Ramadan and exam timetables

After a question was put to the government over the possible difficulties that might face students involved in Ramadan the press picked up the story and some seemed to feel that in some way the exams timetable for next year’s exams could be magically changed to meet this request. There are two clear points to be made. One, the timetable has been out there for some time and the JCQ do consider and respond to various requests, but they are restricted by the window of opportunity available to set exams and the complex background of processes and mechanisms which are linked to the whole exam period.


Types of exam cannot just be moved without there being a knock-on-effect throughout the system. A student may have to retake a GCSE while doing their AS or A2 exams and all that has to be planned and phased in to try and avoid clashes. The main question put to the EOA by the media was – 'but does the JCQ ever adjust its timetable to meet requests?' Well, yes it does, and has done so in the past, given time, and against the constraints that the one summer session now imposes on the exam system.


When exams started to include the May bank holiday a request from the EOA on behalf of its community was to ask the JCQ to avoid large exams groups being timetabled on the Friday before half term to help exam office staff process papers before the half term break, and this was implemented by the JCQ and is a standard approach for ongoing exams.


The second major fact to consider is that Ramadan will have an impact on the summer exam period through this summer, 2017, 2018 and 2019.  With that in mind one would expect the JCQ to try its best to adjust its future timetables to meet this concern, but as said earlier it can only work with the window of opportunity it has, and surely must feel at times it can please no one, any of the time, because someone will always fall foul of a timetabling decision that appears to not go their way.


Indeed, based on this information one can then have some sympathy for Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) whose timetabling and processes are set against an international market place. This explains why there are constant protests by members over the CIE timetabling and processes which fall outside the standard JCQ practices (CIE unlike its OCR partner under the Cambridge Assessment banner is not a member of the JCQ). However, if one understands the context in which CIE operate its internationally focused programmes, within the domestic UK exam market, certain frustrations and requests over change to practice can then be more easily understood and dealt with appropriately.


Why has this suddenly come up now as this sequence of events attached to Ramadan comes around on a regular basis? One might put it down to the increased pressure on students to perform well in exams, and that the exam opportunity now only comes around once a year, making the next three years more critical for students participating in Ramadan.  


And while the media focuses on high stake exams like GCSEs and A levels, many students will be undertaking a broad range of vocational examinations during the summer exam window. Those students who have been taking these types of exams on a regular basis have been dealing with the impact of Ramadan for many years and must not be forgotten in future planning on timetabling.


So what is going to happen? The EOA are joining forces with ASCL and other teaching unions to work with parents and various faith groups to see how we can best meet the needs of students while still maintaining an effective and secure exam system which will try to give everyone the opportunity to perform to their full potential.