I’ve been a staunch supporter of scrapping GCSEs ever since my first day in year 10 when I officially started preparing for them. Initially, I’ll admit this was out of nothing more than laziness — in the hope that I wouldn’t have to do them. If you’d asked me then why I wanted to see them scrapped, as my history teacher did, I’d have answered you in the same way I answered my history teacher: ‘I dunno … revision’s boring’. This slightly mediocre answer to his question made me wonder if there actually were legitimate reasons for scrapping GCSEs, so I did some research. And while my loathing for revision has remained the same, my reasons today for wanting to see GCSEs scrapped are radically different and, I would argue, much much stronger.
My first major issue with these exams and the one that I think makes GCSEs so harmful is their recorded impact on mental health. For example, according to a study conducted by the University of Manchester, almost 1 in 3 suicides in people under the age of 20 were by people facing imminent exams or imminent exam results. It was the second biggest contributory factor they uncovered. And when you look at that statistic in the context of all the recorded cases of GCSE-induced mental health conditions and suicides, you can see that GCSE students are among those most at risk. I find that absolutely staggering. If it were a weapon or a drug that was contributing to the deaths of young people on this scale, wouldn’t we ban it? If so, surely, we have a duty to scrap GCSEs.
After hearing about the damage these exams do to mental health, people often respond with: ‘Sure, exams are stressful, but life’s stressful and young people have got to get used to it’. Well, I agree. I think school should be hard, it should be a challenge and at times it should be stressful, but GCSEs aren’t just stressful, they are doing serious damage to most people’s mental health and causing some students to kill themselves. You can’t learn to your full potential if you’re dealing with depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts or anxiety (all of which GCSEs have been known to cause), and you can’t learn anything if you’re dead. That’s not a ‘tough’ education system, it’s just a resounding failure of one and a dereliction of the Government’s duty of care to young people. At best, GCSEs are a botched attempt at examination that is backfiring spectacularly; at worst, GCSEs are turning our country’s schools into industrialized slaughterhouses
The most ardent defender of GCSEs might now say: ‘Well yes, they’re tough, but there’s no way around that. We have to have some form of testing at 16’. I’ve already explained what GCSEs do to our mental health, the damage can be immense. So, I believe if you’re going to have exams you’ve got to have a concrete, unavoidable reason for it. I’m not convinced that that exists for GCSEs. After all, they were introduced in the 1980s as a school leaving exam when the school leaving age was 16. You’d do your GCSEs, then leave school straight after that. But now, you can’t leave full-time education until you’re 18, by which point you’ll have a qualification that supersedes your GCSEs anyway; whether that will be A levels, an apprenticeship or a college diploma.
So I ask: why do we do these antiquated school leaving exams two years before we’re actually allowed to leave education? The little purpose they may serve can easily be served with a simpler, less comprehensive set of exams, as I will explain later.
Furthermore, its well-documented that young people are currently undergoing a mental health crisis. The Government is fully aware. Despite this however, they recklessly chose to introduce a new (literally) suicide-inducing exam regime. But also, while Michael Gove’s reforms to the GCSE system were designed to make GCSEs more challenging, they have completely failed in doing so. Making exams harder doesn’t mean people learn more, they just learn worse. When GCSE maths was ‘reformed’, it was made so hard that one of the pass rates was 18 per cent. In other words, you can get almost every question wrong and still pass. That’s not making exams more challenging, it’s just making them meaningless. Two years of stressful study for a virtually meaningless qualification.
GCSEs serve little concrete purpose. Some students use them to apply for part-time jobs between the ages of 16 and 17, some use them to apply to colleges and apprenticeships. But both of those needs can be met without GCSEs. I’ve spoken to many employers about what they want from potential employees that are between 16 and 17 and they really aren’t interested in most GCSEs, they just want to know that you have good maths and English. This is corroborated by the fact that in 2015, the then head of the CBI, which represents 190,000 employers in the UK, called for GCSEs to be scrapped because, in short, they don’t serve their purpose. Furthermore, colleges and apprenticeships don’t get accurate information about those applying for places following GCSEs. As I’ve pointed out already, when pass rates are as low as 18 per cent, a GCSE in a subject means very little. Colleges and apprenticeships would get far more detailed and accurate information about applicants if we had a system focused more on teacher recommendation and less on one-off testing.
That’s why I believe that at 16, we should just have a basic maths and English qualification for all students and that any other additional information should come from teachers, rather than examiners. After all, who can provide better information on how able a student is; a teacher who has known the student for at least a year and spoken with them many times, or an examiner who has never and will never have had so much as a single conversation with them?
Scrapping GCSEs would provide us with a tremendous opportunity. Students could start spending more time learning more things, without needing to cram quotes for English essays or memorise convoluted exam technique for biology 6 markers. The new maths and English exams could take up as little as 25 per cent of teaching time. By scrapping GCSEs and reducing the endless testing in schools, the opportunities to improve education in the UK would be immense.
GCSEs are outdated, unnecessary and unbelievably damaging to young people’s mental health. The time has come to scrap them.