January 21

Now is a good time to consider fresh perspectives

For a second successive year, public examinations are not going ahead as we would normally expect. Within an ocean of uncertainty that Covid brings to us all, our GCSE and A-Level candidates are plunged even more deeply: once again, a new assessment system is being introduced without having being tried and tested.

How do we feel about it? It is difficult to know for sure at the time of writing, since we are still waiting for this year’s alternative arrangements to be decided. However, it is perhaps worth considering a long view.

The teachers’ pay dispute which began in February 1985 lasted until 1987. In these years, exam candidates were caught in the middle of the arguments. In some schools, students were sent home from school for six months, only to return in time for summer public exams. There was no teaching, no video conferencing, no emails, internet, mobile phones, iPads or even personal computers. Many students were left with nothing more than a textbook and their own wits.

How did the government and exam boards respond? Even with a tremendous lack of  teaching, O level and A level exams went ahead as planned. It is true that some students fared badly - receiving grades which were probably much lower than they might otherwise have been.

But what did that mean in the end? Students did not receive equal (or even necessarily fair) treatment at the time and it was not a good period educationally, yet students made the best of it that they could. Students went on to university courses – maybe not always their first choices – and into careers. They grew up, lived lives, started families, and in many cases became the teachers who are helping students through their qualifications right now.

I am delighted to be able to say that, largely through the hard work of our teaching staff, all students at Blackheath High School have been offered uninterrupted education throughout the pandemic. Their experience will be very different from those in the 1980s I described above.

It can feel monumental when something as seemingly certain as an examination system is disrupted. However, I am reminded of my feelings when an old building is removed: I try to enjoy the opportunity to consider the new empty plot, the ground in which the building had been standing, and a new perspective on its surroundings.

It is perhaps worth remembering that qualifications are actually only the product of an education: GCSEs and A-Levels are not the education itself. Without the great edifice of exams, there is perhaps a little more breathing space for students to think and take a new perspective on their learning.

In the future, employers and university interviewers may be interested to know how young people responded to this change of perspective. I would encourage students to consider what positive fresh perspectives this situation might now allow them to take.

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