Across the UK different regional governments have taken different approaches to the sitting and grading of school exams in the summer term of 2021.
In Scotland the National 5 (GCSE equivalent) exams have been cancelled and grades will be determined by “teacher judgement supported by assessment”. Scotland Education Secretary John Swinney declared that going ahead with exams was unfair given Covid-related disruption in schools.
In Wales the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, has announced that GCSEs and A-level exams are to be cancelled, with grades based on classroom assessments. However, this is not quite as it seems, as those teacher assessments will be based on tests that have been externally set and marked.
Northern Ireland’s Children’s Commissioner urged the devolved government to scrap school exams but the Education Minister, Peter Weir, said the tests will go ahead and are the “fairest way of judging students”. Which begs the question: why should 16 year-olds be “judged”?
GCSE exams are unfair, pointless, staggeringly stressful, and unnecessary. They should be scrapped, and the £2bn they cost should be spent on useful education. Young people should be allowed to take A Levels, vocational or other courses, or apprenticeships, as they choose.
On Thursday 3 December, the Westminster government announced exams would go ahead in England. Grading will be “generous” and in line with the levels of summer 2020. The risible Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, the man responsible for the exam chaos last summer, stated that, “I know students are facing unprecedented disruption to their learning,” before drawing the conclusion that it is “so important” exams go ahead, “fairly”.
The current group of Year 11 students (15-16 years old, due to face GCSEs in summer 2021) have faced enormous — and ongoing — disruption to their education. This has impacted on working-class kids particularly badly as they are more likely than children from well-off families to lack internet access, laptops, and quiet study space.
Labour’s Wes Streeting, Shadow Minister for Schools, has provided no alternative, stating in the House of Commons: “We all agree that exams would be the fairest and best way to assess pupils this year… exams [must] go ahead in a way that is fair to all pupils”.
Streeting is useless. The mental health of our young people is suffering. A recent PISA report suggests about 10% of British teenagers “always feel sad”. In British schools there is an epidemic of suffering from depression and anxiety. A big part of the problem is the distress caused by the absurd fixation successive governments have had with school testing and exam grading.