06/01/2021 15:04 GMT | Updated 06/01/2021 15:06 GMT

Cancelling Exams Risks The Futures Of Millions Of Young People

As the government closes schools, students are once again sailing into unknown territory, writes Equality Act Review founder Dr Suriyah Bi.

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Blur education background lazy student audiences in lecture hall sleepy studying, feeling tired sleeping on school desk

Boris Johnson has announced a third national lockdown. And with the closure of schools comes the cancellation of exams.

GCSEs, A-level and AS-level exams will be replaced with teacher assessments, education secretary Gavin Williamson has now confirmed, promising the government had “learned the lessons” from last summer’s botched predicted grades fiasco.

But let’s be clear – this decision to change how we judge students’ merit, if improperly managed, will undoubtedly risk the futures of millions of young people.

Last year’s student cohort were subjected to devastating last minute u-turns, after a botched algorithm designed to predict grades cost 65% of students their university places, according to research published by the Equality Act Review (EAR).

The study found the worst affected demographic of students were those from Black and Minority Ethnic, and low socio-economic backgrounds.

But it wasn’t just the predicted grades fiasco that was the problem. 

An earlier EAR study explored the experiences of students following the announcement of last year’s exam cancellations. It found that 80% were concerned about their grades being predicted – 85% of those who responded were from BAME backgrounds. Almost a quarter (23%) worried their teachers would discriminate against them because of their racial and/or ethnic background. It’s not difficult to see how exam cancellations disenfranchise our most vulnerable and marginalised children. 

Students cited multiple reasons for their concern: 50% were worried their learning style wouldn’t be taken into account, namely that their cramming of revision in the weeks and months before exams could not be captured by a predicted grade-based class assessment completed often more than six months prior to the exams. Teacher unconscious bias, islamophobia, and favouritism were also raised as concerns.

Our exam system, for its flaws, is a great leveller and returning to a system of teacher-assessed grades to replace summer 2021 exams carries with it huge risks to the next generation of students.   

We advised the government of this last time round. As early as April 2020, we strongly appealed to the government to refrain from pursuing a postcode-based algorithm where school’s past performance was taken into consideration.

This was not heeded and a u-turn from this methodology was only made in the summer.

If this government doesn’t act now, this year’s result could be the catalyst for proliferating racial and social tensions for decades to come.

In April and June respectively, we advised the government to ensure that colleges offer bias training to teachers and account for mitigating circumstances, such as bereavement and health conditions, and learning styles, including special education needs, when providing students with predicted grades.

Yet, last year’s grades did not account for these factors.

We suggested an aptitude test be devised to measure academic ability, critical thinking, and learning style, and for students to sit this remotely once laptops and broadband had been provided to all students. The scores for this would supplement any grade prediction and mitigate for lack of coursework or class participation – prevalent in disadvantaged areas where teacher attrition rate was higher, for instance.

So far, our recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. 

The government must take this seriously. But it’s vital also that as we move towards exam season, universities and sixth forms play their part. Institutions must retain places that have been offered where students wish to appeal their results, preventing what is an inevitable predicting of futures from incorrectly determining the futures of millions of talented young people.

A careful navigation of the summer 2021 exam grades will set the course for the country’s future, particularly for widening inequality. If this government doesn’t act now, this year’s result could be the catalyst for proliferating racial and social tensions for decades to come.   

Dr Suriyah Bi teaches at SOAS University of London and the University of Edinburgh, and is the Founder and CEO of the Equality Act Review.