Change GCSEs 2021, say students 'drowning in anxiety'

'Generation who feel forgotten' question whether three-week exam delay will be enough to make up for Covid disruption

Catherine Lough

GCSEs 2021: We feel like a 'generation on mute', say students due to sit GCSEs next year

Students who are due to sit exams in 2021 have spoken of feeling like a "generation on mute", questioning whether the three-week delay to GCSEs and A levels next year will be enough to "steady [their] course".

In an open letter to the Department for Education and Ofqual, Tom Dower, principal of University Technical College South Durham, said it could not be "business as usual" this year regarding exams, adding that the delay to GCSEs and A levels was not enough to stop students being penalised for lost learning time.


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The letter quotes a Year 11 student, Arron, who describes the cohort sitting GCSEs and technical qualifications next summer as a "generation on mute".

"Our generation is on mute. Nothing is dearer to us than our future; a future that is now unstable," the student writes.  "We have been given something of a lifeline – a three-week delay to exams. But does anyone really think that’s enough to steady our course?

GCSEs 2021: 'Unparalleled disruption'

"Who is the head that decides our fate, my fate and the fate of many others? As far as I know, they are not just about to take the exams that are set to determine their future.
 
"Who is the head that will listen to a generation who are drowning in anxiety? As far as I know, they have not felt the confusion and fear of missing six months of work only to be told you will sit in front of invigilators and take the exams with no regard to the trauma of this pandemic.
 
"So please hear us, the generation who feel forgotten, our mouths taped shut as our future slips through our fingers. Please listen, because we are the future of this country. Please listen because we are truly dealing with the toxic fallout of the choices of our education system."

Mr Dower said the pandemic had created "unparalleled disruption and challenges to teenagers' emotional wellbeing".

"My staff and I are dealing with a large number of students who are unable to focus properly on their education. Several have parents who have lost their jobs or who are unwell," he wrote.

"Some have witnessed domestic tensions at home for the first time. Some have been faced with bereavements of family or of peers. Most are worried for their future in a way I have not seen before in the teenage population."

He said that the three-week delay to exams did not take into account the fact that students across the country had "lost around 70 days of face-to-face learning in the first lockdown".

"Nine weeks into the school year, many schools have had to send those year groups home more than once. Students are working hard; I am proud of ours and I cannot fault their attitude but, as Arron articulates so well, they know that they have lost so much education," he said.

Mr Dower added that since September, 24 per cent of his Year 11 cohort had seen their attendance drop to below 90 per cent because of enforced coronavirus isolation, and questioned how they could complete "all the units of their technical qualifications when they have missed so much access to specialist facilities," which he said he found "very hard" to explain to them. 

He said the fact that local authorities in the North West and North East had been "dramatically affected" by Covid-19 meant it was not a "level playing field" and that exams should not go ahead as usual.

"However, it is very clear that exams are the easiest way for the system to cope but not the fairest for young people under these circumstances. The Welsh and Scottish governments have recognised this and Ofsted’s report published this week highlights the wide variations of impact of Covid," he added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance, which is why Ofqual and the government all agree they should go ahead next year.

“We are working closely with stakeholders on the measures needed to ensure exams can be held, and will set out plans over the coming weeks.”

Ofqual has been contacted for comment.

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Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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