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The exams system doesn’t put children at its heart

Before embarking on exam reform, Ofqual should insist that all exam bodies undertake a mental health impact assessment, says Neil Roskilly

Exams, exam stress, pupils, secondary, GCSEs

Before embarking on exam reform, Ofqual should insist that all exam bodies undertake a mental health impact assessment, says Neil Roskilly

Last week, Saul Nassé, the chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, suggested that it’s good to have high-stress moments in education, such as external examinations, as these help to prepare children for life after school.

It’s a view from the school of hard knocks, in which what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and better prepared for the competitive career space beyond formal education. Many might sympathise, particularly if they too have successfully negotiated the system and are blind to others who have fallen by the wayside, but it’s not a position that many teachers will support, particularly those who have counselled a self-harming child or one threatening suicide.

At their theoretical best, exams allow children to show what they know, understand and can do. They can be a valuable part of education, rewarding children for their progress and supporting a lifelong love for learning.

Unfortunately, our examinations system doesn’t put children at its heart. From phonics and KS2 tests onwards, results are used to judge schools rather than help children’s learning. Headteachers have faced a bullet due to transitory dips in a school’s raw performance, with a data-driven inspectorate providing the ammunition. If heads are constantly looking over their shoulders, they are susceptible to the siren voices that serve to narrow the curriculum and diminish children’s educational experiences.

The love for learning, a genuine buffer against the effects of stress, is slowly being sucked out of our classrooms as we teach to the tests.

The one-chance-of-glory format of our exams only adds to the difficulties. Unsurprisingly, Beat, the eating disorders charity, reports more referrals to its support phone lines during the examination season. No one has yet discovered the smoking gun linking exams and mental ill-health, the relationship is too complex for that, but exams as they currently operate must sit among the perps in the dock.

Mr Nassé can’t be blamed for the constraints imposed by politicians that have gifted us a narrowing and often joyless curriculum, and an even narrower methodology for testing it. Yet examination reform should never be enacted until the impacts on mental health are researched.

One in eight children in England now suffer from a mental health disorder according to the NHS and that simply hasn’t been factored. The government’s laudable intention to have a senior mental health lead in every school is behind schedule and estimates suggest that only one quarter of children will be covered by 2023.

Only 40 per cent of teachers feel confident in recognising an eating disorder according to the National Institute for Health Research, while Young Minds reports that half of the children needing mental health treatment in 2017-18 waited more than 18 weeks following their initial assessment.

This isn’t a firm bedrock for reform and enacting systemic change without any consideration for the mental health of our children is simply untenable. Ofqual needs to insist that all awarding bodies undertake a mental health impact assessment before embarking on radical reform.

Neil Roskilly is the CEO at the Independent Schools Association

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