Living with Covid and Exams: More questions than answers

By Tom Middlehurst, ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist

On 31 March the DfE sent an email to school and college leaders confirming the changes to education policies, in line with the wider removal of restrictions on 1 April and the Living with Covid strategy. This includes confirmation that:
  • adults and children who feel unwell should stay at home until they feel better
  • staff with a positive Covid test result should stay at home for five days
  • pupils with a positive Covid test result should stay at home for three days 
  • regular asymptomatic testing has now ended and lateral flow tests and PCRs won’t be freely available for a majority of students and staff
All of this comes a few weeks before the summer exam series starts, and at a time when both pupil and staff absence rates continue to be the highest they’ve been since schools fully reopened.

With exams looming, this latest advice asks more questions than it answers about how schools and colleges should approach the upcoming series. With the first exams just weeks away, we need urgent answers to the following questions.

Will tests be made freely available for exam cohorts?
We now know that most students, along with the rest of the public, won’t have access to free tests, either lateral flows or PCRs. But what about exam cohorts? If they’re not made freely available then individuals may have the choice of not sitting an exam – even though they don’t have Covid – and therefore potentially undermining their achievement. Or they’ll go into the exam hall untested and potentially spread the virus to other candidates at the start of an exam series.

If exam candidates are to be provided with free tests, will this be though schools and colleges directly or through the NHS? Schools and colleges have been instructed not to give surplus tests out to pupils, so it’s unclear how they would administer this in a few weeks’ time.

If tests are not provided, then we face a major equalities issue – especially if tests are required to apply for special consideration. Only those families who can afford tests – during a cost-of-living crisis – would be able to provide the evidence required.

Will positive candidates be allowed to take exams?
Assuming that there is a mechanism for candidates to take a test; what happens if they test positive? If they are asymptomatic, and feel well enough to take the exam, surely it would be unfair to deny them access to the exam?

But if they are allowed into the exam hall then other candidates may well feel uncomfortable about them coming in. Would they be allowed to leave the exam on these grounds, and would this be grounds for special consideration?

It may be that JCQ advise positive students should be allowed to sit exams, but in a private room. However, with Covid cases in 16 to 18 year-olds where they currently are, this would be unmanageable for many centres. And what invigilator is going to agree to being in a small room with a positive student for two hours?

Do we have enough invigilators?
Even if there isn’t guidance to isolate positive cases in individual rooms, we are already hearing that the number of access arrangement requests, particularly students suffering anxiety and requesting a private room, has soared compared to 2019. This was confirmed when Geoff Barton asked this question to ASCL members last month. 

Schools and colleges will rightly want to meet candidates’ needs, not least to fulfil the 2010 Equalities Act. But what if they don’t have enough rooms or – more likely – enough invigilators? We need urgent guidance on how schools and colleges should manage this increased need, and what to do if they can’t practically provide it.

What evidence will be required?
In normal times, schools and colleges have the discretion to sign off students from exams without the need for a doctor’s note. But we are not in normal times. Covid is undoubtably more complex; partly because of its infectiousness, partly because its symptoms are so similar to other common illnesses, and partly because its politicised.

So, what evidence should a school or college be asking for from a pupil? If tests are not made freely available, it would be immoral for this to be a requirement. If they are, then how should centres authenticate a test at short notice?

What if students game the system?
With this in mind, due to the increased awareness of special consideration (which has different forms, including provision for a student to get a grade if they have sat 25% of the assessment but missed out on other exams due to illness), there is a concern that students could ‘game’ the timetable.

If students only have to self-authenticate Covid symptoms – and the Living with Covid guidance means they should stay at home – what’s to stop a student saying they feel unwell the morning of an exam for which they feel less prepared for, or have learned less content for? They know they can still achieve a grade. It would be tempting to focus their revision activity on one or two papers and claim illness for the final paper. If tests aren’t required, what’s to stop this?

When will we know?
We have been asking these questions to DfE, Ofqual, JCQ and the exam boards for some time. They have, understandably, said that they needed the details of April’s Living with Covid guidance to answer them. So in many ways, this complaint is not directed at those colleagues. But the Government knew what it was going to propose this weekend and should have been thinking for months about the implications for exams, especially after the trip ups of the past two years. 

We understand that guidance is due imminently, as well it should be, but if these questions aren’t answered in full we risk another year of exam turmoil and angst.
Who knows, someone might be knighted for it? 

Tom Middlehurst is ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist
Posted: 01/04/2022 13:52:58