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Covid, Exams and Education – Thinking Differently

As I write this piece, there has been another education U-turn, with Gavin Williamson announcing that primary schools in London will not be opening as usual in January after all. This follows the threat of legal action against Greenwich and Islington who wanted to close their schools early before Christmas, followed by a swift change of government policy days later. By the time this is published, no doubt there will have been more screeching halts. The education vehicle is swerving all over the road!


At the heart of the ‘should we, shouldn’t we’ vacillations by the government, is the question of whether we should strive to keep children in school, even if it risks the virus spreading more widely and worsening an already worrying situation. At its core is the concern that children’s whole education and long-term future is at stake.


This article looks at some of the underlying beliefs and assumptions underpinning these decisions and asks whether children’s whole education is necessarily and inevitably at risk of being sacrificed by school closures. It questions whether the choice we are facing is as stark as is sometimes suggested – the whole well-being of the nation’s children and their long-term futures being put at risk. I want to share the following thoughts as a kind of provocation, to open up a wider debate about education in these challenging times, including the idea that despite all the damaging consequences of the pandemic, we should try to look for the new opportunities it offers for re-thinking education, rather than only lamenting that which has so obviously been lost.


First, however, in thinking about school closures or not, it’s worth saying that guaranteeing school-based provision for vulnerable children and the children of key workers is absolutely essential, no matter how high the rates of infection go. Schools have, of course, been open for these children throughout, from the first full lockdown on and this should be guaranteed in future. For children whose home lives are unstable or dysfunctional, for those in extreme poverty or living in very poor housing, school is a refuge, a place of safety and of adult support. In addition, key workers, such as NHS staff and others must be able to go to work for all our benefit and this is only possible if someone is caring for their children. Keeping schools open for these two groups seems to be a commonly agreed necessity, whatever else happens.


There are many valid and important reasons for wanting to keep schools open for the rest of our children too, and it’s worth establishing what those are. For all of our children, not being able to go to school undoubtedly has negative consequences from a social point of view; they miss out on opportunities to engage with each other, with adults outside the home, and they lose the kind of interactions of a school community that form part of the socialisation process that turns them into well rounded adults. An even greater number of children are lacking some important basic circumstances that support learning at home – use of a device, such as a laptop or ipad of their own, quiet space in which to work, parental support. For working parents, who are not key workers, school is also extremely important. Trying to maintain working life with one’s children at home presents huge challenges for all parents, in these times.



The decision not to keep schools open for those other than the vulnerable and the children of key workers poses immense problems and has major costs. I would not like to understate what closing schools means for the majority of children and their families.


But aside from these obvious problems, what about the specific educational costs of closing schools, for the majority of students? Are these equally worrying? Alongside the significant and valid concerns listed so far, there has also been a huge amount of anxiety about children missing out on their educational opportunities. And it is here that I would like to raise some questions, about what exactly is being missed in terms of education and whether that is of as much concern as Gavin Williamson and others would have us believe.


Let me first make a bold suggestion: missing out on face-to-face, in situ, school education for a few months or even for a year, for children who are not vulnerable, doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It is, if you believe that children are like empty bottles into which you pour facts, knowledge, information, ideas. If teachers aren’t there doing the pouring, then the bottle remains empty. But if you recognise that education is a much more complex, organic process and happens in a multitude of ways, then if the teacher isn’t pouring stuff in, in quite the same way, it needn’t mean that no education is happening. Adapting education, so that students are encouraged to find things out, take an interest in their world, read or follow high quality news online, learn how to research for themselves, watch films and documentaries, create things, whether poems or online blogs or podcasts, share online lessons and learn more about how to learn independently, could all further their education a great deal while they are not in school.


Clearly, there are huge differences in the way children can access this kind of learning at home and people have rightly pointed out the massively more damaging impact of closures on disadvantaged children. Studies have shown that children in BAME communities have also been particularly badly affected. But though these differences are of major concern, they can be mitigated in a number of practical ways that haven’t been fully acknowledged or attended to, in my view.


First, priority needs to be given to providing every single child who needs it with the hardware to support home learning – their own individual laptop, an ipad or another device through which they can engage with all the online learning opportunities made available to them. For children in homes without broadband (and actually in 2019 93% of homes did have this), a dongle could be provided to access the internet. The government has been putting resources into achieving this; these efforts should be stepped up, as an essential part of making learning at home workable for all.


