A few months ago, I joined a webinar with a leading expert in special educational needs, a parent and two students from a university to reflect on the pandemic’s impact, exam stress and the then impending Summer exam series.

The two students had interesting backstories, having had their exams cancelled and received teacher-assessed grades in 2021. One student told a story about how hard they had worked at school and how disappointed they were that they couldn’t sit their exams. They described how the period where schools were collecting evidence to grade students felt like one long examination period, much longer than the typical summer period of exams. This young person had worked hard and achieved a place at university.

The student recalled how she arrived at the university, proud of what she had achieved until she heard a group of older students deriding the new students because ‘they hadn’t sat real exams.’ She described how the comment tormented her and she looked forward to proving herself in ‘real’ exams at university. She needed to shake the doubt that she was not good enough.

For this reason, the return to the exams has allowed students to demonstrate their skills, and minimise concerns over the credibility of their grades, as they progress between further study and eventually to the workplace.

Student resilience

This cohort showed incredible resilience in the face of exams back in large school halls. They seemed to tackle them head-on and seized every opportunity for additional support. We arranged additional revision sessions at Easter and families had booked their places within hours of publishing the sessions. We arranged pre-examination technique sessions, where teachers briefed the students with final tips and techniques just before students went into the exam hall. These were all voluntary, but children turned up.

Adjusting to a Post-Pandemic World

No one knew what to expect when the government announced the first lockdown. Schools had to adjust to novel ways of learning, teaching, and communicating outside of the classroom.

We adapted our teaching approaches to new online environments and ultimately transformed how teachers taught this generation of students. We supported our teachers to help ensure that lessons ‘stuck’ by devising distinct components of an effective online lesson, which were then re-adjusted when students returned to the classroom. We innovated with new resources and teaching techniques to ensure young people continued to receive a high-quality education. The pandemic, and time away from exams, helped us to hone our approach to delivering the curriculum.

The catch-up funds have helped this cohort. We drove our funding into paying our teachers, who knew our students best, to deliver additional tuition. This year, we delivered over a thousand hours of additional sessions. We will continue to use the systems we put in place to do this in the future.

The challenges that lie ahead

Despite these positives, some children have fallen more behind than others. During this year’s exams, we saw more children needing additional access arrangements, such as separate rooms for both in-class tests and for the formal summer exams. Other challenges are not so practical and require more resources and time to tackle. Over the past twelve months, more children have presented with concerns about their mental health, and we funded additional hours of counselling to help. However, despite our best efforts, you have more to ‘catch-up’ if you were already behind.

There is unquestionably an impact of the pandemic that casts a long shadow on young people. The challenge of shadows is that they are very hard to touch, let alone research. We only catch fleeting glimpses when the light is just right. It is crucial that we understand the longer-term effects on students not only in school but also of taking exams for the first time or having not taken exams — just like the student on the webinar who wanted to shake the doubt that she was not good enough.

2022 and beyond

My one hope as a headteacher for this summer is that the 2022 cohort faces no surprise in the summer. Ofqual’s decision to adjust for the pandemic’s effects in this year’s awarding is certainly welcomed. No sudden drops, no sudden inflation, just fair and accurate grades. Students taking A levels this summer were the cohort who received centre-assessed grades in 2020. Students taking their GCSEs this summer encountered the first lockdown during Year 9 and were studying at home again in Year 10 in lockdown two. I hope they are not the generation that achieved grades ‘somewhere between outcomes in 2019 and 2021 because of the pandemic’, but a remarkable generation that showed resilience and who took exams again. No young person should need to shake the self-doubt from an examination system.

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