Comment Writer Sophie Utteridge questions how fair the new system for grading A-Level and GCSE students is when coronavirus has cancelled exams

Written by Sophie Utteridge
I'm a classic country girl from rural Suffolk with three great loves in my life: cricket, geography and (surprise, surprise) writing! Most days in winter, you'll find me either in the gym or curled up with my laptop and a hot chocolate. But in the summer you'll almost never find me away from the cricket pitch. Although I'm from Suffolk, my family has strong ties with Birmingham so excited to be going back to my Brummie roots!

Exam time can be stressful enough for students, but adding a pandemic into the mix is certainly new territory for us all. With the government having cancelled all A-Levels and GCSEs, the exam process has become more uncertain for students than ever.  Exam results, of course, often guide us to our next steps in life. The importance of GCSE and A-Level grades cannot be overstated. And so, the prospect of teachers having to decide your grade can be very daunting not only for students and parents, but for teachers as well. Although there were only two months before exams started, when the decision was made, and some teachers argue that these months wouldn’t have made much of a difference in terms of grades, those students who often perform better in exams than they do in the classroom or through coursework may be at a disadvantage when the decisions about their grades are made. And so, even though the government’s decision may be the only feasible one, it is hard to simply accept that some students may not get the grades they want or deserve. 

When deciding grades for students, teachers have to consider evidence to determine a pupil’s predicted grade. These may be coursework (if the qualification includes it), homework grades, in class tests and, most importantly, mock results. However, since Michael Gove’s 2014 educational reforms, GCSE qualifications have seen most of their coursework elements phased out, leading to a structure which sees GCSEs awarded for end of course exam performance alone. Now, six years since the reforms were first put through, teachers are faced with making difficult decisions about student’s grades without the aid of any formalised ‘in course’ summative assessments to help them make an accurate prediction. Class work, tests and homework assignments are often not formalised and so do not provide a solid basis on which to assess a pupil’s grade. This leaves only mock exams as a true measure of a student’s progress. The lack of formal evidence makes the decision all the harder for teachers.

Another worry is the results of last year’s cohort. It’s common knowledge that exam boards adjust their grade boundaries yearly, usually depending on last year’s results. The same may happen this year. Teachers have been told to use last year’s grade boundaries and whole school results to help predict this cohort’s grades. Many students feel this is especially unfair. “We have no control in this situation,”

“We have no control in this situation”

one A-Level student told Redbrick. “With exams, we could always control how well we did. But now we can’t.” This is the feeling among many students who feel that it is unfair for their grades to be assessed based on last year’s cohort.

However, despite this, teachers are trying to remain positive. “We are trying to predict a grade based on if the student had a good day in the exam,” a teacher told Redbrick. “This is hard for both students and teachers and so we are trying to remain fair and positive but realistic.” 

Whilst this does reassure some students, there are others who will be worried they are at a disadvantage. As mock exams are the primary piece of evidence available to teachers, they will be used the most to decide a grade for students. But many students have argued that at the time of mock exams, they were all deep in the process researching next steps including university applications (in year 12), apprenticeships (in year 11/13) or sixth forms (in year 11). Some of the students Redbrick spoke to told us that they had to make a choice between these, and ultimately some chose to focus on their applications instead of their revision. An A-Level student, who will be moving onto a full-time apprenticeship in September, told Redbrick their difficulties and their worries with this situation. “I prioritised the Degree Apprenticeship Assessment Centre entirely because I needed to do well there in order to secure my place on the scheme. Sadly, this sometimes meant less time for revision.” This is the same for many students, no matter what stage they are at.

Of course, no one knew this was going to happen. No one could have predicted this situation. However, what we can do is make people aware that every single student is different, and so every single one has been affected differently. Measures have also been put in place for students to appeal the decisions made on their grades once results day has passed. They have the opportunity to appeal to the exam board directly, however they may not appeal to individual teachers or their school. But, if any student really needs it, there is the opportunity to take the exams in the Autumn. Although most students will have already taken their next steps by then, or would have lost the motivation to revise, the choice is still there if they so wish.

The current exam groups are obviously the main concern at the moment and have been receiving the most attention from the media, but we must also think of the Year 10s and the Year 12s.

They have lost months of key content and learning

They have lost months of key content and learning that they definitely need to complete their exams next year. Home and online learning may be covering some of it, but in these stressful and uncertain times, there is no guarantee that students have the motivation, the guidance or the appropriate study conditions in order to learn their missing content. Teachers are appealing to exam boards and the government for next year’s exams to take into account the lost learning. “Our biggest worry is Year 10 and Year 12,” a Modern Languages teacher told Redbrick. “Year 11 and Year 13 are receiving pieces of ‘bridging’ work to help them move on; Year 10s and 12s will have missed out on so much directed learning.” So not only will Year 10s and 12s have to take their exams and have lost months of content, but will also have to navigate some of the most important years of their lives whilst trying to adjust to the ‘new normal’. 

As for other options to the government decision, there are alternative suggestions floating around on the internet. Some ask for Year 10s to repeat the year before taking their GCSEs. Others have suggested that Year 11s take a shortened exam course in October to reflect more accurate grades. But none of these, in my opinion, would be suitable to replace the current approach that the government have opted for. Students cannot be expected to revise for an extensive length of time without burning out or losing motivation. In reality, if exams were taken in September or October, pupils will most likely not get the grades they deserve for a number of different reasons. Not every student has the means to study from home and so this is not fair for those students who are at a disadvantage. 

So, the question is: how can we protect all students? No matter what their background or age group, everyone has been affected by this. And we are yet to scratch the surface on what this pandemic will do in the long term. From the students Redbrick spoke to, most say that they understand, “…whilst it has upset me and many others greatly, it was absolutely the right decision,” an A-Level student said. Of course, they feel disappointed and frustrated. Of course, some feel relieved that the pressure is off. But from what I have heard, most believe there isn’t really an alternative they would prefer. A-Level students particularly are beginning to want to move onto the next chapter of their lives, and so holding them back to complete exams is the last thing we should do. The best decision is what the government has said, plus the option of taking exams later on in the year if that is what some students need or desire. 

It hasn’t been the way students wanted to round off their academic year, but then again, it hasn’t been for any of us. The only thing we can do now is stay patient and stay safe. There will always be greater things to come.

More from Comment on how students are dealing with the pandemic…

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No Detriment Policy: Thoughts from a Final Year