An exam hall was something most students did not see this year due to coronavirus.David Hawgood

The cancellation of A-level exams in March this year brought me relief, where for others it brought anguish. It would be an overstatement to suggest that I trusted an algorithm to calculate fairer results than I would have received otherwise. But as a visually impaired student, I had spent my GCSEs constantly anxious that I wouldn’t be able to sit my exams, after one was postponed by a week due to an unmodified paper, and a string of others contained inaccessible elements that could have been corrected.

The truth is that, for many disabled students, what for our peers is usually certain – that exams will take place in a way that meets their needs – has always been profoundly uncertain. Take, for instance, the outcry over the injustice of this year’s calculated grades: students felt underwhelmed, robbed of the opportunity to demonstrate their true abilities due to decisions from above, in circumstances entirely outside of their control. This, I would argue, is the tangible frustration many students like myself feel in a normal year.

Over the course of the first national lockdown and the results fiasco, there were calls from educational professionals, parents and students for our exam system to be reformed – perhaps even for exams themselves to be abolished. The pandemic, they argued, had exposed the cracks in the foundations of UK education: too much testing, too narrow a curriculum, with too little focus on technical skills. If the cancellation of linear exams could shake the system so violently, wasn’t it time we returned to the drawing board?

“Academic rigour is surely served just as effectively through a focus on the practical skills of academia”

Of course, these concerns are nothing new, and will likely grow stronger in the wake of further cancellations to 2021 exams in Scotland and Wales. The argument that exams, in whatever form, should be scrapped altogether has its merits; after all, at its heart is the desire for fairness. But when designed with the understanding and flexibility required to respond to individual students’ needs, and when implemented alongside other methods of assessment, exams could, I believe, be highly beneficial for everyone.

One major point of contention since Michael Gove reintroduced linear GCSEs and A-levels in 2015 has been the total absence of, or significant reduction in, coursework. A common argument for this is that linear, high-stakes exams increase academic rigour, preparing students for further study and the correspondingly high-stakes job market. Yet not only does this disadvantage those students for whom a pressurised, winner-takes-all test of memory is inherently unfair, like some students with dyslexia, it also ignores the benefits of coursework generally. Academic rigour is surely served just as effectively through a focus on the practical skills of academia – drafting, re-drafting, self-reflection and the ability to accept and implement criticism, all skills that are invaluable at university and beyond. Of course, coursework comes with its own set of problems, not least the issue of malpractice, though it is important to note that many of the same accusations might also be levelled at exams. Would a half-and-half blend of exam and non-exam assessment, then, not go some way to addressing some of the difficulties faced by disabled students, and benefit us all more generally?

“My own classroom experience was often one of frustration: attempts at adjustments were sometimes half-hearted, sometimes non-existent, to the point that I almost expected materials to be inaccessible.”

There is, however, a danger in focusing too much on assessment as the main event of our education and as the point at which our hard work can be put into practice - equality will prevail, so long as these assessments are adequately adapted. The failings I experienced in 2018 could certainly have been avoided, or at least mitigated, through measures such as allowing exams officers to open certain students’ papers a day before the exam itself, rather than an hour, to allow for modifications and communication with exam boards. But, as I argued in an article for the Times Educational Supplement in July, the everyday inequalities of the classroom can have a significant negative impact on our quality of education and hence on our ability to fulfil our potential in any system. We must address these inequalities before we can hope to achieve a truly fair education system.

My own classroom experience was often one of frustration: attempts at adjustments were sometimes half-hearted, sometimes non-existent, to the point that I almost expected materials to be inaccessible. As a result, I worked longer hours than my peers to complete what I hadn’t been given the opportunity to access in class. Even seemingly minor irritants, such as having teachers address a teaching assistant instead of me when discussing my own needs, reinforced the barriers around me. I had thought that these barriers would fall away when exam season came, and yet I was proven wrong.

Perhaps it is the case that the education of students with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) is viewed as disposable, secondary, not quite as important as that of our peers; perhaps it is the case that the state sector is inadequately funded and supported to properly meet our needs; or perhaps the former has fed the latter. Either way, what is clear is that thousands of students have been forgotten, pushed to the periphery in the midst of a pandemic that has seen many of them lose the vital support they had received in the classroom in the hasty transition to home learning. Next year’s exams in England will pose even more of a challenge to these students than ever before. And it is time we recognised this.


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It remains to be seen what will come of the lockdown-inspired proposals for reform. But if the need to address the inequalities at the heart of our current system is urgent, so too is the need to place them at the core of any future strategies that might be considered. This is a necessarily complex process, and I do not pretend to speak to the specific experiences of any disabled student other than myself, but listening to individuals – be they students, parents, teachers – is a vital first step on the road to addressing it.

The fight against the ignorance, prejudice and discrimination that is all too entrenched in our society will start in the classroom; it is a fight I believe equality in education will enable us to win. But real change must start from above – and it’s a long walk from Westminster to the exam room.