After months of insisting A-level and GCSE exams in England would go ahead, the government confirmed this week they would be cancelled, with Northern Ireland also cancelling exams on Wednesday night. This follows the precedent set by Wales and Scotland, which made the announcement months ago.
The Guardian spoke to four school students about their reaction.
‘There’s no way exams could go ahead, it wouldn’t be a level playing field’
In Sheffield, 16-year-old James Childs said that while he wanted to sit his GCSEs, making students take them as normal would have been unfair. Since he had returned to school in September, he had been required to self-isolate three times, missing six weeks of in-person learning, whereas some students had not had to isolate at all.
“I don’t think that being at home is the same as being at school, because you miss out on class discussions and the sharing of ideas, it’s not the same when it’s a Powerpoint and a worksheet,” he said. “Really, there’s no way exams could go ahead, because it wouldn’t be a level playing field. I know some kids who haven’t isolated once, and others who’ve had to isolate for every [coronavirus] case in our year group. It just wouldn’t be fair.”
Childs felt frustrated about the government’s communication over exams. “From September, the government kept insisting they wouldn’t cancel exams, then with the announcement on Monday, they said that exams couldn’t go ahead but that there would be alternative arrangements,” he said. “But, you think, what is that alternative arrangement? You shouldn’t have done that until you’ve got a concrete plan.”
‘I worry that the most disadvantaged students will miss out on fair grades’
Grace Leaman, who is studying A-levels in history, English literature and philosophy in Dover, said she would have preferred to sit her exams, as they were the most fair and accurate method of assessing students. “People tend not to work as well throughout the year,” Leaman, 18, said. “They aren’t as motivated, or they have other things to do like university applications. There’s a different mindset during the end-of-year exams, because you know that those exams will get you into uni.”
Leaman felt the government had not truly understood the impact their handling of exams had had on students.
“Last year, the issues with the algorithm [which under-marked many students], showed the government didn’t trust the opinions of teachers who had been teaching students throughout the year,” she said. “I understand the government have to deal with it somehow, but I don’t think they realised how heartbroken people were, and how anxious they’ve been through the pandemic to get the grades they deserve.
“I do worry that the most disadvantaged students will miss out on fair grades,” she added, “because of their teachers underestimating their ability through centre-assessed grades, or another classist algorithm which forgets the humanity of a child and reduces them to a letter which does not represent their true ability.”
‘Another year has been wasted’
For 19-year-old Omer, also from Sheffield, the news was deeply disappointing, and he worried it could have serious implications for his future career as hecould no longer resit an exam to achieve the grades he would need.
“I was studying for my A-levels last year, but I didn’t get the grades I wanted to do nursing, so I thought I’d resit my A-level biology this year,” he said. “I had a mock exam coming up in a few weeks, but that got cancelled, so now they don’t have anything to use for my centre-assessed grades.”
Omer said it felt like “another year has been wasted”.
“I prepared for it [the exam] really, really well,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I’ve got my grades from last year, but I wanted to improve them and do a course I really wanted to do. It’s really frustrating and stressful.”
‘It’s been very stressful’
Max Hamilton, a 17-year-old student taking A-levels in English literature, history, and sociology in Cambridgeshire, described the cancellation of exams as “too little, too late”.
“The lack of clarity given to students who are sitting exams in summer is honestly astounding,” he said. “Throughout all lockdowns, students have lacked effective communication with the government and have been treated almost as an afterthought.
“The past two years have been extremely strenuous for students, due to uncertainty and having to adapt to remote learning both in lockdown and while self-isolating. It’s been very stressful. Even over the Christmas holidays, I haven’t been able to focus properly because of all the stress.”
While Hamilton was concerned about the implications of personal opinion or bias in teacher-assessed grades, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or people of colour, he was relieved exams would not be going ahead.
“I’m thankful that the government has finally listened to reason and closed schools, which will hopefully prevent thousands of potential cases and deaths as a result of transmission between students and vulnerable people,” he said. “I’ll miss the opportunity to show my talent, but you can’t show your talent if you don’t know the content.”