As the exam season comes to a close, Jimmy Sergi draws on his experience sitting A-Levels to suggest why the government’s adjustments to exams this year were flawed.
This year, to make up for lost learning time, the government has made adjustments to GCSEs and A-Levels, such as lower grade boundaries compared to 2019. However, their decision to give students information about which topics would or would not be on the exam only added to the confusion and stress that students sitting the first ‘normal’ exams for 3 years faced.
The idea was simple; to reduce the impact of lost learning time and alleviate the stress of revising a whole specification, information would be released about the general topic areas that exams would cover, allowing teaching and revision to focus on the topics that would actually be examined. As an A-Level student, the idea of reduced content to cover for the final 4 months of preparation seemed like a gift, but this quickly proved not to be the case.
The first issue was the nature of the information. While for subjects like History, topics can be effectively isolated and removed without any impact on revision of other topics, this policy failed to recognise the synoptic nature of many A-Level subjects. For example, the advanced information for Maths essentially ended up being a carbon copy of the specification. This offered little remedy to the months of remote learning which impacted the education of so many young people.
Secondly, this policy’s success required a basic level of trust between exam boards and pupils which now appears to be misguided. A minority were sceptical towards the information, causing further concern in the build-up to exams. They appear to have been vindicated as mistakes crept into the papers, most notably in AQA‘s GCSE Physics Paper as well the same board’s Law A-Level. Even where the advanced information technically lined up with the paper, the caveat from exam boards for some A-Levels that this information only provided part of what would appear on the paper led to swathes of marks being available for knowledge on topics which students did not expect to appear in a major way. This only serves to cause more stress, as students second-guessed the advance information as they headed into their second or third papers, while results may have depended on a lottery of whether your teacher believed the exam boards or not.
Finally, reduced content and revision is simply not advantageous for many students. Limiting the amount of information that needs to be learned may disadvantage students who will need the knowledge that did not appear on exams later in life, while in many cases the topic that was removed may have been the preferred part of the course for many students. Instead of levelling the playing field, advanced information changed the game, making exam results more dependent than ever on how effectively your school used this information, how much you trusted the exam board and whether your learning style prefers more or less content. Ultimately even if this policy had an equal impact on all students, the way that grade boundaries work mean that this doesn’t offer anyone an actual advantage, as the amount of each grade that will be handed out is decided before exams, meaning that if everyone performs 10% better, grade boundaries will simply be 10% higher.
This information simply served as a political distraction, giving the impression that the government had a handle over the impact of Covid-19 on education after two successive years of exam chaos which has harmed students and educational institutions alike. Instead of badly planned policies which do not benefit students, the government need to fund education, particularly for the most disadvantaged in society, to make up for the time lost during lockdowns and ensure that the pandemic does not limit the opportunities of a single young person. Meddling with exams under the guise of caring for students’ mental health means nothing when mental health services have been decimated by 12 years of austerity and underfunding.
While I am hopeful that results day this year will indicate fair outcomes that allow young people to progress with their life with the qualifications that they need, I doubt that advance information as the best way to achieve this, instead covering up the cracks of Conservative policy which has little regard for young people. The Department of Education should instead listen to students, think through how our lives can be improved, and make sure that 2023 sees a smooth transition to the tried and tested examination system which generations of students have experienced.
Jimmy Sergi is Blog Editor of the Young Fabians and incoming Young Labour Socialist Society Rep. He has recently finished his A-Level exams and tweets at @jimmysergi_.