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Staff 'to blame' for exam stress

Bruce Harris suggests that teachers could be doing far more to relieve the pressure on secondary-school pupils who are currently sitting their GCSEs

Schools must accept much of the blame for the large number of GCSE candidates who are entering exam halls this week poorly prepared and suffering from frayed nerves.

Research I have conducted in six very different Midlands secondaries suggests that many of the most serious problems facing pupils in their GCSE years are created and sustained by schools themselves.

Most of the 678 pupils who completed my questionnaire believe that coursework, homework and revision should be better organised and supported.

The difficulties caused by the burden of work lurching from very heavy to very light throughout the two GCSE years were mentioned so frequently, and so emphatically, that they cannot simply be dismissed as the sour grapes of a few careless or disillusioned pupils.

"Having uneven homework" was named as a "big problem" by 60 per cent of Year 11 pupils and a "problem" by a further 19 per cent.

Asked if there should be a homework agreement between teachers and pupils to ensure that the work was reasonably spread and handed in at regular intervals, two-thirds of pupils said "yes" and a further 25 per cent "maybe".

More than three-quarters of the pupils (77 per cent) said that they were in favour of a Year 11 revision plan and 57 per cent felt that there should be a "quiet room" in which to do revision or other schoolwork at lunchtime.

A quarter of the 60 pupils I interviewed in greater depth finished with fewer than 40 GCSE points (where A*=8 points, A=7, B=6 and so on).

And 13 of the 15 pupils concerned were not working to a specific revision timetable between March and May of last year.

Many of the pupils who were interviewed also complained that their teachers were too subject-centred and that there was a lack of communication between departments. Coursework and homework assignments were, therefore, allowed to clash.

The complaint was levelled by pupils in each of the schools I surveyed - three large comprehensives, two single-sex selective schools and one independent.

Several of the 15 staff I interviewed accepted that departments did not talk to each other as much as they should and that homework timetables were often completely disregarded.

Most of them, however, appeared to feel that revision was the business of the individual rather than the school.

Some teachers believed that coursework problems were usually the result of pupils' lack of organisation. And a few teachers referred to the demands of exam boards, arguing that deadlines had to be related to outside influences.

The overall picture was one of thinly veiled chaos, with radical disagreements even among staff in the same school.

During the course of the project - which ran from July 1995 to September 1996 - I presented two detailed reports to the schools. By the time the second of these was submitted, in late January 1996, a good deal of information was available, and the schools still had time to act upon it before the exams.

Nevertheless, only one school (one of the comprehensives) stated categorically that it was acting on the evidence submitted.

The percentage of its pupils obtaining five or more A-C grades rose from 44 per cent in 1995 to 56 per cent in 1996. And while it would be presumptuous to claim that the rise was entirely due to the research project's reports, the difference is rather more than can be explained by the usual variations from year to year.

The school itself has said that the project's suggestions were important in understanding the real needs of pupils.

Some of the most pressing needs relate to coursework. The cluster of deadlines at the end of the year creates considerable problems, forcing pupils to postpone their revision.

Nearly two-thirds of the Year 11 pupils said that coursework deadlines should be spread out over the whole year, rather than concentrated at the end.

Furthermore, the habit of allowing constant extensions to handing-in dates irritated pupils who did produce their work on time, since they felt others had been given an unfair advantage.

The lack of consistency in teachers' approach to setting and marking both coursework and homework also confused pupils. Some teachers would mark work and hand it back to be done again, while others would only mark what the pupil submitted as the final versions.

Equally, although some teachers set homework separately from coursework, others drew little distinction between the two.

In any case, for pupils who were usually taking with eight or nine subjects, the business of keeping track of what was homework and what was coursework, who wanted what methods used to do the work, and when and how work should be submitted, was frequently an intricate and frustrating challenge.

In general, the research highlights the fact that schools need to know what difficulties their pupils are experiencing and emphasises that they have the power in their hands to eliminate those obstacles that stem from superfluous bureaucracy or a lack of internal communication and organisation.

Bruce Harris, a doctoral student at the Warwick University Institute of Education, is a former Nottinghamshire secondary teacher.

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