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Finishing Year 11 in 2017 meant being used as a ‘guinea pig’. If, like me, you took your GCSEs that year, you will remember the feeling of the unknown, with even the teachers not being sure what to expect from the ominous new Grade 9-1 exams. Did we need a 4 or a 5 to pass? What was a Grade 9? How did the new grading system benchmark against the old? The uncertainty around the new exams dominated our final years of secondary school, and on results day we received a fittingly odd jumble of numbers and letters, having fallen inconveniently between the old and new grading systems.
But the changes didn’t stop there. For those in the school year below us, who sat their exams in 2018, nearly every subject had a new specification that was then adapted to the 9-1 grading system. Coursework was scrapped for most GSCEs. At A-Level, we were met with the decoupling of AS and A Levels, reduced coursework and increased content. These changes, the product of Michael Gove’s education reform, were criticised by teachers because of their huge emphasis on final exams. This system now means education is about memorising facts and formulas, all whilst structuring your answers in a prescribed way to get marks in order to pass. There is now little room to explore your own interests or be creative.
After the pandemic forced schools to shut in March 2020, we witnessed the government’s struggle to award GCSE and A Level grades to pupils who could not sit exams. Even this year, with Ofqual’s disastrous algorithm scrapped and teacher assessments being used, a large part of a pupil’s grade will be based on their teacher’s predictions rather than the pupil’s performance.
This could lead to significant problems with grade accuracy and will undoubtedly lead to overall grade inflation. Of course, if coursework and modular examinations had been taken, schools and awarding bodies would have fair and transparent evidence to support the pupil’s final grade.
However, the failure of the current linear exams to deliver cannot solely be laid at the pandemic’s door. Many students study A Levels as a precursor to going to university. My own A Level History coursework gave me my first real taste of having to read, research and reference by myself – skills which I am constantly using in my English Literature degree. Certainly, for many subjects, coursework emulates university assessments much better than linear exams do. An obvious question is what exactly are these exams preparing students for?
The current system relies on exams being taken at the end of two year courses, with no modular examinations whatsoever. It wrongly assumes that all children are given an equal opportunity to do well in the final exam. Replacing the current exams with a modular system, where a mini exam is taken at the end of each unit, would increase this chance of equality.
This is because many teenagers struggle to work through the lens of deferred gratification. I think anyone, regardless of age, would agree that it is easier and more motivating to work towards an exam in six weeks’ time, rather than one that is in two years’ time. Furthermore, the linear exam disadvantages students who live in households where long term educational goals are not afforded much credence.
Secondly, the current system leaves no wriggle room if anything should happen to go wrong, as we saw in 2020. A global pandemic is an extreme example, but there are a multitude of things that could go wrong for students: mental health problems, bereavement, chronic physical health issues, or even just having a ‘bad day at the office’ in the exam.
While I am not suggesting we should scrap exams entirely, having the final exam at the end as a compliment to modular examinations and coursework would be much fairer and would alleviate the mounting pressure on teenagers. The last exam should count for no more than 25%. It would then offer students a chance to improve, while they are safe in the knowledge that their entire grade does not hang on one day’s performance.
"Education should empower all children and teenagers. We need an education system that values all subjects."
The pandemic has also shed light on another fundamental problem within the English education system. Gove’s reforms meant that schools that had higher numbers of students taking English, Maths, Science, Humanities and Languages would be higher-ranked in league tables. Technology, Drama, Art and Music were all sidelined and there is evidence in many schools that they continue to be treated as ‘low-priority’; they have had their curriculum time cut in favour of the core subjects.
In reality, these subjects are hugely important and valuable in everyday life. During lockdown, people turned to the arts for escapism when there was little else to do. All over the world, people lamented the loss of live concerts, festivals, the theatre and the cinema, longing to immerse themselves in cultural experiences which drama, music and art all underpin.
If Covid 19 has taught us anything, it is that society relies on those who are often overlooked. Key workers, previously taken for granted, were recognised as the cornerstone of society. While the pandemic showed us that we need scientists and doctors, it also showed us that supermarket workers and utility workers were just as essential.
Education should empower all children and teenagers. We need an education system that values all subjects. Unfortunately, there is already a suggestion that post pandemic even more curriculum time will need to be found for students to catch up in only the core subjects. We also need courses which have a fair and transparent modular assessment system in place and on those courses, students need to be taught skills that they can utilise to navigate university and the world of work. The current system is failing in this.