The past year has been a doozy, hasn't it?

We've spent a lot of time indoors instead of going from one stint of indoors time to another, several times each day. If we met our friends, it was online because, while missing out on the wider world, we also had reason to fear for our lives.

Well, maybe not our own lives but the lives of those we love.

From Christmas without Gran or, for that matter, any other relatives or church fellowship to birthdays and other momentous celebrations, we've missed out on a lot this year.

At least, missing out on school was good, wasn't it?

Actually, no. A healthy proportion of students who aren't necessarily wild about academia nonetheless enjoy getting out of the house, meetings friends and engaging in after-school activities. Those are the kinds of things that make life rich. For that reason, even the least enthusiastic student doesn't mind school.

The most enthusiastic students were the hardest hit in the early days of the pandemic. Not only did they miss out on all of the other stuff we all missed out on but they also missed out on daily classroom time.

But now that we're coming out alright on the other side of this thing, life can get back to normal, right?

Not so fast! Superprof has a few things to tell you about what's happening with GCSEs and A-Levels.

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Putting the Pandemic in Perspective

Whether you were meant to sit Advanced Highers or A-Levels this year, or any of the lower-level exams - GCSE, SAT; Highers and Nationals if you're in Scotland, you knew of global hardship before COVID-19 made its appearance.

Gen Z is marked with more global trauma than any generation, from the Boomers up.

Gen Z has seen more strife than even boomers
Your generation has seen more hardship than any other since the Second World War. Photo credit: Sandor_Somkuti on VisualHunt.com

You started life in the direct aftermath of the September 11 attack on the US, which led to a global recession and kicked off a war that has lasted your entire lives. If you are an A-Levels or Advanced Higher candidate, you likely were alive during that time, albeit only an infant; you wouldn't have any direct memory of the event.

Still, that event has overshadowed your entire life.

And then came the global financial downturn of 2008, a period of economic instability so intense it left no country unfazed. It took years to recover from that event; in some ways, we've still not recovered.

And now, there's COVID, a disease that hit the UK particularly hard.

At one point, we had the dubious honour of being the worst-afflicted nation in the world; there's even a mutated virus strain floating around dubbed the English variant. Our saving grace, of course, was our hardworking NHS staff, who did their utmost to minimise and mitigate the worst of the virus on the ground.

We were pretty quick to develop a vaccine, too.

So what does all of this have to do with any kind of perspective?

From birth, you and others of your generation have lived under a cloud of adversity. Granted, you may have been shielded from the worst of things but you still might have had to worry about your caregivers losing their jobs or not having enough money to live on or buy food.

Whether you're aware of it or not, your generation is more adaptable, more informed and more connected than any previous generation. Those qualities make you more resilient to adversity, more able to seek solutions and more willing to work for change than any other Boomer, X'er, Y'er or Z'er that came before you.

You can look at the global coronavirus pandemic as yet another strike against the fruitful life you'd hoped to carve out for yourself, or you can see it as merely the latest in a series of dramatic events you'll emerge even stronger from; even readier for the challenges that lay ahead.

For someone with so few years on earth, that's not a bad claim to stake.

Having a Sense of Purpose

As any Sci-Fi fan could tell you, passing a year in suspended animation while fully conscious and functional is debilitating.

In fact, you don't even need to know or be a fan of science fiction; philosophers, religious texts and mental health professionals all say that everyone needs to have a purpose for their life.

Well... that rather flies in the face of the past year, when online lessons were hardly a reason to change out of jimjams and life came to a screeching halt.

Yeah, but what does a kid - even one so close to legal adulthood know about having a purpose?

Quite a lot, believe it or not. Even toddlers have a sense of purpose in their play. They set about to discover and learn, to try, fail, fall and try anew. Mind you, they don't do those things ON purpose, just with a purpose. They're hardly aware that they're learning and discovering as they stack blocks and climb the furniture.

Imagine that! For all of these years, you've been doing things with a purpose even if you didn't mean to and weren't doing them ON purpose.

