Exam season and COVID19: What should we do?


In the current climate, worrying about whether this year’s GCSE and A level exams are going to go ahead as scheduled may seem like small beans but it’s a big deal to those directly affected. My eldest is due to sit her GCSEs and is, understandably, frustrated with the uncertainty. The likelihood that schools will carry on as normal over the exam period is looking more and more remote. Something has to give. Everyone working in education is expected an imminent announcement, but no one knows anything for sure. As ever, we have to hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Today, the Guardian published a piece by STAR Academies chief executive, Hamid Patel suggesting that the best course of action is to cancel this year’s exam season. As the article suggests,

Cancellation is the only sensible and humane option. It will go a long way to ensuring the success of the “delay” phase of the government’s strategy. It could save tens of thousands of lives because it will ensure good decision-making, and good decision-making by individuals is central to how we manage this crisis.

The article then sets out options for what we could do instead: delay exams until some unspecified point in the future; use pupils prior attainment to make awards or; get students to repeat the year. Each option is flawed. Delaying exams just results in further uncertainty and will, undoubtedly serve to widen the advantage gap between the haves and have nots. Using prior attainment is unfair and, typically, leads to minorities and disadvantaged children being the victims of unconscious bias. Repeating Yr 11 and Yr 13 means that other years could not be promoted. All students would have to spend an extra year in education. This might seem superficially attractive, but what of those children due to begin school in September? There would be no room at the inn.

To me it seems that the best course of action definitely to announce the cancellation of exams as soon as possible and worry about what to do instead later. This is uncharted territory and none of us have the least idea how all this will play out. Even in the very best case scenarios, exams will be hugely disrupted.

As Voltaire said, “The best is the enemy of the good.” Hoping there’s a perfect solution out there waiting for us to stumble on is not only naive, it will only get in the way of the practical but unpalatable solutions we have at hand. Currently, it seems the best worst option would be to waive qualifications for a year and replace them with… something else. Prior attainment is an unfair way to award grades. My daughter did less well in her mock exams than she would have wished, has been working like crazy and would, we think, do much better is things were the same as every other year. But they’re not. Unfair as it is, some sort of teacher assessment erring on the side of generosity seems better than all the other alternatives.

But, I would certainly echo Hamid Patel in calling for an immediate announcement of the cancellation of exams.

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