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Are the new GCSE exams causing mental health problems?

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Sitting an exam is, for most people, an inherently stressful situation. People have been sitting exams since at least the Sui dynasty in China (581-618 CE) when prospective entrants to the Imperial civil service took a series of examinations of their knowledge of classic Confucian texts and commentaries. Those who passed the imperial palace examinations at the highest level would go on to become some of the most important and influential bureaucrats in the Imperial palace complex. These exams were intended to be entirely meritocratic in order to ensure that the only the most talented, rather than the wealthiest rose to the top. I can imagine that failing the exam, and having to return to your humble village, was a fairly stressful experience.

Fifteen hundred years later and exam season in England is drawing to its close. Thousands of sixteen year olds will just have sat the new GCSEs and, according to some reports, these new exams “have caused mental exhaustion, panic attacks, crying, nosebleeds, sleepless nights, hair loss and outbreaks of acne.” The suggestion is that as these new exams are intended to be more challenging than the previous incarnation of the GCSE exams that it’s the level of difficulty, rather than the exams themselves that has caused all these awful symptoms of stress. Here are some of the comments students are reported as having made:

This is horrible, I will never forgive the government, and Michael Gove in particular, for compromising students’ health so seriously.

Extremely stressful, the extra stress caused a negative mentality – acne, hair loss and sleepless nights. Belief I’m a failure.

People had to leave the hall in many of the exams as they were having panic attacks and crying, and many people were having nosebleeds from all the stress.

Some people have been crying at home or just stressing to the point of not eating or sleeping properly, but I’ve witnessed the worst way it can affect us. My best friend, a capable and smart friend with predicted grades of 7s, attempted suicide due to the pressures of the approaching exams. Though they survived, they will have lasting damage, physical and mental.

Obviously, we should sympathise with students having to take a fairly gruelling schedule of examinations, and, if these reactions are in any way representative of most children’s experiences, something has gone very wrong. The idea of exam halls full of students having panic attacks, weeping and having nosebleeds sounds horrific. How have we come to this?

It might be the fault of the examination system itself. Maybe it’s wrong to assess students’ educational achievements in this old-fashioned, out-dated way. Maybe it would be fairer to instead assess students using coursework and portfolios. Or perhaps we should pursue a system where exams consist of broad, challenging tasks which students can complete with access to the internet to demonstrate their ability to combine ideas across domains to solve problems. These are persuasive ideas but unfortunately they advantage the advantaged and disadvantage the disadvantaged. The more privileged you are, the more likely you are to benefit from the well-known cognitive biases that plague all forms of teacher assessment. Standardised testing, while it might feel more stressful is the form of assessment least likely to be biased against children from lower socio-economic statuses and ethnic minorities. A system which allowed access to the internet would allow affluent, middle class students to access their parents’ professional contacts and garner an unfair advantage over the less privileged peers. If we care about the advantage gap between richer and poorer students, exams are the only way to go.

So, could it be the fault of schools? Are schools, in an effort to ensure their place on league tables, placing an undue burden on their students? No doubt there is an element of this going on. Many school leaders will feel in something of an impossible bind: if exam results don’t go up their jobs are on the line. It’s hard, when under this kind of pressure not to transfer it to others. Exam results often mean more to schools than to students – especially in the primary sector – and schools will, perhaps inadvertently – being passing their anxieties on to their students. It’s easy to say, but effective school leadership should be about shouldering the burden and preventing this sort of hysteria from spreading.

It could also be that some schools have not done an effective job of preparing their students. Sitting an exam is stressful enough but sitting an exam in which you don’t know what to do is even more stressful. On the rare occasions where I’ve opened an exam paper and known exactly what to do for each question, it’s been a strangely enjoyable experience. There’s good reason to believe that lots of low stakes retrieval practice is likely to reduce the stress of sitting a high stakes exam because you’re that much more confident that you can recall what you need to know. If schools are neglecting these kinds of approaches, this may be to students’ detriment.

The final possible culprit to blame for the current situation is us. By telling students that exams are stressful – and that the new exams are so much more stressful than the old ones – we create self-fulling prophesies. There’s also reason to think that telling people that stress is bad for their health makes it come true. In her TED Talk, Kelly McGonigal explores the benefits of not seeing stress as the enemy and embracing its positive aspects.

She suggests that by telling people that stress is negative we might be doing them an enormous harm. Stress isn’t bad for us, it’s the belief that stress is harmful that does the damage. This is a theme picked up in Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Haye’s book, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. It could be, as Zech & Rimé argue, that in trying to promote well-being and mental health we are pathologising normal emotions and behaviour, labelling ordinary feelings of sadness or anxiety as ‘bad’, and underestimating their adaptive function.

The narrative that “exams cause stress and that stress causes mental health problems” is more likely to be the cause of all this weeping and nose bleeds than the fact that the exams themselves have changed a bit. If we really care about young people’s mental health, maybe we should shut up about it a bit, let them get on with becoming adults and model to them that stress and anxiety are normal, unavoidable parts of life.

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