gcse math paper
Students who sat for the Edexcel GCSE math exam paper said they were stumped over a question that was “impossible” to answer. Source: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

GCSE and A Level candidates are finally sitting for formal exams in-person after two years of COVID-19 disruption. Students who sat for the Edexcel GCSE math paper, however, were stumped over a question that was dubbed “impossible” to answer. 

According to reports, students were asked to calculate the shaded part of some circles if all the circles had a radius of four. Many failed to solve the question. 

One parent told the Manchester Evening News that some teachers at their child’s school struggled to come up with the solution to the “impossible” question.

Even university students found the GCSE math exam question challenging. Harry Surplus, a second year BSc Maths student studying at the University of Manchester, said the question took him some time to answer. 

Another group of GCSE students — who sat for their AQA GCSE biology paper — were upset too. 

They relied on the AQA’s exam guidelines — which provided Advance Information on the biology papers — only to discover that the information was inaccurate in each biology paper. 

On Twitter, one student wrote: “Erm, so AQA, what was the point of the advance information for biology again?” Another Twitter user said, “I literally revised all the required practicals, and there were barely any questions on it???”

However, some students, teachers and AQA themselves said the Advance Information provided was indeed correct. 

In response to parent Dominic Somerville’s frustrated tweet, the AQA said: “Hi Dominic. The advance information was accurate, but it sounds like students might have been using the advance information for a different Biology paper from the one they sat. We’d recommend checking that the correct advance information was used.”

Another student chimed in: “Heya Dom, I sat AQA triple biology higher and would also like to say my advanced information was completely correct. No topics not mentioned were on the paper, I feel like AQA is right, and the students got the wrong advance info.”

Welsh students upset over difficult AS maths exam paper

Separately, the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) recently came under fire after Welsh students who sat for their AS Maths exam claimed that the paper included questions not part of the syllabus. 

Frustrated students, parents and teachers took to Twitter to criticise the exam and examination body. 

One teacher shared her frustrations with WalesOnline: “Hardest paper ever and considering that these are a COVID-19 generation who are sitting their first-ever set of external exams, it’s not really fair.” 

In response to these criticisms, WJEC denied that the questions were based on content that was not in the syllabus. 

A WJEC spokesperson was quoted saying by WalesOnline: “We take a great deal of care to ensure that examinations are fair and assess only the subject content which is included in our specifications. In 2022, we made adaptations to the subject content of our qualifications and removed some topics from assessment this summer, while being careful to retain all the knowledge and skills which are essential for progression to the next level of study.” 

“These adaptations were published in September 2021 on our public website and aimed to mitigate the disruption caused by the pandemic. We can confirm that all of the questions within the AS chemistry and mathematics examinations were from the subject content and did not rely on knowledge and understanding of any topics removed from the assessment in 2022. 

“Examinations always include a range of questions, some of which are more challenging than others, so that we can effectively differentiate across the whole grade range and award a fair grade to each student. We also consider past assessments when writing papers to ensure that each year’s examinations are comparable.” 

gcse math paper

One University of Manchester student found the Edexcel Maths question difficult. Source: Frederick Florin/AFP

Major exams affected by pandemic

The pandemic has heavily impacted students sitting for major exams across the UK.

In 2020, GCSE and A Level candidates in England received their final grades based on an algorithm designed to moderate data submitted by schools. This resulted in large reductions in final results for thousands of students.

Following this, Gavin Williamson and Ofqual issued an apology and announced that all A Level and GCSE results in England would be based on teacher-assessed grades.

The government cancelled the GCSE and A Level exams again in 2021, and students received their final grades based on their teachers’ decisions, while other countries proceeded with in-person exams. 

Despite challenges wrought by the pandemic, Cambridge International issued a record 1.5 million grades — its most ever — last year.