Senior Head's Blog: Reflecting on Summer Exam Season

As the exam season finally draws towards its end, the marquee is up for Speech Day, and various end of term events are taking place, it is a good time to look back and reflect on the last year.  Much of what has taken place has continued to be dominated by the impact of the pandemic.  Unprecedented new normals as far as the eye can see, but behind the cliches, of course there has been a heavy price paid by many families, especially in the first year of Covid, while for others, the disruption continues to impact on everyday life.  


More recently, we have had to cope with political scandal, played out in the last 48 hours through the two by-elections.  I am writing this before the results are released, but it doesn’t take great foresight to envisage wins for Labour and the Lib Dems in these two seats, as the public kicks back against a government that has caused itself a lot of trouble, while also facing national and global challenges.  Meanwhile, we still watch on (perhaps not quite as closely as we did previously, or as closely as we still should) at events in Ukraine, and feel their impact on the UK and global economies, while feeling the existential threat within Europe of a conflict that could still get worse before it gets better.

There is much more that could be said on these things, but I think it is right for me to reflect a bit on this summer’s exam marathon.  As a school that does both IB and A Level, we always see exams start early and finish late, but this year, with both GCSE and A Level exams spread out in case of student absence, it has been a really long haul for the students.  I have been hugely impressed at how most have maintained their momentum throughout this time, but with some GCSE students facing as many as 30 exams, I cannot help but think that there must be a better way to assess progress and ensure learning.

For some time now, we have acknowledged that our exam heavy culture increases anxiety and stress, but at the same time, the real importance of GCSE exams has been diminishing.  An exam developed in a time when many students finished education at 16, their role in an education system that keeps students at school (or in learning) until 18 really does have to be looked at once more. Also, as Universities are moving more towards open book assessment, and ‘windows’ for assessment, rather than exams, is it right that schools continue to sit rigidly timed exams?

There is some movement, with the IB starting a trial into the impact of open book assessment.  I have little doubt that it will be popular and will prove a success.  The Department for Education tends to move slowly, and Education Secretaries are rarely risk takers, so it will take longer before GCSE and A Level follow suit, but it will come.  Perhaps also this will be online testing, with artificial intelligence used to steer students based on earlier responses.  It would be very good to reduce the number of exam style assessments at GCSE, put some focus on ongoing assessment, and take the strain out of the exam period.  

That is all for the future, unfortunately, but for now, for everyone who has supported students through their exams, as friends, parents, relatives or teachers, I would like to thank you.  Praise them for working hard now.  For those who have gone through the process of exams this summer, enjoy a moment to rest and relax this summer.  You have earned that time, and well done for your hard work, your perseverance and your stamina. You will be glad of those skills throughout your life, even if you never sit another exam!

Have a good week.

Chris Townsend
Head, Felsted School