Exams 2021: 'We must achieve fairness and confidence'

We need fairness for every single student and confidence that all scenarios are planned for, writes David Hughes
13th October 2020, 4:29pm


Exams 2021: 'We must achieve fairness and confidence'

Exams 2021: 'we Must Achieve Fairness & Confidence'

Love them or hate them, it's likely that exams are going to be with us for years to come, in some form or other. In England, the government wants next year's written exams to go ahead as much like normal as possible. That's no bad ambition, given that nobody wants a repeat of the chaos and stress of last summer's qualifications results.

But ambitions need to be tempered by the harsh realities, and the second wave of Covid-19 shows how little we understand about how this academic year will play out. We know that students want to know how they will be assessed so that they can get on with their studies and training to prepare themselves.

This week's announcement will have made some things clear, but inevitably there are lots of questions still to answer. Anxieties are high, students are worried and that is impacting on mental wellbeing at a time when studying needs to be in earnest.

We need now to focus more than anything on fairness and confidence. Fairness for every student, whatever happens, whatever their circumstances. Confidence that all scenarios are planned for and everyone knows what will happen in each to avoid chaos and confusion.

GCSE resits: Plans for summer exams revealed

Exams 2021: Why teachers need to know the rules now

GCSEs 2020: More DfE 'chaos' over timing of results

The impact of lost learning

Fairness, though, is a big challenge. None of us really knows what the impact of lost learning has been on students. The experiences young people had in the March to July period are all very personal. Some will have loved it, thrived on the freedoms from the daily grind, content to learn online. Others will have found it tough and we may only truly learn of the consequences of that over the coming months and years.

The extra three weeks of teaching time will help, as will the catch-up package that college students can benefit from. But it's not enough, particularly given the narrow coverage in colleges. But the real concern now is the digital poverty that too many students suffer from. Layer on that the unequal access to mental health support and the picture really does start to look worrying.  

Digital poverty is not just about a laptop and internet access - it's also about the space, peace and time to study, which many young people will lack. And we know that there is a big divide between the haves and have nots, with large numbers unable to participate online. The government funding for this in schools and colleges has been inadequate and we need urgent funds to be injected to put that right.

Most colleges are taking the sensible and safe approach of a blended learning experience for their students - often around 50 per cent face-to-face and 50 per cent online. That can and will work well where access to online learning is good. It's an easy equation: colleges need money to buy laptops and pay for internet access. Now, not next year.

For tens of thousands of college students, accessing mental health support is also difficult. Just like with digital poverty, too much of the government's focus is on how to support school pupils and university students, with college students left behind. Funding, services, support designed for schools and universities are simply not effective in colleges. Once again, we need quick investment into colleges to be able to offer the support students need in these exceptional times. Now, not next year.

Support for the autumn exam series 

Meanwhile, despite the surge in cases, colleges have an autumn series of GCSE English and maths resit candidates in November. Many colleges will have over 500 candidates and some have seen their entries more than double compared with last year. This increase in numbers is costly, disruptive and could have serious public health implications. At the very least, the DfE should extend the support funding promised for the additional autumn exams to cover the additional costs for college GCSE resits.

Finally, this week's announcement only covered general qualifications, increasing concerns from many that technical qualifications were overlooked. That's not true, but the communications need to be improved, ensuring that every young person, irrespective of their learning route is able to see how it will all work for them this academic year. The DfE, Ofqual and awarding organisations are working with us to address the many challenges of completing practical, often work-based assessments that are needed for many technical and vocational students.  

Achieving fairness and confidence is not easy this year, but more needs to be done - funding to address digital poverty, a focus on mental health, and better communications. We're ready to advise and help.

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters