If illness strikes, what do you do as two years' work threatens to go up in smoke?

When Cosima Canneti was bedridden just before her exams, her A-level hopes looked in peril. Her mother tells Kevin Rawlinson of the unfolding nightmare

Cosima Canneti had worked hard for two years to earn her teachers' predictions of three A grades at A-level. But when she fell ill days before her final exams were due to begin, she and her mother Romana feared they could be two years wasted.

As it became clear her daughter was too unwell to sit some of the exams, Romana Canneti, who like many other parents had no idea how an illness during the exam period would affect her daughter's grades, thought Cosima's hard work might be in vain. It was, she says, a "stressful" time, but one which has taught her some valuable lessons.

"At first, I was worried Cosima would be penalised for missing the exams: I was concerned her A-levels would be two years in the making and only three days in the destroying. At least, I thought, she had some coursework to rely on," says Romana.

Nursing a cup of coffee at home, waiting for her daughter to return on a brief visit from university, Romana told of the "big drama" the weekend before Cosima's exams were to start as she struggled to contact anyone at her daughter's school. "Cosima's father and I did not know the procedure for taking sick leave from an exam. We wanted to let the school know she had a genuine reason, but we could not get in touch with anyone there until just before she was due to sit the first exam."

On the previous Saturday, Cosima had started to complain she was feeling unwell. Romana thought her daughter had contracted swine flu but says she couldn't be sure because the symptoms began to show after routine blood tests for the condition were stopped. Moreover, Cosima had succumbed to a chest infection. So, says Romana, there really was no way she could go in to school.

"Cosima missed Monday and Tuesday's exams, but I took her in for the tests on the Wednesday and Thursday; I had to raise her from her sickbed. I had never even heard of anyone missing an exam. You hear of people being unwell, but rarely do you hear of people not being able to turn up at all."

When they heard about Cosima's illness, the school told Romana that if her daughter missed both exams for a given subject she would have to repeat the year. But if she only missed one of the two allotted exams for any subject, she would have the option of applying for special consideration.

Under that process, the exam board would be able to use Cosima's predicted grades as well as testimony from the school to help determine her final classification.

Cosima's illness persisted throughout the first week of the fortnight-long exam period and she was still recovering during the second. She had not eaten anything for three days when the exams came round. Her mother called the situation "surreal".

Romana had to get a doctor to certify that her daughter's illness was genuine and of sufficient severity to warrant taking time off. She also kept the notes given to her by the doctor.

"It was stressful, because we did not know what to do at the time. We didn't know how to get in touch with the school. We didn't know if she should turn up or not. Practically speaking, it was a nightmare. Deep down, we thought it would be OK. She was lucky in that she got a relatively low offer from her university.

"The exam period of a week or two was awful. But, after that, we had a little peace of mind and forgot about the whole experience. After the exams are finished, there is no longer anything you can do to affect their outcomes. When there is nothing more you can do, there is nothing more to worry about. We went on a family holiday."

The St Marylebone School in London, of which Cosima was a pupil, handled her application for special consideration. "We only had to keep them informed and provide the necessary doctor's certificates. We were happy with the way it was handled by the school," says Romana.

Despite being predicted three As, Cosima was initially awarded two As and a B: an administrative error meant she had not been given special consideration. Romana said Cosima was only three marks below the threshold for the third A. "Cosima's father and I are not particularly pushy, but the lower grade was in one of the subjects she wanted to study at degree level, so we felt we had to query it. The exam board looked at it again and it was eventually upgraded to an A," she says, adding it was not a case of trying to garner an unfair advantage, but one of ensuring Cosima's case was dealt with fairly.

"We were told the exam board would take the predicted grades and school reports, all of which were A-grade standard, so the school queried it on our behalf. It transpired something had gone wrong and they changed the grade to the A Cosima had originally merited."

Cosima, who is now studying for a philosophy and German MA at the University of Edinburgh, says she thinks too many people question their results routinely. "I wouldn't normally do it, but these were exceptional circumstances," she says.

Cosima missed two of her six exams: one for German and one for history. Having missed one German exam, she sat the remaining one while she was still ill. She was eventually awarded A grades in German, English literature and history.

Parents should keep in touch with the school and possibly find out how to go about contacting someone there over the weekend, says Romana. "It is also important if parents think there is any chance their child may be falling ill during the exam period to make sure they see a doctor and get proof they can produce when they need to."

And Cosima's advice to students? "Just be around on results day," she says. "It is worth it to see the culmination of those two years' work."


'I was shivering in bed. My exams were suddenly unimportant'

It was the weekend before my first A-level exam. Realising the amount I had to know for the exams dramatically outweighed the time I had left to learn it all, I began a mad frenzy of cramming. This had been my quite successful revision technique for years. But as I was about to find out, it is not foolproof, nor is it good for your health.

It was the summer of 2009: the summer of my A-level exams and of swine flu. Then, two nights before my first exam, I started repeatedly throwing up.

On Sunday morning, I was shivering and coughing in bed, with a fever, unable to eat or to sit up to drink, and incapable of revision. My history and German exams the next day were suddenly remote and unimportant. But they were, of course, important; my 13 years at school had led up to these exams, and the next years of my life depended on them.

I was predicted 3 As, and needed 3 Bs to get a place at Edinburgh, where I had my heart set on going. So my mother texted my teachers to explain I was not going to be able get into school, let alone write two exams.

One of my history teachers, Ms Ellis, contacted my mother straightaway. She explained that a doctor's note was needed for each day I missed an exam, and hopefully the exam board would decide my grade based on my predicted grade, my AS results and the results of the exams I was well enough to sit.

On Monday, a doctor came to me. After examining me, he wrote a letter confirming I was unfit to take the exam.

My next exams were on Wednesday: a German exam, followed by English literature. I decided I had to try and sit them, especially the German one as I had missed one and missing another would mean retaking the subject the following year. The German exam began OK, but once I got to the German language essay in the last hour I was having trouble holding the pen. I wrote as much as I could, but could tell I was making grammatical mistakes and my arguments were a delirious mess.

Sitting an English literature exam that afternoon felt like running a marathon on stilts. I managed one essay and two paragraphs of the second essay, then couldn't continue.

I had to get another doctor's note later that day so that the school could again apply for "special consideration". I had a history exam the next day, then seven days before my next one.

I got my place at Edinburgh with three As, but the experience gave me a harsh lesson in the dangers of last-minute revision, and a reminder that you have to be prepared for the worst.

During the wait for my results, I worried if I didn't get three Bs, I would have to reapply the following year, as Edinburgh was my lowest offer and my first choice. This would mean a high chance of not getting into Edinburgh the second time round. Yet the experience put the importance of exam results into perspective. A lot depends on them. But they should not take over your life. Friends, family, happiness and health are what matter. You can resit an exam, but you can't resit the rest of your life.

Cosima Canneti

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