Tougher GCSEs ‘risk students’ mental health’

22 Aug 19

The shake-up of GCSEs risks damaging the mental health of students and demoralising those who are less able, as well as potentially leading to a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching unions have warned.

The new exams, for which the results are out today, have been designed to be more rigorous. They have been introduced in phases since 2015, with the first tranche being sat two years ago. 

A survey by the National Education Union found 73% of its members believed that the mental health of students had worsened since the introduction of the reformed system, while 61% had seen a reduction in student engagement in education as a result of the changes.

Just over half thought that students’ ability was less accurately recorded under the new system. 

Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, said the new system had so many negative side-effects that a rethink was urgently required.

“Removing coursework and having most subjects assessed entirely by exams taken at the end of Year 11 makes GCSEs an all-or-nothing, high stakes experience for students, completely unnecessarily, and focuses study on what will be best for passing the exam, rather than on developing a wider skill set,” she said.

“To add to this, both the difficulty and size of GCSE content has increased with the reforms. The result is that the majority of schools are feeling forced to start GCSE courses in Year 9, or even earlier, with a view to getting through everything. 

“This alone leads to a narrower curriculum for students.”

According to a separate survey carried out by the Association of School and College Leaders, eight in ten school leaders said the tougher exams were having a detrimental impact on struggling students.  

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said that the system had become more demanding in order to stretch those at the top at the expense of students with lower levels of attainment.  

“The findings of this survey reflect widespread concern that reformed GCSEs have sacrificed the interests of the most vulnerable students for the supposed benefits of raising the bar for the most able students,” he said.

“The government has seen increased rigour as an end in itself without fully considering what it wants the exam system to achieve for all students of all abilities. 

“As a result, we now have a set of GCSEs which are extremely hard to access for students with lower prior attainment. 

“This is incredibly stressful and demoralising for these young people.”

However, the Department for Education said GCSEs had been reformed over a period of several years in response to concerns from employers that the previous system was failing to prepare young people for the future.

“We want to give every child the best start in life and the greatest opportunity to fulfil their potential,” said a spokesperson.

“Exams are an essential part of ensuring that young people have acquired the knowledge and skills they need, but should never be at the expense of a young person’s wellbeing. 

“We trust schools to work with parents and support young people, so they do their best.”

Despite the concerns, the GCSE pass rate and the percentage of top grades went up slightly this year.

The pass rate edged up to 67.3% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - up 0.4 percentage points on last year.

The percentage of papers given a top grade (7 or A and above) rose 0.3 percentage points to 20.8% on 2018.

Did you enjoy this article?