provide some solutions. Some £1 billion will be invested as part of the government’s catch-up programme; however little detail has been released regarding how and where it will be invested. The government’s plans are said to include a universal £650 million catch-up with a school receiving £80 for every pupil in years reception to 11.

Clearly, schools require funding to allow an enhanced education. However, this could be criticised for not sufficiently targeting those who require the most help. Although the government have committed £350 million to a National Tutoring Programme, it is unclear where these tutors will be found and whether their catch-up programmes can be adequate.

Similarly, the class disparities that faced students when receiving their grades this year remain entirely relevant. According to The Independent, between 2015 and 2016 councils in the northeast of England faced funding cuts of 7.8%, compared, to 3.4% for the wealthier southeast. Though academics receive their funding directly from the central government, it is obvious that one’s geographical location could shape the access to a higher standard of education.

Indeed, though schools reopened fully in September, it seems even by October that funding was not being properly directed. The new president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Ruth Davies, argued that schools were being asked to implement COVID-19 safety arrangements “without any additional funding at all”. This suggests existing funding is neither able to adequately educate nor ensure safety at school.

Are rigorous mock exams a solution?

The government have proposed that, in the event of further disruption, rigorous mock exams should take place to ensure these results could be used as proof of a student’s academic ability. This proposal is also flawed. Mock exams are generally completed internally, with different schools having different procedures about how they are conducted. The fairness of external exams is in their similarity, regardless of school. 

The content within such exams is also deserving of attention. Under the coalition government, Education Secretary Michael Gove transformed the GCSE and A-level education system, by curbing the influence of coursework, making the grading system harder and introducing more content. But this system of increased content hinges on the basis of being taught in person, not by the student in their own home.

What does this mean for the looming exams crisis?

There are much wider questions about the education system. Exams are meant to be the best example of meritocracy, given their anonymity when marked and moderated. However, there are obvious wealth-related disparities within this. Even though everyone sits the same paper, the wealthier will have access to greater revision resources and support, which invariably shapes why private schools and schools in areas of a higher tax bracket often perform better in Ofsted reports and exams.

Whatever the government says, exam instability next summer is far from inevitable. The Scottish government have already cancelled National 5 exams (equivalent to GCSE), stating that the risk posed by COVID-19 is too large.

Even if all exams take place in England and Wales, the wealth disparities that shape who does well will remain. Throughout the debate on education, the importance of learning as a worthwhile end in itself must be prioritised. Education is about far more than a memory test forgotten as soon as a pupil leaves the sports hall. It should be a process of analysis, enlightenment and investigation that shapes lifelong critical thinking; in the months ahead, the government would do well to remember that.

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