The Voice of the Students

We would do well to listen to those at the sharp end of our examination systems

Paul Smith Assistant Headteacher, Northampton School for Girls

How often do schools complain that they have systems imposed on them by the government, or civil servants removed from our daily experience at the chalkface? How often do we risk making the same mistake when running our schools?

Fortunately, when running a secondary school, there is more opportunity for students and parents to give feedback – when compared to the connection between school and government. This is either through the feedback we deliberately seek, or in other ways that we hadn’t sought.

I didn’t recognise its significance at the time, but late in 2019 I was assigned an Extended Project (EPQ) student to support and mentor. In our first meeting she unveiled her rather surprising hypothesis: “What is the future of GCSE assessment?”. She explained that her motivation for this assignment was her own experience of GCSEs and the associated expectations. Despite achieving successful results and starting her chosen A level courses, the GCSE grades achieved hadn’t quite matched the aspirational targets set by the school. Unwittingly, she had opened a can of worms with few rivals, even by 2020 standards.

My student chose the topic having recently experienced exam pressures and having seen the negative effects it had on the mental wellbeing of her peers. Her aim was to explore the alternatives to a large reliance on high stakes testing. The conjecture she gave included that “relieving exam pressure through carrying out frequent low stakes exams may prove fruitful and allow students to achieve better results.”

She continued: “There was very little research available into the effects of school exams on mental health. So my attention turned to the use of less pressured assessment methods.” She was able to find studies relating to college science and professional exams in law. There was also a guide to the possibilities of using video games for assessment purposes. The research base went deep into the different forms of assessment in her search for a fair, balanced system of qualifications. A survey of hundreds of students in Years 11 to 13 across different schools found that 80% felt that current assessment methods didn’t allow them to perform to the best of their ability. This included high-achieving students and also showed that over a third of students cited the negative effect on mental health of exam pressures either self-imposed or from school and parents.

The evidence for a range of alternatives to exam-based assessments was presented. This includes group exams, take-home exams, online exams and even video-game exams. At least two of these assessment methods were used by universities with undergraduate students in 2020. They contributed to the award of degrees in many cases when it wasn’t possible to sit in exam halls.

As I continued to (remotely) supervise her EPQ, I realised what a privilege it was to read and discuss her findings. As the 2020 exams were cancelled, her scope for further research grew exponentially until I had to persuade her to stop researching and actually complete the essay; the only challenge left was to stay within the word limit!

We all had to think more deeply about assessment methods in 2020. I was shocked at how many people inside and outside schools hadn’t realised that we have grade quotas for GCSE and A level awards. I always use the analogy of the driving test: imagine if the pass quota was two out of three across a week. The driver tested on a Friday afternoon could be unfairly failed if the quota is full. The real danger, to other road users, would be the driver who passed to make up the numbers.

The main conclusions of this EPQ student’s project were clear. “The combination of a technological revolution with the desire to relieve the negative pressures of exams can improve assessment.” She endorses the use of multiple methods for examinations at GCSE level so students aren’t restricted.

When we move on from the current exam system, we will benefit from the experiences of 2020 and 2021. There will also need to be consideration of the contribution of low stakes testing, teacher judgements and many other possibilities. This is an exciting time for us all when it comes to education as the appetite for improvements grows. We have to dig deep, listen to all stakeholders and make it fit for the future.

The last word has to be the voice of a student. Her EPQ research backs up the statement that “using a combination of methods in the future would be effective…relieving pressure…will encourage innovation, ensure they perform to the best of their abilities and produce the best results.”


Is mental health becoming a serious issue in exam students? William Farr C of E Comprehensive School (2018)

Do Open-Book Exams Impede Long-Term Learning in Introductory Biology Courses? Moore, Randy; Jensen, Philip A. Journal of College Science Teaching, v36 n7 p46-49 Jul 2007

Critical Perspectives on the Scholarship of Assessment and Learning in Law Volume 1: England, Page 109: Take-home exams: Developing professionalism via assessment Egle Dagilyte and Peter Coe

Are Video Games the future of Education? | Future Thinking | BRITLAB. Jessica Lindl (2015)

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