What Price Are Our Young People Paying with the New GCSE Exams?

I had the opportunity to express my opinions about the new exam system on BBC Radio Wiltshire today as it is GCSE exam results day. The question about whether the new exam system is working triggered a number of concerns that I have with this new system. 

Firstly, I have the utmost admiration for students and teachers who have worked so hard for these exams. Their sheer effort, dedication and determination is not the issue here. The issue is, whether these new exams are really serving our young people? How is it benefiting them and helping them develop their talents and realise their potential?

In my experience as a former teacher, this new exam system is flawed in so many ways. Firstly, the idea that more content and increased difficulty will, miraculously, raise achievement is a fallacy. According to the research and my own experience teaching the new system, summative GCSE Exams are not reliable as a diagnostic tool because they only show a limited aspect of student learning and ability. How can you accurately assess how a student has developed over 2 years or more based on a 2-3-hour exam?

Nor does squeezing more content into an, already, overloaded student equate to depth and breadth. In fact, it does the exact opposite.

Due to the content overload with the new system, schools are having to teach to the exam, cramming in content right up to the last minute. No time to embed learning or understanding, no time for creativity and innovation, no time to support the majority of students who are lagging behind getting increasingly stressed by the unrelenting pressure. No time to help students develop into life-long learners or realise their potential.

Neither does the research support our exam-based curriculum. A study by the Programme for International Student Assessment found that teaching to the exam restricts students because the focus is on short-term knowledge acquisition, which is soon forgotten once they have taken the exam. And the UK is one of the worst culprits.

However, the most worrying knock-on effect of increased content and basing progress on just exams is the increased levels of stress on already stressed students. Statistics show that there has been a 50% increase in students seeking support for exam and school-related stress. Also, schools seeking support for overwhelmed students has increased by a third. Furthermore, figures show that, 85% of 16-year olds have experienced school-related stress.

Perhaps what we need to reflect upon today, is not just the exam results, but the price our young people are paying under the new exam system. Due to the increasing exam pressure and stress facing students, I co-wrote, The Laid Back Guide to Exams and Stress with Psychotherapist, Jennie Caswell. The fact that we now need to equip young people with tools to manage their exam stress and their wellbeing at such a young age is worrying. It is also worrying that education has become limited to just an exam. It is so much more than that as are the students who sit them.

If we are to encourage a love of learning, self-development and growth then we need an Education System that reflects this, not one that limits.

If any of this resonates with you and you would like to know more about, The Laid Back Guide to Exams and Stress, then it is available on Amazon. Alternatively, if you have a book you’d like to publish, then you can email me at info@visionmakerpress.com

Naz Ahsun

Why Failing Exams Can Lead to Success

With the A ‘level results out today in the UK and GCSE results due out next week, many young people and their parents will be holding a collective breath in anticipation. In a way, the exam stress they experienced whilst revising and taking their exams, will resurface with a vengeance.

It is likely that the dominate thoughts of the day will be: “Have I passed?” or “What if I fail?”, as well as, “Did I do enough to get into University?”. And this isn’t just the province of students either – their parents and teachers will be right there with them. Naturally, there will be some who fail to achieve the results they want and tears, upset and disappointment might be the only things they end up with.

Consequently, how parents and teachers respond to this, is extremely important. Sometimes, in a bid to be supportive and help them get over it, we can reach for stock phrases like, “never mind, you’ll do better next time” or “it doesn’t matter, you can always retake” rather than taking the time to truly listen and hear what they are expressing, without commenting, agreeing or disagreeing with what they are expressing. In our bid to be supportive, we can often make them feel worse than they already do because we are not truly listening to them. So how can we support our children with accepting and allowing what they are feeling?

The greatest gift that any parent or teacher can give is their time and undivided attention. For those students who have failed, their self-esteem will be at an all time low and they will need to feel nurtured whilst they process what has happened. Some might want to be left alone, whilst others might appear as if they just don’t care. Just gaged their mood and respect their needs. Just being someone they can simply offload to, without offering your opinion is such a gift.

It’s also important to remember that your child’s acceptance of their failure might not happen instantly, this process can take longer. As parents, we often want to fix what has happened, or find the solution for them, so do not give our children the space and time to process failure. It is crucial that your child take ownership for their failure, because in so doing, they will be more open to finding their own solutions. That’s where you as a parent or teacher can be useful, as you can provide them with the tools they need. But, let them do the talking, let them consider what steps they need to take, only offering guidance if it feels appropriate. Let them be the leaders for their own progress and support them on their journey to discover their inner-resources and resilience.

Failure needn’t be the end of the world either. In fact, it can be the making for greatness. Yet it is the one thing that we do not allow room for. We have become so fixated on progress, success, achievement that we fail to see that the road to success isn’t always smooth or straightforward. If we think about the great innovators and risk takers of our society: Albert Enstien, Thomas Eddison, Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, then we begin to realise that failure is the essential ingredient for success. If you look closely at failure, you begin to realise that it isn’t about a lack of intelligence or ability; it is simply information that another approach is needed. It is only our human judgement that failure is bad and to be avoided at all costs that prevents us from seeing the gift that failure brings. So, is it any wonder that our children go to pieces and give up so easily when they are faced with failure?

If we are to support our children to become resilient and persevere in the face of challenge and obstacles, then, we must stop making failure such a shameful outcome. There are no winners here. All you end up creating is a nervous, anxious child who will fear to take risks due to their fear of failure.

Inevitably, we all experience failure at some point in our lives, it is a natural process of life itself. But the gift in being knocked down, is in getting back up and this is a gift we can pass to our children.

The Laid Back Guide to Exams and Stress is available from Amazon:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Laid-Back-Guide-Exams-Stress/dp/1628652756/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1534430032&sr=8-1&keywords=the+laid+back+guide+to+exams+and+stress

Naseem Ahsun

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