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Teenagers have enough to worry about. How will harder exams help?

PUBLISHED: 22:05 25 August 2019 | UPDATED: 22:05 25 August 2019

High five from Iwan Cary, left, and Jack Andrews, as they celebrate their GCSE results at Wymondham High Academy. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

High five from Iwan Cary, left, and Jack Andrews, as they celebrate their GCSE results at Wymondham High Academy. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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Education reporter Bethany Whymark says making exams harder doesn't really help anybody

Unlike the hundreds of Norfolk students who shared smiles, tears and laughter at their schools over exam results last week, I wasn't around to collect my GCSE results.

We were on a family holiday in Canada so I missed out on the collective nervousness and excitement of revealing my results with my peers.

Instead, I opened a brown envelope in the kitchen a week and a half later and celebrated straight As with my family.

On A-level results day I opened the envelope nervously in my car and found three As, more than I needed to take up my place at university to read English literature.

As GCSE envelopes were ripped open across England last week, national statistics showed that pass rates and top grades were on the up.

Just over three quarters (67.3pc) of students hit passing grades and 20.8pc gained a coveted grade 7, 8 or 9 - the A*/A equivalents following a shake-up of the exams which began in 2017.

However, this headline figure has failed to dampen worries that a simultaneous overhaul of the exams has made them more difficult - as almost all coursework and modular exams were done away with, leaving only end-of-course assessments.

There have also been claims from the National Education Union that the tougher exams left students feeling "disillusioned, disengaged and stressed".

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Similar concerns were raised about A-levels the previous week, with a union survey claiming teachers were having to console more pupils over the "demoralising" exams and that the new format - which, as in GCSEs, has all but phased out coursework and only sees students assessed at the end of their two-year course - was harming their motivation and mental health.

Now, given the results outlined above, you'd be forgiven for thinking I get on well with exams.

I don't. I suffer from awful performance anxiety and never feel like I've given my best in an exam because of it.

As a consequence I have huge amounts of sympathy for children - because, as much as they may not like to hear it, 15 and 16-year-olds are still children - who have had the carpet of coursework and regular assessments ripped from under them and are now faced with the prospect of one paper meaning the difference between a pass and a fail.

Being a teenager comes with so many pressures now, not least the constant self-scrutiny promoted by social media, without the prospect of harder exams which could affect the direction their life takes.

The education system in which they will spend their most impressionable years should be geared up to help them succeed and shield them from unnecessary mental stress.

With this in mind, an exam system which does not provide for those who learn differently and penalises those who cannot recall two years' worth of lessons in the exam hall is not fit for purpose.

Ultimately you will end up with less well-rounded students; while they could do quadratic equations in their head or spontaneously pen you an essay on Hamlet's psychological breakdown, they may struggle focus on a longer-term project or work well in a team. Such things don't come up in exams.

And what about the arts, where coursework was such a vital strand? Creative arts education imparts values and skills which can't be measured by an exam and it is devastating that it is being sidelined.

In the fray, another very important point may get lost: teenagers need time to be teenagers. If they feel they must chain themselves to a desk and dedicate their life to their studying in order to get a passing grade, they won't have time to enjoy all that is good about your teenage years: the growing freedoms that come with age; figuring out who you are, what you like (or dislike) and how you see yourself in relation to others; building friendships which could last a lifetime; your first, tentative forays into romantic entanglement.

Teenagers have enough to worry about. Exams should be one of them - a few nerves can be beneficial, after all - but proportionality is everything.

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