By Anna Noble
It is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that next year’s A level students appear doomed. In-person exams are back. Two years of chaos have resulted in mass deferrals, meaning fewer university places. Finally, there is increasing pressure on ministers to prevent a repeat of the sky high percentages of students gaining top grades by promising stricter marking.
It should be considered that those sitting exams this year are arguably part of the year group most affected by the educational disruption of the pandemic. They, like the years above them, have suffered through 18 months of educational disruption, but, unlike their older peers, they will be forced to sit exams they may well be unprepared for.
To mitigate the impact on these students, they will be informed of the topics they will be examined on three months ahead of exam season. Praised by some, such as the Association of Schools and Colleges (ASCL), as “reasonable”, these proposed mitigations have also faced significant criticism. Education union leaders have argued that such measures will result in students partaking in a so-called “topic lottery”.
The NEU teaching union also argued that the proposals will unfairly advantage certain pupils over others, and many education unions, including the ASCL, maintained that the proposals had come “far too late”. There is also ongoing debate over whether informing students of topics ahead of exams will actually be sufficient to mitigate 18 months of significant educational disruption.
There are also concerns about educational inequality. Throughout the pandemic, more than one million pupils did not have sufficient access to technology to regularly attend online school. Inevitably, there will also have been significant variations in the quality of online lessons, how often they were offered, and how frequently pupils attended them.
Furthermore, state schools already do not have as many resources for exam preparation as private schools. In a year when this will be extra vital, there is a greater risk of a significant chasm between pupils at state and independent schools.
Additionally, last year, whilst 44.8% of pupils overall received top grades, the figure was 39% for state comprehensives and almost 70% for independent schools. Although independent school pupils got a higher percentage of top grades on average prior to the pandemic, the gap has been significantly widened.
Yet, it must be recognised that this is surely not a problem that can be fixed overnight: it is a problem that requires significant funding to rectify. The government have arguably failed to provide this funding. In June, £1.4 billion were dedicated to schools as ‘catchup funding’. This equates to just £50 per pupil – significantly less than the £15 billion that was allegedly recommended to the government by its education tsar, who then resigned. It seems an especially pitiful amount when compared to the US, which committed £1,600 per pupil, and the Netherlands, which put forward £2,500 per pupil.
Furthermore, will giving pupils the topics ahead of exams address the increased anxiety and stress that pupils sitting A levels this year will potentially have? The last formal, in-person exams they will have taken were their Year 6 SATs, over seven years ago. In such circumstances, even if schools could hold unlimited mock exams, could they ever fully prepare pupils for A levels? It must be recognised that GCSEs are vital preparation to getting used to the alien environment of national exams, sat in school halls with unfamiliar invigilators.
Whilst many would agree that it is unlikely that the proposed mitigations will compensate for 18 months of disrupted education, the government and education authorities are in an impossible situation. They cannot afford to cancel exams for a third year running, yet no measures are going to achieve both the aims of mitigating disruption and reducing the percentage of top grades back to pre-pandemic levels.
The reality is that there appears to be no quick fix for the disruption Covid-19 has had on education. It will likely require years of catch-up plans and billions of pounds. Such measures will seemingly come far too late for those pupils who lived through the pandemic during some of the most pivotal times of their education.
There is a risk that educational disruption, and the potential resulting inequality, may blight students who may once have been destined for top universities — or university in general.
Image: Jack Hynes via Flickr.