Skip to main content

'We must take the heat out of the exam system'

We need assessment – but surely we can avoid these high-stakes exams that damage student wellbeing, says Geoff Barton

Why do we have to assess students in a way that puts their mental health at risk, asks ASCL leader Geoff Barton

Let’s begin with a statement of the obvious. Exams are stressful.

There may, of course, be a few lucky individuals out there who genuinely enjoy the challenge of sitting in an exam hall for a couple of hours, desperately trying to recall facts they have crammed into their minds while trying to sound intelligent and articulate in the process.

But for most of us – whatever our age – exams are an anxiety-inducing, stomach-churning ordeal.

Let’s hold on to that statement of the obvious as we consider some of the observations made by senior figures in the education fraternity during the start of this exams season.

First up was Roger Taylor, chair of exams regulator Ofqual, who, in an interview in Tes last week, declared that higher exam stress is likely to be down to “mentally fragile” pupils rather than GCSE and A-level reforms.

“Rising levels” of underlying anxiety meant students were finding it “more difficult” to deal with intrinsically stressful episodes such as exams, said Mr Taylor.

Apparently, it’s nothing to do then with the fact that GCSE reforms mean that a typical student sits about eight hours more of those intrinsically stressful episodes at the end of their course than under the old system. Apparently, it’s nothing to do with the increased content and difficulty of the exams and it’s also nothing to do with the high-stakes nature of an all-new grading system pinned to government proclamations of "rigour", which serves to judge the student, judge the teacher, judge the head and judge the school.

Second up was Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s chief inspector, who warned that talking to pupils about Sats tests can make them feel more anxious.

“Good primary schools manage to run key stage tests without children even knowing that they're being tested," she said. “Seven-year-olds might say: ‘Oh, we did a maths booklet today.'”

In reality, of course, it would hardly be possible for children to participate in written tests at key stage 2 without noticing that things are different. After all, there’s a formidable 136-page battery of regulations insisting that certain conditions be enforced (such as normal classroom notice boards being covered up), with teachers instructed to open the sealed papers in a certain way. How could this possibly feel like a normal lesson?

Making exams less stressful

So we would respectfully suggest that it is these tests that are the cause of any anxiety rather than the deeply human sense of reassurance given by a teacher who might say to her pupils in advance: "Good luck."

Third up was Damian Hinds, secretary of state for education, who wrote in the Yorkshire Post that exams were a great opportunity to equip young people with resilience and coping strategies.

He wrote: “One of the key things our reforms have done is strip away endless modular exams that meant too many pupils were sitting exam after exam during their GCSE years. Pupils now have at least two full years of study before they sit their GCSE exams, so they get a thorough grasp of the subject before being tested on it. This level of preparation should mean less stress, not more.”

So, there we have it. The government, it seems, has actually done young people a favour by requiring them to sit all their exams in a single prolonged marathon at the end of their courses.

How on earth does anyone think that assessment has to look and feel like this?

Now, to be fair, all three of these individuals are endeavouring to make reasonable points.

Mr Taylor is right in saying that we live in an era in which the incidence of mental health issues among young people is rising. There are complex reasons why this is happening and it isn’t just down to exams.

Similarly, Ms Spielman is entirely correct that schools need to do their best to ease the pressure on children taking Sats tests (and most already do so). And Mr Hinds is right that some pupils cope better with terminal exams than with modular testing.

But surely we also need to recognise that there is a real problem about our national obsession with making young people sit high-stakes exams, and that this is having an impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

There is plenty of evidence for this. For example, the Association of School and College Leaders conducted a survey last summer in which nine in 10 school and college leaders said that reformed GCSEs have created greater levels of stress and anxiety among their students.

And The Independent reported on a Mumsnet poll this week, in which nearly two in three parents surveyed said exam pressure is affecting children’s mental health. Can all these parents and schools leaders be wrong?

This isn’t because young people are mentally fragile, or because schools are heaping pressure on them.

It is because exams are stressful by their nature. We set great store by GCSE and A-level results in terms of onward progression and future careers; there has been a conscious decision by the government to make exams more rigorous and students know all this because they live in the world.

We simply must find ways of taking the heat out of the exam and testing system.

Note that I am not advocating abandoning the whole thing. We are always going to need some way to assess the knowledge, skills and aptitude of students. But we must look at how we lower the stakes in the short term and think deeply about how we can create a better system for the future which is more tailored around the needs of young people, of society’s needs, and contains fewer qualification cliff-edges.

Just because we ourselves sat high-stakes academic exams doesn’t mean this is set in stone for all future generations. With evidence, ambition and political courage, it is possible to change things.

And the toll that our current examination system is taking on the mental health of young people – whatever some people may say – suggests it is our urgent responsibility to do so.

Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you