COVID exams chaos 2022. Stress, unfairness, inequality. UK education chiefs risk damaging life chances of UAE children in British schools.
UAE students’ futures are at the mercy of UK education chiefs, who are yet to reveal exactly what GCSE and A-level exams will look like for international schools this year.
Teens studying for high-stakes exams at British schools in the emirates could be at a disadvantage compared to their UK counterparts due to the variation in pandemic schooling realities, suggests Mark Leppard MBE, Headmaster of The British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi and chair of British Schools in the Middle East (BSME).
If exams go ahead in-person – as they seem likely to in the UK – international students could suffer as a result, since different nations have had hugely different levels of education this academic year. On the other hand, if schools in some parts of the world are given teacher-assessed grades – which we know almost inevitably leads to grade inflation – they will have an unfair advantage over those children who have sat the same exams in-person.
The uncertainty is creating unnecessary stress and anxiety for teaching staff, parents and, of course, students – who have already had a tumultuous few years of education as it is.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to exam boards and Ofqual, there is not a great deal of information – if any – coming from them at this point,” says Leppard, writing in TES magazine. “This is raising stress levels in students who will be highly reliant upon the grades they achieve this year. Even now in February, we still do not know how this discrepancy will be tackled.”
Finding equality amongst disparity
When COVID-19 first hit and GCSE and A-level exams were thrown into chaos, assessment methods were at least consistent across the UK and the rest of the world – with centre-assessed grades for everyone in 2020 and then teacher-assessed grades in 2021. This year it looks like domestic UK exams will go ahead in-person, which suggests this will be the case internationally as well – something that, in theory, most stakeholders would be in favour of. However, the huge disparity in the level of schooling that students have received in different nations across the world means that international students could well be less prepared and unfairly disadvantaged when it comes to sitting exams in-person compared to those in the UK.
While students in England have had access to face-to-face teaching, classrooms and practical equipment for the majority of the school year since September 2021, this has not been the case in a huge number of schools around the world.
In Abu Dhabi, for example, schools have been delayed in restarting after the summer and winter holidays by at least three weeks each time. “Even without individual class and year-group closures due to positive cases, this is 30 days where students have not had access to face-to-face learning compared with their counterparts in the UK and other regions where schools have been fully open,” says Leppard.
In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, January 2022 saw schools return to face-to-face learning for the first time since March 2020. “This means that those students sitting their exams this summer have not accessed teachers in person or had access to facilities such as laboratories, workshops, sports facilities and theatres within the school for their entire A-level or GCSE course.”
However, none of these schools has answers to what the exam boards plan, “and this is causing high levels of stress for the students already in a state of raised anxiety through the normal exam series,” says Leppard. “In all of the above examples, we need to be mindful that those students completing their A-level exams this year have also missed the experience of sitting GCSE exams and had a vast amount of time out of school during Year 11.”
No matter how strong online learning has been, “the lack of face-to-face learning for these students is clearly not going to work in [the students’] best interests when it comes to exams,” Leppard says.
Could UK exam boards do the same as the IB?
There is the possibility of a dual-assessment route – something that the International Baccalaureate system has (creditably in our view) announced that it will follow this year in order to allow for the impact of COVID-19 on exam-year students.
Since international schools are subject to their own countries COVID regulations, the IB system acknowledges that insisting on an exam sitting when a country might not allow it is unfair. “This has given IB school leaders, teachers and students a clear route for assessment in the event of lockdowns or students isolating due to Covid,” writes Leppard. “The UK exam boards have not given any feedback or guidance to schools regarding this matter.”
Nevertheless, there are also possible inequalities even with a dual assessment system too due to the tendency for grade inflation in teacher- assessed grading systems. Leppard writes:
“We need to know how grades can be awarded as equal if some students are physically sitting exams while others are having teacher-assessed grades submitted?
“Looking at the past two years’ results, it appears that teachers have not awarded an A grade to a student performing at a D-grade level, but rather given the student performing between two grades, such as B/C, the higher B grade.
“This is completely understandable as it gives the student the benefit of the doubt. However, if we take this situation into a national or global arena, inflation will undoubtedly be witnessed.”
Stressing out already stressed kids (and parents…)
Teens who are preparing to sit their A-levels this year didn’t do their GCSEs in person, and so have never had high-stakes, in-person exam practice before – unlike every cohort of students that has sat A-level examinations before them. Without any sort of road map at present, teachers, parents and students are preparing for exams somewhat blindly – which adds extra stress to an already anxious situation. As Leppard writes:
“If my school is anything to go by, we have a lot of anxious parents, staff and students wondering how learners will be supported should exams not be accessible. They are anxious that, if they sit exams, their grades will be compared with students who are awarded teacher-assessed grades.
“The current Year 11 and 13 students have had a really tough time over the past two years and need to be both reassured and supported. All of this is out of their hands, but they are the ones most greatly impacted. We owe it to this generation of learners to support them.
“These students have resilience in abundance, but exam boards cannot take advantage of this by delaying the sharing of a clear plan of support for these continuing unprecedented times.”
Notes from the Editor
Our gratitude to Mark Leppard, Headmaster, The British School Al Khubairat, for drawing our attention to this issue and the serious potential impacts on all children in the UAE following the English National Curriculum and due to sit GCSE and A Level examinations this year.