Last reviewed 4 March 2022

Will they? Won’t they? Former headteacher Michael Evans looks at the future of the 2022 summer exams, which are scheduled to go ahead as normal.

Full of confidence

After two years when summer GCSE and A-level examinations were an impossibility due to Covid-19 restrictions, from the outset the Government has been determined that the summer exams for 2022 would go ahead as normal.

Dates have been set for June and July, and although it was pointed out that the Covid-19 pandemic had not evaporated into thin air and that there was every chance of another serious outbreak, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said that he firmly intended for the exams to take place and that they would only be cancelled in the unlikely event of a “public health emergency”.

What happens if…?

The Government has stressed that if this were to happen, Plan B would be activated and students would receive grades determined by their teachers, using teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) similar to those of summer 2021, which were based on an assessment of their students’ work.

Schools were asked to test pupils throughout the year, using their existing assessment plans to collect evidence in case activation of the contingency plan was necessary. It was thought that in many cases the appropriate assessments would already have been planned to support students’ learning as they prepared for the examinations. Schools were encouraged not to over-assess students.

Concerns have been expressed

From the start of the new school year there had been concern from school leaders that no information had been forthcoming with respect to topics that were to come up in the exams, nor anything else that would help students to focus on their revision. In fact, it wasn’t until 7 February that teachers and students first found out details of what they were to expect in the exams.

There was also concern that after two years of disrupted education, this information had been published so late in the day that teachers and students had barely three months to prepare.

The advanced information was intended to help students by including material about what exam boards would be providing for exams in most subjects. Students would have a choice of topics or content in some other GCSE subjects, including maths, biology, chemistry, and languages. Exam boards will also provide formulae sheets and updated equation sheets for GCSE maths, physics, and combined science exams in order to reduce the number of equations that students needed to memorise.

The Guardian reported on the doubts of headteachers about the Government’s efforts to ensure fairness for students sitting this summer’s GCSEs and A-levels in England. Across the country there had been a tremendous variance of the extent to which students have been affected by the pandemic and headteachers were warning of the unfair disadvantage faced by students in the deprived areas that had been most severely affected. Not only did these students have to cope with remote learning, but many of them did not have a proper environment to work in, or the available technology to manage this effectively.

The Government continues to have an overriding desire to return as far as possible to the way things used to be before the onset of the pandemic, although it has concerns about grade inflation over the past two years. In order to provide a safety net for students who might otherwise just miss out on a higher grade, assurances have been given that examiners will be asked to be more generous when setting grade boundaries. In spite of this, the Liberal Democrats have suggested that this year as many as 90,000 students could lose out on top grades.

Mental effects of the GCSE system and are the exams still necessary?

Undoubtedly the long periods of lockdown and all the other disruptions to school life have had a significant effect on the mental health of large numbers of students. For long periods many have felt isolated and cut off from their friends.

Concerns have also been raised that the GCSE system is having a similar detrimental effect on student mental health. Research has shown that 15% of GCSE students fall into the “highly test-anxious” category and 73% of teachers believe that student mental health has deteriorated following the introduction of the reformed GCSEs. There is constant pressure to succeed, not least because of the influence that pupils’ success rates have on school performance tables.

Research indicates that as many as one in six teenagers has a mental health problem and a recent survey indicated that of students with mental health problems, 56% will self-harm, 45% will have eating disorders and 48% will have panic attacks. In a survey conducted by the National Education Union, 82% of surveyed teachers considered that tests and examinations had the greatest impact on student health and 67% of them said this was due to pressures from schools to perform well.

Writing in the London Evening Standard, Jeremy Lewis of ACS International School in Egham called the GCSE system an “archaic” system that stopped young people thinking for themselves. These high-stake exams, he maintained, relied solely on the ability of students to regurgitate knowledge.

Lord Baker, who introduced GCSE exams in 1988, is among several high-profile figures who are calling for these exams to be scrapped entirely. The general feeling is that since most students now stay at school until the age of 18, GCSEs have effectively become irrelevant. All they do is to distort the curriculum and put students under unnecessary stress.

Meanwhile, they will continue as before.

A student perspective

Of course, students have an important interest in the outcome of what is to happen. Back in October a group got together and set up the following online petition:

“Students would like the government and the department of education to cancel GCSE and A-level exams for summer 2022 and to have them replaced with the predicted grades, that was successfully operated in the summer of 2021.”

For the petition to be considered for a debate in Parliament, 100,000 signatures would be needed, and although only about half that number was reached, it does illustrate the depth of feeling around this issue.

The Government response, as was to be expected, did not give the students much cause for encouragement: “All things being equal, exams are the best way of judging what students know and can do. It is the government’s firm intention that exams should go ahead in 2022.”

However, the response did confirm that in the event of GCSE, AS and A-level exams not being able to go ahead, students will receive Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) similar to 2021, and these grades will be based on a range of collected evidence and not on a prediction.

Will they, won’t they?

And so, despite petitions, calls for reform, and all other forms of concern, the 2022 summer GCSE and A-level exams are destined to go ahead, as far as possible in the same form as they did before the onset of the pandemic.

That, of course, is unless a further Covid-19 outbreak leads to another lockdown. Should that be the case, everything will revert very much to the way it was last year, and that will please an awful lot of people.

Summary

  • The Government has every intention that the 2022 summer exams will go ahead — unless.

  • In case this is not possible, a Plan B is in place.

  • A number of concerns have been raised, including the mental health effects of GCSE exams.

  • It has been asked if they still serve a useful purpose.

  • Students have petitioned for the 2022 exams to be cancelled.