Wales to continue additional Covid exam support next year

Next year, England plans to return to ‘pre-pandemic assessment arrangements’ – but that's not the case in Scotland and Wales
13th May 2022, 1:32pm
Emma Seith

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Wales to continue additional Covid exam support next year

https://www.tes.com/magazine/analysis/secondary/wales-continue-additional-covid-exam-support-next-year
Exam, support, Covid

To compensate for the impact that Covid has had on students' learning, this year's GCSE exams in England, which start on Monday, have had several changes. For example, students can choose topics in history and choose between different parts of the English literature paper, while in science and maths exams, formulas and equation sheets are to be provided.

In Scotland, similar modifications took place: at Higher, students taking English had to complete less coursework, while in Higher maths they were told certain topics would not be assessed.

However, next year, these changes will continue in Scotland; in England, they will not.

Now Wales appears to be taking a similar approach to Scotland.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has said that "the effects of the disruption will not go away after the summer break" and maintaining the modifications will "provide some certainty" for students and teachers.

On the other, the Department for Education (DfE) in England says that, given public health restrictions are no longer in place, "adaptations are no longer necessary for the academic year 2022-23 onwards."

Now, Qualification Wales has told schools and colleges in a message this morning that it will "continue with additional exam support into the next academic year".

A Qualification Wales spokesperson said that the decision had been taken for this reason: "Most qualifications are delivered over two years, which means that some learners have already experienced disruption as they prepare for qualifications that will be completed in the next academic year."

The spokesperson added: "We can confirm that advance information will be provided for made-for-Wales GCSE, AS- and A-level qualifications in 2022-23. Advance information gives an indication of the topics, themes, texts or other content that learners can expect in their exams. Its main aim is to support learners' preparation."  

It's an interesting divergence given that, up to now, the approaches taken by these nations to assessment during the pandemic have, by and large, chimed with each other. Exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 across the UK and teachers were responsible for grading their students. This year, there was also a consensus that, although the exams were back, it could not be business as usual.

But next year the different systems will go their different ways.

So why maintain mitigations when Covid disruption - often caused by the self-isolation rules that no longer exist - is a thing of the past?

Before the SQA decision last month to retain the Covid modifications, the Scottish teaching unions were pushing for the adaptations to remain. They argued the pupils coming into the qualifications years now had often had the worst deal over the past two years because high levels of absence and limited capacity had forced schools to prioritise senior students. This happened both when it came to the return to school after the 2021 lockdown, and also when it came to who would get access to teachers during the high levels of staff absence this year.

Today at the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA)  annual congress, president Catherine Nicol will talk about the "critical levels" of pupil and staff absence earlier this year when "classes were sent to assembly halls on rotation", "pupils were sent home to isolate in large numbers" and "sometimes entire year groups were sent home because of staffing shortages".

But if pupils were being taught (or supervised) en masse in assembly halls or dining rooms or being sent home, it is more likely they were in the early years of secondary, as opposed to the later years. And now these pupils are the ones facing national assessments in 2023.

England is still hedging its bets - but any leniency will come at the end of the 2022-23 school year, as opposed to at the beginning.

The DfE says increased spacing between subjects in the exam timetable could be retained in 2023 and that Ofqual is still considering "the approach to grading for 2023 in light of outcomes in 2022". This means that if students who have had two years of disruption to their education fall short in their exams in 2023, grade boundaries could be adjusted to reflect their poor performance.

The benefit of trying to be proactive, instead of reactive, is that you relieve the pressure on pupils and teachers from the get-go.  

That perhaps seems unfair - it may look like Scottish and Welsh pupils now have an advantage over their English counterparts - but the reality is that the differences between the way education is delivered in the different parts of the UK are myriad and growing. Retaining Covid course adaptations or not is just another difference, and the next big difference is likely to be the prominence of exams.

If the qualifications reform underway in Scotland and Wales leads to more of a focus on teacher assessment and continuous assessment - at a time when Ofqual is saying "the examined route is the fairest form of awarding qualifications we have" - then the gap between the countries will grow wider still. And which system serves young people best will likely remain as impossible to gauge as it is now.

Emma Seith is a senior reporter at Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

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