Des­per­ate times: the un­told story of exam sea­son 2017

Over 2,000 pa­pers checked in last-minute scram­ble af­ter this sum­mer’s ter­ror at­tacks

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - INSIGHT - Eleanor busby

EXAM SEA­SON is of­ten a hugely stress­ful time for pupils, teacher and heads – but this year schools also had to cope with three seis­mic events that hap­pened within just 23 days of each other: the Manch­ester Arena bomb­ing, the Lon­don Bridge at­tack and the Gren­fell Tower fire.

This tragic se­ries of in­ci­dents prompted exam boards to aban­don their nor­mal pro­ce­dures in an at­tempt to avoid harm­ing pupils sit­ting their GCSE, AS and A-level ex­ams, it has emerged.

Dur­ing the sec­ond week of ex­ams, thou­sands of young peo­ple were leav­ing pop star Ari­ana Grande’s con­cert in Manch­ester when a sui­cide bomber det­o­nated. Eight of the 22 peo­ple killed were aged 18 or un­der.

The exam timetable re­mained un­changed, but lo­cal schools were able to de­lay the start of ex­ams by an hour, in case pupils faced trans­port dif­fi­cul­ties. The same rules ap­plied af­ter the ma­jor events in Lon­don.

On the sur­face, apart from this flex­i­bil­ity around start times, it ap­peared to be busi­ness as usual in the exam sea­son. But Tes has learned that, be­hind the scenes, exam boards took the un­prece­dented step of por­ing over more than 2,000 exam pa­pers af­ter the bomb­ing to check for sen­si­tive con­tent – and at least two exam pa­pers had to be changed at the last minute.

It has also come to light that, fol­low­ing the “tragic events” this sum­mer, the Joint Coun­cil for Qual­i­fi­ca­tions has de­cided to sig­nif­i­cantly lower the thresh­old for de­cid­ing which pupils can have “spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion” for their cir­cum­stances when it comes to award­ing grades.

Schools are able to ap­ply for spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion ei­ther for pupils who were ab­sent from an as­sess­ment due to cir­cum­stances be­yond their con­trol, or for those whose per­for­mance may have been af­fected. Pupils were pre­vi­ously re­quired to have sat at least 40 per cent of an as­sess­ment be­fore an exam board would con­sider whether to en­hance a grade – but now this has been low­ered to 25 per cent.

Is the im­pact of ter­ror­ism on ex­ams a new re­al­ity that the sys­tem has to face up to? And have schools and exam boards been given enough re­sources to cope with the con­se­quences of such in­ci­dents?

Exam boards have worked with schools af­fected by ma­jor in­ci­dents in the past to en­sure that pupils were not dis­ad­van­taged by events out­side their con­trol. For ex­am­ple, af­ter the 2015 floods in Cum­bria.

But Tes un­der­stands that this year is the first time that the three ma­jor exam boards – AQA, OCR and Edex­cel – have combed through all the exam pa­pers to look for sen­si­tive con­tent fol­low­ing an in­ci­dent.

Af­ter the Manch­ester bomb­ing on 22 May, 2,144 exam pa­pers that hadn’t yet been taken were checked by the four big­gest exam boards in Eng­land and Wales.

Two exam pa­pers – an AQA GCSE re­li­gious stud­ies paper and an Edex­cel gen­eral stud­ies paper – had to be changed. The Edex­cel paper re­ferred di­rectly to ter­ror­ism and was felt to be “an un­nec­es­sary dis­trac­tion” given “the cir­cum­stances”, says a spokesper­son.

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