We’ve constructed a ruthless exam system where bereavement barely matters

I met a woman on a train last week who told me about her two sons currently sitting their GCSEs and A-levels. Stressed teens are difficult to live with, so I commiserated with her. But these teens have it worse than most, she explained: their father died last November. Astonishingly, she told me: “The exam boards can take it into account and give you up to 5% extra marks. But the bereavement has to be within the past six months.” She looked painfully sad for a moment. “Apparently he died two weeks too early.” The Guardian reports.

I Googled, hoping she was wrong, but found she was heartbreakingly correct. I discovered a misery rate card, published each year by the Joint Council of Qualifications. Severe bodily injury at the time of examination gives you 4% extra marks. Physical assault before the exam is 3%. Minor ailments (such as hayfever): 1%.

Exam boards try to be fair. Every year, special consideration is applied for in more than half a million GCSE and A-level exams, and the vast majority are accepted. In my time as a teacher I saw pupils taken out of exams by illness, accidents, even one stuck in an armed hold-up. (Witnessing a distressing event: 3%). Death of a family member provides the highest boost but the rules are harsh: “recent” grief can last four months.

Evidence that death has a lengthy impact on GCSE results is strong. A study in 2004 found that bereaved young people scored on average half a grade below expectation in each exam. A Swedish national cohortstudy found that parental death lowered grades even when controlling for just about every other imaginable factor, including socio-economics, criminality, and parental mental health. And this has a lasting impact, with a recent Danish study finding that bereaved males were up to 26% less likely to get degrees than their peers.

People looking for easy answers might call for the scrapping of GCSEs, or the resurrection of modular exams. Frankly, I don’t think either solution helps. But I do wish exam boards would create ways to bump up results. Universities offer immediate resits each summer, why not for GCSEs and A-levels? Or allow people to continue resitting exams as they get older? If exams were online, each candidate could receive questions relating to the syllabus they studied and have them auto-marked. If you’re doing better at history by age 21, why not have this reflected in updated scores?

Read the full article We’ve constructed a ruthless exam system where bereavement barely matters 

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin


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  1. Anonymous

    My grandfather died the very morning of the day I sat AO French. It never occurred to me to tell anybody at school, or to ask for extra marks or extra time or special treatment in any way. What needs to be done needs to be done and this pandering to people’s personal circumstances is just another mark of universal victimhood.

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