Who are exams really for?

Exams are more about accountability systems than authenticity of student learning and harm well-being

Chris Jeffrey Head of Bootham School in York and Chair of the HMC Well-being Group

In 2016, Mental Health Tsar, Natasha Devon, suggested that the UK public exam system was a significant cause of the spiralling crisis in teenage mental health.  “Time and time again young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health.” She was sacked shortly afterwards.

All of us who work in secondary schools recognise the truth in her words. Indeed, the HMC Wellbeing Group’s research supports this. In a 2019 survey the most serious causes of concern in terms of student wellbeing were ‘pressure to achieve’ and ‘exam related stress’; 59% cited the former as a ‘significant or very significant concern’ within their schools and 52% the latter. 

At a symposium chaired by Natasha Devon in Whitehall in 2015 we were asked what one thing could be done to improve the mental health of the nation’s teenagers. I had no hesitation in saying “scrapping GCSE exams”. I believe that more strongly now than I did then.

Ramping up the pressure

At GCSE the pressure has been ramped up by successive governments who use results to hold state funded schools to account. Performance tables, the EBacc and Progress 8 were, after all, primarily designed to judge the effectiveness of schools not the students who comprise them. GCSE results in particular are the most important measure of the ‘success’ or worth of our maintained schools. The drive to ensure the best results possible is unwittingly much more to do with what’s best for schools within the prevailing accountability structure than what’s best for young people. 

This is true of private schools as well. Public exam results are a crucial factor in how schools publicise their value to prospective parents, whose money is needed to keep those schools alive. I know; I have run two over the past 16 years. Having been a teacher for 32 years, I am still young enough to remember a time when a school’s results were not to be found anywhere in its publicity material, and when to ask how the school ‘performed’ in such exams would have been considered unreasonable, if not downright rude!

Our young people now pay the price for the pressures that accountability structures put on schools. This price is too great for 13-16 year olds to pay with their mental health.

The creeping spread of pressure

How do leadership teams, under continual pressure from the DfE to ‘raise standards’, or from the market to recruit more pupils than the rival schools in the area, avoid passing that pressure on to their teachers and their pupils?  

How do Subject Leaders, under pressure from school leadership to maintain or improve results for inspectors or performance tables or marketing purposes, avoid passing that pressure on to their colleagues? 

How do individual teachers, under pressure from their subject leaders, school leaders  and the prevailing system to help their students get the best results possible, avoid passing that pressure -however unwittingly- on to their students?

In short, how far is the pressure felt by young people over public exams really anything to do with their personal worth and their prospects? And how far are they the victims of a system that claims that it has their best interests at heart, but really doesn’t?

False pressure is still pressure

The same sort of issue can be found at A Level. Grades required for university entry have risen inexorably over the past twenty years, despite the increased competition caused by lifting the admission cap and a declining birth-rate. Nonetheless, very many courses appear to be raising their standard offer grades not dropping them. Whatever happened to the law of supply & demand? 

Anecdotal evidence from schools is that, in reality, students can afford to drop a grade or two for many courses and still be accepted; official figures from UCAS show something similar. The key question is: are large numbers of aspirational students being put under more pressure than is necessary so that universities can look more exclusive than they actually are?

The pressure on young people that is baked-in to A Levels because they are the main currency for university admissions is both unnecessary and highly unreasonable. Once again, it is the young who are paying the price – often by way of a toll on their mental and emotional health – for flawed national policy.

It is exciting to me, therefore, to see increasing momentum behind Post Qualification Application at last. It is just as exciting to see a campaign such as Rethinking Assessment beginning to roll and attract some seriously heavy hitters.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against rigorous assessment or exams that really matter or putting young people under reasonable pressure to show what they are capable of; all those things are part of a worthwhile education. But I am against a system that pretends it is primarily there to meet the best interests of the country’s young people and help them secure their future when it really isn’t. I’m especially against it when it ends up doing many of them more harm than good.

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