Second, there needs to be a focus on providing a mix of varied and imaginative approaches to suit the needs of different groups and individuals. So, online learning doesn’t have to be entirely scripted presentations, or click-through quizzes, or ready-made programmes of learning followed by all students. It can, and almost certainly should, include these things for practical and educational reasons, as well as constraints on the time available to teachers for preparation, but it might also involve some radically different approaches alongside these. It should, for instance, include some small group or one-to-one sessions with children who need extra support. Some teachers, who have been doing this, have, interestingly, reported how valuable they have been finding this kind of close contact with individuals with whom such focused discussion was paradoxically less possible in a face-to-face context in the classroom. The absence of the crowd control elements of classroom learning, coupled with the chance for quieter, more reticent children to engage with their teacher individually, has some potential that could be exploited further.


All children need some close contact with a teacher or another adult, to keep their home learning on track and perhaps a balance of independent study, teacher input, group activity online (to re-introduce the collaborative, social element to learning that many students are missing and provide motivation for learning.) More models could be tried, to replicate the input of a skilled teacher in making students feel that their work and progress are being monitored.


Third, a bigger shift needs to happen (and in plenty of cases, is happening) to our thinking about what constitutes genuinely educational activity. So, in my subject, over the first lockdown, the organisation I work for, the English and Media Centre, produced a large quantity of free material for teachers, designed for students working on their own, with some teacher support. Essentially, the material provided substantial input and content but also had a degree of flexibility, for students to make choices about the form of their responses, take things in their own directions, write in extended ways and, in the case of Year 11s not doing exams, to look forward to the kind of more open thinking and learning that might occur in their learning at A Level. At KS3, we provided activities with prompts for writing and textual starting-points, to spark storytelling, poetry writing, comment and argument, as well as critical reflection. The teachers’ responses to this material (and student reactions reported back to us) were excellent. In some cases, it seemed to be an eye-opener for both students and teachers, that freed up to pursue a slightly different path, many students rose to the challenge and produced work of an unexpectedly high quality. We also ran two competitions for Year 11, based on a short story and a poem, where students were asked to respond in either a creative or critical way, using the texts as a springboard. This was initiated at the point when exams had been cancelled and teachers and year 11s were looking for a way of maintaining momentum till the end of term. Hundreds of students entered and wrote in fresh, imaginative, committed ways, often to the great surprise of their own teachers. The winning entry in response to the short story was a brilliantly scripted screenplay by a girl in an inner London state secondary school. It was not the kind of response to a text that a Year 11 would have been at all likely to be doing at that stage in the year, under normal circumstances.


Now I’m arriving at one of the key aspects of all of this, something which is implied in much of what I’ve written so far but I’ve held over till last to talk about explicitly because, although it seems to me that it’s the most glaringly obvious issue, it’s the one that, in my view, has been least debated, the least well aired. It is the question of how much it really matters whether students sit their GCSE and A Level exams. It’s the question of what GCSEs and A Levels actually represent in the lives of the Covid-generation students of 2020 and 2021.


None of the ways of thinking about education at home, and highly successful examples of student learning that I have described, were related to exam preparation. In normal circumstances, the girl who wrote the winning screenplay would have probably been doing timed essays and practice paragraphs, annotating poems and learning quotations for exams. None of it what they were doing last May and June, once exams had been jettisoned, was about revision. They, and their teachers, weren’t having to worry about how to fit in exam content in a short space of time, or fretting about how to second-guess what the exams would finally consist of in their final pandemic form. And yet what they did was most definitely educational – perhaps even more so than that frantic exam preparation.


In a couple of Twitter exchanges last week, a university lecturer in English and an A Level English teacher both described their experiences of reading the work of students who, in the first instance had not sat their A Level exams and in the second had not sat GCSEs. Both the lecturer and the teacher said that the work they were reading was among the freshest, most interesting they had seen in recent years. Another teacher, in an inner city area of deprivation has told me that he has seen no discernible difference in the quality of work of his Year 10s, after last year’s home and online schooling, to the quality of Year 10 work in previous years.


These comments could just be taken as isolated mid-pandemic anecdotes. Or alternatively, they could helpfully be tied into a much bigger set of concerns being expressed pre-pandemic, by teachers, examiners, academics and even Ofsted, about the way in which exams – and the way teachers and students believe they need to prepare for them – have been distorting the secondary curriculum and resulting in impoverished educational experiences. If students having not done GCSE and A Level exams last year are doing just fine (and possibly even better than previous groups of students), that reinforces the thinking that our current examination system might itself in some ways be hampering students’ education rather than enhancing it.


So, it isn’t necessarily, and automatically, the case that learning at home, in different ways, with different approaches and without exams as the end point, will be entirely damaging to our children’s education. Possibly, in some cases, if well handled, the reverse could be true. One might even suggest that a major block to providing a really good education for our secondary school students during the pandemic, alongside the empty bottle philosophy, has been the huge emphasis being placed on these very GCSE and A Level exams.


