Muslim pupils have welcomed the decision by exam boards to timetable GCSE and A Level tests to take into account the month of Ramadan, but critics warn that it should not disadvantage other students.
Core subjects in GCSEs and A-Levels such as English and mathematics could be set for the beginning of the exam season, before the start of Ramadan, which begins this year in early June.
Muslim students observing the fast are expected to abstain from eating and drinking anything during daylight hours in the holy month, which means up to 16 hours without food during May and June.
The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said it would meet “the needs of various groups as far as possible”. Where possible, large-entry GCSE subjects “are timetabled prior to the commencement of Ramadan and consideration given to whether they are timetabled in the morning or afternoon”, it said.
Tania Islam is studying English, economics and maths A-Levels at Morpeth Sixth Form in east London. The 16-year-old, who is in her first year, told Eastern Eye that she was pleased that the changes took place.
“I would never want to go in an exam on an empty stomach,” she said. “I’m one of those that need to be fully fueled. If it is made easier, that’s a good thing. Fasting is obligatory. For me, I can’t not choose to fast. Exams are not more important than my religion.”
She added: “Bringing the dates back doesn’t give us less time. We get told about our exams dates at the beginning of the year. We should be revising constantly, not cramming it at the end.”
Fateha Choudhury, who goes to Stockwood Park Academy in Luton, is revising for her GCSE exams which take place later this year.
The 15-year-old said: “When I go to school and I’m fasting, I do feel quite tired. If I was doing an exam during that time, I don’t think I would have done as well as I would have if I wasn’t fasting.
“Having the exams before Ramadan or in the mornings while I fast gives me the chance to achieve more in my GCSEs – it puts me on a more level playing field.
“I welcome the news because the fact that I’m fasting. The exam boards taking that into consideration is quite nice.
“As a young British Muslim, Ramadan is quite important to me and I do feel it is necessary to fast, not because of the physical benefits but also the spiritual.”
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers trade union, said the issue had been up for recent debate.
“As educators, we want all children to be able to achieve their best in exams that are so crucial to their future,” she said.
The National Secular Society, however, warned the rescheduling of exams to accommodate Ramadan must not disadvantage non-Muslim pupils.
NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood said: “If there are a significant number of Muslim students affected and calling for a change, a reconsideration of the schedule doesn’t seem unreasonable.
“But accommodations should only be made if this can be achieved with little or no disruption or by disadvantaging other students. A proper review of this – not driven by religious interests – but with educators reviewing the evidence, should consider possible arrangements.
“We cannot enter onto a slippery slope of making unreasonable accommodations on religious grounds. There must be a very stringent test for whether accommodations like this will disadvantage non-Muslim students.”
Ashfaque Chowdhury, chair of the association of Muslim schools, said exam boards were trying to help bring up the performance of state schools.
“We haven’t had to face exams in Ramadan before, but the timetable is decided one year before so schools and students would already know about exam dates.”
“The GSCE and A-Level performance of some state schools would go down if this decision wasn’t made, so they are doing it for themselves.”