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GCSE and A-Level Grade Decisions Disproportionately Affect Muslim and Minority Students

GCSE and A-Level Grade Decisions Disproportionately Affect Muslim and Minority Students

For millions of students across the UK, the coronavirus lockdown created anxiety over access to learning and obtaining good exam results. With teaching disrupted due to the closure of schools and exams cancelled, the debate about how GCSEs and A-Levels will be graded is proving to be controversial.

On Tuesday, the Department for Education announced that GCSE and A-Level results will be based on students’ mock exams. The proposed scheme averages the results of mock exams and estimated grades assessed before the unforeseen closure of schools due to lockdown.

The scheme attracted immediate criticism

The scheme attracted immediate criticism by both teachers’ unions and students. Chief among the criticisms was that that the move could leave high-achieving students in low-performing schools at risk of losing out, essentially subjecting them to a postcode lottery.

This adds to the already negative impact of lockdown on students belonging to ethnic, religious and working-class minorities, including British Muslims. Many young British Muslims live in deprived areas, in low income households and often without access to reliable internet connectivity or devices to attend remote learning. Other socioeconomic factors, such as poor housing, overcrowding – already cited as one of the reasons why the outbreak has hit ethnic minority communities worse – also impact the quality of remote learning.

According to research by UCL, an estimated two million students did not complete schoolwork or did less than an hour’s learning per day during lockdown. On the whole, private schools – which are more often attended by middle-class White British students – were found to have provided more hours per day than state schools that are more often attended by minority British students.

It is feared that the DfE’s grading scheme will further negatively impact the educational attainment of ethnic minority students.

“Using mock grades is frightening”

The experiences of one student, 16-year-old Qais Hussain of Beckfoot School in Bradford, demonstrate the reasons why many students have issues with the government’s proposed scheme.

Hussain was supposed to take his GCSEs throughout May and June before being cancelled. Since then, he claims that his school has had little contact with their students. Hussain said that the school sent only one boilerplate email to all students, and that there have been no online lessons, no welfare checks, no personal emails and no support.

“I felt forgotten and ignored,” he says, even as he warns that there are students in a worse state than him. He tried to continue studying on his own over the past five months but many students, he says, lost a huge amount of time at school, including large sections of the two-year GCSE cycle.

The decision to use mock grades, he says, is “frightening”. Many mock tests are taken under relaxed conditions. Exam conditions are often not applied and students don’t prepare for them as stringently. “I’m happy with my results, but many others are worried about it,” he says and adds that he would still be at a disadvantage under the proposed grading scheme, as he has only been able to sit two out of three mock exams, and only one written assignment.

The specific conditions of his school have also been of concern to Hussain. He told Urban Muslimz that the Beckfoot School has gone through three headmasters, with the most recent headmaster starting this academic year. His school has had extremely low grades before then, but things have changed for the better this year.

He is concerned that if he and his fellow students are assessed based on the previous academic year’s grades, and the school average, it will drag everyone’s grades down without accounting for the improvements the school has had. His concerns are further amplified by the studies showing that ethnic minority students’ grades are already under-predicted.

The mood among his fellow students has, understandably, been tense. Many students are concerned about their future, demoralised or nervous about how the process will be applied. He also said that many schools cannot disclose details to the students, which frustrates students more as they struggle to get information about what will affect their futures.

According to Hussain, GCSEs are already a source of undue stress for students and he has already been quite vocal about abolishing them. He believes that the current crisis is a good opportunity to do so, while establishing a generalised grading system based on a 1-2-3 pass-to-fail grading system instead.

Beyond these immediate concerns, however, is the general fear that the government’s approach to grades appears to prop up students from the most advantaged backgrounds while leaving behind those students who are already disadvantaged, many of whom happen to belong to Muslim, minority and working class communities. Britain’s already disadvantaged and deprived communities are now at further risk of their futures being made more uncertain due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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