Next summer, the same as every year, thousands of students across the country will be taking their GCSEs in sweaty exam halls from Edinburgh to Exeter. For a few weeks students write on pages which will determine their A-levels, careers and, to a certain degree, success for years to come. As a nation we put immense pressure on 16- year-olds to succeed in these exams. With new reforms, however, which have been falling into place over the past few years, this becomes a more challenging goal. Exam stress is becoming more common among teens and is a huge issue for schools and parents, with its root cause being the more pressurised and exam-focussed classrooms.


What’s changed?

I first want to start by informing the readers who have previously sat their GCSEs about the recent changes. The whole grading system has changed from the A*-G system to the numerical 9-1 boundaries; with 9 being the equivalent of a high A* and 1 being the equivalent of a G. Furthermore, much of the coursework section has been dropped and exams are taken at the end of the two-year study period in comparison to end-of-module assessments. Content is also deemed to be more challenging with more substantial texts in English Literature and two new topics in Maths, as an example.

A botched curriculum

The first point I wish to make in relation to the title of this article is that I personally don’t believe that what the GCSE syllabus teaches is good preparation for life. It’s not to say that what is taught is not useful, interesting or practical. But the way in which students are meant to learn is neither interesting, useful, nor thought-provoking. GCSE exams favour and reward the regurgitation of knowledge, they fail to encompass creativity or free thinking.

For example, English Literature; an exam which, at first glance, would suggest deep thought and personal ideas. But for GCSE however, if good grades are what the candidate wishes to achieve, their creativity and free thinking is cut to be replaced by the regurgitation of previously formulated ideas and quotations which have been meticulously analysed and memorised prior to the exam. This shouldn’t be the way in which children get through education — all drilled into the same uninteresting mould with a significant lack of room for individuality, creativity or expression.

Thinking backwards

The new purely knowledge-based exam system is, for the most part, completely useless for anything besides GCSEs. Children should be taught to understand the content in front of them and question its relevance and credibility, rather than simply know what it is. More interestingly, the so-called ‘new’ system is not really new at all. It harks back to the days of O-Levels 30 years ago, that rewarded knowledge and knowledge alone; and so was changed for the better in 1988. Just because the exams are easy — supposedly the problems with the old GCSEs —  that is not necessarily a bad thing as long as students gain a passion for learning. There is certainly a reason why Finland is so often praised for its education system, as it doesn’t put pressure on students with exams but instead fosters their thoughts creating some of the most intelligent and well-educated people anywhere in the world.

Achieving a 9 in misery

Additionally, GCSEs have posed significant mental health problems for myself and a number of my peers.  A friend of mine for example, missed almost 14 months of school, which then extended into his first year of A- Levels. This depressive episode was caused by enormous exam pressure placed upon him by his school:

‘I felt swamped, like there was no escape from it’, he stated.

Another has been in school intermittently somewhat due to the overbearing nature of the GCSE course:

‘It evokes no joy … everything is the same, there is no life to anything’.

I myself experienced occasional periods of anxiety and sorrow due to the pressure brought upon by my GCSE course. Being constantly surrounded by accounts of people achieving top grades, it is demoralising and humiliating to some that they are told on a constant basis simply to achieve, not to be creative or express their ideas but to get grades and grades alone.

An unhappy correlation

Is it really right that as a society we can allow young teenagers to be degraded to the point of depression, self-harm and in some cases suicide? ChildLine processes thousands of calls from people under 19, many of which are about exam stress. In the 2016/2017 exam period it delivered over 3000 counselling sessions about exam stress — this is a 2 per cent increase from the previous year and an 11 per cent increase from just two years prior. The spike plausibly correlates with the new GCSE formulation, and although other factors may be present, the correlation has to be recognised.

A similar charity, Young Minds, published its counselling statistics showing that almost 40 per cent of its counselling sessions were related to exam stress. Furthermore, stress and anxiety is not just something which charities have to deal with, teachers too now have to delve into the realm of emotional support. Seventy-eight percent of teachers stated that they had observed increased levels of stress last year, as compared to the previous year, according to the NSPCC. Suicide rates among young people have also seen exponential rises of 67 per cent since 2010. Lucie Russel of the charity stated that:

‘For a child who has problems in other areas of their life, such as family breakdown or friendship issues, exams can be the “last straw”.

Take action!

So as your teachers continue to drill in knowledge which a day after your exam will be completely defunct. Be the change: Write to the Department of Education, bash Michael Gove on Twitter and do what you can to fight for a GCSE which works for all. But remember, don’t overstress. The world will still turn if you do not get that grade 9, as I have come to find out. That’s why I no longer care about achieving the top GCSE grades.