The agony and the GCSE

Revision, headaches... is burning all that midnight oil really worth the candle?
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The Independent Online

Months of stress, unbelievable pressure, sleepless nights and colossal amounts of work. I have just finished my GCSEs and, like many teenagers, am left wondering whether it was all worth it.

Months of stress, unbelievable pressure, sleepless nights and colossal amounts of work. I have just finished my GCSEs and, like many teenagers, am left wondering whether it was all worth it.

As the dreaded results day draws nearer, 16-year-olds all over the country are, like me, waiting anxiously to know how they did. Parents and teachers are also caught up in the frenzy. But is this all necessary? Is there any real purpose behind these exams?

Britain is the only country in Europe that uses this process to test its teenagers; many countries choose simply to examine pupils at university entry age. Many people believe that GCSEs put an unnecessary pressure on teenagers who are already at a stressful time in their lives. The one argument in their favour is that they provide qualifications for work for pupils who don't wish to continue with further education.

Apart from the stress caused by the exams themselves, there is the two-year stretch of intensive coursework. I have recently completed 12 GCSEs, and was astonished by the amount of time and effort needed to complete them.

Personally, I found that the most time-consuming subjects were the arty ones. Like many of my peers, I took art and graphic design. These are two of the more enjoyable subjects, but they do involve many hours of intensive drawing. As with many other GCSE subjects, completing projects often entails working into the early hours, preparing for the following day. This means spending precious time on some subjects at the expense of others.

The current year 11s have been the guinea pigs for curriculum changes throughout their school career. Next year, we will be the first to take the new AS-levels. This year we were the first to have a separate non-calculator maths paper, intended to prove that we can cope without machines. In my opinion, this new exam was essentially the same as the calculator paper, except that we had to waste time carrying out basic functions, such as long multiplication, by hand.

When the exams finally began, no one felt ready for them because all our time had been consumed by coursework. To prepare for the exams, it was necessary to do large quantities of last-minute cramming. During the exams, many candidates became ill through sheer exhaustion. Some pupils had to be taken out in the middle of their exams because they felt unwell. Are qualifications really worth all this pressure?

Another cause of stress was the vast number of exams that we had to sit in a short period. Some of my friends had to take up to three exams a day. I was once lucky enough to spend four and a half hours in the exam hall in one day. I felt like I was on a conveyor belt. As soon as one exam finished, another began.

In many exams, I did not feel that we had been set a realistic amount of time to complete the papers. In some of the science papers, many people finished with time to spare, whereas in English and religious studies, people struggled to finish.

At the end of the day what do exam results really prove? Much may depend on the opinion of the examiner. Subjects such as English, drama and art require a subjective response. One examiner may love a painting; another may loathe it.

And is 16 the right age to test the aptitude of pupils? With the new sixth-form curriculum, universities are going to start admitting students on the basis of AS-level results rather than GCSEs. Doesn't this make GCSEs less relevant? Shouldn't teenagers be able to enjoy their youth for longer before they have to start focusing on their careers?

I am aware that it's important to check up on students' progress through secondary school, but is it really necessary to put the nation's 16-year-olds through such intense examinations? At the end of it all, what are we really left with? After a huge amount of stress and heartache, we receive a few certificates of achievement, which in reality may be irrelevant to the institutions or employers we are aiming to reach.

The writer is a student at a state grammar school in South-east England

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