Are 2021 exam measures enough for pupils in the North?

The new 2021 GCSE and A-level measures raise a lot of questions, says Haili Hughes – but they're a welcome start
3rd December 2020, 12:29pm
Haili Hughes

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Are 2021 exam measures enough for pupils in the North?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/are-2021-exam-measures-enough-pupils-north
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Undoubtedly, teaching in a pandemic has been difficult for teachers up and down the country, as we have tried to navigate new technologies and get used to a different way of working. 

But those of us in Greater Manchester, and particularly in Oldham, have really been feeling the pressure. Unlike much of the rest of the country, we have been under the strictest lockdown controls since July, unable even to meet friends or relatives outside. 

We have also been in the top five consistently for infection rates, taking the top spot in the country throughout much of October. 

It isn't a competition. Teachers in the North are not expecting pity or special treatment. But it is a fact that it hasn't been an even playing field. I have spoken to teachers in the South who have had barely any bubbles bursting, whereas I, and some of my colleagues in schools across the North, have had every year group go at least three times - if not more. 

GCSEs and A levels 2021: DfE's package of exceptional measures

This is why I welcome the idea of the DfE's new package of exceptional measures for the 2021 GCSEs and A levels, as it may give my students and others who have been hugely disadvantaged by this pandemic a chance. 

The measures announced by the DfE are certainly not enough - but they are a start.

Exams will be more generously graded than usual so that they are in line with national outcomes from 2020. The DfE argues that this will mean pupils will not be disadvantaged. 

While this is great news for students, who I am sure will be delighted that the exams will be "easier" to pass, it will not fully stop pupils in England being disadvantaged in the future. Wales and Scotland have already committed to scrapping their examinations, so when students are applying for university, later down the line, our students will still be competing with those who may have been given more generous and holistic centre-assessed grades. 

In addition, will sending out the message to further- and higher-education institutions that these exams were easier to pass make colleges and universities think that these results are not worth the paper they are written on? It is a tricky conundrum. 

Tackling the logistical nightmare

The measures also state that additional exams would be held to give students a second chance to sit a paper if the main exams or assessments are missed because of illness or self-isolation. 

I think this is an excellent idea. 

Many schools have found themselves in the nightmare scenario in the last few weeks of having to double up mock-exam periods over a month, instead of two weeks, as they've had positive cases in Year 11. This is a logistical nightmare, as it has meant preparing several different paper options for each unit, to ensure that students cannot cheat.

It's been a massive worry for my students that this sort of thing might happen during the actual exams in the summer, so this measure will at least allay some of their fears.

Part of the announcement that puzzles me, though, is the notion that students will receive advance notice of some of the topic areas covered in the exams so that they can refine their revision. This will certainly make it easier for the students.

But in some subject disciplines, such as mine - English - I struggle to see how this would be possible. Does it mean that students will know what the extract is for the language paper before they read it? Or that they may be told that their Macbeth question is on Lady Macbeth? 

If this is the case, it seems that perhaps the exam will be much more of a test of memory than knowledge, as some worried students will just memorise a whole essay to regurgitate in the exam. 

Finally listening to teachers' concerns

However, although I have some unanswered questions about the measures, I still think Gavin Williamson's announcement could not have come soon enough

Headteachers across the North have been busy drafting letters to the DfE for weeks, to highlight how much students in their authorities have had to isolate since September. In November alone, more than 4,000 pupils a day were having to isolate in Oldham, according to The Oldham Times.

Although I have no official statistics to prove how many more are isolating now, my own experiences, along with conversations with colleagues in the borough, tell me it must have increased. 

The fact remains that pupils in Oldham and other Covid hotspots in the North have had their learning disrupted more than many other students across the country.

I know that school leaders, teachers, students and parents in Oldham, who have suffered unprecedented disruptions, will appreciate that the DfE seems to be finally listening to their concerns, and is working towards finding some pragmatic solutions to ensure that our wonderful students can level up. 

Haili Hughes is an English teacher at Saddleworth School in Oldham, Greater Manchester. She tweets @HughesHaili

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