By Cai Parry
"Considering the inequalities students are already facing in education this academic year, the fairest solution would be to cancel exams and provide the necessary support for centres to assess their students throughout the year."
Summer 2020 GCSE, A-Level and equivalent exams were cancelled across the UK due to the Coronavirus lockdown earlier this year. This meant that the four nations’ largely independent education boards had to come together to formulate a way of fairly awarding qualifications. They chose an algorithm which took in several different factors, like teacher assessments and the school’s past performance, to mathematically award students with grades. However, after Scotland’s results day on the 4th of August, it became clear that these algorithms unfairly favoured students at independent schools and did not put enough weight on teacher assessments in comparison to the past records of student’s educational centres.
In Wales, I organised the protest to fully implement centre assessed grades as the only fair option that treated students as the individuals they are, given the time-sensitive factors of applying to university. A U-turn came in both England and Wales the following day, and the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, stated that this was due to other parts of the UK making U-Turns and that this would put students in Wales at a disadvantage. An independent review into the fiasco in Wales was commissioned shortly after, and that review has opened a survey asking for the views of young people on how to handle qualifications and exams for 2021.
So, what should be done? Firstly, it is important to understand that these are unprecedented circumstances, and time is not a luxury to come up with a plan of action. This is, at face value, a short-term problem that requires a long-term solution. In March this year, when the lockdown was first announced, there was no provision in place for ensuring all students got the same level of education. Many schools continued teaching online, some doing better at this than others, and some schools facilitated a day or two of in-person learning before Summer. This trend has continued from September too. Distance and digital learning is not an adequate substitution from teaching face to face, due to technical issues and a lack of an appropriate environment at home.
On top of this, it’s been down to each school to come up with their own way of implementing social distancing rules, with different schools having differing degrees of online learning, meaning students will not be on a level playing field going into a standardised end of year exam. With the Welsh Government set to make an announcement on Monday regarding a ‘fire break’ lockdown, education will be disrupted further.
The obvious choices for the Welsh Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, are either to go ahead as normal, cancel exams and give education centres support on how to assess students throughout the year (through coursework or regular small examinations) to provide teacher assessed grades that have the confidence of all stakeholders, or there’s an option to reduce content in final exams. The first of these options is unlikely as it would be difficult to ensure the safety of students and invigilators in closed exam halls, and impossible to have them conducted fairly if done remotely. The same problems would exist for exams with reduced content, with the added issue of students from this academic year who go on to higher education not having extensive knowledge of some parts of the course, let alone because some schools teach their modules in different orders to each other. One thing should go without saying, and that is that a simple three-week delay of exams like has been announced in England will only add to the disruption students have faced up until now in applying to university; it’s not a solution at all.
Considering the inequalities students are already facing in education this academic year, the fairest solution would be to cancel exams and provide the necessary support for centres to assess their students throughout the year, with support for universities across the UK to adjust their courses slightly to give students of the pandemic the best quality of higher education. Of course, there’s always the possibility of a magic option that is oblivious to most of us, but I’m not holding out much hope that such an option will emerge given the relatively short time given to fully consider them.
"One thing should go without saying, and that is that a simple three-week delay of exams, like has been announced in England, will only add to the disruption students have faced up until now in applying to university."
The ideal solution to the educational fallout of the pandemic would have been to throw money at education centres to make them truly COVID safe, keep the size of bubbles of students down from the size of entire year groups, and provide the extra staff necessary to continue education if cases emerged amongst students or teachers. However, it’s far too late now, and if the Government in Westminster can’t find the money for an adequate furlough scheme, the chances of them putting money into schools are next to none, especially if that includes supporting the devolved administrations in doing it.
Williams is set to make a statement on the Welsh Government’s approach to education this year by the half-term break at the end of October. Whatever happens, this is a cause of great anxiety for students with their futures at stake, but you can make your concerns known by filling out the Independent Review’s survey, which closes on Sunday 18th October.
Cai Parry is a 17-year-old Labour activist and Director of Communications & Outreach at Youth Strike 4 Climate - Cardiff and UKSCN Wales. His local activism has focused on environmental policy and education, having recently organized a successful protest into the Welsh Government's A-Level grading during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.