UK exams policy is now hopelessly fragmented. Young people will suffer

A fair university admissions process has been sacrificed as different parts of the UK pull in contradictory directions

December 22, 2020
Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/DPA/PA Images
Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/DPA/PA Images

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on education at all levels. Schools and further education institutions across the United Kingdom have been subject to rolling restrictions and an unpredictable isolation timetable.

The deteriorating coronavirus situation now throws into question plans for schools to return in January. Scotland and Wales have cancelled next summer’s GCSEs, National 5s, A-levels and Highers, yet England and Northern Ireland seem determined to press ahead with exams in five months’ time.

The divergence in policy between countries across the union threatens a fair university admissions system for school leavers, with pupils from one region potentially at a disadvantage compared with those from another. What is worse, young people and their futures are quietly becoming a playing field for a political tug of war between Westminster and the devolved administrations.

In England, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has stated that there will be extra support measures for pupils taking exams this summer, including generous grading in line with the 2020 cohort, early notice of some topic areas that will come up and aids such as formula sheets. While fast developing a reputation for dramatic U-turns, for now the government is holding fast to its statement that “exams are the fairest way to judge a student’s performance.”

Yet this is not the view of the SNP in Holyrood, nor the Labour-led Welsh government. Both have come to the conclusion that exams next year are simply not feasible or just.

Recent polling data from the charity Parentkind (formerly PTA UK), detailed in a report for the Department for Education, shows that less than one in five parents (19 per cent) agree that the new arrangements in England (and Northern Ireland) will make the 2021 public examinations as fair as possible for all students. When asked about other options, the most popular answer, selected by 49 per cent of parents, was for there to be no exams, with results instead awarded on the basis of teacher assessments.

While opinion among politicians, students, teachers and campaigners is divided, most agree that a consistent policy across the United Kingdom would be preferable.

One pupil from Pembrokeshire in Wales agrees with the decision to cancel exams: “I feel a lot more at ease as in Wales there are multiple things being taken into consideration. Exams should not go ahead [in England and Northern Ireland]; their [students’] opinions should be valued highly and taken into great consideration by their education departments and governments.”

Another, from a school in Doncaster, is keen for exams to go on: “I don't think exams should be cancelled if possible... It's unfair really, as exams give people a chance to show how they'd actually perform while teacher assessments can be inaccurate.” 

A third pupil, from Blackpool, tells me of the toll the uncertainty around her education is taking: “my mental health was really affected by lockdown, it made college work extremely difficult. The pressure of exams and the uncertainty surrounding them currently is distressing for me. I don't think it's fair at all; students from Wales and Scotland will be entering the same universities as students who have sat exams.”

As nationalist support grows in Scotland, decisions taken under the devolved remits must be viewed with some scepticism. There is concern that the SNP is operating in opportunistic resistance to the Westminster government. 

Conservative MSP Jamie Greene, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills in Scotland, tells me: “the decision to cancel the full 2021 exam diet in my eyes is unnecessary and was entirely avoidable. This flies in the face of the strategy that home schooling and blended learning were resilient contingency plans.” 

Greene also raises the separate possibility that cancelled exams, and the inevitable grade inflation that occurs when teachers hold responsibility for students’ grades, will result in more young people attending university than ever before. He argues that this question is “even more important” given that the government spend on free tuition in Scotland “does not equate to 100 per cent of funding” for each student’s place. “Every additional pupil in the higher education sector costs the university money,” Greene adds, “which is why it is facing significant financial difficulties this year.”  

The timeline is of concern too, with no indication yet of when grades will be awarded in Scotland or what the moderation process will be. The appeals process is also not clear, and this has created worries for pupils that it will not be in place in time to assist those unhappy with their marks in securing their university offers.

Greene adds: “teachers were not just disappointed this year, but extremely angry at the way the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the SNP government treated them. Many have lost faith and confidence in the system. Many are asking where on earth they are supposed to find the time to teach the curriculum and do the job of an external agency too.” John Swinney, the Scottish Education Minister, has maintained that the new assessment programme “will be based on learner evidence, subject to quality assurance at local and national level, to deliver a credible and fair set of results... a model that has achieved a broad level of support across Scotland’s education professionals."

A Teach First trainee in Birmingham worries about preparing students for exams in the circumstances: “children don’t have equal access to WiFi and might have caring responsibilities... there is also the issue of children having to catch up [on] Covid-impacted work at different rates.”

Further to this, the quality of education given online by trainee teachers is inevitably lower. As another tells me: “we haven’t had any training on how to teach lessons online.”  

The Welsh government has recently published updated detail on assessments, which will be conducted differently to in Scotland. But Marta Kotlarek, a spokesperson for influential campaign group for child welfare UsForThem, told me of some of the remaining concerns: “There are views that [these] externally set and marked assessments which will be in the place of exams are an unfair alternative,” she says, adding that “pupils and parents have expressed their concerns about competing for places in a university in England against English students, who will receive their qualifications through examinations. Such an assessment... isn’t guaranteed to be as respected by non-welsh universities.”

Further, “there are concerns that some pupils who have access to greater support at home will perform better.” Several private schools in Wales have pivoted to English exam boards in recent years, a move that now ensures their students will sit the qualifications.

Kerry-Jane Packman, a spokesperson for Parentkind, raises the important and often overlooked point that exams are also the gateway to other opportunities aside from university, including entry-level jobs and apprenticeships. “Those going to university will clearly have the Covid-19 impact taken into consideration. Of more concern is the 50 per cent who do not go to university and the long-term impact on these young people as a result of loss of education, impact on exam results and the looming recession.”

The role of exams is a debate that has certainly received fresh oxygen in these extraordinary times, but the academic argument ought to be put aside for a consensus across the country. It may be just a matter of time. Now that Scotland and Wales have committed to cancelling exams, there cannot be a rollback—surely the governments of the UK can align over children’s futures?