I haven’t properly understood the term ‘Groundhog Day’ until now. We all seem to be stuck in an endless loop of national lockdowns and rising infection rates. This feeling of déjà vu was heightened earlier this month, when Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, announced that GCSE and A-Level exams would be canceled for the second year in a row. After months of sugar-coating a dire situation by insisting that exams would go ahead, Williamson finally gave in on 6th January, making the all-too tragic announcement that teachers and pupils had been anticipating for weeks.
With a bit more experience (supposedly) the second time around, Williamson has pledged ‘to put [his] trust in teachers rather than algorithms’, suggesting the introduction of ‘mini exams’ to aid teachers in their grading. Regardless, students have already suffered enough during the pandemic, and the cancellation of exams is the final nail in the coffin for a cohort that has barely received any in-person teaching since March of last year.
It seems natural to blame the pandemic for the current situation, but is this really fair? There is a deeper problem at play here, one that has plagued the education system for years and made the chaos of last year’s Results Day almost inevitable: teaching to the test.
Exams have always been a part of this country’s education system, but they now seem to define it. Michael Gove, former Education Secretary, did away with the majority of controlled assessments in 2015 and replaced them with longer, more demanding exams for both GCSE and A-Level students. A pupil who now takes a typical set of reformed GCSEs spends approximately eight more hours in the exam hall than under the previous system. I remember this experience vividly. In a six-week period between May and June of 2018, I took 21 GCSE exams. For those six weeks, I scheduled my life in accordance with my exam timetable, and free time seemed as far away as the sun.
The result of Gove’s reforms? The country now finds itself among the worst in the developed world for ‘teaching to the test’, and all it took was a global pandemic for the futility and unsustainability of such a system to be revealed. When the hard work of pupils is determined simply by a few exams at the end of the academic year, the ability to assess those students in an alternative situation becomes near impossible. In the absence of exams, the system has collapsed in its entirety, and students, now deeming schoolwork pointless, find themselves in limbo. If they don’t have an exam to prepare for, what is the point of attending their virtual Zoom lessons and continuing with the curriculum?
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to continue completing their schoolwork, but one major problem stands in the way: students have forgotten what ‘learning’ actually means. They equate it simply with memorising facts, regurgitating them in the exam hall, and pushing any ‘irrelevant’ information to the wayside. Pupils have been given a unique opportunity to learn for fun without the pressure of a final exam, but the idea of learning’ for the sake of learning’ appears foreign to them. This is the result of an education system that emphasises exams and assessments before anything else, of an education system that tests students’ mental health more than it does their knowledge and that, if it were to take its own exam, would receive an uncontested fail. This is the result of a government that cares only for short-term results, failing to equip students with the long-term knowledge and skills necessary for later life.
With the vaccination program now in full swing, it seems likely that exams will go ahead next year. But must they? The pandemic has taught us that we should not return to the old way of doing things. Exams are a fair way of assessing students’ capabilities and help to minimise the biases that come with coursework, but the amount of emphasis placed on them needs to change. Research tasks, group projects, public speaking, and critical thinking are a few examples of skills that aid any employee in the workplace but are barely being practiced in the classroom. We must view the pandemic as a breaking point from the past, an opportunity to create a new system that ensures students get the qualifications they need whilst also shaping them into empowered, autonomous learners. After all, vaccinations are not created by those who simply memorise facts. Books are not written by those who stay within the lines of literary creativity. They are created by people who love to learn and never want to stop.
Words by Katie McCarthy