Bring back free Covid tests for exam candidates, UK schools urge

Bring back free Covid tests for exam candidates, UK schools urge

World News

After the disruption of the pandemic, Helen Fields knew this Easter holiday would be a crucial time for her sons to revise for their GCSE and A-level exams. Instead, 16-year-old Solomon caught Covid and has been too unwell to concentrate, and 18-year-old Gabriel is suffering “serious anxiety”, having never sat high-stakes exams.

Summer term starts this week for many, but the Association of School and College Leaders union (ASCL) told the Observer that the first public exams for three years, which start on 16 May, will “certainly not be a return to business as usual”. The union says soaring infection rates played havoc with exam preparation last term, and their members can’t see why the government won’t bring back free Covid tests for these pupils, to avoid the virus spreading in exam halls.

Fields, a crime novelist who lives in Chichester, says: “These kids have all been through two years of emotional battering. The pandemic has hit them in a thousand small ways, and now we just expect them to walk into an exam room as though nothing has happened.”

Measures to help GCSE and A-level students this year include releasing information on which topics will be covered, and timetabling exams in the same subject at least 10 days apart.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said the measures would support “safe and fair delivery of exams and recognise the disruption students have faced”. Fields says they don’t go far enough: “The stress the exams are putting on them is unjustifiable. They are bringing the grades nearer to normal but the pupils have been just as badly affected as those whose exams were cancelled.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said it was “regrettable” that the government hadn’t done more to minimise the disruption caused by soaring infection rates this term, “rather than giving the impression the pandemic is over, which is clearly not the case”.

A DfE blog last week said any pupil with a high temperature on the day of an exam should stay at home, in line with UK Health Security Agency guidance. But the ASCL is urging the government to bring back free Covid testing for exam candidates, to provide some certainty for pupils and invigilators.

Barton said: “We simply can’t understand why the government does not take this simple step, particularly given that it has been so insistent about the importance of students sitting public exams.”

Many invigilators are refusing to go into exam halls where there is no Covid testing or mitigations. A survey by the National Association of Examinations Officers found that nine out of 10 members are worried there won’t be enough experienced people to oversee exams this summer.

The lead invigilator at a large secondary school, who asked not to be named, said she had withdrawn her services for this year because she did not feel safe. “How can they protect invigilators, who are predominately older and more vulnerable, with no mitigations?” she said. “If there is a problem or a student needs something, you have to help without disturbing anyone else, and you can’t do that at two metres.”

She thinks students will feel obliged to sit exams, even if they are ill. “We see it every year. I’ve had someone come in with stomach pains and leave in an ambulance with a burst appendix. So there will be some who come in suspecting they have Covid.”

Ed Muir, an English teacher in the north of England, said: “There are pupils still missing lessons but now we have no idea who has Covid. It is the silent disease in our midst.”

Muir points out that stress will make pupils more vulnerable to Covid, and wants a return of free testing. “Teachers and parents want to know exactly what is expected. If your child feels ill the day before an exam, do you send them in?”

Read More