Pens Down: are we seeing the end of the handwritten exam?

Schoolchild writing on exam sheet

The prospect of GCSEs and A Levels is understandably daunting. Cast your mind back to your exams - I’m sure many recall an aching hand from handwriting essay answers in a history paper, or reeling off a quote-filled response to an English literature question. I wonder: was that the last time you wrote anything substantial in longhand?

There has been a bubbling debate within education around the merits of handwriting versus typing on a computer, especially with regards to important examinations. Certain school exam boards, such as Edexcel, will be allowing pupils to type their GCSE English exams from 2025*. AQA has also announced that GCSE Italian and Polish will be assessed digitally in 2026, with plans to expand the list of subjects thereafter.**

The question is, does this matter? Are we losing something if the art and skill of handwriting fall into disuse? 

Traditionally, writing by hand is much valued, so it is taught rigorously from an early age. It helps us learn about letters, how they look and sound, and their shape, all of which link together to promote literacy, communication, and fine motor skills in our youngest learners. We all, in some capacity, have to write by hand in our daily lives and it seems unlikely we’ll give that up entirely in the near future.  

Quite a lot of research over many years also shows that we are more likely to learn and remember when we write - it is, after all, a more personal and immersive experience, making a piece of paper ‘our own’ through the skills of our hands, errors and all!  

However, it could also be argued that opening up public examinations - and other assessments - to digital media offers the opportunity for the use of skills that are more practical and applicable to the work of the future. Being able to type speedily, and format well-presented documents to promote clear and timely communication, is something that we all do day-to-day in the modern workplace. It is unlikely that your boss or shareholders would ask for your latest report to be handwritten, after all…

In addition, pupils are used to working with technology in their learning, so having access to a computer during exams is likely to make them feel at ease and help them perform to the best of their ability.  The use of a computer to type during exams can also make them more accessible to children with different learning needs. In fact, typing on a computer is a common allowance for children with dyslexia and for pupils who may, for other reasons, be unable to write. If typing is right for them, it may be right for everyone. 

At Dame Allan’s, every pupil has a Chromebook, through which they can research, access assignments, complete their work, and receive feedback. Does it not stand to reason that this familiar environment should be extended to their most important assignments? 

Despite being of the pen and paper generation, I’ll admit that I can see the merits of moving to a digital exam system.  However, I hope that handwriting does not become a lost art. There is still something special about receiving a handwritten thank you note or birthday card, that simply cannot be captured in size 12 Times New Roman.