August 11, 2020, by Emma Thorne

Impact of Covid-19 has created stark discrepancies in students’ experiences of taking A Levels, says new study

A study involving a University of Nottingham researcher has indicated some stark discrepancies in students’ experiences of taking A Levels this year.

Dr Martin Myers in the University’s School of Education, working in collaboration with Professor Kalwant Bhopal at the University of Birmingham, conducted more than 500 survey questionnaires (to date) over a four-month period, between April and July with students whose A levels were cancelled due to the pandemic. This has been followed by a total of 53 interviews with students (to date).

Ahead of A Level results which will be announced on 13th August, this timely survey has highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought up concerns about the fairness of exams this year and various discrepancies in how their schools has managed their final, and arguably most important, year in school.

The survey reported how just 21% of students who took the survey suggested they were happy exams were cancelled, while more than twice this number (46%) would have preferred to sit their exams and 33% of students were undecided.

Dr Myers, Assistant Professor in Education, said: “At the heart of our research are the voices of A-Level pupils faced with extraordinary challenges at one of the most stressful moments in their education. None of these pupils imagined or prepared for the closure of schools, cancellation of exams and lockdown in the wake of Covid-19. The most striking finding to emerge in our research was of pupils desperate to demonstrate their best work and be rewarded fairly for their efforts. Unfortunately, many pupils felt their A-Level results would not be a fair reflection of their ability.”

Stark inequalities

As one student surveyed for the study said: “I’m worried that I’m going to be so disadvantaged. I did badly in my mocks, I just didn’t work because I knew it wasn’t the real thing. I’ve been working flat out until the day we were told because I knew I could do it for the real exam. It’s just not fair.”

Other key findings from the survey data show how satisfied pupils were with how their school managed the crisis which suggests a stark range of pre-existing inequalities have been mirrored since lockdown began and are likely to affect final A Level grades:

  • 82% of White pupils were satisfied with how their school managed the crisis compared to 67% of Black pupils and only 42% of Asian pupils feeling similarly satisfied.
  • 71% of girls were satisfied compared to 63% of boys
  • Whilst 81% of pupils from fee-paying independent schools were satisfied with how their school managed the crisis, only 67% of pupils in state comprehensive schools were satisfied.

In addition to satisfaction levels, the survey also found out from students where they felt they could have been better supported by schools including:

  • Mental Health issues, such as regular support for isolation during lockdown. These concerns were not necessarily to do with academic work.
  • Resources available, particularly in relation to continuing to prepare work which would be taken into account for their final grades.
  • Direct information from teachers on how their grades would be awarded.

Long term impacts on wellbeing

Professor Kalwant Bhopal, Director of the Centre for Research in Race & Education (CRRE) at the University of Birmingham, said: “Our study highlights a range of inequalities in the experiences of A-level students during the covid-19 pandemic. Many students felt the pandemic would exacerbate inequalities within schools including those of race and ethnicity and those related to different types of schools. They felt that sitting exams was one way of proving their ability despite such inequalities and that this opportunity had been taken away from them. They also often highlighted their fears that the pandemic would not only adversely affect their education but have long term impacts on their mental health and well-being.”

In addition, many students also raised the following issues:

  • The majority recognised the unfairness of the current situation and felt they would be identified and labelled the ‘Covid-19 generation’; a cohort of students who did not sit their exams and were awarded estimated grades.
  • Most students had not changed their plans, all who had applied for university were still keen to go.
  • Many students were concerned about the long-term impact on their mental health.

As one student remarked: “I kind of think we’re going to be known as the ‘covid-19 generation’ people are always going to judge us on that – saying oh you didn’t take the exams so you’re not deserving of the grades. That will have a long-term impact on me – on my self-esteem – if that’s how I’m going to be judged.”

Another said: “I suffered a lot because I felt really isolated, I couldn’t see my friends and I just can’t work at home. This has affected me mentally, it’s not just the A level grades but how I think I will cope by not having my last year – with my mates, my prom. It makes me very anxious.”

The researchers will be conducting a second survey and interviews following the release of A-Level results to students.

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