As part of our research on the impact of the pandemic on British education, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted a poll of 500 schoolteachers and 1,000 parents of school-aged children across England and Wales to better understand the impact of the pandemic. In this piece—which is the first in a series of articles exploring the findings of our research—we look at the attitudes of parents and teachers towards the cancellation of GCSE and A-Level exams, and towards the exams altogether.
Our research finds that 69% of teachers and 63% of parents of school-aged children agree with the decision to cancel GCSE and A-Level exams in 2021—the second year in a row that the exams will have been cancelled. Only 10% of teachers and 13% of parents say they disagree with the decision to cancel the national exams this year. Teachers who specifically teach GSCE or A-Level students and parents of students in those stages of their education were no more likely to support or oppose the decision.
When exams were cancelled last year, students in exam years missed approximately two months of schooling. Yet students who were scheduled to sit exams this summer have faced disruption across two academic years. The high degree of support among parents of school-aged children for exam cancellations represents an appreciation that this year’s exam cohorts have faced even greater disruption than last year’s. In August 2020, only 46% of parents of school-aged children said the Government had been right to cancel (rather than delay) the 2020 sitting of GCSE and A-Level exams. Meanwhile, 34% of parents back in August said the Government had made the wrong decision. Now, six months later, 63% of parents support and only 13% oppose the decision to cancel GCSE and A-Level exams for the second year in a row.
Our research finds no significant differential in support for the cancellation of exams between parents of children who attend independent (private) or state schools.
Parents of children attending independent schools are significantly more likely to say they have hired private tutors this school year to support the learning of their children: only 8% of parents with children in non-selective state schools say they have hired a tutor, compared to 41% of parents with children in independent schools. Somewhere in the middle are parents with children in selective state schools (22% have hired a tutor) and academies (17% have hired one).
Interestingly, parents who voted for Labour in 2019 are somewhat more likely (19%) to have have hired a tutor for their child during this school year than parents who voted Conservative (11%). Likewise, parents in London were more likely (26%) to have hired a tutor than those in other regions of the country (16% across the sample).
Beyond the difficulties of safely administering exams with social distancing and appropriate proctoring, a key obstacle to going ahead with the exams this year would have been to overcome the significant differential in the teaching and learning experience that pupils have had throughout lockdown. For example, only 56% of teachers report that “all or almost all” or “most” of their students have access to a quiet space where to work at home. Among teachers at independent schools, this figure rises slightly to 61%, whereas it falls to 48% for teachers at non-selective state schools. Even among independent schoolteachers, 36% say that only “some” of their students have access to a quiet space to work at home—a figure that rises to 48% among teachers at non-selective state schools. Therefore, not only is there a clear difference in the conditions that have been experienced by pupils across different types of schools, but in general across all schools there are issues with students not having the appropriate space where to conduct their learning. As a result, conducting standardised GCSE and A-Level exams this year would have meant applying a standard exam to pupils that have faced vastly different circumstances.
However, in addition to the specific challenges to exam administration posed by the pandemic, there is a very significant level of scepticism among both parents and teachers about whether standardised testing is the best approach for assessing British pupils. Indeed, one of the most surprising findings of our research is that 48% of teachers and 33% of parents support abolishing GCSEs entirely.
Among parents, support for abolishing GCSEs was higher among parents who voted for Labour in 2019 (37% support) compared to those who voted Conservative (28% support). Interestingly, support for abolishing GCSEs was higher among parents with children at independent schools or selective state schools (37% support in both cases) than among parents with children at non-selective state schools (29% support).
By level of schooling, parents and teachers of students who are studying for their A-Level exams are the least likely to support abolishing GSCEs entirely, suggesting experience with the students who have taken their GSCEs may incur opposition towards abolishing the exams.
Another factor that correlated with teacher support for abolishing GCSEs is holding a middle or senior management position at a school: whereas 54% of teachers who also middle or senior managers support abolishing GCSEs, only 40% of teachers who do not have a management role support their abolition. The most likely explanation for this disparity is the pressure that standardised examinations create for school managers, who are often tasked with meeting certain target results at their school.
Ultimately, there is a clear appetite among the teaching profession for a new approach to assessing students at the age of sixteen that could replace the current national exams. With GCSE and A-Level exams now having been cancelled for two years in a row, there is a potential for the coronavirus pandemic to be the catalyst for reform in how English and Welsh students are assessed. In the meantime, however, both parents and teachers agree that the Government made the right decision in cancelling the 2021 GCSE and A-Level exams months in advance, giving clarity to students about how they can expect to be assessed, and helping to reduce anxiety and uncertainty.