‘A’ Level students Thomas Heath and Tom Marshall expose the Department for Education’s data-free approach to the impact of COVID-19 on learning

As two students facing our ‘A’ Level exams this year, we were worried about the advance information provided to us by exam boards, designed to help us to prepare for this year’s tests.

We have been trying to understand how the Department for Education (DfE) is seeking to ensure that the exams are fair for all – with experts predicting fewer top grades, despite exam boards being urged to be more lenient, taking into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the performance of students.

In the process of getting more information, we have discovered evidence suggesting that the DfE has been unable to properly assess the impact of Coronavirus and subsequent lockdown measures on students’ learning.

We received responses to several Freedom of Information (FOI) requests indicating that the department does not have data on the number of students who have used online learning during the crisis, and the effect of school closures on student attendance.

The department only seemingly tracked classroom absences – “the total number of sessions of absence from school” – and officials are therefore unaware of the extent of online learning.

The DfE says that students suffering from COVID-19 “should have had access to remote learning, if they were well enough to learn”, though it does not know exactly how many students had access to online learning and for how long.

In other words, it is unaware of how much learning took place over the past two academic years and therefore cannot assess how much of it has been lost. To us, this shows that the Government is unable to fairly evaluate and set the criteria for this year’s exams, because it does not have the data to justify its assumptions. 

Moreover, the department cannot assess the impact of school closures because, according to the FOI responses, “school closures are not separately identified in the census [of pupil absence] data”.

Schools had to close during the pandemic, not least during the peaks of the virus in March 2020 and January 2021. Yet the impact of these closures on education has not been properly recorded. This shows an alarmingly laissez-faire attitude towards our exams and qualifications. Remember: for every day you’re unable to learn, this is a day of content not able to be covered. 

“Full academic year data is not available for 2019-20”, the department says – a year during which schools were closed for roughly four months. The loss of almost half an academic year can’t be fully taken into account without this data, which the DfE says it does not have.

This lost learning has inevitably produced knock-on effects for students over the past two years – yet the department seemingly doesn’t know exactly how. This is a negligent attitude. A failure to collect data in the context of a pandemic is a dereliction of duty.


Poor Planning

In terms of the advance information provided by exam boards to students – in order to guide our revision ahead of this year’s exams – the regulator Ofqual has not even conducted an impact assessment on the effectiveness of the information.

In response to one of our FOI requests, we were told that “we do not hold analysis on the effect of advanced information on attainment”.

The failure to do basic assessments of the impact of advanced information suggests that it was a slapdash, ill-considered plan. The fate of our qualifications hangs in the balance, and we find it extremely worrying that the ‘solution’ to the last few years of pandemic learning seems to have been so rushed.

This throws the fairness of the advance information – and the exams themselves – into question. If the DfE does not know the extent to which COVID impacted learning and does not know the extent to which advance information will compensate for that lost learning, it risks being completely blind to the ways in which our performance will suffer.

Indeed, we find it shocking that our qualifications are in the hands of those who failed to track such key data. If they were examined for their performance, they almost certainly would have failed.

These past few years have been hard for many students, teachers and their families. Dozens of our teachers have been forced to stay at home due to COVID. Our friends and our family members have fallen ill. It’s impossible to precisely measure the amount of time and learning that has been lost over the last three academic years, but we’d hope that Ofqual and the DfE would have at least tried.

These exams will matter. We will carry our qualifications with us forever – they will affect where we study, and where we work, long into the future.

The sloppy data collation of the DfE puts us, as students, at risk. It does not “make exams less daunting”, as claimed by Ofqual. Instead, it makes them even more worrying.

The Department for Education does not know how much education occurred over the past three years. How can it know that we will all be given an opportunity to succeed?

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