May 13th, 2021 

By Hamid Riaz 


“The government has changed the dates of our exams four times. At first, our exams were scheduled for April then they postponed them to May 4, and then again to May 25. Now the latest date is June 15. I hope we can finally be done then.” For a tenth grade matriculation student Bisma Athar, the dread of exams seems to be never ending. It has been a long journey for her, and she seems to be ab

“Last year when the pandemic began my batch was slotted to appear in the ninth grade examinations,” she adds. “At the first, the government decided to go ahead with our exams as scheduled. But after the first two out of eight exams, a hard lockdown was suddenly imposed and our exams were postponed.” Although a new date had been announced, the government again cancelled all exams for that year. For Bisma and several other hardworking students aiming to pass out as soon as possible, all the effort for their exam preparing went down the drain.

“Later we were informed that our college admissions would be based on our tenth grade exam results. But even with out tenth grade exams, the entire cycle is being repeated. We have been in this uncertain situation since last year. All I want now is for this anxiety to end,” Bisma laments.

She is not alone. All Students, whether from the matriculation system, or the O and A levels are being affected by the government’s indecisiveness and have complained across-the-board about the “uncertain and haphazard” announcements and policies being made by the Ministry of Education.

“Expected dates…that is all that the government has given us so far,” says Shahnawaz, a 12th grader enrolled in GCS. “Even now Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood has tweeted that 12th-grade exams will be taken on a priority basis after June 15. But he has failed to specify exactly when the exams are supposed to take place.”

Shahnawaz says that the exams were canceled last year and there are rumors that they might be cancelled again this year. “But nobody is sure. If we don’t even know when the exams are going to take place how are we supposed to prepare for them?” he demands.

When asked what he thinks the government should do at this point he says, “I don’t care about what the government decides to do. I just want them to decide something and stand by this decision. Our future is at stake.”

Even teachers are affected. Razzak* a teacher at a government intermediate college sees a very bleak future.

“The Covid-19 situation was already very uncertain and it was the government’s responsibility to calmly guide us through the crisis,” he says. “Instead it has only added to the uncertainty. Last year, the pandemic had just started so it was understandable that the government was grappling with the situation. I personally understood their confusion over policymaking. But they should have planned ahead for this year. They should have come up with clear projections and guidelines from the start but instead what we have seen is a repeat of last year’s ad-hoc policymaking. Ultimately, those who lose in this situation are the students.”

Despite these scathing criticisms, though, some have called the government’s handling of matric/intermediate exams ‘better’ compared to its disastrous handling of the O/A levels exams which have caused an immense uproar on the Pakistani social media, even leading to a series of protests against Minister Shafqat Mehmood over the past two months. The students demanded that the government cancel all exams and replace them with School Assessed Grades (SAGs) like it did last year. Several top-tier private schools have also put out open letters demanding that the government shift to SAGs, but Mehmood has refused to budge on his stance.

An organizer of these protests, Abdullah Shah has a lot to say on the issue.

“This year Cambridge had delegated governments with the authority to decide whether they wanted to conduct exams or to have SAGs. If a country’s government feels that the Covid-19 situation is out of control there exams cannot be safely conducted, they could choose to cancel exams altogether. By March almost all countries in South Asia had decided to cancel exams and assess students through SAGs. All except Pakistan. This was surprising because the Covid-19 situation in South Asia at that time was critical.” Shah points out that in countries with high infection rates, there would always have been a possibility for someone to get Covid-19 during the exams. “Not only will they lose an entire educational year they will also lose the examination fee they would already have paid to Cambridge. All this will end up with is that those students who are sick, will refrain from reporting their illness, spreading the virus further. Like me, other students, got together to protest these decisions made by the minister and demanded the cancellation of exams.”

But the government has shown little understanding, and continues to make what the students call, bullheaded decisions, even though there have been contrywide strong demands from students, instructors, and school management alike: the government has decided to push through with its ‘plan’.

But the plan itself has been disorganized.

From March the government has continually been announcing different dates for exams only serving to add  to the confusion. Then on April 27, when students had already submitted their non-refundable exam fees to Cambridge, (O-level exams were to start soon, while several A Level students were already givng theirs), the minister took yet another U-turn on his policy. He announced, “Addressing health concerns of students and parents all exams are canceled till June 15 and depending on the spread of the disease may even go further. Cambridge exams are postponed till Oct/Nov for all grades. The only exception for those in A2 who have a compulsion to take exam now.”

“Now O-level students are stuck in limbo again while A-level students are faced with an impossible choice: either they risk their health and appear in exams, or they waste half a year and appear in the exams in Oct/Nov which could again be delayed depending on the pandemic. They should have either conducted the exams or delayed them. This kind of decision has complicated everything further,” says Shahkar* a second year A-level student who is one of those, currently giving his exams.

“Minister Shafqat Mehmood and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government should understand that announcing dates for exams is not the same as announcing inauguration dates for infrastructure projects – you cannot just choose a new date based on your whims,” says Hammad* sarcastically. Hammad is a senior instructor at a coveted private school in Lahore. “Exam preparation is a process. Schools design entire sessions with exam dates in mind. Students require solid deadlines to prepare themselves for assessment. The government’s lack of long-term planning will adversely impact the performance of our students in the most important school exams of their lives. This I think is unforgivable negligence,” he concludes.