Tough new GCSE exams risk pupils' mental health, warn school leaders

School leaders warn they are already seeing the effects of increased exam time on increasingly stressed and anxious school pupils

Rachael Pells
Education Correspondent
Thursday 24 August 2017 00:34 BST
New linear-style GCSE exams are said to be the most difficult seen in schools since O-levels
New linear-style GCSE exams are said to be the most difficult seen in schools since O-levels

Tough new GCSE exams brought in for the first time this year are taking a toll on pupils’ mental health, experts have warned.

Young people taking a typical set of new reformed GCSEs will sit about eight hours more of exams than under the old system, analysis by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has found.

As thousands of teenagers wait to receive their exam results on Thursday, pupils in England are the first to receive grades under the new assessment structure – scheduled to roll out across all subjects by 2020.

So far only maths, English language and English literature are affected by the reforms, which include a move towards more end-of-year exams rather than regular coursework assessments.

The changes come as part of a government drive to counter grade inflation and bring UK pupils up to a “world-class standard”, but school leaders say they are already seeing increased levels of stress and anxiety in pupils.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL union, said these issues would only “intensify” in the coming year.

“We know from numerous reports that there is a rising tide of mental health issues among young people and we are concerned the new exams will make the situation worse.

“The new GCSEs are more challenging, and there are more papers, and this is putting severe pressure on young people.”

Children’s charity the NSPCC reported a surge in the number of young people seeking help through the Childline support service specifically as a result of exam results stress this year.

Speaking ahead of GCSE results day, charity leaders said the new GCSE grading system meant this year’s cohort faced even more pressure than usual.

An NSPCC spokesperson said: “We know from Childline that many teenagers struggle with exam stress and the pressure to perform well.

“Some young people may feel additional worries about being the first to go through the new GCSE grading system and feel under more pressure to spend extra time revising for the reformed exams.

“This could lead to them feeling anxious and struggling to cope on their own.”

For the first time since GCSEs were introduced, the traditional A*-G grade scale is to be replaced by a new 9-1 scale – with the Government defining a grade 5 as a “strong pass”.

The reformed exams feature less controlled assessment, and more exam papers, which are concentrated into a six-week period in May and June.

Industry leaders have claimed the new exams are the most difficult seen since O-levels, and the new system has been met with widespread confusion and scrutiny – with experts claiming the structure is “unreliable” and could lead to thousands of students receiving incorrect grades this year.

A report issued by the ASCL union on Thursday said school leaders are “concerned” about the potential impact “such intense pressure” might have on young people.

One school leader said: “The increased amount of examinations and examination time has had a huge impact on the children. I have increasingly seen more stress and mental health-related incidents due to these changes.”

Another said: “Clearly this has put an additional pressure on the students which seems ironic when the government is highlighting the need to support our young people and their mental health.”

Under the new system, maths has increased from two to three papers, and English language from one to two papers.

Additionally, many pupils previously sat a single qualification in English, which has now been scrapped. School performance tables mean pupils have to be entered for both English language and English literature.

Mr Barton added: “We support a robust qualification system, but it has to be balanced against the welfare of young people, and we are not sure the balance in the new system is correct.

“We will be talking to the Department for Education to see if there are ways to mitigate the impact on young people.”

A comparison of this year’s exam timetables with those of students studying a similar set under the old system shows this year’s cohort face longer hours spent in exam halls.

A student who took old-style GCSEs in the summer of 2016 would have sat 18 exams – the total length of which was 24 hours and 30 minutes.

Those taking new GCSEs in the same subjects in the summer of 2019 will sit 22 exams – the total length of which will be 33 hours.

Speaking to the NSPCC ahead of results day, one secondary school pupil said: “I’m stressed about my GCSE results. There’s so much pressure at school to get good grades. Even though I work really hard I don’t think my grades always show that. I try and stay calm but on the inside I’m panicking, what if I don’t get good enough marks to do the job I want in the future?“

Another said: “I’m worried about getting my GCSE results. I’m terrified that I’ve messed it all up and I’ll ruin my future. I don’t know how to cope.”

Avis Gilmore, assistant general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Michael Gove’s rushed and ill-advised reforms to GCSEs have only succeeded in exacerbating the high-stakes testing culture which has cursed the education system for too long.

“The reforms he introduced, and that this Government have ploughed ahead with, have caused unnecessary levels of workload and stress for students and teachers alike.

“The new grading system is deliberately and explicitly designed to ensure that fewer students achieve the top grade, without consideration of the psychological impact that this could have.

“If government truly wishes to tackle student mental health issues then they might want to consider the impact of their current policy as a starting point.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our education reforms are raising standards in our schools. There are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. This report underlines the importance of our reforms in creating new gold-standard GCSEs, benchmarked against the best education systems in the world.

“Over the last six years we have incorporated the best features of successful curricula and qualifications from the around the world into our education system and signalled our intent to continue raising standards with the introduction of a standard and strong pass at GCSE.

“This is complemented by our ongoing investment in apprenticeships and the technical education system. We will continue to work with the teaching profession to ensure there is no limit on any child’s potential.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in