Schoolchildren and their teachers, it’s fair to say, have not had it easy over the course of the last few months. Forced from the classroom and into online lessons back in March, education has since lurched from one crisis to another, upending the learning of pupils up and down the country.
From free school meals to laptops, class bubbles to testing, the government has been on the backfoot throughout and the mishandling has prompted a series of demands for resignations.
One of the most contentious issues, exam grading, saw the results of thousands of students downgraded from school estimates last summer after an algorithm was used to determine grades – a decision which caused huge uproar and prompted a U-turn from Ofqual, the exams regulator, to allow them to use teachers’ predictions.
The government has since moved to cancel A-Level and GCSE exams in England as the second coronavirus wave takes hold, months after Wales and Scotland announced similar plans.
Instead of the traditional exams, A-Level and GCSE results will be decided by teacher-assessed grades and in some cases mini external exams this year, but students have expressed concerns about how easily others may be able to bypass the rules to cheat.
“I moved from a public school to a grammar school for sixth form so my teachers don’t know me as well which is something I should have considered regarding UCAS references”, one student wrote on the learning forum The Student Room.
“I haven’t had ANY mocks … They’ve all been end of unit assessments where a lot of people cheat using their phones. At this point I am so over our government for going back and forth with exams and this clearly reflects a lot of issues with the whole predicted grade system”, they continued, adding that they hoped there would be an opportunity for a resit of the exams in the future.
“Our school’s mocks were supposed to take place next week, but now that can’t happen so I’m worried if we were to do online examinations lots of students would cheat whilst some of us want to do them honestly because of all our revision,” Ella, a Year 11 student from Wimbledon High School, told The Independent.
“Lots of my friends haven’t performed as well as they wanted in the past year because of the disruption from the first lockdown so they wanted to use these exams as a chance to up their predicted grades.”
The technological limitations presented by the need to keep students apart are ripe for exploitation.
Ella’s school was unable to monitor the time students spent on an assessment, which were conducted through Google Docs or online forms, as well as requiring photos to be sent in as proof of completed work.
Another Year 11 student, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed similar concerns. Year 10 students were apparently able to take their summer exams with “no ways to prevent cheating” and students able to “easily access class notes, revision guides, and the internet during the exam”.
“There were similar issues with our Year 11 language speaking mocks in November, as our year group had to self-isolate and the exams took place via Microsoft Teams – this meant that it was easy for students to keep their textbook and vocab pages open during the exam,” the student continued.
Finding ways to prevent cheating has presented a major challenge to schools across the country, with some institutes suggesting to have a parent or guardian present during the exam, and ensuring students’ desks are kept completely clear to “ensure the exams are as realistic as possible”.
While some students are likely taking advantage of an inadequate testing system, others are simply concerned that the difficulties presented by online learning mean their grades will suffer in comparison to other years.
“I personally feel that this happened largely because of the uncertainty of 2021 exams going ahead, making predicted grades (based on mocks) considerably more important – there were worries that performing poorly in the mock exams would mean lower predicted grades overall”, one student said.
“Remote learning in particular made the situation more stressful, and perhaps encouraged more cheating as it was much harder to prevent.”
Caitlin, another Year 11 student, said she felt that she had missed out on the opportunity to “prove myself and show that I was capable of hitting the higher grades”, and there was a “50/50” split between students with consistent grades who are happy with the teacher assessment, and others that were worried more shy students will be penalised for an apparent lack of participation, as well issues with teachers struggling to keep students involved video calls.
On 4 January, the Department for Education said that that it “recogni[sed] that this is an anxious time for students who have been working hard towards their exams.”
Michael Gove, the former education secretary and current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said that the government will be “putting in place alternative arrangements in order to make sure that the hard work that students have put in to acquire knowledge and develop their skills is appropriately assessed, recognised and awarded.”
Students speaking to The Independent, however, have taken some issue with how the government has handled education during the coronavirus.
“School’s been difficult because of all the sudden changes the government is making”, Ella said. “There isn’t a lot of support, but mostly because our teachers don’t know much about the situation either or how we are going to be tested fairly.”
The prime minister should have “cancelled exams way earlier like when Scotland and Wales did. Teachers could have been testing us more and collecting more evidence then”, Caitlin said.
Simon Lebus, interim chief regulator of Ofqual, has said there were “challenges” associated with moving from exams to teacher-assessed grades.
“We need to make sure the teacher-assessed grades accurately reflect the skills, knowledge and understanding that their students have attained and there are all sorts of issues with making sure people are assessing their students work in the same way as between schools in different regions and so on,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM on 6 January.
“There needs to be a method of moderating the teacher-assessed grades and therein lies much of the challenge of this exercise because I think in reality you have to use a combination of different forms of evidence – you’ll use classroom interactions, you’ll use homework, you’ll use mock exams. There are all sorts of ways of measuring a pupil’s attainment.”
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told The Independent: “If any schools are planning to hold mock exams online we are sure this would be done with appropriate safeguards in place such as strict timings for each paper, and with the intention of helping to support learning at this difficult time.”
Issues with online examinations are not unique to the UK. Students in the United States have been subject to stringent remote proctoring, whereby online invigilators would surveil students to make sure they were not cheating.
Clayton Stott, a Maths teacher in Leeds who is facilitating over 200 students resitting GCSE exams, told The Independent that he would not “read too much into submitted work” and that even if students had cheated, “hopefully some of the info will go in.”
He added that he would not be attempting mock exams virtually as they would be a “minefield” and are “simply unreliable and an ineffective use of staff time.”
“My focus is very much in engagement at the moment rather than assessment. I feel with strong teaching and an understanding of misconceptions hopefully there won’t be too many gaps in knowledge when eventually we are back in the classroom”, he added.
Such a debate encourages questions about what kind of examination is actually beneficial for students. Some schools have used alternative class models , such as group projects and open-book texts which they claim are more realistic to the job market the students will eventually enter.