Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

The closure of schools across the country was met by some with jubilation, and others with a sense of loss of direction. The news of cancellation of exams was met by even more polarised feelings.

For some students, summer exams were the chance to show their talent and do better than their teachers and mock exams had put them down as capable of. For others, cancelling exams has lifted a lot of pressure off their shoulders. For some students, exams did not allow them to show their true potential, memory recall may not be their forte.

The merits or pitfalls of exams and our education system is an age-old debate that has been used as political ping pong in almost every recent election campaign. Despite this, the government do not seem to be getting closer to a system which encourages hard work and a pursuit of knowledge or a way of learning that bolsters confidence and teaches valuable life skills, rather than concentrates pressure.

COVID-19 will continue to prompt questions about how this country is run, whether that be in terms of the economy, social care or our place in a globalised world. It is imperative education is included in this.

We currently have a school system which does not properly reward a sustained work ethic over a school career, and instead we have a system that puts pressure on students to perform in unfamiliar circumstances on one day. It would be wrong to say everyone who performs well has not consistently worked hard and of course not everyone can be an A* pupil. However, we should not be disadvantaging students who struggle to show their potential in a two-hour exam, over those who just have an ability to pull it out the bag. Alternatives such as a linear system with regular assessments from teachers, ease pressure on students and promote hard work for more than just the run up to exam season.  

There are also the small questions of what we are testing for and what do we want our 18-year-olds to come out of thirteen years of education having achieved. Presently, pupils walk away with list of grades, that won’t make much sense a few years down the line, when the system changes.

Wouldn’t it be better that learners gain a genuine sense of fulfilment from their learning? Some kids might have this, but it’s not something inherent in our system. We need to move away from spoon-fed syllabuses, which ultimately favour the privilege few who can afford to be trained in the art of exam technique.

A more holistic approach to learning is needed. One which highlights the values of obtaining knowledge beyond the classroom and shows how empowering this can be. It is a damming indictment on how education is valued in this country, that students now feel like their work has been a waste as they are not being examined on it.

This year there will be a lot of disappointed students who were relying on their exams to meet offers for future study or just prove that they had it in them. These students truly deserve our sympathies as the current situation is unprecedented.

Yet, the pandemic’s effect on education has highlighted the pitfalls of a system which makes students reliant on one set of results; these disappointed students should not have been in this position in the first place. When lockdown is lifted and life can somewhat get back to normal, we must be asking the most testing of questions about all aspects how our country is run. Education must be part of this.

This may be an age-old debate, but this should be the time to settle it. No one knows what is next for the UK in the next weeks, months and years. For that reason, we must find a better way to quantify the next generation’s potential and build up their skillset in areas such as communication, inquiry and reflection. Maybe that way they might be better equipped than our current leaders to face an increasingly unpredictable world.