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It's parents who really suffer from exam stress

Exam time is tough. No, not for teachers. Nor the students. It's the parents who really suffer.

My daughter is taking her GCSEs. It has been difficult, I can tell you. I haven't been able to go to the pub without feeling guilty. I can't even watch television when I want to and I have put in hours of empathetic revision when I could have been relaxing in the garden.

The trouble is that you have to set a good example. If I tell her she needs to curtail her socialising during the exam period, it's hardly fair for me to go out all the time.

Even if I stay in there are dilemmas. I know she needs a good working environment but does it have to be my favourite spot for reading? And how can I lecture her that revision is more important than watching Friends when she can hear me switching on the football?

I offered to test her but soon realised you actually need to know something about the Russian Revolution or the League of Nations before you can ask sensible questions.

This was how I found myself spending an entire sunny Saturday afternoon revising GCSE history while my daughter was, sensibly, out playing tennis. The really sad thing is that I rather enjoyed myself.

The poor girl returned home to a nostalgic reminiscence about the pleasures of O-level revision. Like marathon-running, the joy of cramming was that success was in exact proportion to the effort put in. When since has life been like that?

In fact, I was beginning to convince myself that the trouble with young people today was that they just didn't appreciate what fun exams were. Then I noticed just how much effort and anguish was going on her coursework and preparation for the art assignment.

I didn't do O-level art (apparently you needed to have progressed beyond drawing stick-men). It was probably just as well: the art master never got past "lesson one, perspective". Then it was pub time.

Anyway I digress and, as I am fond of telling my daughter, you don't get any marks for waffle. The point is this: it was the requirements of GCSE art that made me realise that exam are just too complicated these days.

Her art GCSE is split into coursework (60 per cent) and an "externally set assignment" (40 per cent). The fact that, between them, the art and design and technology coursework seemed to absorb 80 per cent of her non-sleeping and non-partying time was bad enough. But it is the externally set assignment that seems particularly cruel.

Students get the theme for the assignment eight weeks ahead of the exam. Great timing.

Just when you are trying to persuade them to knuckle down to revision they are launched into an intense period of brain-storming.

These past eight weeks my daughter and her friends have been entirely absorbed in agonising over, selecting, and then discarding a whole range of creative ways of illustrating the set theme. This may be a wonderfully imaginative process but what about all the other subjects? Not only does art dominate the eight weeks before the exams, it also bites a huge chunk out of the exam timetable itself.

The timed test part of the assignment takes four exam periods, totalling 10 hours, spread over four days. It's crazy: she can get a Latin GCSE for just three short papers and no coursework. Moreover, these 10 hours of exams are worth only a piddling proportion of marks for the assignment, as most are awarded for the "preparation" carried out in previous weeks.

Taking art alongside other GCSEs is like the circus act where the clown spins the plates while simultaneously juggling sharp knives.

Coursework, preparatory work, portfolios, and "externally set assignments": it's all so complex, demanding and incessant. I am sympathetic to the aims behind coursework but instead of reducing the stress of exams it seems to have added to it.

And it's not just the students who suffer. It's non-stop pressure for parents, too. I'm already gearing up for AS-levels next year and A2 after that. By then daughter number two will be taking key stage 3 national tests and it'll start all over again.

If household stress is gripping this country, I know where to lay the blame.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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