As the UK enters another strict lockdown and British schools close once again due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, it has been announced that UK A-Levels and GCSE examinations will not take place in Summer 2021.
The majority of private-school pupils in Dubai study a UK curriculum, with 106,773 students learning under the British system, followed by 73,990 students studying the Indian curriculum, according to 2020 Knowledge and human Development Authority (KHDA) figures.
Although schools remain open in the UAE, students and parents in the emirates’ British-curriculum schools have been left reeling by the question mark that this news places over their own academic futures.
“I have been seeing a lot of philosophical posts on social media in the last few days from parents saying ‘don’t sweat it’ about the current schooling situation in the UAE, and that kids will ‘catch up’,” says Ruth Bradley, a British mum-of-three and Dubai-based business owner whose daughter is currently studying for her GCSEs. “But I can tell you that these are from parents with younger children, because anyone right now with a child who is either sitting GCSEs, A-levels or is in university, we are at our absolute wits end.”
What’s happening with UAE exams now?
“Currently A-Levels and GCSEs have only been cancelled in the UK, as of today the international exams are still scheduled to go ahead as planned,” says Fiona McKenzie, head of leading education-provider group Carfax Education UAE. “Whether this will change as the situation unfolds is hard to predict at the moment.”
Schools in the UAE are carrying on as usual, with lots of students currently in the thick of their mock GCSE and A-level exams as scheduled. “However, there is an awareness that if the exam situation were to change then these results will be a vital part of a portfolio of evidence if the there is a call to revert to Centre Assessed Grades, which were ultimately used in lieu of last year’s exam results,” says McKenzie. “Parents and students are understandably feeling confused about how this might play out in the UAE, but pupils are being encouraged to focus on doing the best work they can, to ensure that they have evidence to support the grades they could achieve if exams do not take place.”
An evolving situation
British schools in the UAE said they are awaiting official confirmation on the status of the exams in the UAE. Brendon Fulton, Executive Principal, Dubai British School, Jumeirah Park, said: “We understand from reports in the UK press is that GCSE and A-Level exams will not go ahead this year. However, we will have to wait for formal confirmation of this from Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation), the exam regulator in the UK. There will then also need to be a decision on whether international GCSE [IGCSE] and A-Level exams take place, as these aren’t regulated by Ofqual. They would, however, normally follow the direction from Ofqual.”
There are five GCSE examination boards – AQA, Pearson Edexcel, OCR, CCEA, and WJEC – and all are regulated by Ofqual, he added. IGCSEs are accredited by either Cambridge (Cambridge International Examinations) or Edexcel (Pearson Edexcel) exam boards.
There was a great deal of controversy over the awarding of A Level grades by the UK bodies, as they were downgraded in many cases, throwing into question the affected students’ university admission prospects.
The set up was meant to take out “teacher bias” and “grade inflation”, but in the process, it led to many traditionally high-performing students in low-performing schools receive lower than predicted grades, because of the algorithm model used.
However, following the outcry from students, parents and schools, grades for the June 2020 series were revised to not be lower than the predicted grade submitted by the school. But if a grade was higher than the predicted grade, the higher grade stood as is.
After the policy U-turn by UK board officials, students who took the GCSE were given grades based on whichever was higher between teacher estimates and the moderated-algorithm results.
What options could be available to UAE schools for assessments this year?
In a statement to UK parliament on Wednesday, education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that GCSE and A-level exams would not go ahead and that a form of teacher-assessed grades would be favoured over the 2020-style algorithm.
While the details still need to be fine-tuned with Ofqual, Michael Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College, told Gulf News that there are several possible options that could be available to UAE schools.
Schools in the UAE should be well positioned to be able to deal with any of the options presented by the UK government on account of the successful and unbroken provision of education since March, says Lambert. “Whichever path we choose we will need to ensure it is to the advantage of our students based here in Dubai. It would be unfair to compel our students to sit examinations if their contemporaries in the UK are likely to achieve more generous grades through a different system of moderated assessment. We will assess all options before committing.”
