Thousands of headteachers across England are demanding that exams be cut back next year amid fears of a mental health crisis among pupils who have lost months of learning in the coronavirus pandemic.
They say the government’s assumption that pupils can catch up on lost lessons when they return to school in September, and sit their GCSEs and A-levels as normal in summer 2021, is “neither realistic nor workable”.
Instead, they are calling for a significant cut in curriculum content and fewer exams in each subject to ease pressure on pupils and allow teachers to focus on student wellbeing rather than “exam cramming”. Currently, pupils can sit up to 30 two-hour papers over the course of a month.
The headteachers, from 78 English local authorities and represented by the campaign group Worth Less?, also want primary assessments cancelled for the coming year and an overhaul of school performance league tables.
Following the sudden cancellation of this summer’s exams due to the pandemic, the government ruled that next year’s exams should go ahead as normal, despite the suspension of most teaching against the backdrop of a significant toll on physical and mental health.
Last week the exams regulator, Ofqual, proposed that GCSEs and A-levels should be deferred by up to a month from May to June 2021 to allow more teaching time, with relatively minor adjustments to a small number of GCSE subjects. The proposals were dismissed as “tinkering at the edges” when what was needed was “far-reaching change”.
GCSEs and A-levels have recently been overhauled to make them more rigorous, with increased curriculum content and little assessed coursework, so results depend to a much greater extent on final exams.
Ofqual proposed no changes to the number of exams sat by pupils. However, in certain GCSEs, such as history, ancient history and geography, it is proposing to allow a reduction in the number of topics that students are expected to cover.
Other adaptations to free up teaching time include removing the requirement to record the spoken language assessment in GCSE English language, letting GCSE students observe rather than undertake practical science work, and assessing art and design students on their portfolio alone.
Jules White, head of Tanbridge House secondary school in Horsham, West Sussex and leader of Worth Less?, said: “The government must strike a much better balance to maintain standards whilst looking after children’s mental health. The idea that pupils will simply ‘catch up’ on months of lost learning is neither realistic nor workable.
“Bombarding GCSE and A-level students with vast content and huge numbers of exams is unacceptable. Pupils do not need to sit five English, three maths and six science papers of at least two-plus hours next summer.”
White suggested that the number of GCSE maths papers could be cut from three to two (one calculator and one non-calculator), reducing the number of set texts and poems by 25% in English, and consideration of “open book” examinations.
Alan Brookes, chair of the Kent Association of Head Teachers, said: “The major focus has to be the welfare of students, and getting their wellbeing and mental health sorted out. Some lifting of the pressures of the examination system would be a help in enabling schools to do this.”
Brookes said a full slate of exams would add to pressure on disadvantaged students, who have been less able to access online lessons and complete schoolwork, widening the attainment gap.
“The results will be unsafe and any comparisons that are drawn from them [for performance tables] will be similarly unsafe. The priority for schools will be getting all their students back into school safely, and addressing their welfare. We are already hearing about a large number of mental health issues,” he said.
With referrals to social services down by more than half in some areas during lockdown, schools and councils are bracing themselves for a rise in demand.
Andrew Lund, head of Appleby grammar school in Cumbria, said: “The scope of the proposed changes is very limited. My staff are quite anxious that it has not gone far enough. We are really worried about wellbeing of young people when they come back to school in September.
“We’ve been trying really hard to factor that into the online work we’ve been setting students so they do want to come back to school. If the message is ‘It’s carry on as normal, it’s all going to be about catch-up’, it’s going to be damaging for young people and staff.”
Julian Rose, head at West Chiltington community primary in West Sussex, said children returning to school in September would have lived through a major global event and the priority should be to help them to process its impact and re-engage with learning. “How many generations can say the world stopped in their lifetime?” he said.
John Jerrim, professor of education and social statistics at UCL Institute of Education, played down the need for major changes to GCSEs and A-levels next year. “Kids have lost around one-sixth of their GCSE and A-level course at most by missing one term,” he said.
“So even under an assumption they have done no online learning, it would suggest to me that a fairly gentle pruning would be more appropriate than a widespread culling, depending of course as to how the pandemic plays out from here.”
On English and maths GCSEs, he said major changes could be avoided by using the national reference test (NRT), which is run each year by Ofqual to monitor student performance over time. The test, which is only in English and maths, was taken by a sample of students in February and so was unaffected by Covid-19.
“This can be used to measure any potential learning loss for next year’s GCSE cohort. It would then be relatively straightforward to use this information to be able to make the appropriate adjustment in GCSE awarding, to ensure that children next year are treated fairly.
“Other subjects not covered by the NRT are harder, for example history, and there may well need to be more changes there, like reducing the curriculum. Same for A-levels, where we don’t have NRT, so it will vary by subject and by qualification.”
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.