Delayed exams: A blessing or a curse for students?
Author: Altay Shaw
Editor: Ebani Dhawan
Artist: Louisa Norton
On 12th October 2020, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that most of the A-Level and GCSE exams would be going ahead for the 2021 exam season. The most important update from the press conference was that exams would only be moved back by 3 weeks. Research suggests that 4 in 10 students got little to no contact with their teacher between March and June, and that millions had been left floundering.
So, how is it that students missed an average of 5 months of structured learning, and will have only 3 extra weeks to prepare for exams covering the entire curriculum, despite repeated calls by opposition leaders and teachers?
Psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students
During the lockdown period, a lot of research was carried out into students’ mental well-being. Early results primarily discussed the impact of COVID-19 on students in China and the steps that were taken to tackle mental health concerns. A key recommendation was to encourage children to have as much communication with those around them to stave off prolonged periods of isolation.
The only major pandemic of recent times that can be compared to COVID-19 is the 2009 swine flu outbreak. Over the same period of time, there have been three times as many lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the UK as there were cases of swine flu worldwide. During the 2003 SARS epidemic, parents reported a 30% rise in signs of PTSD among children who were forced to quarantine. In addition, the loneliness of self-isolating was stated as the biggest hurdle when trying to address the stigma associated with a positive diagnosis of SARS. Recommendations from this research suggested that further funding was needed to educate healthcare professionals on the early signs of anxiety.
It is also important to clarify students’ concerns within the classroom. Before the lockdown, the digital divide between the most and least affluent areas was staggering. The Education Policy Institute estimated the difference in class time experienced by rich and poor pupils to be around 18 months by the time both cohorts had completed their GCSE examinations. This sentiment was backed by David Laws, the Executive Chairman, commenting that “this figure seems to have increased since the closure of school” during the first national lockdown. The Government’s failure to supply schools with the laptops required to take learning online has confounded issues, especially as schools are required by law to provide remote setting-based teaching for students when necessary.
The divides, coupled with the typical exam stress and anxiety in schools, have only worsened the situation for many students. According to the Office for National Statistics, 41% of parents reported that home-learning was having a negative impact on their children’s well-being. With a potential for there to be even more lockdowns in the coming months, the sombreness of working from home is only likely to increase.
Impact on exam results for students
As a result of the pandemic, there was pressure on the Government to change the way in which students were assessed. After calls to use teacher-assessed grades, the Government opted to have an algorithm determine student grades. In a nationwide fiasco, the algorithm overwhelmingly assigned students from private schools their predicted grades, while many students at state schools were downgraded by 1 or 2 grades.
Particularly hard hit were private candidates, as their lack of previous centre-based assessments and formalised education meant that their predictions were entirely ignored. In total, around 42% of grades were downgraded using the government algorithm, leading to mass calls for a review. Following the initial refusal to change the way in which grades were awarded, Williamson announced on 17th August that teachers’ predicted grades would be used for both A-Levels and GCSEs, marking a shift in tone.
Due to the shift in grading systems, there was above-average grade inflation for achieved results, most of which would not have been attainable under normal circumstances. Though this may have benefited the 2019-2020 cohort in the short term, it has also unintentionally created a new challenge for those sitting exams in the 2021 exam period. This cohort will be competing with students who received idealised predicted grades, which at times may only be predicted correctly 16% of the time.
The reprieve from exams may have made a good proportion of students feel relaxed. However, it is also important to consider that students moving forward with their careers would not have had a chance to test their knowledge in a controlled environment for up to three years.
Moving forward – An education in a pandemic
With the ongoing pandemic and the lack of clarity in England for the 2021 exam season, it is understandable that students and staff members are on edge. Given the uncertainty over future lockdowns and an unwavering stance on changing exam material, only time will tell how much students have been affected and what their longer-term prospects will look like.