Kelvin Hornsby, GEMS Cluster Lead; CEO/Principal GEMS Cambridge International School- Abu Dhabi, said GEMS Education is already working closely with the examination awarding bodies and have meetings scheduled this week and next. “If centre-assessed grades are used, we develop a portfolio of evidence for each student encompassing prior examination attainment, numerous mock examination results, teacher assessed work, oral/verbal examinations and project work that is all moderated both internally and externally across GEMS Education. We are prepared for all eventualities.”
What should students do?
Matthew Tompkins; Principal/CEO, GEMS FirstPoint School - The Villa, Dubai, said students should continue to work hard as always, exams or no exams. “GEMS FirstPoint School is responding early and plans are in place for our children. For now, our message and focus is clear – that the students need to be attending school, working hard and showing their best ability,” Tompkins added.
“There will be further updates from examination boards in due time and we will strive to maintain complete transparency with our student community, so that we can all be as informed and prepared as possible during these times. The school is working incredibly hard to protect its students and do what is fair and what is right. Key leaders from the school management are overseeing the whole process,” he said.
How UAE parents are reacting
‘Students should sit the exam regardless”
Michelle is a New Zealand expat, marketing and branding executive and mother-of-three whose son is doing his GCSEs in Dubai this year. “Naturally it is disappointing and incredibly frustrating to say the least if the exams are cancelled in the UAE, however I believe that the schools must continue to strive towards providing the same if not higher level of education and not let this slip because there is no official GCSE exam to work towards. I believe they still should be able to sit the exam regardless.”
Michelle says that the news influences her to look at a non-British curriculum in the UAE as a possibility for her youngest child, who is in year 8: “I may consider the Australian system instead, especially as that is close to our home country should my children need to go back to New Zealand at any time.
‘Who will fight for our children?’
British expat Ruth Bradley worries that her daughter will not do as well as she could do if her final grade is based only on her predicted results. ‘If this goes on predicted grades, my daughter possibly won’t do as well as she could if she was actually sitting the exams, for which she has worked her socks off. I am also obviously wondering now, how the mock exam results will play into this future predicted grades scenario. Will they count for kids here in the UAE, if children in the UK didn’t even sit them? This is the part that perplexes me right now as a parent and for which I would love some clarity. If we in the UAE, have to go by what the government of the UK decides for UK-based kids, even though the UAE isn’t in lockdown and these kids should and could study as normal and sit their GCSE’s, then is this fair to these children? My question would be whether the GCSE kids here can actually sit their exams as planned. And this is what I want to know now, what is the plan of action? How are schools here going to make sure that the best interests of the children come first above all else. Who will fight for them?”
‘I feel so sorry for our kids'
Sherifa Khedr (aka Sherry Maw), an Egyptian expat who works as an Occupation Life Coach at Iseeu.nu, worries about how all of the uncertainty could affect her 18-year-old daughter’s self-esteem and confidence. “I feel really sorry for kids this age. Most kids tend to have lower grades when they do their mocks and then by the final exam they really improve – it’s something I noticed with my two older daughters. I do not think it’s fair that if the exams are cancelled here that they will depend on the grades of the mocks.
“Right now none of our kids have had the kind of normal teenage life that gives you energy to do well in exams. We need to work but we also need to play, there has to be a nice balance, and they haven’ had that. I think the grading system has to change accordingly. In the UK they have to consider the mental repercussions of this lockdown and lack of social interaction.”
‘The goal posts keep changing’
Louisa Kiernander is a psychotherapist at Mind Solutions UAE and the mother of a daughter who is currently studying for her GCSEs this year. “It is definitely an anxiety issue - as if exams were not stressful enough. Now there are big questions over teenagers’ futures because the goal posts have moved, or have changed entirely. So after years of prepping to succeed at school with certain skills, such as exam skills and confidence, now suddenly those skills are redundant and success will be based on something else entirely. Something unpracticed or prepped for. The question for teenagers now is, 'How do I win at school without exams?'
