Sometimes, education ministers say things that make you wonder more about their own experience of education than their understanding of the issues they are responsible for. Damian Hinds, the Secretary of State for Education, has attempted to defend the new GCSE exams by suggesting that managing exam stress is useful learning for later life. Let’s be charitable: it’s possible – IF your later life is going to include exams – and IF you are the kind of person who is likely to do well enough in exams that you won’t be cowed by the experience. And IF you are the kind of person who has parents who can support you, teachers who have had enough time and resource to implement the new syllabus, and who aren’t being paid by the results their pupils achieve. And so on.
Over the summer, we heard lots of concerns about the impact of the new GCSEs on pupil wellbeing, and carried out two snapshot surveys about the impact of the new GCSEs (one for parents, one for teachers). Our results corroborated those found by ASCL, the union for school leaders, which carried out it’s own research. We found that the majority (over 75%) of parents and teachers found the new system to be less fair, less accessible to all but the brightest pupils, and caused higher levels of stress than the previous system. Not just ‘normal exam anxiety’ – significant levels of distress leading to many young people needing referral to the (already overstretched) mental health services, and other young people just giving up on the exams altogether.
One of the most telling things Hinds said was that the new exams would prepare pupils for A levels and then university. But at least half of pupils won’t go to university. A very significant proportion of them won’t do A levels as their skills and interests lie in other directions – as several of the parents responding to our survey pointed out.
Of course GCSEs are going to be stressful – they influence the choices available to them for their next steps. But the idea that pupils will be ‘toughened up’ simply because GCSEs have been made harder and taken us back to the Victorian school room is just nonsense. It rather suggests that our education secretary thinks of year 11 as a kind of educational boot camp, in which he wields the stick. A camp from which some may triumph, but many will emerge muddy, tearful, and injured. All of which sounds a rather ineffective means of nurturing the next generation of citizens – let alone pleasing their voting parents.
To say that Damian Hinds’s response to the widespread concern about pupil wellbeing this summer is inadequate is a gross understatement. He appears not to have read the research available to him, but also to have no interest in doing so. Which is why we, alongside educational and mental health experts, have called for an urgent inquiry into the impact of the new GCSEs on mental wellbeing. Once that’s underway, he should then read all the research and recommendations that are gathering dust in the DfE offices questionning the very purpose of GCSEs in the current education system.