There might be a debate to be had about assessment but cancelling exams now would have done more harm than good, writes Anne Heavey
The consequences of Covid on last year’s GCSE and A level cohorts are still fresh in the mind, and preventing a repeat is a priority. Amid the fervour, the long-standing debate around the role of examinations in our education system has been amplified, and proceedings have left me with a sense of dread only alleviated by Monday’s government announcement.
The clamour to replace exams risked failing those it was purported to protect most – disadvantaged young people. Why? If we’ve learned anything, it is surely that rushed policy is bad policy. More importantly perhaps, we all want an education system that proactively identifies and removes barriers to achievement, but we’re not there yet. Until we are, children like me are better served by the current assessment status quo.
Until I was about 10 not much was expected of me by my teachers. This was not just obvious to me but exactly what I wanted. A mixture of pride and fear of external agencies tearing my family apart meant I didn’t feel able to ask for help or explain what was going on at home to my teachers.
I struggled to balance the demands of home and school and was ‘asked to leave’ in year 9
My family situation might politely have been described as ‘complex’. I was a young carer for my disabled parents, and the oldest sibling in a large family. Money was tight. We didn’t have routines. I was scruffy and disorganised. We moved around a lot so I missed a lot of school and was often very tired and withdrawn when I was there. I was also prime meat for bullies.
So I went out of my way to stay under the radar. This approach meant I could survive at school and have enough energy to help sort out my siblings and attempt to look after the house.
I was keeping another secret though. I loved to read and was obsessed with classical music. My teachers had no idea that I loved learning, but my granny did. She put me forward for a bursary place at a local private school.
When I secured a place, my classmates and teachers were pretty shocked. Suddenly I was shunted into the top maths group and given harder spellings. I even got a speaking part in the school pay. I had earned opportunities by doing well in those entrance exams.
When I got to secondary school things fell apart. I struggled to balance the demands of home and school and was ‘asked to leave’ in year 9. I still don’t really know how or why but I fell off the radar at this point. Maybe they just weren’t surprised that a kid like me had dropped out. I missed two years of school, but I kept reading and teaching myself to keep myself occupied.
Part way through year 11 I was offered the chance via a local PRU to take some GCSEs at a local comp. This was a game changer. I knew that I needed these qualifications to have any shot at meaningful options in the future so threw myself into preparing for the exams. In the end I took six GCSEs. I was hoping that I would get 5 Cs –the golden ticket to college. In the end I averaged A grades.
I can’t tell you how surprised I was by these results, but I raised my ambitions because of them. I started seriously considering university, an option that had felt unrealistic until that point. AS results followed. Again I’d been hoping for Cs and again As rolled in. I raised my ambitions once more. Oxford. Reader, I got in.
Exams gave me a chance to prove what I could do, unshackled from judgement and low expectations. I know my story is unusual, but we know that children who have experienced complexity and disadvantage are constantly underestimated. We need to fix that first.
I’m happy to debate the future of assessment and the role exams play in accountability measures, but I’m glad we have a clear decision for this academic year. For young people like me, keeping GCSEs and A level examinations is the right thing to do.