It’s an oppressively hot Monday morning in June. Outside the hall we frantically sift through flashcards, trying to absorb as much information as possible. The examiner silences and escorts us in single file towards impending doom: our English GCSE.
I was in Year 11 during the debut of the new exams and concerns about the changes that I saw expressed in the media did little to reassure me during this already stressful time.
In short, my peers and I felt like crash-test dummies – the "crash" being the exams that everyone thought we were destined to fail.
The overall results, though, were far less reflective of the drastic changes that had occurred than students and teachers had anticipated. Many students had excelled: 2,000 achieved level 9s (the highest possible grade) across all of the English and maths exams.
In my opinion, a major benefit of these exams is that they give students more of a level playing field. The previous system was tiered: students of a lower ability took less-complex exams as they had little hope of passing the exams that the higher-ability students took.
'Long-term benefits' of the new GCSEs
Last year, this was replaced with a one-paper-for-all system, specifically designed with an inclusive approach to enable everyone to gain some marks. Whereas the original system capped the grades of pupils in the lower tier at a C, the new exams give these pupils the opportunity, with extra-support and hard-work, to potentially achieve a higher grade.
In terms of whether the new exams have any long-term benefits beyond GCSEs, there are valid arguments on both sides. Following the announcement of the reforms, there was an enormous outbreak of criticism towards the then secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, for interfering unnecessarily and creating a system whereby students were set up to fail.
A year on from the first of the new exams and some still argue that English, in particular, has now become a test of memory rather than skill and that the requirement of students to be able to recall quotations from texts like A Christmas Carol or Romeo and Juliet is absurd as it will in no way equip them for the future.
Personally though, I feel that I have benefited from the new exams.
Students have always struggled with the step up from GCSEs to A levels; I did too at the beginning of Year 12. But I have quickly become comfortable with the more advanced and analytical approach that is required of A-level English students. I would attribute the ease of this transition (after the initial minor difficulties) to my experience with the new GCSEs. Having no coursework to rely on and being required to remember texts made it clear that I could not just cruise along through my exams. I needed to work hard, more so than I believe I would have done had I been sitting the old exams.
For me, the increase in pressure motivated me to work harder, helping me to achieve good grades at GCSE. Also, I developed a positive work ethic that continues to help me keep up with the fast pace of A levels.
Therefore, while the reforms did amplify the stresses of GCSEs, in the long-term I feel that the new exams do carry benefits, particularly for those going on to study A levels.
Kristina Wemyss is in Year 12 at The Rochester Grammar School