“I’ve really lost faith”: what long-term effects will the pandemic have on school leavers?

School examinations have been cancelled for the second year in a row due to the pandemic. We spoke to students about their concerns and experiences

Last week it was announced that schools exams would be cancelled this year. With schools across the country currently closed due to the newly announced third lockdown, Prime Minster Boris Johnson has said it’s “not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal”.

This is the second year that examinations have been scrapped due to the pandemic. Last year GCSE and A-Level students were given predicted grades by their teachers (these are known as Centre Assessment Grades, or CAGs], which were then standardised by Ofqual; but this process received criticism after 39 per cent of all grades were downgraded.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has confirmed that with exams cancelled, GCSE and A-Level student’s grades will be decided by school-based assessments. He’s explained that “this year, we’re going to put our trust in teachers, rather than algorithms,” referencing last year’s results day fall-out when hundreds of grades were downgraded.

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We spoke to four school students and recent leavers about their worries about cancelled exams, extended periods of online learning and the long-term effects they think the pandemic could have on the classes of 2020 and 2021.

Disha, 17, studying A-Levels in Maths, Economics and History in Milton Keynes

“I was supposed to be sitting A-levels in maths, economics and history. My immediate reaction when exams were cancelled was a feeling of relief, as months of missed teaching and varying levels of lockdown support meant that having exams would be unfair. However, I was frustrated at the lack of clarity we’ve been given – only a couple of weeks ago, Gavin Williamson assured us that exams would ‘absolutely go ahead’ and considering that I was supposed to have mocks in my first week back, the constant U-turns are really detrimental to our mental health.

“I’m very anxious at the uncertainty we’ve been left in regarding the ‘alternative arrangements’. Especially after the shambles that occurred last year, I’ve really lost faith in the current government. Online school has been difficult. I genuinely don’t know a year 13 [student] who hasn’t struggled. A-level content is difficult enough, having to self-teach from home has made it even harder.

“I think that we should get the option to sit exams if we’re unhappy with our CAGs, as many of us work really hard to out-perform teacher predictions and we shouldn’t lose this opportunity. I’m concerned that many could miss out on uni offers or not be able to leave school with the grades they deserve. Online school has worsened the educational divide – some have had zoom lessons every day, while others have had barely any lockdown support. Some haven’t even had decent wifi or laptops and so there’s a huge gap in the level of teaching students have received which will inevitably have a long-term impact on which students are able to go to university and it could threaten to erase years of social mobility work.”

Georgia, 17 –  Studying A-Levels in French, German and Music in Elmbridge

“I was supposed to be doing my A Levels. When exams were cancelled, I was relieved at first, because there’s been so much, ‘Are they going to get cancelled, are they not?’, and they left it pretty unclear as to what was going to happen; but I’m disappointed as well, as I’ve learnt so much content and if I’m not going to be assessed on it, what’s the point?

“Online school has been tiring. I think it’s difficult to concentrate, as if you were in a classroom you have the whole school setting and there’s not a lot to distract you; but at home my bed is one metre from my work station, so it’s been very tempting to have a quick nap in lessons. I feel like I’m missing out on quite a lot of stuff you normally get in schools, like five-minute chats with friends on the ways to lessons and all of that, so it’s been a bit rough.

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“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Are universities going to be online? My first year at university could be completely online. I’ll miss out on freshers, getting to know the uni itself. Being in school would have prepared me for actual university life, and you’d get to ask all your teachers questions. There’s just barely any contact now, even though it’s all online and being online you’re supposed to be as reachable as ever. There’s just no clarity to anything.

“At the start of the school year [September 2020], I was thinking I will be going to uni next year, September 2021. But now with exams cancelled… I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of education from online learning. I feel like there’s a huge gap in my knowledge, so now I’m more leaning towards taking a gap year or taking an apprenticeship instead. It’s definitely changed my thoughts on university.”

READ MORE: The A-Level results debacle might be over for now – but what about those who slip through the cracks?

Niamh, 18 – studying Philosophy at University of Liverpool

“I’m in my first year at university studying philosophy. Last year, online school was quite [difficult]. Most year groups started doing online school, but our courses were dropped because we were coming to the end of our school year, so at a random week it came to a complete end and I didn’t have to finish any of my courses, I didn’t have any homework to do, I didn’t have any tests, after revising for two years straight for them.

“There could definitely be long-term impacts. Some people who are now in sixth form have never had public exams in their lives, so they’ve had no practice in real exam situations and under pressure. And my year group had the big jump from no exams for a few years to university, which is six to eight lectures a week of harder topics, we can’t feel prepared.

“I think there could be a knock-on effect post-university. It depends on how professional industries deal with it, because if they acknowledge they have been different situations and give us a bit of leeway when we’re going into careers, it may be okay. But we’re still up against people who’ve done A Levels and GCSEs and completed them to high grades, so we’ve got more to prove.

“I think people are also robbed of a social experience, it’s not just the academic side. Teenagers are having to live their prime teenage years in a lockdown, missing out on prom and meeting people and maybe having their first relationship. I feel like personal growth and emotional growth is going to be stunted for people in this – [the problem will be] escalated if they deal with mental health issues.”

Students take part in an A-Level results protest opposite Downing Street
Students take part in a summer 2020 A-Level results protest opposite Downing Street (Credit: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

Ben, 16 – GCSE student

“I’m 16 and this summer I would have been taking my GCSE exams. Online school has been OK – I’ve been focusing as much as I possibly can, but obviously the internet doesn’t always work that well and can’t be that reliable. I’m worried about the impact online school could have, because these teachers are teaching us things, but you can’t always take information in like you would have been sat in a classroom with a teacher. When we return to school, we have mock exams, but we don’t currently have the dates for them so are we going to get thrown back in [to uncertainty].

“I think teacher assessments will get me different grades, so I will now be revising very hard. I feel that teacher assessments don’t always show your true potential – some people do really bad in class assessments but when it comes to GCSEs they revise very hard and do much better and it shows their full potential.”

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