A generation sick of being guinea-pigs

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Laura was crying again. "I just can't cope anymore. What am I going to do?", she confided. She used to be really bubbly and fun-loving, but was getting worse by the day. I hardly recognised her anymore, she had lost so much weight. She was 17, but looked more like a 10-year-old.

Laura was just one of my friends in a year group that had started to crack up. Another friend, Sarah, took an overdose of paracetamol. She survived, but was forced to leave the sixth form because her parents were worried that the stress may be too much for her. Within a year, Year 12 had lost 16 pupils.

The rest of us who were mad enough to stay on to A2 were on the brink of breakdown. Whoever said that being a teenager was the best time of one's life? After year upon year of exams, I felt lethargic and uninterested in doing anything that demanded energy or imagination. I used to be in a drama group but gave it up, like many of my other hobbies and interests. When I got home from sixth form I was too tired; I just wanted to sleep. Why? Was it laziness? No, I was suffering from stress. And all because of - yes, you've guessed it - the new A-level system.

It wasn't just us students who were getting close to nervous breakdown. Many of my teachers had taken time off because of stress.

One teacher, who could usually cope with anything, broke down in tears in a lesson. She said she felt unprepared to teach the new AS-level, which had been rushed in with such unseemly haste. I'm sure it was guilt, rather than any feeling of inadequacy, which caused her tears. She felt she was letting us down.

Did the Government plan these changes at all? Most of my year thinks it didn't. Otherwise why would they decide to use us, of all people, to introduce yet another set of exams? We are, after all, the notorious "guinea-pig generation" that has had key stage tests inflicted on us at seven and 11, with the new AS and A2s piling in on top of GCSEs.

Then there's the exam grades fiasco, which has driven some I know close to despair. Will we ever know whether the grades we were awarded were right?

Is it any wonder a lot of my mates have developed eating disorders and have been queuing up to see counsellors? Some people in my year have given up on the education system altogether and have withdrawn their UCAS applications. We have been experimented on and tested too much. Tested almost to destruction in some cases.

"At least we'll have a better chance of getting into a good uni," Laura told me. She was talking about the Government's promise that AS- levels would increase students' diversity, which is what universities supposedly want. Except that, when we talked to admission tutors at a higher education day in Harrogate, we got a bit of a shock. The majority of universities said they would only consider giving students a place if they had the full A2-level in the subject they wanted to continue with at degree level. Most of the universities I spoke to actually wanted students to have three full A2s. So much for increasing diversity.

This has left me and my friends wondering if all the stress we went through was worth it. For me the answer is no. Right now, I'm taking a year out to catch up on some of the experiences I missed out on during my A-levels.

I'm also working part time to save up some money, so maybe I won't have to take out six loans to pay my way through university. What's next for us? Sky-high top-up fees that would make it impossible for people like me to go to university? Will the Government ever slow down and stop changing the education system constantly? It is too late for Laura and the others, but, for the sake of those who come after us, I sincerely hope so.

Kate Turner is due to start an English language degree at Newcastle University next autumn

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