Pupils are 'crying in toilets' and 'breaking down in class' over tougher new GCSEs, warn students and teachers

One teenager's post on Facebook about the new GCSEs has been shared tens of thousands of times

Eleanor Busby

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Students are “crying in the toilets” and “breaking down in the middle of a lesson” because of the pressure of the tougher GCSE exams being taken this summer, according to a heart-felt post from a teenager. 

Emma Jameson, who will be taking her exams next month, has said that the major reforms to the GCSEs – which will be graded from 9 to 1 rather than A* to G – has been affecting the mental health of her peers. 

This summer, students will sit new GCSEs in English language, English literature and maths and will receive numerical grades for the first time. The rest of the subjects will change over the next few years.

Two petitions, which argue that GCSE students should not be expected to memorise maths formulas and numerous quotes from literature for the new exams this year, have attracted more than 200,000 signatures. 

In a post on the changes to the maths and English GCSEs – shared more than 28,000 times on Facebook – the teenager said: "At school, we are not taught about our subject or inspired to learn, we are informed of what examiners want to hear. It is a test of memory if nothing else.

"Despite support from teachers, they know there isn't much they can do as it is the government that puts pressure on them.

"It's not uncommon to see us roaming corridors with faded looks in our eyes or crying in the toilets and I've kind of got used to people breaking down in the middle of a lesson.

"Looking around a classroom 3 weeks away from exams, I see a group of kids slumped over desks with books closed and minds shut off to the work as well. We're all exhausted. 

She added: "If something doesn't change then I think this country may wake up one day to a mentally unstable generation that have no ability to think for themselves."

Teachers joined in on Facebook. One, Vic Skalez, said: “This is so sad. Feel your pain as a secondary teacher. Don’t know what to say other than thank you for your bravery.”

Another, Louise Hitchin , said: “As a teacher in a secondary school and as a mum I agree… being a teenager doing GCSEs now is extremely hard mentally, physically and emotionally.” She was joined by Sally Struth, who added: “You poor kid this is why I left teaching. Good luck.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said: “Regrettably I’m not in the least surprised that pupils are finding the new GCSEs particularly stressful. It is desperately sad to hear so many young people are stressed and not enjoying their education as a result. 

"Going back to the old-style memory test exams is highly stressful for many young people. That would be bad enough, but using a timed, exam at the end of two years’ worth of work will not give a true picture of what these young people have learned, the depth of their knowledge or the skills they have acquired.  This is not good for students’ and their long-term future and it is not good for the country either."

Rosamund McNeil, head of education at the NUT teaching union, said: "Emma’s experiences match what many members are telling us about the effects of the new syllabuses. 

"Teaching to the tests is coming to dominate much of the work at key stage 4. Some students are ‘switching off’, others are distressed in the way that Emma’s friends are.

"Whoever forms the next government needs to address these issues – educationally, and in terms of their impact on students, there are very serious problems with our GCSEs."

On Monday this week, MPs debated the new English literature GCSE exams after more than 110,000 people signed a petition calling for students to be allowed to bring texts into the exams.

During the Westminster Hall debate on the issue, Shadow education minister Emma Lewell-Buck said pupils with special education needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to be most affected by the changes.

She said students are "more stressed than ever before" and urged ministers to consider the impact of changes to exams on the mental health of teenagers.

Schools minister Nick Gibb rejected the call for open-book exams, saying the new plans will mean pupils are tested on their deeper understanding of the texts rather than their memories.

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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