Is it fair for only some students to sit exams?

Schools starting International GCSE and A-level exams have concerns over fairness and Covid disruption, says Liz Cloke

Liz Cloke

International GCSEs and A levels: Is it fair for some schools to have exams?

International A-level and IGCSE exams from Cambridge International are still on the cards in schools in Malaysia and we are accelerating into the home straight for students who will sit the scheduled exams – if we manage to keep Covid-19 at bay. It’s a big "if".

What’s more, given the range of approaches taken by other exam boards – and by Cambridge in other nations – there is an uneasy sense of unfairness about the whole situation, too.

We fully opened in September 2020 for the start of the academic year, but, like in many places, Covid-19 cases increased, forcing the school to close mid-November.

Term 2 started back at school but lasted a matter of days before only Year 11, 12 and 13 were permitted to be in and everyone else went back into distance learning. Trust gained with our tight standard operating procedures (SOPs) meant parents sent in their children to pursue their learning.

International GCSE and A-level exams: Stress and anxiety for students and teachers

Needless to say, it’s been a stressful time for everyone.

Like other schools in our area, we are hanging on in there and tentatively monitoring daily cases in our state as our school has remained open. We continued back in school for Term 3 to complete final preparations before exam season goes into full swing (hopefully) in a few days' time.

Our students have been fantastic in every way; mature, cooperative and resilient, dealing with the changes, but we recognise the rising levels of stress and anxiety.

Their stress isn’t just about whether exams go ahead, though. They are concerned they will be disadvantaged to sit the exams while their counterparts in the UK and other parts of the world have not had to do the same.

A strange state of affairs

I think their concerns are very justified.

Despite Cambridge saying that it is confident that exams are the fairest and most accurate way of assessing performance, and the reassurance that exams will go ahead where it is permitted and safe, there is a sense of imbalance.

The number of in-school days, compared with distance learning days, differs from student to student.

While our distance learning programme has been highly commended by our parent and student body, we know it is not the same as being in the classroom with your teacher.

Older students have sacrificed their own learning to support siblings as parents have been drawn back to work beyond the initial lockdown.

Struggles with poor wi-fi, and then the families who have been affected by Covid-19, either by a positive case or through self-quarantine due to symptoms or close contact, forcing them back to distance learning, have contributed to this feeling.

This year has been like no other. Workload has increased. The past few months we have ploughed on and made the most of after-school practical catch-ups, in-holiday support and lunchtimes where necessary.

Mocks went ahead, and the possibility of needing evidence has increased marking, and, like other schools, we introduced additional processes to meet evidence requirements by Cambridge – but only should the need arise.

Planning for every eventuality 

Intricate exam planning has taken place to prepare for the possibility of a positive case, a symptomatic student or a rise in national or state cases, which will result in another closure.

We have extra venues to split students in the event of a positive case, keeping each cohort separate and isolated from the rest of the school community, maintaining confidence levels.

Parents, students and teachers are clear about our careful planning and additional exam procedures to keep everyone safe, compared with previous years.

Parents are anxious about their child’s safety and comfort in the exam room, and although confident in our preparations, they also know that we cannot guarantee that we will make it through the next six weeks without any interruptions.

We are ready for each scenario that might get thrown our way, but it is now out of our hands.

I am on tenterhooks and an air of suspense will linger for the next few weeks about the uncertainty.

Informing any of our students who have worked so hard that they cannot take their exams is the last thing I want to do.

So close, yet, so far.

Liz Cloke is head of secondary at Tenby International School, Penang, Malaysia. She tweets @misscloke

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