'English in the morning, history in the afternoon? There is a profound lack of common sense in exam timetabling'

Pupil welfare and fairness for pupils who struggle to write have been given no consideration in the 2018 exam schedule, writes one school leader

Nicholas Griffith

Ofsted's timetable is changing

I rarely admit to a masochism, but must confess that I read the provisional GCSE timetable for summer 2018 as a way of bringing me back down to earth from the high of the previous evening’s Year 11 prom.

It certainly worked. I am dreading having to reveal to our Year 10 pupils the dastardly plans the exam chiefs have in store for them in 2018.

Who makes these schedules? Computers or people? Bureaucrats or educators? One glance at the schedule itself provides the answer.

Imagine the meeting: "We’ve got two-and-a-half hours of English language scheduled for the morning of Friday 8 June. It will already have been a long week for Year 11, so shall we put something on in the afternoon that only a few thousand students will study, which is a short exam and which won’t have much writing?"

"No," booms a voice. "What that slot needs is an exam for a new specification, to be taken by as many pupils as possible with lots of writing so their hands, muscles and tendons are genuinely tested and exhausted. Let’s give them history unit 2." And so they have.

Away from the corridors of examination power, 243,000 pitiable, voiceless and powerless history students groan in anguish at yet another unnecessary examination stress.

'Wanton educational negligence'

But why stop there? Not content with the upper cut and jab combination of language and history, the Joint Council for Qualification (JCQ) has managed some other blows: English and geography also appear on the same day – twice.

Perhaps the JCQ believes that some colouring in of coastlines will be relaxing after the morning’s English exam?

As a geographer myself, it seems rather odd that a government so hell-bent on pushing EBacc subjects is allowing the largest two humanities subjects to be examined on the same day as English three times. Surely they can see the impact that this will have on pupil performance?

Deliberately creating three exam days when pupils will sit two of the top ten most popular subjects by entry numbers seems an act of wanton educational negligence – or, one shudders to think, cruelty.

There are other days available with blank afternoon sessions, or ones with less than 10 per cent of the students involved. Pupil welfare and fairness for pupils who struggle to write have been given no consideration in this schedule.

When was the last time any adult put pen to paper for three-and-a-half hours in a day? Even a one-paragraph pupil report leaves me aching these days. Please, JCQ, think of the pupils.

Strange timing

Of course, I have sympathy for the exam boards who have to create timetables for next year which build in the additional exam papers that the government feels our students need.

I fully appreciate that there are some days in the examination season that need to be avoided for religious festivals, but the lack of common sense is frightening.

One of my Year 10 pupils asked me why they couldn’t swap classics to make history follow maths, thus avoiding the writing marathon? I am proud of her logical thinking, but desperately sad that the professionals in charge cannot see the anxieties they are creating.

Nicholas Griffith is the head of Upper School at Liverpool College

Responding to the piece above Michael Turner, director general of the Joing Council for Qualifactions writes:

The article above makes the point that there is a profound lack of common sense in examination timetabling that disadvantages candidates.  The author asks who makes up these schedules.  ‘Computers, bureaucrats, people or educators?’  The answer is yes, computers, people, educators and administrators all contribute to the timetabling.

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), on behalf of its awarding body members, publishes the common timetable for GCE and GCSE qualifications following a consultation each year running from February to April.  We consult with Teacher Associations and encourage schools and colleges to take part in the timetabling arrangements via our website. 

Clearly, we want candidates to be able to show their best abilities in examinations and paramount in our timetabling is the aim of reducing, as far as possible, clashes in large entry subjects.  However, the examinations system in this country is substantial and complex involving over 15.4 million GCSE and A level examination scripts. In addition, additional papers now need to be timetabled due to the recent educational reforms.  Inevitably, there will be timetable clashes and it should be noted that the awarding bodies have procedures in place to support candidates who sit a number of examinations in a single day. 

JCQ avoids ‘wanton educational negligence’ through its timetable consultations with teachers and their representative bodies to ensure as fair and equitable examination timetable for all candidates over the brief six week period as possible.

The next JCQ timetable consultation for the 2019 examinations season will take place from 28th February and run until 30 April 2018 and, as always, we welcome the views of teachers.     

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Nicholas Griffith

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