Monday, January 11, 2016

Pupils taking GCSEs and A-levels face timetable shake-up to accommodate fasting Muslims

  • Subjects such as English and maths could be set at start of exam season
  • Comes after Ramadan has gradually crossed over into summer exam block
  • Exam boards insist they listen to comments from a wide range of groups
  • Want pupils to 'observe Ramadan without detrimental impact on exams' 
Hundreds of thousands of teenagers will have to take key exams earlier than usual this year to help Muslim pupils fasting for Ramadan.

The GCSE and A-level schedule has been rearranged so that some exams in key subjects are clustered before the start of the Islamic holy month.

Where maths and English tests do fall during the festival, a larger number than usual are being held in the morning.

Changes: The GCSE and A-level schedule has been rearranged so that some exams in key subjects are clustered before the start of the Islamic holy month (file picture)
Changes: The GCSE and A-level schedule has been rearranged so that some exams in key subjects are clustered before the start of the Islamic holy month (file picture)

This is to avoid disadvantaging fasting pupils who can suffer low energy levels in the afternoon.
The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said timetable allowances would be made where possible in subjects with large numbers of entries.

Several core maths exams appear to have been shifted to earlier dates than last year, meaning candidates will have fewer days to revise.
Similar measures are likely to be in place for at least five years, until Ramadan no longer clashes with the exam season.

The holy month, which runs from June 6 to July 5 this summer, moves backward through the calendar by around 11 days a year.


What is happening to this summer’s exams and why?
Exam boards have scheduled some GCSEs and A-level examinations taken by most pupils – like English and maths – before the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
This year, the festival falls between June 6 and July 5, which overlaps with a significant proportion of exams. 
Muslims observe fasting during daylight hours and there are concerns it will have a detrimental impact on their results. 
Officials will also aim to timetable exams with ‘consideration’ – meaning earlier in the day – so Muslim pupils can concentrate better after their pre-dawn meal.
What will it mean for pupils?
Hundreds of thousands of pupils will take some exams up to a week earlier than in previous years – meaning they have less time to revise.
However, many subjects will be unaffected because they are less popular, while others were already scheduled before the start of Ramadan.
There will also be an increase in the number of important exams being held in the morning. 
Such measures are likely to be adopted by boards for at least the next five years, while the month of Ramadan continues to clash with exam season.
How have the different exam boards responded?
AQA appears to have shifted several key maths exams to earlier dates this year by comparison with last year’s timetable, and those remaining during Ramadan will be scheduled in the morning.
English examinations are unaffected as they were held early last year also.
OCR is holding all of its English and maths exams in the morning, and these exams appear to be clustered toward the beginning of the exam season.
Why is Ramadan an issue now?
Ramadan moves earlier by around 11 days in the calendar every year, and only comes full circle about every 33 years. 
Last year there was a smaller overlap between Ramadan and the exam season.
The last time this situation arose was in the early 1980s when Muslims made up only an estimated 1 per cent of the population compared with almost 5 per cent now.
Why have I not heard about this change before?
Similar arrangements were announced for last year’s exams, but there was less of an overlap so it did not make much difference. 
The issue was raised again in a Commons education committee session yesterday morning, when children’s commissioner Anne Longfield was questioned by MPs.
Tory MP Suella Fernandes asked how Muslim pupils could be accommodated over Ramadan.
The children’s commissioner said discussions were being held around revised arrangements. JCQ later said there would not be a ‘delay’ but confirmed that some exams would be reshuffled.
Muslims avoid food during daylight hours, eating before dawn and after dusk instead.
The exam boards said that the timetable would not see drastic changes but yesterday campaigners questioned whether special allowances should be made.

‘They should let things be,’ insisted Colin Hart, of the pressure group Christian Concern. ‘How can you start changing the rules for everybody just to accommodate those particular pupils who are Muslims, who are in a minority?

‘We don’t live in Saudi Arabia where they need to fit the exams around sharia principles. It’s wrong imposing this festival on everybody else.’

Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said: ‘If there are a significant number of Muslim students that are affected and calling for a change, they should be accommodated, but only if this can be achieved with no or minimal disruption.’

According to the latest census, 2.71million Muslims live in England and Wales – making up 4.8 per cent of the population.

Sir Iqbal Sacranie, founding secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: ‘The decision is fair and just. But this is not a special privilege and it is within the JCQ policy, which is welcomed and appreciated.

‘People often accuse Muslims of demanding special rights and provisions. We don’t want them.
‘This is of particular relevance when it comes to accommodating faith communities for their religious festivals, particularly Muslim and Jewish communities, who follow the lunar calendar.

‘Religious communities need to be able to celebrate their festivities without being burdened by examinations on these special days.’

Similar plans to accommodate Muslim students were announced for last year’s exams, but the effect was minimal because Ramadan began on June 18. The exam season runs from late May through to the end of June.
The plans for this summer have been in place for up to 12 months, but emerged only during a Commons education committee session yesterday.
In a statement, the JCQ said it consulted on the timetable every year and considered comments from a wide range of groups, including schools, colleges and faith groups.
A JCQ spokesman added: 

‘The small window in which examinations can be taken, the large number of candidates taking examinations and the diverse range of subjects available to candidates, places significant limitations on the changes that can be accommodated for any one group.

‘However, JCQ meets the needs of various groups as far as possible. JCQ and the qualifications regulator Ofqual have previously met with Muslim groups to discuss the timetabling of examinations in light of Ramadan moving into the examination period.

‘Where possible, large entry GCSE and GCE subjects are timetabled prior to the commencement of Ramadan and consideration given to whether they are timetabled in the morning or afternoon.’

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the union was meeting with Muslim faith leaders to discuss Ramadan, and plans to issue guidance to schools and colleges ahead of the exams.

He said: ‘The guidance will be non-prescriptive and will not advise families or students on how they should address the question of fasting. 

'School and college leaders are very keen to work with communities to ensure young people are able to observe Ramadan without any detrimental impact on their examinations.’

How can you start changing the rules for everybody just to accommodate those particular pupils who are Muslims, who are in a minority?
Colin Hart, Christian Concern
JCQ’s statement was issued after children’s commissioner Anne Longfield was asked by the education committee about the impact of Ramadan falling over the exams period.

In response, she said she was not aware of the detail but that she understood there were discussions under way around changing the timetable.

Teachers first raised concerns about the impact of Ramadan on Muslim teenagers two years ago, arguing that if students go into their exams hungry or thirsty it could affect their results.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said last night: ‘As educators we want all children to be able to achieve their best in exams that are so crucial to their future.’

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