'GCSEs are a stepping stone, so why the pressure?'

We must re-evaluate the importance placed on GCSEs, so the stress doesn’t outweigh the benefits, says a Year 11 student

Mili Fretwell


It is exam season. Like thousands of others my age up and down the country, I have been glued to a textbook of sorts every waking moment over the past few weeks. Except this is not just a passing phase, a period of hard work for a couple of months. It has been ongoing since September. 

My final year of school has been lost to thinking about the next exam: mocks in November, some in January, and later a series in March.

Many of my cohort are going to college or have secured exciting apprenticeships, but it feels as though there is no space to focus on these opportunities. Nobody has the time to think beyond the exams.

We have had no trips for as long as I can remember. No workshops, no talks on taxes, politics or living independently. I know that my school will provide these later, and that our teachers will do everything they can to make sure we are prepared for adult life, but it sometimes feels like these topics should be at the heart of the curriculum, instead of squeezed in at a school’s discretion.

'Undercurrent of doubt'

Many of my friends and I stay behind an hour or two on top of the school day, up to three times a week, to attend intervention sessions run by the school. We have been doing this since the start of the academic year. Most of us are meeting our target grades already, but it feels like we should be doing everything we can.

We are undeniably very lucky to have the opportunity for extra help and it is something I do not take for granted. But why should students feel like they must stay behind for an entire year to succeed? If specifications laid out by exam boards are suited to purpose — giving teenagers the knowledge they need — timetabled lessons should make us feel competent enough. Instead, there’s an undercurrent of doubt; nobody likes to feel their efforts are inadequate. 

The "resilience" we need in the face of exams stops looking like an admirable quality and is completely unsustainable the more you analyse it. Recent statistics released by Childline prove that mental health problems are ever on the rise in young people, and teachers are leaving the profession in droves. What is the purpose in feeling so exhausted? 

GCSE 'panic culture' 

If A levels are more valuable and better regarded, the burden of exerting yourself for such a spread of GCSE subjects that serve to do nothing aside from put a number on a certificate should be evaluated. Its effects are immoral and bigger than you would believe. Stress with cause is bad, but understandable. However, stress for something that does not matter beyond being a stepping stone to the next stage is nothing short of a waste of time: time I could have spent learning about real things, like Year 11 had the chance to before the reforms, making plans for prom, or even just going out on a sunny day without guilt. We have plenty of time to work and study without being thrown in at the deep end whilst we are young. 

Despite our year-long efforts, my friends and I do not walk out of every exam hall feeling like we coped and managed with the questions. It is incredibly easy to resent not finding an extra half-hour at the weekend, or wishing you had woken up an hour earlier, having stayed up until the rest of the street was sleeping. There has to be a-cut off, but no matter how much preparation you do, the new assessment styles have a way of making you feel it was all inadequate. So why, if GCSEs merely boost you into further education and are then superseded within a year, have we studied solidly for a year and listened for a further four, still feeling anxious? If these don’t matter, who has taught us to be so stressed by them? Why is a panic culture being perpetuated? Why all the pressure?

Mili Fretwell is a Year 11 student based in West Yorkshire

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