As schools struggle with rising Covid levels, families like mine fear more exam chaos

A GCSE examiner in the South East of England told me that with disruption set to continue over the coming months, he no longer believes public exams should be taken this year anyway due to their unfairness to pupils whose education has been compromised. 

Bonita Ho-Asjoe, a pharmaceutical marketing consultant from West London, is in agreement. Her son Christian is sitting GCSE mocks at University College School, Hampstead. Her daughter Ella is in her first year of GCSEs at The Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith. “Both my children’s schools were very good about providing online learning schedules but other children across the country are at risk of falling even further behind,” says Ho-Asjoe. “How will assessors assess these grades? How fair will exams be even if they do go ahead?”

Also sympathetic is David Atkinson, headmaster at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School (DCGS) in Buckinghamshire. He says: “I really feel for the students having to manage so much uncertainty at this young age. Pupils know the contingency this year is that the assessments that took place during the academic year will be the basis of their qualifications should exams in May be cancelled, increasing the pressure as they take their exams now, pressure they could really do without.”

Parents and teachers are not the only ones alarmed. “This uncertainty is bothering a lot of us who had our GCSEs cancelled in year 11,” says Tadgh Knight, 17, a year 13 pupil at DCGS. “Government is not doing enough to assure students that things will be done properly this time. It all adds up to an erosion of trust among my generation.”

Vicki Exall’s 17-year-old daughter Mia is due to sit her A level mock exams in February. “She is one of a demotivated cohort who – if these exams aren’t cancelled – will have left school having done no public exams at all,” explains Exall. “These children have already been really badly hit.”

Microbiologist Rehana Hamid is “feeding off the never-ending stress levels” of her two eldest sons, both due to sit exams.  Cameron, 18, faces mock A levels at John Hampden Grammar School in High Wycombe, and 21-year-old Haroon has final year mocks at Sussex University.  

“These next critical months will affect the rest of our children’s years,” says Hamid. “I think more should have been done to protect schools and universities when so much is at risk. Children look to parents for support but I’ve had to be honest and tell them none of us knows where this pandemic is leading.”

The new guidance has come late in the day, says Nicholas Pietrek, headmaster at Thorpe House School in Gerrards Cross. “The last thing children need is more anxiety after an incredibly anxious two years. There is no guarantee that it will be GCSEs as normal; we could be looking at teacher-assessed input once again, making mock exams over the next few weeks massively important.”

Nicky Green, a nurse in Hampshire, also wants firmer guidance around her son Joseph’s forthcoming A levels. Joseph boards at Bryanston in Dorset but was sent home last year when the school closed in lockdown. 

Already he has learnt that his Art exam has been scrapped and that the final piece of work for his Design and Technology exam won’t be required, as students spent so much time at home with no access to DT facilities. Green says the experience has been demoralising. 

Joseph adds: “I’m definitely more anxious coming up to these mocks. The last proper exams I took were common entrance exams five years ago.” 

It’s a perfect storm, says David Waugh, headmaster at Great Academy Ashton in Tameside, Greater Manchester. “The challenge is the invigilation with the staff absences,” says Waugh. “I’ve got 82 teachers and I’m already 15 down.” In addition, he booked four supply teachers every day for the first three weeks of terms, and has part-time staff working full-time. 

“The key absence that will close schools is cleaning staff, catering staff and side staff,” he adds. “We can merge classes but if we cannot clean the site or feed the children that’s when we will start seeing schools close. We are in a constant state of critical incident management on top of running the school and keeping our children safe. ” 

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