Exam clashes, crashes and conflicts: some thoughts on the 2018 A-level exam season.


What on earth happened to this year’s GCE A-level exam timetable?  I do not remember ever having such a challenging exam series, not even at University.

I am not ‘anti-exam’, in fact I think comprehensive and rigorous end-point exams are a fairly meaningful way of encouraging deeper and more synoptic learning.  The pedagogical challenge of the new A-levels is clear, it is less possible and desirable to teach to the test, so we have to find new approaches that develop better and deeper learning.  We teachers can adapt to this by building more low-stakes formative assessment alongside the all important preparation for final exams.

Whilst we have been worried about the content of the new linear exams, this series seems to have gone okay.  I have spoken to many curriculum leaders in the last few weeks and most agree their papers were on the whole a fair test.  Whether their students were adequately prepared is more of a moot point, but I digress.  Moreover, it is not the exams themselves I am worried about but the organisation and administration of them that has begun to concern me.

I fully understand that there are increased pressures on the schedule; as we move to fully linear courses more papers are needed to fit into a similar-sized exam window.  Furthermore, the exam boards are under pressure to deliver marked and standardised grades well before A-level results day.  We cannot have a repeat of previous calamities.  Making this all fit is clearly a challenge akin to the proverbial square peg in a round hole.  However, for many of the students that I teach, this series did not feel good from their side of the exam table.  It was not the content or questions they were worrying about but rather the schedule.  Now, I recognise we sometimes project our real anxieties into something else and it could be easier to get in a panic about the schedule rather than admit real anxieties about your revision but I think they had a point.

In short, there were far too many exams in a short a time period and there were far too many exam clashes which put a real stress on candidates and centres.  I have never known us hold so many students in exam isolation while they wait to sit a rescheduled (clash) paper.  This is not a nice way to prepare yourself for a life-changing assessment and we must do more to reduce the numbers of students who are forced to experience this.

If they were not experiencing clashes with fairly common subjects timetabled at the same time, a majority of students have experienced two exams on the same day (minimum duration of two hours) and some have experienced three on the same day (6 hours of exams plus).  Some have also had exams the next morning after a day of the gruelling double.  There has been no respite.

I think we need to ask ourselves serious questions about what we want from an exam series.  I understand there is a push to get them complete by the third week of June but I wonder whether the bureaucratic demands are driving the pedagogical needs.  What is the point of us spending two years preparing young people for exams to have their confidence whittled away by a horlicks of an exam schedule.  It seems rather unjust for some.

I want an exam series where students can show you how brilliant they are.  I want an exam schedule that allows them to pause for breath and not feel overwhelmed by the proximity of their papers.  I want an exam series where students are not using ice in between papers to relieve their numb fingers and hands.

It is my responsibility to prepare young people for their exams and this is a challenge I relish and enjoy but surely we need an exam schedule that is also fit for purpose?

I hope that this series has been created by looking at projected numbers and working out when each paper would happen.  In a perfect world, they would all have a few days (preferably a week) between paper 1, 2 and 3.  However, some students have had all 9 papers in 7 days.  I realise that we do not live in a perfect world and my dream of a week between papers will make difficult demands of the exam boards but when can it be right to do 9 papers in 7 days?

Furthermore, the clashes and conflicts also place a significant burden on the exams teams within schools.   Every clash candidate requires professional supervision throughout the day to ensure the integrity of the exam process.  You will note there has been no uplift in funding to meet additional examination costs and burdens associated with linear courses.  As ever, we are expected to do more for less.

A student’s exam grades should not be the result of serendipitous scheduling or their ability to endure the psychological stresses of an overwhelming barrage of assessment.  I am not anti-exam and I am not even against difficult or hard questions, I just think the exam schedule is a really important piece of the jigsaw.  What is the point of us developing their confidence and abilities for two years to have them whittled away by an overburdened exam schedule.

The students will be judged on what they produce, the exam process should not cause them any additional anxieties on top of the main task of assessing their abilities.  I wonder whether the exam process is dictating the pedagogical demands of linear assessment.

I have noticed that the JCQ provisional exam schedule for next year brings the beginning of the large A-level written exams forward by about week but that the papers are not significantly spread out over this longer exam season.  I am not sure starting them earlier is the solution if they are still not going to be spread out more.  Furthermore, why are we taking away another week of teaching in an already shortened two year course?  Surely, another solution would be to run them a bit later and with a more even spread but with more examiners to get through the marking quicker?

I think we can do better than this.


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