Exams do, of course, fulfil a purpose. That purpose, however, is not fundamentally educational but rather evaluative – a final judgement, or validation of the education that has taken place, a sampling if you like of what education has occurred. Exams are a ‘measure’ of education, not to be confused with education itself, (though as suggested above one might be forgiven for mistaking one for the other, given the way in which they have recently come to dominate the education of children from Year 7 on). And exams are only one such measure; others exist, but this particular government and the Conservative ones before it, have chosen to believe that they are the only possible measure, the only one that they trust. So, all forms of internal assessment (coursework, teacher grades, controlled assessment, oral vivas, practicals or anything else), have been eschewed in favour of a supposedly valid, reliable and standardised form of assessment, the written exam.


The question of whether this ideological stance towards external exams is correct, wise or desirable in normal times is a matter for another debate, but in these times of pandemic, it seems important to me to recognise both that exams and education aren’t synonymous, and that other forms of measuring exist that might be much more appropriate to the current context. My personal belief is that the determination to hold fast to them, come what may, stems from a fear that abandoning them in 2021, as in 2020, might be the thin end of the wedge. Perhaps people would begin to see that we can do without them, that they have been disproportionate in their use and that other approaches can be used to measure and sum up student achievement. That issue can be discussed more coolly once life returns to normal, but in the meantime it seems stubborn and wilfully destructive not to consider other options and consider them right now, rather than hesitating, holding out for them and then discovering that exams have to be cancelled after all, at the last moment and with no proper planning.


Some will undoubtedly argue that students deserve a properly standardised and fair final summation, in the form of authenticated GCSE and A Level grades. I would strongly agree. I don’t think that exams offer this, however, in a year of pandemic chaos, given the huge disparities in students’ experience, in different parts of the country, and even from school to school in a single area. But I do think a standardised and fair summation can be offered in other ways.


Here are just a few ideas, that, if planned into the system right now, could be perfectly workable, ensure a degree of certainty for all for the rest of this academic year, and provide reasonable authentication:


1. Teacher-awarded grades based on a sampling of student work in different contexts – work submitted, mocks or tests on return to school later this year, vivas or oral assessments, practical assessments. The balance would depend on the subject and would be relatively light touch – sampling rather than an attempt to collect a massive bank of data. In Humanities subjects, this might include a single extended piece of work completed over lockdown.

2. Internal standardisation within in each school based on sampling the work of students, to verify individual teacher-awarded grades. Again, this need not be a massive edifice of assessment but rather a light touch sampling to ensure comparable standards across the school cohort of entries.

3. External standardisation, by random sampling of a school’s work. As with the above, this can be scaled to be manageable, and could be undertaken by the armies of Awarding Body examiners, with a wealth of knowledge of standards in their subject, who would be freed up from examining.


I think universities and employers will understand, in judging students’ achievements, that they were the Covid cohort, so concerns about students’ futures being blighted shouldn’t be exaggerated. Already, we are seeing students studying for A Level perfectly well, who didn’t sit GCSEs, and undergraduates doing degrees who didn’t sit A Level exams.


Now there will be many people who, with some justification, say that it’s hard to remove inequalities from this process, that students who are helped by parents at home will stand to do better in the final grading than those without such support, for instance. That is, of course, true, as it is for all aspects of educational achievement. However, a mixed range of assessments, including tests and timed work in school once that is possible, should help mitigate against this. Teachers can also exercise their judgement as to whether work is obviously plagiarised. In comparison with the gross inequalities of students sitting exams in this year of pandemic, perhaps we have to accept this.


Some will argue that teachers can’t be trusted to give accurate grades. However, external standardisation can deal with that issue to a large extent. I would also argue for a moratorium this year on Ofsted’s tracking of examination data as a measure of a school’s success, and instead suggest that they work with schools to actively promote a return to trust in teachers’ professionalism, in which teachers are expected to take responsibility for accurately judging the success of their students in place of external exams.


So, in summary, exams aren’t education, other forms of assessment that are more appropriate for these challenging times can be made to work, and perhaps most importantly of all, with effort, will and inventiveness, however hard it might be, education can continue to happen, whether in school, or at home, or a combination of the two. Perhaps one element of this is persuading ourselves that this is possible, as well as our students, their parents…and the Secretary of State for Education!


Finally, and perhaps this is the most important thing of all, schools, students, teachers, parents need to have some degree of absolute certainty and they need that now; they need to be able to plan ahead, on the basis of decisions that will hold. Whatever is decided must be something that will not be reversed. That means taking a prudent, cautious approach, taking a route that will definitely get to the destination. Even if it’s not our favourite one, it will be a lot better for everyone than setting out at top speed on a dangerous route full of road works and unexpected hazards, where U-turns are inevitable, pile-ups are likely and the education vehicle will come to a screeching halt.


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