‘It’s critical our young people experience exams pressure’

As I wandered past the Newsom Hall last month, past a large group of our Year 13 pupils sitting their Biology A Level mock, I felt a rather odd sense of happiness and even satisfaction.  I pulled myself up short - how could anyone possibly take pleasure from seeing these young people furiously scribbling away, brows furrowed, towards a hard deadline in just under an hour’s time?  Well, with the prospect of real exams again this summer, our mock exam candidates are back on the path towards a proper summer of striving for the best grades possible, and the satisfaction of collecting the results of their own efforts, as tested in the exam hall. 

From the outset of this pandemic, when the summer 2020 exams were cancelled, a great deal of thought, comment and work has taken place on the vexed subject of public examinations.  As our mid-year exam season, including mock exams for Years 11 and 13, concludes and pupils begin to shift their focus towards completion of their courses and the real exams in the summer, it may be worth pausing a moment to consider some of the questions being asked. 

Do important exams at 16 and 18 put too much pressure on children, creating stress and mental ill-health?  Are they a fair way to assess their academic abilities?  Do they reliably distinguish between children of different abilities?  Are there any benefits to pupils’ being required to learn volumes of information rather than just skills?  Are there other, better ways of achieving our goals?  Nationally, over a quarter of GCSE candidates don’t achieve grade 4 passes in English and Maths - should we reform the assessment or change the teaching?

There is a vocal constituency that would have all exams for school-age pupils scrapped altogether, and now there is a growing centre of gravity centred on the perceived unfairness of GCSE and A Level exams in light of unequal access to education during the pandemic.  There are many different angles to the arguments for wholesale reform or scrapping of exams at ages 16 and 18, but it is true to say at the moment that almost anyone you talk to on this will voice some form of dissatisfaction about the system as it stands today. 

It is worth remembering that complaints about exam systems are as old as the hills.  In the days before GCSEs, O Levels were divisive because they were not accessible to all children.  GCSEs and A Levels then suffered not only from needing to assess a much bigger range of pupils, which is very difficult to do with one assessment system, but also from rampant grade inflation, as the introduction of school league tables incentivised ‘teaching to the test’ and gaming of the system.  And there have been legions of complaints from parents and schools about variable quality in exam marking and grading. 

So here are my thoughts on exams.

Firstly, exams are important for the sake of learning.  Boys, in particular, tend to benefit from the pressure to focus on their academic work for a period in the lead up to exams.  Exams encourage all pupils to learn facts and information, yes, and also the skills which can then be developed to use their knowledge.  The requirements for A Level knowledge and skills are set out by universities which need students ready for demanding degree courses.

Secondly, there is no fairer system than exams of assessing pupils on a combination of their ability, commitment to their studies, and aptitude.  Appropriate concessions are made for pupils with learning difficulties but beyond that it is up to each of them to show what they can do.  Certainly we have learned, again, over the last two years that schools should not decide the results for public qualifications - too many conflicts of interest arise. 

Thirdly, exams are undoubtedly a contributor to stress at certain times in pupils’ school careers, but to lay problems with children’s mental health at the door of exams would be a misdiagnosis.  After all, exams have been around for a long time; it is other things which have changed, and social media is an obvious problem, especially in times of isolation.  Indeed, I think it is critical that our young people do actually experience the pressure, sometimes panic, in preparing for and sitting exams.  The experience may not be pleasurable at the time, but a sense of satisfaction is certainly possible and important life-lessons are learned about how to cope. 

So I urge caution on exam reform.  We have not long ago been through substantial change to GCSEs and A Levels, as Michael Gove led the toughening up of exams in terms of their structure and content. 

In my view, restless ongoing reform would only achieve uncertainty and gobble up resources that are better deployed in the actual teaching of our young people.