By Emma Jacobs, find the full article here.
Gone are the days of having a carefree childhood. Teenagers like me face an endless succession of exams with pressure to succeed at every stage. So Labour’s announcement that it will stop schools being “exam factories” is very welcome.
Spring is the start of a period of intense pressure for 16-year-olds taking GCSEs. Schools push their more academic pupils in order to score well in league tables. At my comprehensive school, many peers took more than 10 GCSE subjects in one summer. Some had been encouraged to take exams a year early and were then enrolled on AS-levels alongside the GCSEs.
The school day, with travel, can easily stretch from 7.30am until 5pm, and then extra work starts as soon as you get home. A 14-hour day is not unusual in the run-up to exams. There is little or no time for exercise or fresh air. Levels of stress, clinical depression and anxiety are high, and up to one fifth of my contemporaries are said to be self-harming. Eating disorders remain a distressing problem and increasingly sufferers include young men. Some schools recognise the high levels of anxiety by having strategies like “time out” for those who cannot get through an exam without a panic attack, but I see little evidence of strategies being put in place to mitigate the stress before it becomes clinically debilitating.
Not only do exams put a strain on young people’s mental health, their physical health also suffers. For A-level students all-nighters are standard and many then survive a full day of school on caffeine alone. Within my friendship group, on any given night one person is awake texting about how they’re up during the early hours finishing an essay or cramming for a test. Arguably the texting and distractions we have on our phones are part of the problem, but they are part of our world and it’s not as easy as adults think to just turn them off (I notice that adults who advise turning off extraneous screens are often rather wedded to their own devices).
And teachers make few allowances for those slacking in class, not understanding that three hours’ sleep would make any class difficult. Teachers operate independently of one another so there is no coordination of workload. Each teacher, understandably, wants the best results in their subject. It is hard to see who, if anyone, has the overall wellbeing of the student at heart. Having so many exams either turns teens into social recluses, or results in them falling behind. A happy medium is hard to achieve.
The only solution is to introduce more coursework into syllabuses and to have modular exams. Exams should test understanding of a subject rather than short-term memory. Nor are all qualifications equal; the BTec is not as widely recognised as A-levels. And students may work hard to achieve A-levels only to find that the subjects they chose are not recognised for entry to the university course they had hoped to apply for. Greater flexibility is needed.
If Labour can deliver on Tristram Hunt’s promises, there will be a generation of young voters who are forever grateful. Sadly, it’s too late for me.