Students across the country face an uncertain future. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Following the announcement by Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, all GCSE and A-Level exams along with exams in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been cancelled. The reaction has been mixed with teenagers across the country exhibiting emotions of joy and elation, but also disappointment, and in some cases fear.
Both A-Levels and GCSE grades will now be awarded based upon teachers’ predictions, coursework and mock exams, rather than solely upon the final exam in the summer months. There is an issue with this. The reworking of the A-level and GCSE courses. The eradication of coursework for most subjects such as English, Geography or History will make it more difficult for teachers to back up their predictions for students and some may feel hard done by if they know they would have performed far better in an exam scenario. Additionally, there is a possibility that factors such as favouritism, nepotism, or even bribery may come into play when teachers are left with all the power to decide. Although these instances remain unlikely, they are nonetheless a possibility.
In a time in which students are under such pressure, many are now seriously concerned for what the future may hold for them. Having spoken to many about their feelings towards the exam cancellations there seem to be some recurring themes. Initially, many seemed bewildered that the exams had even been cancelled. They simply did not see Covid-19 as such a great threat or potentially disruptive force to every aspect of our society. The reality of some of the most critical parts of a teenager’s life simply vanishing was a complete shock. One GCSE student stated when asked about their feelings towards the cancellation: ‘It’s almost like a checkpoint in my life has just been taken away from me’.
Many people are also feeling somewhat distraught about the cancellation of exams. Everyone has spent two or three years working towards them and to have the end goal taken away in that abrupt manner has left somewhat of a void in peoples’ routines. Some feel hopeless and sad that they had worked so hard and yet much of their efforts will go completely unnoticed. Although the end of your final academic year is often a happy occasion with proms, celebrations and enjoying time with friends; the immediate closure of schools — likely until September — has left students and teachers feeling sad that they may never see each other again. Due to the swiftness of action taken by the government, many haven’t been able to come to terms with leaving the present behind and are sad that they will never get to experience parts of their teenage life which are so important.
What is also clear is that certain students are feeling angry about the way in which academic grades will be awarded. One A-level student told me: ‘I feel as though I could’ve done so much better in the final exams, many teachers don’t have a grasp on how hard some of us work in the direct run-up compared to the rest of the year’. This is a thought that many others have exhibited as it tends to be the case that the majority outperform their mock results, due to the intensity of study many undertake over the Easter holidays. Many also exert far less effort for their mock exams due to them being viewed as more of a practice exercise, so the idea that these will now be taken as indicators of expected grades means many believe their potential won’t been fairly assessed.
There have also been studies regarding predicted grades which show that the poorest students receive lower predictions than their more privileged peers. The socio-economic gap may potentially widen even further for these two cohorts if this finding is true. Lee Elliot Major, a professor of Social Mobility at Exeter University, stated:
‘There are worries the poorest school children will almost certainly fall further behind those from better off homes while schools are shut, as many will not have the same sort of support or resources’.
It will likely have a knock-on effects in regards to university admissions where some poorer students may be denied access to their chosen universities because of a failure to meet the necessary grades — which they would have got had they been able to sit their final exams. Although potentially a more subtle effect, it could have a lasting impact on thousands of students whose future prospects may be damaged because of a reliance on predictions over performance.
The inverse is also true, though. Many students are undoubtedly relieved to have their exams cancelled. For able students, teachers will most likely have set them predicted grades good enough for their university choices and so they will be in no trouble when it comes to their future. For them, GCSEs are less important for future progression. For those students who are moving schools, the small changes to their grades will more likely be welcomed to allow for entry into Year 12.
Undeniably, the biggest relief so far is on students’ mental health. Although many anxieties may have arisen about an up-in-the-air future, it is important to remember how stressful the run-up to exams can be. Many are feeling relieved that they don’t have to go through this, thereby avoiding the now routine anxiety and depression that often accompany exams. Regrettably, there is little room for celebration given the occasion. It is a fact that many teenagers stuck in self-isolation will likely feel lonely and somewhat hopeless.
Now more than ever, it’s important to put exams into perspective. In all cases they are simply a hurdle that has to be crossed to get to the next stage. The majority of a student’s prospects will remain. Predicted grades will have to suffice to get you onto the next stage. And of course the world will still keep turning.
For the short-term many school students have been left feeling down and hopeless. But looking into the future, for most of us, not having to do exams is a saving experience which very few get to enjoy.