Headteachers are planning to set up separate isolation rooms so pupils with Covid symptoms can take their exams, as “ambiguous” guidance again forces them to find their own solutions.
Summer exams begin next month for the first time since the Covid pandemic. But leaders warn the end of free testing, unclear guidance and heightened anxiety among pupils leave schools facing a “logistical nightmare”. Schools Week investigates…
What the guidance says
The Joint Council for Qualifications published guidance earlier this month on exams. It urged schools to follow UKHSA guidance, which states pupils who test positive for Covid should be encouraged to isolate for three days. Those who are unwell and have a high temperature should stay home and return when well enough.
However, those with mild symptoms should be advised to attend and sit exams.
But crucially, as free testing has now ended, heads fear the rules leave them and pupils playing a guessing game as to whether they may have Covid.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said positive pupils unable to access tests risks “transmission to other students and invigilators”.
JCQ had no details on the powers schools have to stop pupils attending. When asked, the government pointed us to UKHSA guidance on schools dealing with infectious diseases. It states if a child has symptoms a school “can take the decision to refuse a child if, in your reasonable judgment, it is necessary to protect others”.
UKHSA confirmed to Schools Week this applies only to pupils who feel unwell and have a high temperature.
‘Blind leading the blind’
Vic Goddard, co-principal of Passmores Academy, in Essex, said: “It feels like the blind leading the blind, but all we’re trying to do is give the most equitable solution for the young person.”
He is considering allowing Covid-positive pupils to attend school to complete their exams in a separate setting.
Many classrooms have full-glass panel sides meaning there are “plenty of rooms where we could put a kid inside and sit outside and still supervise”. Decisions would be on a case-by-case basis, and balancing the implications of the pupil coming into school versus missing the test.
Pupils who miss exams are eligible for “special consideration”. But they will only be awarded grades if they have “completed one whole component within the specification”.
Dr Paul Heery, chief executive at White Hills Park Trust, said he could understand ill pupils insisting on sitting exams as “their futures could well be damaged by missing the exam”.
He is looking at letting symptomatic pupils take exams in separate rooms as “there is so little guidance… We’re really in the dark.”
Gaynor Cheshire, chief executive of The BOA Group academy trust, is considering a similar system, adding “ambiguity” around advice leave schools “just preparing for the unknown”.
Under the guidance, pupils who miss an exam due to Covid are not required to provide evidence of a positive test.
Tim Marston, headteacher at Wreake Valley and The Roundhill academies in Leicester, said the decision was “an extreme example as to why the lack of free testing is bonkers”. It provided an opportunity for pupils to game the system and risks “invalidating another set of grades”.
Goddard said most pupils wouldn’t consider this, warning “the only people that would encourage gaming would be schools”.
But Barton added the lack of available tests “creates the unhelpful perception that the system is vulnerable to abuse”.
ASCL has said it “cannot understand” why free testing has not been brought back. It was the “obvious” solution.
The DfE says where a school “suspects the authenticity” of a pupil’s eligibility for special consideration, they should “investigate the matter as suspected candidate malpractice”.
Struggles to secure invigilators
Meanwhile, schools are also struggling to source invigilators. Over four in five of 1,000 exam officers surveyed by the National Association of Examinations Officers (NAEO) had a shortage.
Leaders usually rely on retirees, who are less willing this year because of potential Covid spread.
Pepe Di’Iasio, headteacher at Wales High School in Rotherham, has doubled his school’s invigilator workforce to provide “more flexibility”. He filled the posts with university students after advertising at nearby University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University.
The number of rooms set aside for pupils with special needs or mental health issues will increase from two to six due to the high numbers of pupils reporting anxiety and feeling uncomfortable in “traditional exam conditions”, he added.
The headteacher anticipates up to “half a dozen” pupils also completing their exams at home due to Covid anxieties – a scenario that would normally occur “once every three years”.
Under the Equality Act 2010 schools are expected to make reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils. He added: “We will make sure we accommodate those pupils suffering with mental health issues to ensure we can reassure them we are giving them the best chance to perform.”
It leaves him facing “a logistical nightmare” as the school overhauls its normal timetable to keep the areas quiet.