GCSEs and A Levels were never meant to be easy, but they're getting a whole lot harder

When did Exams Become so Toxic?

Peter Tait
June 2nd 2018

Exam season was never meant to be easy, but on social media and in conversations with teachers and students this week, it sounds like they are getting a whole lot harder.

The reformed GCSEs are no doubt responsible for some of the growing anxiety among students along with the move to summative assessment for A Levels, but even in  younger pupils, the SATS, long criticised for placing undue pressure on children, have been made more difficult. No longer is it enough to get everyone reading and writing by age 11, but children now need to learn amongst other requirements, grammatical terms (do they really have to know about relative pronouns relative clauses cohesion, ambiguity, the active and passive voice, ellipsis?)  At all levels, in our primary and secondary schools, the screws are tightening with greater pressure placed on schools centred around how their children fare in exams. No wonder assessment is driving learning like never before.

Of course there is the counter-argument that the various threshold tests and assessments provide a challenge for those students who have both the ability and specific instruction on how to pass exams. What is also clear, however, is that they offer little to those children who struggle to get their information / thoughts onto the page, those whose abilities are not measured in exams or who are simply not ready for this step up.  For them, SATS, GCSEs and A Levels must feel like mountains and hardly relevant to their worlds.

Making education relevant to all is crucial to the success of our education system: after all, the outcomes of schools are recorded in knife crime, in mental health statistics as much as in grades. Schools are not just for able, motivated and well-supported children, but also for the deprived, the angry and the abandoned, those children struggling for acceptance because of poverty, race, language or learning and behavioural difficulties.

Yet when we look at what is happening to our youth, most graphically in mental health figures, it is not the just the raised bar that is causing so much angst, but the ways in which tests are presented. For some time now,  our language when talking education and examinations has been little short of scare-mongering.  One response has been to survey schools to find the best ways of allaying stress (knitting being a popular suggestion) which seems to rather miss the point of what over-examining and setting the same challenging summative exams to all children is doing.

We sometimes forget from the vantage of middle-age how the parameters have changed, through the introduction of tuition fees, a shortage of jobs, extra competition for university places and the fear of debt, all of which have ratcheted up the pressure – and have contributed to such outcomes as the dramatic increase in mental illness statistics and  youth suicide.  In talking pejoratively of the snowflake generation, (and I believe this generation are more focused and hard-working than those that have gone before), too many adults conveniently forget that the pressures are quite unlike those of thirty years ago when students were provided a tertiary education by the state and a job at the end.

Inevitably, while we tell children that doing their best is all one asks for and that these tests will mean little in the run of things, they don’t believe you – and they are right not to do so.

Regardless of how they are presented, each test or exam has been made important to teachers and schools because that is how they are measured and the pressure placed on them is inevitably drip-fed down to students. League tables may have been introduced to measure progress and to hold schools accountable, but they have had unseen consequences that have made them toxic. The increase in cheating,  higher incidence of depression and mental illness in young children are all direct or indirect consequences of league tables whose influence continues to have a profound effect on the mental health of students and teachers.

League tables, debt, shortage of jobs and a financially precarious future makes a toxic brew for our young. It is not hard work that they fear, but the great beyond, the shame and despair of failing and seeing doors closing, and the pigeon-holing that happens often before childhood has really begun. We need to give our children more perspective and less hype. After all, exams are never so important as to risk your mental health or to give up your childhood for. The language that surrounds exams needs to change and to do that effectively, league tables at all levels need to be done away with.

About the Education Consultant

Peter Tait is a former independent school Head and is part of the William Clarence Education Advisory Board

William Clarence Education offers unbiased advice on UK School and University PlacementOxbridge AdmissionsUS College ApplicationsUCAS application and extensive support for parents and students in all aspects of preparing for entry to the UK. Please contact us on 02074128988 to discuss your particular needs, or email info@williamclarence.com