The Cancellation of Education: Truly Justified? | Daniel Hawker

Along with many European countries, the UK government cancelled the sitting of exams this year (GCSEs and A-Levels) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to provide students with the fairest and most realistic reflection of the grades they would’ve most likely achieved, the government created a controversial algorithm, one that led to many students having their grades unfairly downgraded. There was much public outcry by pupils, parents and teachers, arguing that promising students had been robbed of the A*s they’d be essentially guaranteed had exams taken place, and been left with a mix of Cs and Ds.

When the Scottish government announced that they’d be accepting teachers estimates (after 125,000 estimated results were downgraded), it was assumed and logically so, that teacher estimates would also be made legitimate in England and Wales. However, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson ruled this out as an option, instead insisting that students could use mock results to appeal if unhappy with their results. In fact, it wasn’t until 17th August that the government decided to allow teacher estimates, just three days before GCSE results were due to be published. Despite his consistent apologies and acknowledgment of the “extraordinarily difficult year” for students, Mr Williamson has seen widespread outrage at his handling of exams and calls for him to resign his position (a recent feature by Charles Moore in The Spectator argues that it would be in Mr Williamson’s best political interest to do so, a worthy read).

School closures have presented a huge challenge for younger children and their parents; although online lessons were introduced, a survey by researchers at the Institute of Education (IoE) found that richer households were offered more help from schools than poorer ones (64% compared to 47%) and that school closures have almost certainly increased educational inequality, with pupils from better-off families spending longer on home learning, with more access to things like private tutoring and one-one-one virtual lessons with teachers.

Similar to online learning, many A-Level students from lower socioeconomic groups had their results downgraded, whilst private schools saw their top A-Level grades increase (more than any other type of school or college). Ofqual, the exam regulator conducted an analysis and found that 48.6% of private school pupils attained an A* or A this year – an increase of 4.7 percentage points from 2019.

In order to gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 has affected education, which approaches work and which don’t, the government really ought to look across the Channel to Europe and analyse the different responses taken by different governments in response to the pandemic (specifically in relation the allocation of grades and whether to close schools). The majority of European countries have cancelled exams and school for their students, with various alternatives to exams having been implemented, resulting in high levels of success for the students, with many countries seeing results higher than in previous years. 

Italy for instance, whilst cancelling their usual written exams (Diploma di Esame di Stato) chose to opt for oral exams instead, often lasting for hours and students taking five per day. Because of Italy’s rapid increase of infections in the early months of the pandemic, schools have been closed since 5thMarch and aren’t expected to re-open until October. However, the Italian government decided classrooms could be used for students to take these oral tests.

Coronavirus meant that baccalaureate exams were cancelled for the first time in French history, first being introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808. Students were instead awarded an average grade per subject based on their performance in their first two terms. However, as the grades were assessed by local juries, other factors such as past exam performance and a student’s attendance affected the final grades. The pass rate came out at more than 95% (an increase of seven percentage points from 2019), which forced French universities to create an additional 10,000 places for the start of term in September for the most popular subjects. Indeed, France also decided to close schools in early March, as announced by President Emmanuel Macron, fearing they’d become the next Italy (rife with infections). 

Despite this careful approach supported by much of Europe some countries, including Germany, Austria and Hungary went through with exams as usual, as if we weren’t in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Whilst questions of health and safety were raised by journalists and members of the public in these countries, exams primarily took place in socially-distanced conditions – Hungary allowed no more than ten students in an exam room at any one time, and a distance of 1.5m had to be maintained at all times. Results were also mostly in line with previous years, with Germany’s actually being slightly higher than last years, which politicians credited to the determination of the students in this unique climate.

It is this approach (not cancelling exams and school attendance in the first place) that I know greatly appealed to GCSE and A-Level students, seeing the exams as the culmination of two years of determination and hard work and their cancellation as causing all that effort to be in vain.

Aside from this dismissal of all the work put in by hundreds of thousands of young people, the cancellation of exams also robbed students of a crucial experience, especially in the case of GCSEs – this would’ve been their first taste of what REAL exams are like, the conditions and the pressure. All of this is essential in training and preparing students for future exams they’ll take in their educational career; moving onto A-Levels and then university.

Meanwhile for younger students, they’ve missed months of school time which would’ve been vital to the development of their learning. With many not having been keeping up to date with their online lessons before the summer break, they’ll return in September having vast holes in their knowledge which will impede upon their ability to make substantial progress in the classroom.

There is absolutely no reason to believe that schools, let alone exams, couldn’t have been continued this year safely and in line with government guidelines. In this scenario, Gavin Williamson would have been praised for preserving this one piece of normality for students in a highly unusual year – not heckled to step down by pupils, teachers and even backbenchers from his own party. The evidence clearly shows that closing schools does more harm than good, with data from a range of countries showing that children rarely, and in many countries never, die from COVID-19. A forthcoming Public Health England study has also promised to show how very little evidence there is for transmission of the virus taking place in schools.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson may be adamant about English schools reopening in September, stating how crucial it is to the country’s children, but is likely to face strong criticism and pushback from teacher unions if the plan is unsuccessful. If he hadn’t shut schools or cancelled exams, and no disastrous spike in cases had occurred in schools, he along with Mr Williamson could’ve most likely basked in similarly favourable ratings as Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who’s economic policies have been praised by politicians across the spectrum.

The Conservatives have instead overseen a period of chaos and confusion for the nation’s students, changing their position seemingly every day and remaining thoroughly vague and inconsistent throughout. They’ve severely impacted hundreds of thousands of young people’s lives, probably for many years to come, and it all could’ve been avoided by focusing on education as an immovable priority and keeping schools and exams operational. Alas, that was not the case. Gavin Williamson remained supportive of the flawed exam algorithm until almost the very end and even then, the publishing of BTEC grades was postponed for a further week. Europe had alternatives to this algorithm and implemented them, with Sweden never even choosing to close schools nationally. The UK’s poor understanding of the inner workings of education and how to effectively respond to a problem has crippled it’s students and their futures. 

If only classroom learning had continued.

Photo Credit.

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