GCSE results: 'The exam cycle shrank my happiness'

Taking GCSEs last summer was like being in a washing machine – my joy of life was washed away, writes one student

GCSE results day

My GCSE experience was like being a T-shirt in a washing machine. 

By the end of my "wash", I was an ideal student, having had most of my imperfections cleansed by textbook knowledge and sterile individuality.

But during the cycle, my happiness shrank. 

I completed my GCSEs last summer and experienced the mixed economy of old and new GCSEs, seeing little disparity between revision techniques and testing regimes used for the letter- and number-graded systems.

Whatever courses we were doing, those of us with a commitment to diligence as the deliverer of success became trapped in a cycle of revising alone for hours on end. Of course, we expected to work harder than usual during exam season but for myself and many friends, the extent of our labours became unhealthy.

I'm not claiming that my GCSE experience has been all negative. I have, of course, learned that one cannot write from 7am to 9pm without developing a wrist strain, which resulted in having five-minute wrist breaks every half an hour during exams. I have also learned that keeping your brain active from 7am to 9pm can lead to a problem sleeping and that going to exams without rest is highly stressful.

It will come as no surprise that I spent a lot of my exam season drugged up on paracetamol and sleeping tablets. And I was not the only one. 

Less sceptically, however, I would like to note that GCSEs have given me a good grounding for entering my A-level courses. I now have an idea of the difference between a healthy and unhealthy work ethic and an understanding that academic success isn’t the only form of happiness.

GCSE stress

And yet it is still worth asking: what caused so many students like myself to descend into a state of isolating over-work? Many never truly think that they'll fail their GCSEs, so perhaps it's a sense of competition between friends? Or maybe the fear of disappointing family? The fear of limiting opportunities? The reason for becoming so driven differs for many teenagers.

My pessimism regarding exam seasons is not a plea for an educational revolution in which exams are cast away and replaced with a "be happy" hippy ethos. Society clearly needs a method of assessing the academic ability of individuals and this is largely achieved through the use of such exams. But greater support is needed for all students rather than just those failing academically, which could be achieved through teacher encouragement becoming less of a general broadcast and more individualised.

The sort of homogeneous encouragement I allude to is encapsulated in the phrase "Just do your best". What does this "best" effort refer to? Does it mean the best for my academic grade or is there "best" for myself, too? This measurement of "bestness" is so flimsy that it can be interpreted as watching TV all day to better one’s wellbeing or in my case working every hour possible. It is an inconspicuous phrase which is seemingly encouraging but realistically harmful.

The problem of exam stress is ongoing in schools – and despite my experiences, it could have been intensified even more by the new GCSEs: fewer past papers are available to practise with, there is more curriculum to master, more cliff-edge exams. I have a 14-year-old friend who is entering Year 10 this year. Last week, she asked me if I would be willing to help her revise and answer some GCSE exam questions. The fact that the prospect of exam season has sparked anxiety two years prior to the exams themselves is rather daunting. For many, it's the build-up to the exams, the extensive revision and anxiety, which is the issue, not the actual sitting of exams.

So now I stand on the outside watching the washing machine drone on through its next cycle. I see teenagers similar and dissimilar to myself entering. Some will exit pristine, the process of exams fitting them well. Others won’t be washed, they will refuse to be sanitised and will end up tarnished by the fact they have no grades to show. Then the ones like myself may be shrunk: they may attain good grades yet have their joie de vivre washed away.

Amelia Davidson is a sixth form student at a grammar school in the south east of England

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