Students have experienced “infuriating” and “unacceptable” mistakes to GCSE and A-levels this year, headteachers have said after a series of errors - including pupils being given wrong information about what would be on exams.
This year’s cohort has been told what topics to revise and ignore for the first time in recognition of the disruption caused by Covid pandemic.
But this has backfired at times, with pupils opening papers to find questions on topics they had been told to avoid.
Other blunders have included missing pages and an African country labelled incorrectly on a map.
The National Union of Students (NUS) told The Independent this year’s mistakes were “absolutely unacceptable”.
“With the cost of living crisis biting, students are already dealing with enough,” its UK president, Larissa Kennedy, and its Welsh president, Becky Ricketts, said in a joint statement.
“No student should be penalised for the incompetence of examination boards; the situation needs to be urgently reviewed, with student experiences central to this process.”
Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders said the errors were “extremely frustrating”, especially as they concerned students who had experienced “severe educational disruption” due to Covid.
“The worry and stress this has caused is the last thing these young people need after all they have been through,” he said.
“It is particularly frustrating that some of the issues were to do with confusion over advanced information, a mitigation which was meant to make exams fairer because of the impact of the pandemic.”
Exam board AQA has apologised twice during this summer exam season. A GCSE Physics paper asked pupils about a topic not listed as being assessed, while an A-level Law exam had a 30-mark question on an area not listed as a major focus.
“The problems with advance information have been infuriating,” Jonathan Mountstevens, a deputy headteacher in Hertfordshire, told The Independent.
He said the response over GCSE Physics was to give students full marks for the question, but he felt this undermined the purpose of an exam. “Students lost the opportunity they should have had to shine on this question.”
The deputy headteacher added: “Not only have the errors had a detrimental effect on students taking the exams in question, but they have had a wider impact on students’ confidence in the process, causing an increase in their anxiety levels.”
Students reported similar feelings after finding four pages with Shakespeare extracts missing in a Welsh A-level exam.
Some told The Independent they were “thrown off” and “upset” by the blunder, which saw them work on other questions while waiting for invigilators to sort it out.
Kira Humphreys told The Independent this was her first exam of the year. She had a Maths one later that day she had previously been feeling confident for.
But she said: “I went into the Maths exam with very little confidence after my experience in the English exam.”
There were also problems with the other exam, with some topics unexpectedly included and others left out that they had been told to expect, she said.
“Overall I think WJEC [the Welsh exam board] have been completely unfair on the students this year, especially considering we have not sat any real exams,” the 18-year-old said.
Another exam board, Edexcel, was forced to apologise over an error in its GCSE geography paper which incorrectly labelled Gabon as the Democratic Republic of Congo on a map of Africa.
Sarah Hannafin from the NAHT union for school leaders said: “This continues to be a very challenging exam series for students, many of whom have not taken external exams before.”
“The errors which have occurred may have damaged the confidence of students for their remaining exams, particularly those students who have sat the papers where advance information and the questions did not match up.”
The senior policy advisor added: “We take some reassurance that the exam boards will take action to ensure no student is disadvantaged by these errors, but it would have been best for them not to occur in the first place.”
Munira Wilson, the education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said: “This is a cohort of students who have had more disruption to their education than any other in peacetime history.
“This carelessness will pull their grades down and make a mockery of the effort young people have put in.”
The head of Ofqual, the exam regulator in England, criticised exam boards last week for oversights leading to mistakes.
A WJEC spokesperson said the exam board was “sorry” for a “collation error” that led to missing pages in the English exam, but no other “significant errors” had occurred this summer and all questions had been from subject content.
An AQA spokesperson apologised for “any confusion or stress” the exam board had caused students.
“We’re awarding all students full marks for the GCSE Physics question, and in A-level Law we’ll look at how students performed on the paper and take any action necessary to protect them,” they said.
A spokesperson for EdExcel’s owner Pearson apologised for “any confusion caused by the unintentional error” in its GCSE Geography map of Africa.
They added: “This labelling does not affect students’ ability to answer the question and we will award marks for references to either country.”