Seventeen hours to decide my future: why A-levels need to be scrapped

Image Description: students sitting exams in an exam hall 

News of the cancellation of GCSEs and A-Levels in England came unexpectedly to students this year who, up until this point, had been emphatically assured that these would go ahead as planned. This decision came almost one month after Wales and Scotland also called off examinations. This latest of many countless frustrating U-turns by the government highlights underlying problems with the academic assessment system in the UK, which demand urgent attention.

This time last year, I was a Year 13 student delighted to have received my offer to study at Oxford University. Yet elation gradually gave way to anxiety. My mind fixated on only one thing – I would have 17 hours of exams in total to determine my A-Level grades and if those didn’t go almost perfectly, I would lose my chance to study my dream course at my dream university. I began to realise that my two years of effort up to that point would mean nothing, if I didn’t perform the way I needed to in those few hours. I had worked hard in preparation for mocks and class tests to earn the predicted grades I wanted, but by the months leading up to exam season I was so anxious that I couldn’t cope with revision. It was almost impossible to find the motivation to get up in the morning, let alone spend hours studying integration or imperial policy. I wanted to learn and to do my best, so the content wasn’t the issue. The problem was the pressure. I couldn’t bear the thought that only a few hours would determine what felt like my entire future.

In hindsight, my mental health was so affected by stress and burnout that I know I wouldn’t have given my best performance in my A-Levels. So, for me, the cancellation of exams last year was a relief. I felt that I had earned my predicted grades, and that it was fair for me to receive them.

Unfortunately, the government’s handling of the situation was horrendous, and many were robbed of the grades they deserved by an absurd algorithm. Even when the government conceded and teachers were allowed to award grades, many students felt that they could have done much better, had they been given the chance to prove themselves in their exams. Although the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has promised that there will be no algorithm this year, it is still unclear how grades will be calculated. Once again students have been left in the lurch, and there will inevitably be those who are robbed of the grades they deserve.

All of this could have been avoided if our assessment system didn’t so ridiculously rely on just one set of examinations. How is it justifiable for students to work tirelessly for two years, only to have their past progress disregarded as soon as they enter the exam hall for their final exams? The coronavirus pandemic has brought this issue to the forefront of the public consciousness. Parents and students alike are questioning the government’s approach to exams, both during these exceptional circumstances, and in general. If we assessed students using a more robust method, one which could easily capture their progress in the last two years of their education, it is unlikely that the pandemic would have affected their qualifications as it has done.

The American model could potentially be looked at for inspiration. Students have a grade point average (GPA) during high school, which determines the grades they leave with. A combination of assignments, student participation and frequent class tests determine said grades, as opposed to final exams. In the UK, many students understandably struggle to find the drive to prepare thoroughly for mock examinations which have no impact on their final GCSE or A-Level grades. Most concerningly, exams become an exercise of regurgitation. The expectation to fully understand two years’ worth of content for several subjects, and to then retain this all for multiple exams, is ludicrous. Hence, many students simply rote learn material, rather than engage with it. Having multiple opportunities and ways to ‘prove themselves,’ would instead allow students to learn and digest material thoroughly throughout their studies, rather than cramming for final exams. It could also help to prevent the harmful be-all and end-all mindset surrounding exams, that I developed in Year 13. Perhaps then students could better enjoy what are often branded as the ‘best years of their life.’

Clearly, the current exam system is in dire need of reformation.

Clearly, the current exam system is in dire need of reformation. This is essential not only for the sake of this generation’s academic progress, but also crucially for their mental health. The coronavirus pandemic and cancellation of exams have provided an opportunity for the government to right the wrongs they have done to students, and explore new ways of assessing them, without national examinations.

Image Credit: jackhynes