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OPINION - Exam stress is getting worse — we can’t go on like this

The pressure of exams is taking its toll  (PA Wire)
The pressure of exams is taking its toll (PA Wire)

Every year record numbers of children contact charities asking for help to manage exam stress. I’ve seen it happen myself — I’ve worked with teeangers in schools and colleges for the past 15 years. Exam stress is now all-consuming. We’re talking weeks or months of emotional distress. What follows tend to be problems with mental and physical health.

And every year, like clockwork, a smug, 50-plus commentator appears on television or the radio to talk about how exams are easier now than they were. Young people, it is said, need to stop being snowflakes.

But that’s to ask the wrong question. As an aside, though, it’s worth noting that Nick Gibb, the Education Minister, has promised to review this year’s Sats papers after the NAHT filed a complaint with the schools’ regulator. Apparently, even some teachers struggled to fathom questions for 10- and 11-year-olds.

The stress is rarely about the exam papers. It’s what the exams represent.

For starters, changes to the curriculum since Michael Gove’s time as education secretary have meant fewer other forms of assessment contributing to a pupil’s end-of-year grade. Coursework has been eradicated. Some schools are preparing teenagers for GCSEs in year nine — that’s three years of learning, all pointing towards a young person’s performance on one day.

Of course exams do have a place in education. But they can only measure a person’s ability to remember facts and regurgitate them under timed conditions. That’s an important skill, but it’s one of hundreds a human being can possess.

Schools are judged on these exam results. Teachers are expected to ensure grades are high when many schools are operating on a shoestring, as well as experiencing resourcing issues.

Some 36,262 teachers left the profession in 2020/2021 alone. It’s little wonder that those who are left are stressed and schools have become high-pressure environments.

Exam stress is a symptom of a society where most young people no longer have the luxury of being able to make mistakes — exams impact on later careers and housing. The job of tackling it is therefore more than revision tips and stress management strategies — it’s one of structural change.

Natasha Devon is an author and campaigner