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Time to put the stress on change

The sun is out, so it must be the exam season. If Chris Price has his way, youngsters will sit the daunting number of exams in April and May and do revision when the weather is less distracting. They could gain university places on actual, rather than predicted, grades and avoid hay fever.

Mr Price, a former principal of Leeds Metropolitan University and Labour MP, chaired a commission on the school year which has recommended six shorter terms - Easter would be reduced to a long weekend but the summer holiday kept at five or six weeks.

Parents and the travel industry like the idea, but the churches and the unions don't. In any case it will be up to local authorities, schools, universities and exam boards to make the changes. So don't hold your breath.

It's not just teenagers who are stressed by exams. Tony Wright, an Open University tutor specialising in stress management, reckons that parents are now more anxious about results than their offspring. Parentline Plus, a helpline charity, said it had received thousands of calls from parents tearing their hair out about forthcoming exams.

Dr Wright said adults want their children to get good marks because they feel it is a reflection of their parenting skills. Yet many are ignoring advice from the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, the country's larest exam board. It warned against bribing children to get good grades as "crude incentives" piled unnecessary pressure on candidates.

"Parents have to remember they can't take the exams for their children and that undue pressure from them can have a very negative effect," said Dr Wright.

There is a growing backlash against exam proliferation. John McIntosh, head of the London Oratory in Fulham where Euan Blair, son of Tony, is deputy head boy, is not putting any lower-sixth-formers in for AS-levels this summer.

In the private sector, the Rev Leo Chamberlain, head of Ampleforth College, the Roman Catholic boarding school near York, said AS-levels had done the most damage to extra-curricular activities. "We have the most examined pupils in the world and I think it is a Gradgrind nonsense."

Graham Able, head of Dulwich College in south London, agrees. He questions the relevance of GCSEs as school-leaving exams now that most pupils stay on; and AS-levels can be used by universities to offer places.

With so much pressure on pupils, it is not surprising that they are taking advantage of new technology. The Times revealed "a global network of time-zone cheats" who use the Internet or text messaging to pass on exam secrets. Plus ca change: was there ever a cheat-free zone?

Diane Spencer

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