As higher education providers work through applications and applicants continue to work towards their final qualifications I have been reflecting on the continuing impact of COVID19 on the skillset students transitioning to higher education are presenting. Learning has been a different experience for both 16-18 year olds and adults. New skills have been developed as students had to become proficient in a range of digital skills; attending classes online and making greater use of virtual learning environments to submit their work and collaborate. While many applicants will have little or no experience of formal examinations, they have demonstrated significant resilience and motivation to continue their studies. They have found ways to manage isolation and home-schooling so they could undertake their studies despite the challenges thrown at them. For many adult students we also have to include caring responsibilities and additional shifts working in the health and care sectors.


This year’s Year 13s have been particularly badly affected in my view. They have missed out on the normal the right of passage at the end of Year 11 and, unlike others in lower years, they were not expected to continue to study when schools had to close in March 2020. They had to manage an overnight switch from directed learning and structure, to nothingness. A freedom that became a chore because it was so unexpected. The usual break in learning between the end of GCSEs and starting Year 12 was extended, but they have adapted and used technology to survive. Some have found the move to remote learning beneficial and welcomed the opportunities to manage their time, a good skill to learn as they transition to higher level study and employment. For others it has been more challenging.


However, the erosion of a traditional examination academic skills is a big concern for many young people; I have been party to many a discussion with my Year 13,and their friends, as they talk through their concerns about their lack of experience of formal external examinations and the impact of high grades from previous COVID19 cohorts. They fear they will not be able to perform well as they could, because they have no experience of formal external examinations, and that they will be disadvantaged by the large proportion of high grades awarded through centre assessed grades (CAGs) and Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) in 2020 and 2021. Despite reassurances that their regular assessments and mock preparations will help, they worry that they will not do themselves justice. At the same time, they are desperate to demonstrate what they can do, being able to show that the grades awarded in their GCSEs through CAGs in 2020 were justified. On more than one occasion I have been told by my Year 13 that they “absolutely have to do exams”. They feel being awarded both GCSEs and A levels without being formally examined would mean they would always been branded the COVID cohort; given examination grades without earning them even though their grades reflected their work and commitment during their studies.


My day jobs sees me support regulation of Access to HE Diplomas, a level 3 qualification designed to prepare adults for higher education. In the summer 2020 the Diploma was awarded through calculated grades, an evidence based assessment of the learner’s achievement determined by course tutors. The academic year 2020-21 saw Access to HE Diplomas diverge from other qualifications. The Extraordinary Regulatory Framework for that year saw teaching, learning and assessment continue; although significant flexibility was afforded to manage the impact of pandemic on providers and students (both at cohort level and individually). Unit content, for example requirements relating to some practical elements, was adapted to ensure that students had the opportunity to meet the requirements of the learning outcomes (that otherwise would have been impossible to achieve due to public health restrictions); delivery and assessment were also adapted. The outcomes of both 2019-20 and 2020-21 saw little deviation of the distribution of graded credit awarded to Access to HE students with similar proportions of Pass, Merit and Distinction grades awarded as a percentage of graded credit. Yet, Access to HE students still have concerns about securing university places explaining they felt their qualifications would not be considered in light of the high A level results, despite completing a full programme of study and assessment. Like their A level peers they fear the high A level grades during the pandemic will affect their opportunities to progress.


When the full extent of the pandemic hit in early 2020 I recall participating in a meeting to consider areas of support for students and higher education providers. Understandably the focus was on course delivery. However it was recognised that there would be a cohort of students who would be joining undergraduate courses without formal external examination experience. At that point it was expected that only Year 11 and Year 13 students in 2020 would have a different preparation to their peers. However, it was suggested that support would continue to be required for entrants for some years to ensure they could develop the robust revision and examination habits needed to succeed in many higher education assessments.


I wonder, now, if through changes to the qualification landscape and developments to teaching, learning and assessing there will be changes to the focus on examinations. How can we best prepare students with the skills and experience they need to succeed in their higher level studies and employment? What skills do students need to develop to help them succeed? Do we need to change progression qualifications to support these skills needs? No answers I’m afraid, just questions. However I hope we can build on the learning of the pandemic experience to achieve sustainable and useful outcomes for students as they progress through their education and into employment, and that there will be creative solutions that accommodate the needs of the diverse range of individuals who have the ability to succeed in higher study.


Ann-Marie Karadia

FACE Executive Member and Access Officer, QAA


Photo: Patrick Hendry

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