On the upside, many students will benefit. Exams don't suit all students and are not always a fair representation of a student's intelligence, capability, effort or determination. If teachers are required to submit grades based on coursework and the students overall effort and grades over the two years, and their prediction of that student's ability, some students will perhaps get a better grade. Others, however, that are good at exams and cramming, may end up with a lower grade.
"It is unfortunate for teenagers right now as they find themselves in an important transition phase of life during this peculiar period. Understandably this has caused - and will continue to cause - an unexpected exam and university experience that is different from the norm and somehow less gratifying. Like they are somehow getting a cheap version of this rite of passage.
"At the same time, this transition phase is already fraught with pressure, stress and anxiety about the outcomes and the decisions that have to be made. And this just adds to that. Parents should definitely be on the lookout for stress and anxiety in their teenagers and for warning signs that their teen is struggling. If your teen is detaching from their school work, is tearful, is quieter than normal or is having more exteme mood swings, ask them if they would feel comfortable talking to a professional. Their mental and emotional wellbeing is of crucial importance during this time and will help carry them through whatever unexpected situations and changes they have to face.
"If they feel like a victim of circumstance, or they feel like their hard work has gone out of the window, or they feel like the situation is hopeless, or that their future is out of their hands, this could be more damaging than the actual lack of exams."
‘Our children’s whole futures hang in the balance of these decisions’
Julia is a Dubai-based mother of two boys, one who is in year 13 and one who is in his first year of university. “Unfortunately my eldest son narrowly missed out on his firm choice University last year after the grades were moderated down with the algorithm. When they were reverted back to the CAG scores given by his school, he would’ve secured a place at his insurance university, but by the time the results were confirmed places had been offered to other students and it meant he would have to defer for a year, which was not an option in the current climate. This meant, although he is happy now at his current University, he had to go through clearing. We had as a family an extremely stressful week with last year’s U-turn fiasco. This year with everything being online and many clubs and societies not running, it has been a much tougher start to University than we had hoped for. Also, because he is not in his University of choice, despite still being at a Russel Group University, he is finding it much harder to secure coveted Spring Insight Weeks for his desired career of Investment Banking as he is not deemed to be at a top-tier target University by these employers. We believe that if he had had a chance to sit his Examinations, he would’ve gained the grades needed to get into his first choice University. He had planned to re-sit one of his subjects in the summer this year in the hope of gaining a top grade, however this chance has now been taken away from him again.
‘My youngest son, at the moment is apprehensive as he awaits more information about how the grades will be decided and is concerned that one of his University offers is 1 grade higher than his predicted grades, and therefore he will not have the opportunity to prove himself in a final exam. Unlike last year, I hope there is some type of appeals system if needed and that the Universities will be prepared for this year better than last year as they have had a pre-warning. This year’s cohort has had to deal with cancelled AS Examinations, online learning and now cancelled Exams and they will be competing for less University places as many students deferred from last year.”
"Every child that starts school under the UK based learning system is being prepped for the eventual final GCSEs/A-Levels exams as they leave school. Therefore, it has come as quite a shock that those highly regarded exams have been cancelled again due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"As a start, the students need clear expectations on how they will be evaluated from their respective schools to still be able to compete and apply to university. The final grade will be subjective to every student’s academic performance in school and so it’s imperative that they give their school work their best shot. They should also have discussions with their teachers about their current performance levels and future steps.
"Led by a qualified guidance counselor, students and families should contact universities to understand changing criteria and expectations to bring a sense of relief to their situation.
"Parents also have a huge role to play psychologically. The students feel cheated out of “normalcy” and getting a fair chance to pursue their dreams. This can lead to a series of feelings such as anxiety, stress, depression, laziness and boredom since the goal that they were working towards doesn’t exist anymore.
"Help them organize their time via flexible routines with proper breaks for exercising and eating. Most importantly, allow them the safe space at home to vent. Validating and understanding their needs will go a very long way in establishing the needed safe zone and a trustworthy connection."