An end to exam stress?

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The anxiety generated by school examinations is well-known. Responses to Guardiancall-out in May for views on the new GCSEs produced ‘an outpouring that was overwhelmingly – although not exclusively – negative. The more extreme responses included accounts of suicide attempts by two pupils at one school, breakdowns, panic attacks and anxiety levels so intense that one boy soiled himself during a mock exam… “I have never, in over 20 years of teaching, seen pupils suffer with so much anxiety and other symptoms of poor mental health in the run up to exams,” says an English teacher.

There are kinds of personal distress that have nothing to do with school examinations – things like depression, grief, pain caused by sickness or physical, emotional and sexual abuse, fear of being bullied, of your family not having enough money to eat, of police prejudice.

All of us (sadists and psychopaths apart) are horrified by others’ suffering. We want people to lead happy, fulfilling lives and see suffering as an impediment to this. Where we can, individually or collectively, we try to eliminate its causes. We support medical research, punish abusers, tighten school rules against bullying, root out prejudice, take measures to tackle poverty.

Exam distress, though, is treated differently. If we tried to eliminate its cause, we would look for alternatives to school examinations. But this is on no one’s agenda: exams are taken as part of the social fabric, irremovable. On this view, exam anxiety is here to stay. In England the last thirty years have increased it. The arrival of that country’s first common examination, the GCSE, in 1988 and the growing expectation since that time that nearly every sixteen-year-old will take it, have extended exam distress to virtually the whole age-group.

If you see exams as permanent fixtures, you cannot remove the mental health problems they bring, but at least you can help sufferers to cope with them. This is one reason for all the preaching in recent years, not least from government, about resilience. Students have to learn to steel themselves against the anxieties that afflict so many of them

But we should not accept that school exams are an ineradicable part of the social furniture. They are not. If we want to assess what learners understand, and devise credentials for higher education and jobs, it is irrational to assume that there can only ever be one means to this end. There is every reason to look for alternatives. – Alternatives, too, without other drawbacks of school examinations apart from the distress they cause, like the stranglehold in which they place the secondary curriculum. The most obvious alternative is records of achievement aka profiles or portfolios. These were popular some forty years ago, but like other features of those more progressive times have become sidelined. It is time to place them centre-stage.

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