Michael Smyth, Director of Studies at St Mary’s Calne, a girls independent school in Wiltshire, doesn’t believe that you can compare the work done by the Covid Cohort with any other group, either positively or negatively. “‘Grade inflation’ is the wrong terminology”, he says. “The 2021 Teacher Assessed Grades (TAG) were awarded on evidence produced in exam conditions. And the Centre Assessment Grade (CAG) process of 2020 was different again. In both pandemic years, those grades were deserved. It is a little like comparing apples, oranges and pears. Since March 2020, everyone has struggled with the relentless uncertainty of the pandemic. Would the pupils have preferred to take public exams? Yes. Have pupils adapted to and excelled in the different process of determining grades? Yes. They are probably much more resilient now than ever before. Whether the pupils are at a disadvantage with future employers remains to be seen, but it would be a failing on the part of Ofqual and the Department for Education if this were the case.”
But one mother of an 18-year-old girl worries that teacher-pupil relationships are exacerbating anxieties. “My daughter has had a very tough time,” she said. “She was so upset and worried about her GCSEs that she had a breakdown. We thought she was in her room working but she just couldn’t cope. She had just been diagnosed with ADD and felt isolated and unable to see her friends. Her results were so bad that the school was suggesting that she didn’t take her A levels. The problem about teacher-assessed examinations is that this can be influenced by the relationship with the teacher and some girls are very manipulative, which makes it more difficult for the less confident girls”.
The fact is that exams are not fun – but they are a rite of passage. They teach us how to plan or cram; to focus for a short, highly stressful period of time and prepare to perform our best. “It is important for young people to learn how to manage exam stress, or failure,” says PSHE speaker Paula Talman, paediatric nurse, founder of iSpace Wellbeing, the mental health and well-being curriculum for schools. “Otherwise, when they are older, anxiety and avoidance of stressful situations can cause them to stay in their comfort zones rather than stepping out into an unfamiliar zone to take risks, explore, flourish and grow.”
It’s a concern echoed by Rachel Kelly, mental health advocate and author of Singing in the Rain: An Inspirational Workbook who went through lockdown with her own teenagers but spends much of her time visiting state and independent schools holding mental health workshops to raise morale amongst students. Having spent many hours talking to students about their concerns she broadly divides them into two categories. The children and young adults she describes as part of ‘generation grit’ are middle class, privileged and independent school-educated. For them, she says, the experience has been largely positive, teaching them resilience and making them stronger. “They are learning to deal with feeling anxious, bored and lonely. They may not all be suffering from mental health conditions, so much as learning to deal with the realities of life. Covid could be the event from which they emerge as the most psychologically resilient of their generation” she says.
And then there are the ‘Covid kids’, from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, living in difficult households, away from school and finding it difficult to access wifi and computers. For those kids losing the ritual and sense of a rite of passage and identity offered to them by the rigmarole of exams has been very difficult, says Kelly.
But it isn’t straightforward. Even amongst those more privileged children, for whom covid hadn’t been so bad, there has been guilt and insecurity akin to imposter syndrome. “One private school boy,” says Kelly, “had taken his exams remotely. He had done very well securing a string of 9’s. But he said, ‘I feel like an imposter’. It all felt too cosy. They were sixteen, feeling that they were becoming young adults and they needed the validation of being marked by a stranger. It needed to feel fair.”
Teenagers like my son need to feel their hard work is not in vain. They can’t be left wondering if they would have done as well if they had not been marked by their teachers. This is as important for their self-esteem as for their concerns about how they will be judged in the future.