Sian Gwenllian, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Education
We know that 2020 was a year like no other, and that it affected every single aspect of our lives.
It has had hugely detrimental implications for all age groups in different ways, and for a large part of 2021 we will be faced with similar issues.
We also know that the pandemic has not been experienced by everyone in the same way, and that some areas, communities and demographics have been more effected than others.
This too applies to education. Disadvantaged children have become subject to an ever-growing attainment gap during the pandemic, reinforced by the digital divide as schools closed and learning moved online, and pupils received different levels of support and had wildly different spaces in which to learn.
This vast variation in educational experiences means that the playing field has become more uneven than ever. Some pupils will have attended schools which faced no closures until December and will have had face to face teaching for nearly 3 months. Other schools will have been in areas with high prevalence of coronavirus and will have had to shut or isolate groups of pupils multiple times.
So many learners have faced prolonged absences from school due to self-isolation, nervousness in attending school in areas of high prevalence, or being ill themselves. Some will have had to stay away to protect vulnerable family members.
Despite this however, Wales’ Education Minister, Kirsty Williams has decided to proceed with some external assessments, which frankly are exams in all but name. Why?
Summer of 2020 demonstrated quite clearly why under these extraordinary circumstances, external grading is not fair on students, particularly for those from disadvantaged communities. In August we heard story after story of pupils whose results had been far worse than those predicted by their teachers. Many of these pupils came from poorer areas.
In the summer of course, the Welsh Government U-turned and conceded that centre assessed grades should be awarded. However, this was not before many pupils had lost their university places already. Why now then, when schools and pupils will likely face challenges of the same magnitude as last year are external exams not being cancelled?
The Louise Casella Independent Review Panel, commissioned by the Welsh Government, has pointed to the need for putting the pupil at the heart of the education system. Surely using external assessments as a large part of the award arrangements for 2021 flies in the face of that advice.
It’s also not at all clear how this will work in practical terms, and I worry that once again too much emphasis is being placed on the qualification at the expense of fairness to the pupils in these extremely difficult times.
The Welsh Government must drop this approach of attempting to dress up exams as ‘external assessments’, and admit that they must be scrapped altogether, particularly as the situation is entirely unpredictable, and it is probable that centre assessed grades will be adopted ultimately anyway.
A post-results day U-turn should be avoided at all costs this year and pupils and their schools deserve to have as much warning as possible for how they will be assessed this summer.
The UK Government, despite their usual chaotic ways, have already made the announcement that exams will be cancelled in England and centre assessed grades will be awarded. This sort of clarity ahead of time is needed here, Welsh pupils deserve the same peace of mind as their English peers.
The Welsh Government has often referred to the public’s mental health and wellbeing as influencing their decision making, so why isn’t the Education Minister considering young people’s mental health in this decision?
They have experienced an extremely turbulent, uncertain and scary situation at a time when life is already stressful and strange for many young people. This should be recognised, and they should have one less thing to worry about in the months leading up to the summer.
We cannot allow a system which undermines the success and prospects of more disadvantaged pupils to continue, and I sincerely hope the Education Minister recognises that this is the case.