Even young children go about their lives with a purpose
It might look like simple playing but even young kids engage in purposeful acts. Photo credit: courosa on Visualhunt

That's why life coming to a screeching halt disturbed so many of us. Our purpose had been disrupted and no clear end to that disruption was given.

Maybe you didn't like getting up in the morning. You might have hated your school uniform (if you wear one) and carrying your books back and forth to school. And homework - UGH!

All of these are purposeful activities that served to define life as you know it. They even gave you an identity - student; a safe label to shield behind while you decide who you are.

Your exams were meant to be another purposeful act. Beyond giving you a chance to prove how much and how well you've learned all of these years, their purpose was to signal a transition into a new phase of your life.

Join the conversation: how will students appeal their 2021 grades with no exam to argue against?

To Test or Not to Test

When the pandemic upended our lives, everyone involved with education had some heavy thinking to do. How to continue having lessons was an immediate concern but, looking forward, how would end-of-school exams happen?

Some members of Parliament thought early on that there would be no way exams could accurately reflect this turbulent academic year so they advocated for scrapping the tests. Educational specialists jumped quickly into the fray, arguing that exams must go on, pandemic or not.

For a while, the government thought mock exams would work; the tougher the better. Again, educational specialists warned that such things could never stand in for the traditional exams.

The Department for Education thought about pushing exams back, administering them during the summer. Again, that proposal hit shy of the mark.

It seemed no solution or compromise could be found. Meanwhile, we entered yet another lockdown. More suggestions were bandied about:

  • a hybrid sort of testing: core subject exams in testing centres and electives assessed through classwork
  • extend the exam season to allow for social distancing and provide more funding to cover the expense
  • trimming the exams down; instead of multiple papers per subject, students do only one for each subject

Finally, the Department for Education relented. Considering the risks COVID poses, exams would be scrapped this year. Like it or lump it.

Some students are in a panic about whether those cancelled exams will impact their UCAS registration; that's definitely a lump.

Parents helped the DfE decide what to do about exams
Parents' responses to a survey helped influence DfE's decision to scrap exams this year. Photo credit: kmakice on Visualhunt

Why Did They Decide That Way?

Overall, two groups were highly influential in the Department for Education's decision: the SQA and parents' groups.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority was rather quick to decide to scrap formal testing; particularly their National 5 exam. They made their decision in October 2020, citing the disruption in learning the pandemic caused. John Swinney, the Education Secretary, stated that keeping kids out of testing centres would lower the public health risk.

More importantly, he stated it would not be fair to administer exams to students who've not had the support and learning opportunities that would boost their chances at success.

Scotland made their decision just as another wave was surging; soon after that declaration, the country again went into lockdown.

It took a while longer but England and Wales followed suit, although there was some heated debate over teachers having to conduct assessments. MPs and Scottish authorities alike felt that this plan unfairly burdened the teachers and could give rise to favouritism that could negatively impact students the teacher doesn't care for.

Teachers are supposed to be impartial but they're also supposed to be human; it's natural for some students to be more favoured than others.

As for the parents' groups? Those voices took a bit longer to be heard.

A survey administered in October 2020 by the charity Parentkind found that caregivers were overwhelmingly concerned about COVID's impact on their students' readiness and ability to pass exams, to the point that only 3% of survey respondents felt that administering full exams would be a workable solution.

More parents favoured a hybrid exam system, with core subjects tested through an exam board and elective subjects assessed through classwork. By far the largest percentage consisted of parents who trusted their learners' teachers to conduct assessments fairly.

Between the standard the Scottish Qualifications authority set and the parents' voices, the Department for Education came to see that teacher assessments serving as exam scores was the most efficient way to resolve this difficult situation.

You won't sit exams this year. That too can add to your life perspective and to your sense of purpose. After all, exams aren't going away forever; if you've another level to take, you may get to sit it next year.

For now, you might want to find out how your 'exam' results will be calculated.

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.