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Senior Head's Blog: Exams & Mental Health

Senior Head's Blog: Exams & Mental Health


Thursday 13 June is one of the 'contingency' days for public exams. These are put in place in case there is a significant national situation that means that some exams cannot be taken on the day for which they are set. There is another one of these set for June 26. In addition, following the impact of Covid, each subject's exams are now stretched further apart, in order to enable students to be awarded a grade even if illness means that they might miss one of the papers. Although these are sensible steps, it does result in a more elongated exam period. In addition, whereas it used to be the case that almost all subjects would have no more than two written papers at GCSE or A Level, this has now crept up to three written papers in quite a lot of subjects.

I have been hugely impressed by the determination and hard work shown by the vast majority of our students throughout this exam period this summer. It is a test of perseverance as much as of skill or knowledge at times, and there has been a really good sense of achievement from students working their way through their exam programmes. What I want to ask, though, is whether we really need this many examinations? I am just old enough to have been in school at the crossover between O Levels and GCSE exams, and one of the great new things that GCSE exams promised was continuous assessment, in order to reduce the pressure of the terminal exam. I remember my English Literature was done as 100% coursework, so there were no exams at all for this subject.  

As the years have rolled by, and we have seen increasing issues with teenage mental health (just today, Keir Starmer has promised support in every school in the country for adolescent mental health), you would have thought that the number of exams and the pressure on those final papers would have been reduced. Instead, perhaps because coursework has not been as effective as hoped, the opposite has become the real situation. More exams, more testing and greater pressure at the end of the course. Meanwhile, back in 1988 (year one of GCSE), it was still fairly common for students to leave school at sixteen and go out to seek employment. O Level and GCSE qualifications really mattered in this situation, because it was the final qualification taken by many. Now, with an expectation that all will remain in education until the age of eighteen, that is no longer the case, and yet, with grade inflation, and then the new number system, it appears that GCSEs matter even more than before.  

At A Level, after 2000, AS examinations were made part of the final A Level. Initially, it was felt that this was spreading the assessment and reducing the pressure on students. Their grades were awarded across the two years of the course, and they had the opportunity to resit if things did not go according to plan. However, with grades on the rise, and competition increasingly intense as more and more were now going to university, what did it mean for an exam not to go according to plan? Students were often ending up sitting the same paper three times, to try to get the best possible grade. The culture became one of perfectionism, leading to increased pressure. Eventually the modular approach to A Levels was ditched, and we went back to what had been there before, except that several subjects retained three papers now, rather than the two from the previous A Level format.  

There are a huge number of factors affecting mental health in young people, from societal pressures, to social media and mobile phones, to global issues, and so on. It is never as simple as pointing the finger at just one thing, or making a single change. However, what I would want to see when education and assessment are discussed in political circles, as they might well be by a new Education Secretary, is that the starting point is a consideration of mental health and student wellbeing, rather than just how we can test what they know. After all, knowledge is almost certain to be a low value commodity in the coming years, whereas mental wellbeing, communication, creativity and teamwork are all going to be crucial and the way that we test currently often fails to understand this.

I will be writing next week in response to the policies being put forward in the parties' manifestos, once I have had a proper chance to digest the content.



Two girls in casual clothes in nook of bunk bed chatting

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