Ignoring pressure to cancel exams was the right call

14 Oct 2020, 11:27


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 We moved around a lot so I missed a lot of school and was often very tired and withdrawn when I was there.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.

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  1. Neil Spurgeon

    Dear Anne

    I am so pleased that exams were right for you, but they were SO wrong for me. Regularly caned in junior school because I could not write with the scratchy dip ink pens that were compulsory, and three strokes across the right (writing) hand REALLY improves one’s handwriting, it was not until I finally discovered a fountain pen and an italic nib that my writing bore any semblance of legibility. Astoundingly I neither passed (Grammar) nor failed (Secondary Modern) the eleven plus IQ test, (MENSA consider my IQ to be 154 following a standard set of tests), being sent, as a ham fisted, book worm, to the Technical School, which was an excuse to cut the local dockyard apprenticeship from seven to five years in length, by doing all the boring filing, technical draftsmanship and woodwork in the school curriculum.

    GCEs were only on offer to the top form, the most skilled craftsmen, so obviously I left school with three CSEs, a much less rigorous test, in what that school considered “useless” subjects: English Lit, French and Economics and totally unfitted and utterly unwilling to take up the place that had been allocated to me in the Dockyard.

    I joined the RN and discovered that, along with about 1/3 of all sailors, and I guess by implication, all humans, I am a slow learner. I was back classed, sent to retake the learning, without any penalty and a complete lack of shame, as I said it was normal for anywhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of all young sailors to be back classed for something, one of mine was for morse, (there is a natural and often very lengthy learning plateau between 12 and 14 words per minute), and typing, a skill that takes time and lengthy practice to achieve.

    The Navy, and it’s recognition that slow learners make very good sailors, once they have finally “got” the skills, was the absolute saving of me. Although I do not have a first degree, I do have an MSc, hold the Licentiate of the City of Guilds of London, and am a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society (equivalent to a Chartered Engineer). But I still struggle with exams and often need three of four jumps at any academic hurdle to overcome it.

    So bully I say for you, but seriously, for many bullied, uncertain, timid little children, an exam is the very WORST test of their real ability and puts many many children under long term, almost unbearable stress, often made much much worse by pushy parents and other relatives and slightly older, always bloody successful siblings, cousins and aunts.

  2. Dear Anne,
    I would have liked to have seen a lot more COVID related evidence backing your opinion on why it’s a good thing to continue with exams. Personally I believe that your experience with exams and a disadvantaged background has absolutely no correlation to this current cohort- that I am a part of studying A levels. Now you typically already have an attainment gap between those in private and state schools. This gap unsurprising has widened due to lack of resources in state schools reliable WiFi and no teaching in school holidays or even at weekends (as some private schools have provided to catch their children up). Private schools can afford their own tests to get children back into the classroom if a COVID case comes up not necessary having to send a whole year group home. Many state schools have since lost additional weeks of education due to track and trace- myself included in this additional loss. You are then saying is a good thing to compare us? When there has been no content reduction. Different schools with varying different amounts of time in the classroom and some with no access at home to WiFi or other vital means of education. Public library’s have been shut – people simply haven’t been able to access their education. Evidently it is NOT a fair comparison. I have been informed that I will likely not finish my courses. Yet I must still compete in a competition where some are 10 steps ahead of me. I am a hard worker but as many state schools are teaching to the test and not to just teach I feel at universities many will be disadvantaged once more. Please ask yourself and really look at the news in person teaching is proven to be far better, there has been no test content reduction on essentially all a levels- no reduced tests, we have been given 3 weeks extra to make up for 6+ months. Whilst others have been getting ahead. I fear being compared to those who are going to complete their course whilst I teach myself. It is scary. It is the unknown. I feel abandoned at times- with a full house I struggled to concentrate. Looking at the facts I am so stressed putting in hours teaching myself- I know that it’s not the same standard as others are reviving and it is concerning that my education it undoubtedly better that others. But we are all going to be ranked and compared as if we are equals. There’s nothing equal or fair in this situation. I’m just doing my best to get by hoping that someone listens.