Socialist Worker

Thousands of school and college students face anxiety over exams

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2732

A protest over the Tory A-Levels fiasco in London earlier this year

A protest over the Tory A-Levels fiasco in London earlier this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Over 700,000 students across England are due to take exams next summer. They have suffered months of disruption because of the pandemic.  

Yet so far the Tories’ only acknowledgement of this is to postpone exams for three weeks.  

Julia, a Year 13 student in north London due to take A-Levels next year, said this “is not a valid or fair solution”.  

“There’s no way we can all sit exams undisrupted,” she told Socialist Worker. “One solution is allowing the teacher to cut one paper out of the usual three. This would cut content and reduce stress.”  

Governments in Scotland and Wales have announced that some of next year’s exams are cancelled, although the detail matters (see below). This has added to a feeling that they may not go ahead in England.  

Julia said the situation is “very stressful”. “Motivation is definitely lacking due to the uncertainty,” she said. “It’s also affecting teachers.  

“They want to reassure students but because the government has not announced a solid plan, the uncertainty is putting strain on them.”  

Sheffield school student Patrick is due to sit GCSEs next year. “There is a lot of speculation about what is going to happen with exams,” he told Socialist Worker.  

“Every day, students and teachers discuss it. It seems there are two likely decisions—either exams go ahead or we will be given teacher assessed grades.”  

Anxiety 

Patrick said using teacher assessed grades would “take away some of the stress” that is causing “anxiety, depression and other mental distresses”. But he added that it isn’t enough to call for exams to be cancelled.  

Using teacher assessed grades still “opens the door for racial, gender and class discrimination”.  

Futures ruined by Tories’ rigged results
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“Some argue that exams are more fair as they give students a chance to prove their ability,” Patrick explained. “In his book Natives, the rapper Akala talks about how many black and working class students downplay their intelligence in lessons for fear of being labelled a nerd.  

“These students would most likely do better by sitting exams.”  

Julia would like exams to be cancelled, but also warned of problems with the alternatives. This follows the grading scandal earlier this year, where students in poorer areas were given lower grades.  

“If exams were cancelled the government will have to develop a system for fair centre assessed grades that do not rely on a ranking system or postcodes,” said Julia.  

Whatever happens, the uncertainty is already having a huge effect as students fear that mock exams will end up determining their final grades.  

“Unfortunately all class tests are being taken as seriously as the final ones,” explained Julia.  

“The government refusing to hear student voices is leading to more stress. The level of support is non-existent.”


‘Whatever happens, the working class will lose out’ 

The Welsh government announced earlier this month that all exams for 2021 would be cancelled. But students will still sit “assessed tasks” in a classroom setting under teacher supervision.  

Ruth Davies from the NAHT union said this essentially means “exams by stealth”.  “Pupils will be given externally set and marked tests, just in the classroom,” she said. “We can’t see how that isn’t an exam.”  

Julia said the headlines were “misleading”.  

“They’re essentially still doing exam board set exams in classrooms,” she said. “And they didn’t specify the details. So there’s the issue of how they are going to standardise them and make them fairer.”  

In Scotland, National 5 exams, the equivalent of GCSEs in England and Wales, have been cancelled for 2021. Students will be graded instead using teacher assessments and coursework.  

But Higher and Advanced Higher exams are still due to go ahead.  

The Scottish government has said it will make a final decision on those in mid-February. Meanwhile,detail about the assessments in Wales will be discussed by a panel that will report in the New Year.  

The uncertainty means yet more stress and confusion. And teacher assessments can sound more progressive than they are.  

They don’t mean that teachers can simply choose students’ grades. Their assessments also go through a “moderation” process. Teachers often come under pressure to give lower grades for fear that higher ones will simply be downgraded.  

Purpose 

Patrick argued that, whatever happens next year, the problems go beyond exams.  

“The purpose of the education system is not to help students reach their full potential,” he said.  

“It is a tool of social stratification designed to do two things. Firstly, to create a competent but obedient working class. Secondly, to keep the rich at the top of society and the poor at the bottom.  

“This was made blatantly clear last year as students at private schools received a rise in grades 2.7 percent higher than those in secondary comprehensives.  

“The exam system exists to put up barriers to working class children. So no matter what the government decides on exams, the working class will lose out.”  

Forcing students through a stressful series of exams that end up limiting their knowledge is not the best way to deliver education – at any time. It pushes students to cram the facts they need for the exams into their heads, rather than encourage learning for its own sake.  

“A good education system would make us learn how to work together and prepare us for the future,” said Patrick. “Instead our worth is determined by our ability to memorise facts and regurgitate them under exam conditions.”  

Exams should be scrapped. But “alternatives” that are really based on the same ideology must be resisted too.  


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