This morning, England’s Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, confirmed that next summer’s examinations will be going ahead as planned, albeit some minor changes.
There has been a mixed reception to this confirmation, as many think this is the right decision, whilst others are still crying foul. Those who are opposed to the exams going ahead are basing their argument on what they perceive as unfairness due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to the education of millions of teenagers. Before analysing the merits and demerits of exams or no exams, I’d just like to list the key points that Mr Williamson has provided as a way of mitigating against unfairness and ensuring there is more of a level playing field.
The whole set of GCSE and A-level examinations will go ahead in the summer of 2021
Grades will be awarded more generously
Notice of some of the topics in the exams will be released in advance
There will be formula sheet, so needing less memorisation…
The exams will be about three weeks later than usual
Additional exams / contingency papers for those who miss part or all of their exams
Teacher-assessed grade for those who miss all their papers in a particular subject due to illness or self-isolation and they are unable to sit the additional exam
With the above measures, I am of the opinion that the government has done all it can to ensure fairness in the way the GCSE and A-level grades for next summer are awarded. Of course, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. We’ll have to wait and see how everything pans out.
What is not so clear at the moment is the issue of grades being generous. Are the percentages of top grades awarded going to be in line with those of 2020, in which there was grade inflation of up to 50% in some cases, or similar to the trend we saw in the 2019 exams, in which there was less than 1% increase from year to year? What will be the implications for university admission and how will employers rate GCSE and A-level qualifications?|
Analysis and Conclusion
The government is right in insisting that the GCSE and A-level examinations go ahead next summer. It is the fairest way to judge academic ability and also to train young people in coming to terms with the rigour and discipline required in order to achieve a key goal in life. The reality is that so many of the top industrialised countries in the world – such as Germany, South Korea and China – did not cancel the examinations for their teenagers this summer. During the second peak of the pandemic in October and November, many teenagers in this country managed to do the autumn exams safely. There is ample time to plan and put resources in place to ensure that the exams go ahead next summer. This has been the first time exams have been cancelled in the UK, not even in the First or Second World War were exams cancelled.
Everyone recognises that is not really the fault of the young people, for whom what are perhaps the most important examinations in their lives were cancelled three months before they were due. The way in which matters surrounding the cancellation was handled resulted in demotivating these young people. They took the time to binge on a diet of Netflix, computer games, oversleeping and junk food. So many are now finding it difficult to get back into a routine or to concentrate on their studies. Before the announcement of the cancellation, no thought was given to the consequences. The GCSE students will struggle at the start of their A-level and sixth formers will find the first year of university a challenge. It would have all been OK if not for the disparity in provision over that period, with some schools thinking ahead and providing a good or reasonable level of support, whilst others provided the barest minimum.
One salient point that the Education Secretary pointed out, which is very obvious to those who care enough to find out, is that “ethnic minority pupils do better in examinations than in teacher-assessed grades.” It is good to hear him confirming what is a well-known fact with abundant sets of statistics to validate that argument. This notion is in the same territory as that of grammar schools, where ethnic minority children are over-represented. I don’t think it is because they are brighter, it is simply because their parents value education more than others, and they do all they can to nudge their children in the right direction and to support them. It is the same everywhere in the world with minorities.
Observations show me that this is also true for the children of those parents who are not of ethnic minority background and who are not necessarily very well-off, but value education enough, and are willing to instil the value and importance of education in their children.
In my view, teacher assessment is unjust and there is no reason why there should not be examinations next summer, as not only is it fairer, but it is actually less work and there is less chance of errors or worse or foul play in the form of unfair prejudices by some teachers.
A link to the BBC news on the salient point of how the GCSE and A-level exams will be conducted in the summer of 2021
Below is a link to a blogpost of analysis of secondary schools’ performance table, as published by the Sunday Times in a guide called parent power. This follows my last blogpost on primary school performance table.