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It's time to change the way we examine A-level students

Coronavirus has highlighted the catastrophic consequences of the system

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Image Credit: BBC Newsnight

This year’s A level results have been nothing short of a fiasco. With 40% of grades initially being lowered by the government’s algorithm only for there to be a return to teacher’s predictions, university admissions have been left in chaos. The added stress suffered by Year 13’s is unimaginable to most of us.
However, the handling of this year’s results has highlighted a major flaw in our education system. Young people were at risk of being forced to rely on a prejudiced system created by a government who have no idea what it is like to go to school in a disadvantaged area, because they were not able to take a few hours of exams. In this political climate, a situation like this could easily happen again, so clearly a solution is needed.
The answer lies not in government U turns but an education system that does not rely on a few hours of exams taken after years of hard work - where a single mistake could have catastrophic consequences, both in terms of opportunities and mental health.

This system stems from the reforms that were introduced in 2015, which saw a phasing out of coursework and AS grades counting towards student’s final marks across England. The aim of these reforms and similar GCSE reforms were, according to former Education Secretary Michael Gove, to bring “rigour” to the education system. Instead, it has brought anxiety to young people who don’t thrive in exam conditions and are better suited to coursework.

Coursework has been frowned upon in the past because it does not put enough pressure on students and may cause some to lack motivation to produce their best work. On the contrary, it is far more likely that grades and futures will be affected by simply having a bad few hours on the day of the exam, or by getting a bad set of questions. Exams cannot test every aspect of a course’s syllabus and therefore only show a fraction of what students are capable of. For many, they merely highlight that a student has a good memory and can regurgitate facts and formulas that they will promptly forget about the minute they leave the exam hall.

Adding coursework elements allows students to submit at least a few pieces of work that they have spent time on and perfected. For humanities, this means being able to think before writing as opposed to suffering hand cramps from having written so quickly in an exam and for sciences this would mean engaging with the content rather than memorising sheets of formulas.

I am not saying that all exams should be abolished, more that a system devoted solely to exams creates unnecessary pressure at a time when the mental health of young people is already a serious problem. The pressure of knowing a two hour exam could determine your university place can lead to extreme anxiety and students performing poorly despite their work over the last few years. Rather than motivating students to work harder, exams can cause sleepless nights at a time which is already incredibly stressful due to university and apprenticeship applications. Before this year, there have been cases of A level students taking their own lives on results day which is a tragedy that has never been properly addressed by any government. This year there have been students who have taken their own lives due to a government algorithm only for their grades to have been changed 4 days later with no substantial explanation. The government has failed every one of these students by creating an environment  which allows this to happen.

Consequently, there needs to be some form of change. Increasing coursework assessment is one, but reintroducing AS levels would also alleviate a lot of the pressure caused by exams, whilst keeping the ‘rigour’ that the government wants. Before the reforms, students were able to sit some exams in Year 12 which would count towards their final grade. This meant students could go into their final exams knowing a fraction of their final mark, reducing the immense pressure to perform well on the day of the exam. Perhaps more importantly, it means that university applications would be based on concrete evidence rather than teacher predictions that would then have to be lived up to.

Clearly, using a method where a few hours at the end of the year decides entire futures cannot go on. A system that uses a blend of coursework and exams sat over two years would allow students to showcase their full potential whilst protecting their mental health. The government has failed young people far too often. It is time for those in power to start valuing young people and education reforms are the place to start.

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