Over the past two weeks many stories have been written about exam dates changing to accommodate Ramadan. The stories often appear to contradict each other, and disagreement about what happened led to a spat between the Chief Inspector of Ofsted and the Chief (exams) Regulator over at Ofqual.
This back-and-forth between people in power is silly. But I can see how it happened. From the vantage point of the newsroom who arguably started the whole brouhaha the scene is a little clearer.
Read to the end of this article and, hopefully, you’ll understand how it happened too.
First though, let’s be clear on a few things:
1. Exam dates this summer have already been set. They were published only once, have not changed since then, and will not be changing in future.
2. Exam timetables nevertheless have taken Ramadan into account. That’s why more exams are taking place before half-term and more large-entry exams are in the morning.
3. Next year, exam dates might well take Ramadan into account again. Not because anyone is kowtowing to religion, but because in England we don’t leave children who might struggle with exams to do so just to make a point about the separation of church and state. (Which doesn’t exist in England anyway).
So how come the newspapers all said that exams are changing for Ramadan?
Well, they said that because the exam dates have been changed for Ramadan. Admittedly, they haven’t been changed since the published timetable some months ago. But in comparison to the previous year some subjects have changed around in terms of timing.
The more pertinent question is: ‘why is it news all of a sudden’? If a decision was made months ago to arrange exams in a way helpful for Ramadan, how come it hit newspapers in mid-January?
This is where the media – and the Schools Week newsroom in particular – played a part.
Our political reporter, Freddie, was watching and live-tweeting the Children’s Commissioner giving evidence at a parliamentary education select committee. This is not unusual. He live-reports on the committee most weeks.
The Commissioner was asked about exams this year (2016) and the clash with Ramadan. She answered by saying there had been discussions about delaying the exams. Freddie duly tweeted what she said.
I noticed, and pointed out how unusual it was. Several other people said the same. It starts getting re-tweeted. Some minutes later TES tweets the same thing. That tweet also starts getting traction. Among the people re-tweeting, several are other education journalists.
At that point, I knew we had a story. First, because if exams were delayed then people needed to know that asap. And second, because even if they weren’t delayed, this 140 character snippet of information was now out in the ether and being shared. If nothing else, we had to make sure we got a full record of what was said up on our news website so if people started hearing rumours and googling it, they got the real information.
(A bugbear of mine is something whipping around on social media but no actual information being available on news sites).
Hence, Freddie immediately got a story online with a headline related to the Commissioner’s words:
He then called all the major exam boards, who referred him to the Joint Council of Qualifications, who in turn gave him a statement.
Note: this is the first statement JCQ put out. In the following days they would issue another one. But this is what we are told on the Wednesday:
“JCQ and the qualifications regulator Ofqual have previously met with Muslim groups to discuss the timetabling of examinations in light of Ramadan moving into the examination period. Where possible, large entry GCSE and GCE subjects are timetabled prior to the commencement of Ramadan and consideration given to whether they are timetabled in the morning or afternoon.”
We added this to the story and by Wednesday afternoon the BBC, TES, almost every major media outlet is running a story saying ‘Exams brought forward for Ramadan’. And why not? That’s what the statement essentially says.
Next, Freddie makes some further calls and gets some more opinion and gathers more evidence for a longer piece that we put out the next morning. He does this because we can see the story is evolving from the Commissioner’s original statement, which now appears to be incorrect. (It was possibly referring to next year when exams will need to be pushed back to accommodate Ramadan). He also looks at the exams timetable to see which exams have been affected. After a bit of a faff struggling to compare them it doesn’t seems as big a deal as might be first thought from the JCQ statement, but certainly more exams are now in the morning.
He writes the story ready for sharing the next day. The End.
Only, it’s not the end, because two national newspapers decide to make the story their front page lead. And did so in a way where the language was quite ‘active’ – for example: ‘Pupils taking GCSEs and A-levels face timetable shake-up to accommodate fasting Muslims’.
In doing so, the language suggests the exam dates are still in flux. (Although, in fairness, that isn’t what those articles actually say, just what people read into it).
Hence, (now Thursday) JCQ re-issues its statement emphasizing that dates are already set and would not be changing. So far, so fine, except the Guardian wrote a piece headlined: ‘Summer exams won’t be fitted around Ramadan’.
Cue people telling me for hours on end that we had the story wrong, when we didn’t. They had already been fitted around Ramadan (and half-term, and other considerations) – which was precisely what we had reported. Mnargh.
Over the following week other ‘takes’ on the topic appeared:
2. The Chief Inspector said it was an example of “giving in” to a religious group
3. The Chief Regulator said the exam dates aren’t changing….
And so on.
All of which is a bit wearing. Because it ends up sounding like no one has the first clue what they are on about when really everyone is talking about different things.
In fact, these ‘contradictory statements’ (or ‘spats’ if you’re writing a headline) aren’t contradictory at all:
– Ofqual Chief Glenys Stacey is saying that exam dates aren’t changing this year. She is correct.
– Michael Wilshaw is saying that he doesn’t think exam timetables should shift to take Ramadan into consideration. I might not agree with his sentiment, but he is correct that Ramadan has been considered and that some shifting has happened. (Albeit minor, albeit before anything was published).
– Gleeful commentators were correct to say timetables were printed ages ago and won’t be changing.
– Newspapers were nevertheless correct to say exams have been brought forward.
– And our report of what the Children’s Commissioner said was correct – she did say it (even if what she said subsequently turned out to be wrong).
Sometimes in news there isn’t an easy ‘truth’. In this case, there is. But the problem of being human, of interpretation, of being limited on word count, of trying to be a ‘scribe’ of people’s comments rather than an analyst, of journalism as a messy endeavor, is that a throwaway comment in a committee became the next days’ front page news and eventually became a (holy) mess that is still causing confusion and resentment.
All you really need to know is:
1. Exam dates are not changing again this year
2. Exam dates have been set to take Ramadan into consideration
Let’s hope this finally clears things up.