Principal of Newcastle Sixth Form College, Gerard Garvey, responds to the government’s most recent plans for exam season of 2021.
In almost all other areas of my life – including arrangements for Christmas dinner – planning more than a few weeks ahead has seemed like something I just shouldn’t do in 2020. One critical exception however, was the Government’s recent announcement about arrangements for the 2021 exam series. For me and the rest of the team at Newcastle Sixth Form College, this was categorically the right decision and I welcome the Government’s desire to press ahead with these exams whilst making due allowances for the times we are living through.
This summer we saw the impact on student confidence that confusion caused as the exams that they had been preparing for were so suddenly cancelled. Whilst I accept that changes are needed to ensure nobody is disadvantaged, I am particularly pleased certainty has been provided this side of Christmas.
For us at NSFC, the value for students of seeing years of study and preparation validated by a rigorous assessment and qualifications they can progress with is invaluable. We pride ourselves on being a ‘widening participation college’. The cohort of learners we support in the centre of Newcastle includes young people from all backgrounds, including some of the most disadvantaged. For them, showing that all they have overcome was worth it is a very particular prize.
Potentially the biggest challenge for colleges in relation to exams is around the GCSE resits in English and Maths. I am strategic lead for English and Maths across the seven colleges in our national group and we see too many students whose lost learning from Year 11 will make preparation for exams this summer a huge challenge. For those currently in possession of a grade 3, the gap between their current level and a grade 4 has never been so wide.
We have been fortunate that – through a combination of tough timetable management and our more recent participation in the Government’s mass testing scheme pilot – we have been safely and responsibly delivering 100% face to face teaching, all day every day since September. This means that, with the help of technology to catch up on that content which the rushed first lockdown impacted, we are confident that our students will be ready for these exams. They and their families seem confident too – we will shortly announce our best ever learner survey results and feedback from parents about our commitment has been fantastic.
I recognise that not all schools and colleges will be in this position. Once again, we have benefitted massively from our membership of the NCG group of colleges. We have been able to collaborate and draw upon the group’s resources to quickly provide the technology to live stream lessons and on estate management resources to help safely facilitate over 400 COVID tests a day on campus in partnership with the Ministry of Defence.
Despite everything that we and the rest of the sector have undertaken to keep learners’ education on track, we must also recognise that students taking exams next year are doing so under the most extraordinary peace time conditions this country has seen since 1945. Whilst it is vital we fight the idea that the 2021 exams will be easier, it is right that the grading will boost fairness reflect the disruption that so many leaners have faced, both in schools and colleges and potentially at home. Similarly, changes such as use of formula tables in STEM exams and better guidance on key subject areas represent ways of keeping these exams fair without dumbing down either content or assessment. A grade A in 2021 needs to hold the same value as a grade A in any other year.
The young people sitting these exams will leave formal education at an unprecedented time and they will be the ones who have to grapple with immense challenges – both personally and as citizens of this country, and indeed the world. Selling them short with a miscommunicated or fudged set of results will not equip them for this challenge. No one doubts that the coming academic year will be no less challenging than the last. For me however, the decision to press ahead with this exam series in a way that is supportive, rigorous and fair sets the right tone and goals for the challenges ahead.