I was so relieved to hear the government confirm that GCSE and A-level exams are going ahead in 2021.
At the Mossbourne Federation, 50 per cent of our children are disadvantaged, and 60 per cent are from black, Asian and/or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. And it is precisely because of the type of communities that we serve that I was relieved.
Fundamentally, exams are the only way to ensure fairness – especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds or from minority ethnic groups. Exams allow our children to show what they have learned over the past 11 or 13 years in education.
It’s all too easy to obsess about Years 11 and 13. But, of course, exams are not just about the GCSE years or the A-level course – they’re about the accumulation of knowledge and skills in their entirety, over a whole school career. They are a rite of passage, and it is wholly right that they are going ahead next summer.
GCSE and A levels 2021: The impact of the coronavirus
Covid has been arresting, in all senses. It’s challenged us, and has made us all dig deep as a profession. Mossbourne Community Academy, in particular, has been hit hard by the pandemic. We’ve had four whole years groups at home for periods of self-isolation this term.
But today’s news is hugely welcome. Firstly, and most importantly, because our students now have certainty. But, secondly, because the package of fairness measures is a recognition of the severity of the challenges that we have all faced.
The truth is: our students want to sit exams. They genuinely relish the opportunity to demonstrate what they know, and to test their knowledge. Just yesterday afternoon, a group of our Year 11s were very animatedly dissecting their mock English exam, discussing how they had tackled a particular question. It culminated in a rather heated debate over the interpretation of the word “stagnant” from a poem.
These are not the words of students wracked with anxiety over exams. These are the words of students who want what should be theirs: the right to sit an exam, to prove what they know and to achieve the grades they deserve.
Not exams as normal
But, of course, it would be madness to think exams should just go ahead as normal this year. Which is why the fairness measures being proposed will be welcomed by many, as they take into consideration the challenges the sector as a whole has been facing.
Early sight of topics that will be in exams, generous grading in line with summer 2020, and a backstop of supplementary papers for children who have not been able to sit the timetabled exams – these all make a lot of sense. So, too, does the news that league tables for exam results will be suspended once again this year.
With more detail promised in the new year, and the creation of a new expert group that will be tasked with monitoring variation in the impact of Covid on students across the country, there is clearly more to come.
But so far, so good. There is no perfect solution to the imperfect situation we are all in, but this feels like an important and positive step forward.
Mohsen Ojja is deputy chief executive of the Mossbourne Federation