When I first found out that former education secretary Michael Gove’s education reforms meant that GCSE and A-level students in England would no longer be allowed to re-sit modules, my first reaction was a mental fist pump.
When I was applying to universities in the UK, I remember constantly thinking about how local students were allowed to not just re-sit exams, but also individual modules, until they got the desired grade. In Pakistan, where I went to school, re-sitting exams has also always been an option, but for many students, it exists only in theory. In practice, exercising this option is limited due to the ample cost of the re-sit and also to the stigma surrounding it in the more competitive schools. Anyone who achieves an A grade only after a re-sit is more than likely to be followed around by cynical whispers of, “Oh! He/she got an A the second time around.” The A isn’t considered an A by many. (It is true, however, that because the school I attended has a long history of Oxbridge and Ivy League graduates, the competition to excel academically has always been immense.)
Michael Gove’s policy therefore considerably levels the playing field for all those international students – whether they follow the GCE system or, in my opinion, the considerably tougher International Baccalaureate – also applying to the best of British universities. The GCE examinations we give here in Pakistan, as well as in Singapore, Malaysia and Zimbabwe, are also purely exam-based and coursework does not count towards the final grade (as in the reforms Gove has implemented).
However, cancelling re-sits might not be necessary at all. Instead, universities should simply add a section to their applications asking students to identify the number of sittings in which their grades were achieved. Incidentally, this is what the Cambridge University undergraduate application already includes. Universities in the UK can then decide for themselves whether they want to admit a student depending on whether they value the ability to do well in examinations, or skills identified through other forms of evaluation (a personal statement, a project etc.).
On the other hand, even though Gove’s policy may level the playing field when it comes to secondary school, it tips the balance against locals with regard to A-levels. According to the now infamous reforms, from September 2015, AS-level examinations are to be scrapped, and students will instead only give one exam – their A levels – which will assess two years worth coursework. The jump from secondary school to sixth form/college is already a big one, in terms of the amount of coursework students have to manage, and allowing students to give their exams in steps definitely makes it easier to adjust to the change. However, schools can ensure that students are well prepared for the 2-in-1 exams at the end of the two-years by conducting regular tests throughout the year, and more importantly, through mock AS and A level exams.