Comment Writer Georgia Wells discusses the cancellation of exams for GCSE and A-Level students in Wales, arguing that similar action should be taken in England to ensure the mental wellbeing of students during the pandemic
On 10th November, Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced the cancellation of all 2021 GCSE and A-Level examinations in Wales. Instead, students’ grades will be determined by their teacher’s assessment as, due to the pandemic, ‘it was impossible to guarantee a level playing field for exams.’ To give both teachers and students time to prepare for this, assessments will begin in the spring term and continue throughout the summer term as exams are replaced with additional classroom time.
For Welsh students who have concerns for their quality of education given the current circumstances, and also those who have more general apprehension regarding exams, this has come as welcome news. With up to 14 day periods of isolation being required for students who have come into contact with somebody with the virus, there is potential for students to miss out on large amounts of content, causing them to fall behind and thus putting their grades at risk. Additionally, if a student is suffering from symptoms themselves, it is vital that they have the flexibility to have time away from school as this is an essential step in reducing the spread of the virus.
While attention is often focused on our physical health during this crisis, we cannot ignore the parallel issue of the mental health crisis that has worsened as a result. Since the return to school in September, following a break of nearly six months, 69% of students ‘described their mental health as poor.’ With school and exams playing a key role in the struggles of many young people, it is time that we consider what is best for students not only practically, but also for the benefit of their health, both physical and mental.
Instead of the panicked revision, constant worry, and feeling of inadequacy that comes with summer exams, students in Wales can instead turn their attention to making the most out of their time in the classroom, and to learn for more than just a two-hour paper that is supposed to reflect two years of work. Removing the pressured environment of deadlines and memory tests will allow students to find enjoyment in learning and make school feel like a more welcoming place for them to be.
Coursework used to play a large role in both GCSE and A-Level learning. When it was removed following the reformation of the exams, students began to struggle with the pressure of all of their subjects being 100% exam based. With GCSE students expected to take around 20+ exams in a matter of a few weeks, it is not surprising that 73% of teachers ‘believe student mental health has worsened since the introduction of reformed GCSEs.’ Therefore, replacing exams with teacher-led assessments allows students to demonstrate their ability throughout the year, much like coursework was able to do. Within the working environment we are not expected to memorise everything without access to resources, so why are students expected to do just that in their exams?
In Wales, the new measures have allowed both students and teachers to be reassured that they are being supported during these times and that we cannot expect them to behave in a precedented manner in unprecedented times. In England, exams have been pushed back by three weeks in order to give students additional learning time. However, I do not think this is enough. With students instructed to miss weeks of school to isolate, or in extreme cases where outbreaks have been that severe in the school it has been forced to close, expecting the students to learn as normal in order to take exams in the summer seems entirely unfair.
I think Wales’ idea of moving towards a more holistic understanding of education will help students not only throughout the pandemic but hopefully, will lead to the value of exams being questioned in the future. While I do not see exams being entirely removed from the curriculum, teacher’s assessments could allow for the re-evaluation of the necessity of coursework.
While schools in Wales are able to take into consideration any time off that a pupil requires, due to the remaining system in England, any student expected to isolate will be unfairly penalised. This becomes particularly unfair when bringing into question vital grades such as GCSE English and Maths, and also meeting entry requirements for higher education. Whilst some schools in England may have very few cases, others will be required to close down entirely in order to slow down the outbreak. There is no fair way of assessing both of those cohorts using the same exams.
It is uncertain as to whether England will follow Wales in its decision to scrap exams, however as we move through the academic year, it is looking more and more unlikely. It will be interesting to see what the different countries’ GCSE and A-Level results will look like next year and to see how English students cope with the pressure of completing their exams, an already stressful time, during a pandemic.
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