Exams 2023

The long shadow of Covid still hangs over exams

Examiners, admissions officers and commentators would do well to remember the disruption of the past few years when 2023 exam results are published, says Neil Renton

Examiners, admissions officers and commentators would do well to remember the disruption of the past few years when 2023 exam results are published, says Neil Renton

3 Aug 2023, 5:00

After unprecedented disruption to learning over the last three years, we would be wise to reflect on what this summer’s exams mean for students and seek to understand their unique experience.

We have known for a long time that children come to school with their home on their backs. A weight of economic, social, and cultural capital that, despite schools’ best efforts, affects educational outcomes. A report just published in The Lancet Public Health found that ‘generation Z children born into the poorest fifth of families in the UK are 12 times more likely to experience a raft of poor health and educational outcomes by the age of 17 compared to more affluent peers’.

But what of the additional burden children carry this year? Though we talk less now of the impact of disruption to learning, the truth is that pandemic still casts its long shadow over our students.

A unique cohort

This year’s Year 13 cohort carries the uniqueness of being the generation of students who didn’t sit GCSEs. Remember, if you will, the second cohort of children whose exams were cancelled and who sat lots of assessments over the course of their year 11 so schools could generate the evidence to issue the grades. The students who are now about to receive GCSEs were in Year 8 when we went into lockdown. They faced a further lockdown and many disruptions in Year 9 before a more normal Year 10. Then, we have the additional challenge of this year’s six strike days before students sat exams.

The challenges for teachers

Teachers faced a similarly unique set of circumstances this year. They had more content to teach than last year. While we welcomed the support of the equation sheets in Maths and science, teachers talk about the challenge of returning to the full content and pre-pandemic assessment methods. As a result, early-career teachers needed help to deliver the full curriculum for the first time. In science, early-career teachers had to learn the intricacies of delivering practicals that weren’t possible during the pandemic. 

Teachers faced the additional challenge of trying to work out the actual level of student work. With adjustments and adaptions over the last few years, the sands of assessment have shifted, making marking much more difficult. 

School leaders had to recognise the subtlety of what students and teachers faced. The only way forward has been for schools to go further to provide additional support, revision sessions at Easter, online revision masterclasses, lunchtime and after-school sessions and reduction of study leave. This felt normal in some ways. That intense period where it all pulls together, we hope, at the end. 

The pervasive worry about exams

I thought it would be interesting to talk to a Year 13 student and a Year 14 student repeating the year just before they sat their exams. The Year 14 student believed their education was more stable and normal this year. The Year 13 student thought it might be harder though, as they didn’t have the additional information and needed to learn more. These comparisons serve only to highlight that all too normal human flaw where we compare our plight to that of others. Despite all that, the worry about exams, revision and what the future holds, remains the same for all.

The unknown long shadow

The outcome of all the years of education and disruption will be a single grade for each subject in the summer. Layered behind that grade will be a complex story of not only the weight of inequality that many children carry to school every day throughout their schooling but also that additional burden created by the disruption of the pandemic.

Sadly, we know the impact of inequality and poverty on outcomes, but we know little of the long-shadow effect of the pandemic. Exam boards, examiners and admissions tutors would be wise to contemplate this unknown when they create and act on those final grades – as would all who decide to comment upon them.

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