Testing, testing 1 2 3…

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“But your GCSEs don’t even matter”

“GCSEs are easy”

”GCSEs don’t mean anything when you do “A” Levels”

It’s GCSE results day tomorrow, which means that the inevitable stream of belittling comments on the examinations which 14-16 year olds sit in the UK is creeping up on us. For many in Year 11, this will be the most nerve-wracking day of their life so far, as they await grades which determine the next steps they can take in their future.

To put to bed the criticisms written above: GCSEs do matter in terms of what you go on to do next. They are far from easy. (Some Universities will take them into account if that is what you decide to do.)

 To set the record straight, the young people of England and Wales are put under an immense amount of pressure. In fact, coming to university and talking to my friends from all around the world made me realise just how intense our education system is for young people, some of whom are sitting examinations at aged just 14. For example, in Canada, there is a lot more project-based work, often marked as coursework, and grades are taken at various points over the final years of schooling, but there is no intense set period of time at the end of each of the four years by any means. In Norway, they have a system where some exams are responded to orally, giving students more variety in the way they are assessed. In Scotland, they can get into university after three years of examinations, as opposed to the four in England and Wales if you do GCSEs and “A” Levels. The long and short of it is, by European and even global standards, we have some of the most intense and rigorous testing methods, and it is making our young people unwell.

I recently read this article in the Guardian about the pressure of GCSE examinations and it reminded me of my time doing GCSEs three years ago now.

 A 2004 CAMHS study found that 1 in 10 young people suffer from a diagnosed mental health disorder, with evidence suggesting that it is has been on the rise over the past few decades. I worry for a generation who now sit the vast majority of their GCSEs at the end of Year 11, meaning that some of them have around twenty exams within the space of about a month. At 16, most of us already had a lot to deal with in the whole “growing up game” that takes place: changing friendships and relationships, morphing personalities, sometimes tumultuous family dynamics, the list goes on. Add to that the pressure of exams that determine a large part of your future and it’s pretty difficult.

 For me, I worried about my brother, who is currently awaiting his results this Thursday, that this pressure would be too much for him. However, miraculously, he remained relatively calm. Still, I really don’t think a 16 year-old should have had to put themselves under such intense pressure and work so hard simply out of the fear of what that little piece of paper will have on it in August.

 I think a lot of that fear came from my personal experience of GCSE examinations. On the first day of Year 10, aged 14, I went into school, met my new classes and teachers, was told about these all important examinations which were going to determine my future, and felt very overwhelmed. On the second day of Year 10, in the morning, I was physically sick. Naturally thinking I had a bug, I didn’t go into school. But then it happened on the third and fourth and fifth and sixth day. It slowly became apparent to me and my family that this wasn’t a ‘physical’ illness, but the result of stress and anxiety. This stress and anxiety stemmed from thinking about how this would ultimately impact what job I could get at age 21 when catching every episode of Hollyoaks was still one of my top priorities in life. My attendance was sporadic in Year 11. I couldn’t face sitting my exams in the Main Hall because of the intensity of the environment. I only went in because I knew that I had no choice, because it was illegal not to. I did not put a full week in at school from January of my Year 11 until the day I finished.

I came away with 5A*s and 4As, as well as crippling anxiety, at times depression and a round of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). And the truly sad thing is, it was worth it. I am now at the University of Edinburgh on a course that required me to get 5A*s at GCSE for a guaranteed place. I had to make myself ill in order to get where I wanted to go in life. And really, that’s pretty damned wrong.

I know that I am not alone in my story. The answer was not to test less throughout the year and simply move all of the exams to the end of Year 11, as they have done recently. Surely it is to reduce the number of examinations and pieces of coursework overall; to lessen the strain on young people. To try to do something about the emphasis that some top universities still place on exams sat at age 15 or 16, shifting it so that it is almost entirely based on ‘A’ Levels when students are much older and have less subjects and so less exams. Something has to change. It has to change fast, because for every year this unnecessary amount of pressure continues, more stories like mine emerge.

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