GCSE and A-level exams – now a marathon and not a sprint!

The recent announcement by the government that GCSE and A-level examinations will not take place this summer should not be a surprise to many people, given the raging pandemic and the inconsistency in the quality of education young people from different schools have received.

One thing that this has created, however, is the confusion in the mind of many teenagers, as some of them, and perhaps some parents too, wrongly interpret this situation as “no assessment”.  The nature of examination is perceived and treated by so many as a sprint event. I agree that some examinations can be treated as such, for which a last-minute intensive revision of some sort will allow the candidate to shine and achieve top grades.

As for GCSE and A-level examinations, observations and experience for over three decades in the secondary education system indicate to me that students who do well in these exams usually adopt the attitude that the exams are more of a marathon and not a sprint event. Yes, as concentration and Herculean efforts in the last mile can make all the difference to a good marathon runner, intensive revision before examination often does the trick for a good student. For teenagers, many so-called bright sparks can get away with hard work in the final months leading to the exams, having made very little effort over most of the two-year GCSE course. It does not usually work well for A-level students, as the volume and the rigour of what they need to absorb is immense, irrespective of how bright they are.

There are just a few key points the teenager who is due to be awarded a set of GCSE or A-level grades this summer need to bear in mind.

  1. There is still an assessment by the teachers before grades can be awarded
  2. The work students do in the coming weeks will count towards the assessment
  3. Every little test and homework assignment is important, as teachers are forming opinions, both consciously and subconsciously
  4. Universities and sixth-form colleges and schools are likely to raise their offer grades.

Is the exam the biggest loss?

I do not think that the exam itself is the biggest loss to teenagers. It is the discipline and focus that goes with preparing for examinations that the young people will miss out on. I suppose they will experience this at university, it’s just they won’t have as much in terms of previous experience, as either their GCSE or  A-level exams were cancelled.

Picking up from the last point above, sixth form colleges/schools and universities have learnt from the events of 2020 summer, in which there was a large increase in the number of students getting the top grades, leading some to complain about grade inflation.

I am of the view that examinations are still the fairest way to award GCSE and A-level grades, and one of the salient aspects of an exam that makes it fairer than teacher assessment, is the unanimity of the marking system, as the examiner who is marking the paper will mark it based on what the student has written. This is unlike a teacher who knows the student and, even when they cannot read the student’s writing, they award the mark anyway, as they are in a position to second guess what the student has in his head. This is the positive aspect of teacher assessment for a student who has been consistently good. This approach has the opposite effect, however, on a student who has not been performing well throughout the term/year, but who knuckles down to revise for the test. As the teacher has perhaps hundreds of scripts to mark, the chances are that they will make a subconscious judgement, even before reading what the student has written, which may cause the student to be marked down.

From a personal experience as a parent, there was a situation with my own son, who got very low marks in an important English exam and ended up with a lower grade. He had been scoring A and A* in the lower part of the school and, when he moved up to the upper school, where his test was marked by someone who did not know him, he ended up with a B grade. I’m sure there are several reasons why he got a lower mark in that test, but I’m sure that, if the test had been marked by a teacher who knew him well, the teacher would have at least had a second look. Despite this particular negative experience of an exam in the case of my own child, I still consider exams to be the fairest way. From what I have witnessed as a teacher, it is the case that predicted grades by teachers are never accurate, as some exceed teacher’s expectations, whilst some end up falling short. From what I know, most teachers are dedicated professionals, with a genuine interest in the success of their students at heart. The reality is, however, that this is not universal, and what is at stake to the young people is too important to allow the whims and subjective judgement of individual teachers to be the determining factor in awarding exam grades.

The predicament we are all in as a result of the pandemic is understandable, but, given that we have almost six months before the exams were due to take place, the government could have done something to eliminate the issues that moderation of teacher-assessed grades will cause.

The content to be examined and the number of papers to be taken could have been reduced drastically. In addition, they could also have allowed examinations to go ahead in only core academic subjects. However, we are where we are and we need to look forward to how to make the best of the new situation.

Rules of engagement!

As the government has decided that grades will be awarded by teacher assessment, what they should now do is to set the “rules of the game”. What must not happen, like last summer, is to assess students in a way that no new material in terms of what students are studying from now onward will count towards teacher assessment. When this was done in early April last year, it was a source of demotivation and apathy, the teenagers simply stopped studying. Most did very little or no studying at all before starting A-level or university, a situation which, I believe, will do long-term damage, one example being  the gap that will exist in the student’s knowledge at the next stage of their education. This means that those who have not mastered GCSE material well enough will struggle at A-level. The same will happen to sixth formers who have not been able to have a good understanding of the A-level material before embarking on a degree course – particularly at the more reputable universities.

As I indicted earlier, there is a lot of character forming when young people prepare for tests, and they get to develop skills that will serve them well in the future. With this marathon style of assessment (teacher assessment), GCSE and A-level students need to work consistently hard from now until whatever the cut-off time is for the teacher assessment to be submitted before any form of moderation that ends up happening.

One thing I’d like to remind young people is that, despite online learning, they must not forget to do a lot of writing with a pen and paper. There are several benefits for handwriting, but, in my view, there are two main ones:

  1. Less distraction from devices and it is a way to take a break away from the screen. It’s usually quicker to write by hand and take a picture/scan and send in the work.
  2. The issues of timing and handwriting in an exam are critical. Most future assessments are likely to be on paper, so students should practise good handwriting, as opposed to typing everything. Marks lost in an examination due to bad timing or bad handwriting are matters that must be taken seriously.

On a personal level, I believe I can think better when writing by hand than when typing!

We all know the tremendous benefits of technology and the immense capability that the Internet and computers have given us. It is all about getting the right balance, and I am a big believer in reading a physical paper book and writing with a pen on paper.