With the warm weather arriving, students across the country will be looking forward to the summer holidays, but before they arrive, many have to get through the exam season.
While it can be difficult enough supporting students and teaching staff at this time of year, the 2015 exam season proposes to be the biggest challenge facing educators in 25 years as Ramadan is expected to fall within the exams calendar.
Timing of Ramadan
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, traditionally beginning when the new moon is sighted and ending with the arrival of the next lunar month. As the timing of Ramadan is determined by the lunar cycle, dates are not definitive but the season generally moves by approximately 10 days every year. This year, Muslims are anticipating Ramadan will start on June 29, by which time most exams will have been completed. In 2015, however, Ramadan is expected to start around June 18, resulting in a clash with exams which is predicted to last until at least 2018.
The last time Ramadan began with exams underway was during the 1980s, when the UK’s Muslim population was much smaller. Now, the impact is predicted to be much more widespread.
The Office for National Statistics reported last year that the 2011 Census showed the Muslim population in the UK hit nearly five per cent across all age groups. As nearly half of those Muslims were 24 or under in the 2011 census, many of them will still be in the UK education system.
The long daylight hours of summer will make abstaining from food and drink between dawn and sunset particularly challenging for the next few years, particularly if it coincides with hot weather.
Students observing the fast will have their last food and drink before dawn and then be expected to undertake exams during the day. Given the importance of hydration for maintaining concentration, it would not be surprising if exam performance was to suffer. This is more worrying when bearing in mind the increasing emphasis on end-of-year exams over continuous assessment.
Jennifer McIntosh, principal of Bradford’s Laisterdyke Business and Enterprise College, explained: “As the education system is returning to terminal exams over modular equivalents, the fast period will inevitably clash with the most critical fortnight of a young person’s academic life. Next year should not affect too many exams but 2016 will see a much greater impact.”
Clearly, if fasting exam candidates are at an unfair disadvantage when they go into these crucial exams with no food or water, the consequences could mean not only lower grades for the individuals but also poorer performance for their school in league tables.
Minimising the impact
Some schools and universities will be more affected than others, but all education providers should seek to minimise any disadvantage by considering how best to support staff and students during periods of fasting that clash with exam season.
The Equality Act 2010 gives staff and students protection from discrimination on grounds of specified protected characteristics, including religious or philosophical belief.
Therefore, it is unlawful to treat a teacher or pupil less favourably because of their religion or belief, or to apply any provision, criterion or practice (PCP) that disadvantages a particular group without the PCP being a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. In this situation, PCPs could include any arrangements made for revision or sitting exams, which could arguably place Muslims observing the fast at a severe disadvantage.
It is highly unlikely that exam boards will consider it practicable to rearrange exam timetables to avoid daylight hours during Ramadan. However, it is understood that talks are taking place between teaching unions, the Joint Council for Qualifications and leading Muslim groups to see if anything can be done to reduce the impact on affected students.
As these arrangements clearly have an impact on a particular religious group, timetabling decisions must be capable of being objectively justified bearing in mind the difficulties of fitting in exams within the wider context of the academic year, including the need to allow time for marking and moderating and ensuring the security of exam questions.
It may be that exam schedules could be reviewed to ensure that students do not have too many exams on the same day, or that special arrangements are made to allow some students to sit certain exams at different times.
Timetables aside, individual schools should review the plans they have in place for other exam arrangements, such as revision sessions and the location of rooms, to minimise the impact on those who are fasting.
As above, any PCP regarding exam arrangements that could disadvantage staff or students who plan to observe Ramadan should be checked to ensure that it can be objectively justified and accurate support provided where required.
State schools will need to remember that they have a public sector duty to try and eliminate conduct prohibited by the Equality Act 2010, and to advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between those who do and those who do not share a particular protected characteristic.
In this instance, that could mean educating all staff and students about Ramadan to promote a better understanding of its importance and to foster greater consideration for those who are fasting.
Food for thought
Discussing with staff and students what support they need during Ramadan could cover anything from planning revision around prayers and meals when they break the fast, or agreeing to change rotas supervising the dining hall during lunchtimes.
Some schools may be able to facilitate knowledge-sharing about the importance of hydrating properly before the fast begins each day and what food and drink should be avoided or encouraged to help promote better health and concentration levels.
Thought should be given to whether students are normally permitted to take food and drink into the exam room with them. Rather than apply a blanket ban, it would be advisable to consider allocating a separate exam room for pupils planning to fast so they are not distracted by others who might have water bottles or snacks on their desks.
It also goes without saying that sensitivity should be shown when arranging any official parties to celebrate the end of exam season or graduation, and where possible, these should take place after Ramadan has ended.
Although there are many challenges to be overcome, many schools will see this as a good opportunity to build stronger relationships with parents and local communities by working through the issues together for the benefit of all pupils.
Ms McIntosh concludes: “Hopefully this impending clash might lead to better practice in helping youngsters to embrace and make the best of what is bound to be a stressful and challenging time. What better preparation could there be for a generation of young people beginning the next phase of 21st century life?”
Clare Young is a senior solicitor in the education team at national business law firm DWF.