Sitting beside one of my colleagues at an exam board meeting the other day, I noticed that she had a list of students who had submitted ‘extenuating circumstances’ documentation on foot of absences or poor exam performance. It was a long list.
Now, there are many students who endure significant hardship as they progress through their education – physical and mental illness, family problems, financial problems etc. – but it does seem to me that the use of ‘extenuating circumstances’ is a growing phenomenon that requires some analysis. Consider that a few years ago our external examiner pointed out that 50% of our final year students had missed at least one exam. Reasons ranged from illness to family bereavements to sleeping late!
Now, I’m as sympathetic as the next person (or maybe I’m not!) but it does seem to me that there is a growing number of students who lack a certain… resilience. Resilience, as psychologist Maureen Gaffney would say, is a hugely important asset in life and while it is important to be compassionate, it is also important that we encourage resilience in our students. But, our exam board meetings nowadays are characterised not only by large numbers of failed marks but by the presence of large numbers of ‘Is’ to denote illness, ‘As’ to denote unexplained absences, and ‘Ds’ to denote deferrals. This year, I calculate that 18% of our students failed to attend for all their exams, for various reasons ranging from the tragic to the trivial. As it happens, I have the broadsheets from the year 2000 to hand and the rate then was 6%.
Of course, people do get sick and sadly bereavements do occur, but I have a sense – perhaps an unfair one – that the student population is getting less resilient as time passes. (Or maybe students are just lest committed.) While one might argue that I am simply being unsympathetic, I do believe that absence from exams is an issue that deserves some open-minded analysis. I think we owe it to our students to conduct such an analysis.