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We could end exam distress by removing the root cause: exams

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 June 2018

John White
The anxiety generated by school examinations is well-known. Responses to a Guardian call-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.
Photo by Pete via Creative Commons

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5 Responses to “We could end exam distress by removing the root cause: exams”

  • 1
    mikeollerton wrote on 19 June 2018:

    Gosh I tweeted something earlier this afternoon about the issues raised, specifically in the last paragraph:
    “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.”
    Having been heavily involved in an ATM-SEB pilot GCSE which started off with 100% coursework from 1986 – 1990 and continued to 1994 with 50% coursework a 25% ‘Problem-solving’ type exam and a 25% traditional exam, where the schools involved wrote both papers. Also, coursework tasks were not set by the exam board (SEG), they were far too wise to think about doing that! I say ‘wise’ in light of the parlous state that exam-board written coursework tasks undermined what coursework was meant to be all about, i.e. the work students did during their GCSE course. The ATM-SEG courseworks, in our school were a mix of open-investigative tasks plus ways of working where students derived formulae and explored all aspects of the required content knowledge; Pythagoras, Trig, transformations etc.
    Teachers from the group of 7 schools, two in Cumbria, one in Manchester, one in Telford, two in Oxford and one in Weston-super-Mare, engaged in some wonderful professional development at moderation weekends where we shared ideas for our classrooms whilst looking through and moderating a sample of students’ portfolios, across the G to A grade range.
    So here was a project from 30+ years ago, and now we are back to the kind of exams we sought to rid our students and ourselves of.
    Interestingly we were fairly regularly invited to speak with the mathematics team at the SEAC (or was it SCAA?) and I vividly remember there was an assessment scheme which was being considered where the final assessment was either 30/70 or 50/50 or 70/30 coursework/exam. This meant you could have different students in the same class opting for any one of these assessment choices. Now I am sure there will be many folk who will be breathing an enormous sigh of relief that such a model never saw the light of day; this was because Ken Clarke MP, as SoS for education, kicked it into the long grass and coursework subsequently disappeared altogether.
    Hey ho.

  • 2
    John Mountford wrote on 19 June 2018:

    I loved the Simon Jenkins article. It’s a shame that that, and this blog, will make not a jot of difference to anyone. Now, why is this??
    It’s all too emotive. All this talk of suicide rates, distress and mental health problems will have society’s winners laughing all the way to the fitness spar. Many politicians will be positively outraged by this attack on the system they have helped put in place at great cost, some of it even personal (all those long tedious sessions in cross party discussions or listening to the voices of ordinary people when it is quite obvious they knew all along what was required).
    There is only one solution when appeals to our deeper humanity fail – batter them with statistics. This is exactly what Roger Titcombe, author of Learning Matters and I are hell-bent on doing and the project is coming along quite nicely. We are gathering evidence from secondary schools across England, questioning the use of Cognitive Ability testing at the start of Yr7 when our children have just about been drilled to death the previous summer completing National Curriculum tests. The problem you cite, John, is as you know, not confined to secondary education. We are the most tested nation on the planet and the cost is rising on all fronts.
    To date, our research indicates that SATs are proving to be a problem for secondary colleagues in setting Progress 8 targets in a heroic bid to keep the Ofsted cops off their backs come GCSE time. So, they invest time money and effort in testing whole cohorts using CAT4 D just weeks into the autumn term. The problem we have unearthed is the shameful dearth of valid data produced by the SATs in the first place. It isn’t that Roger and I want to see CATs used willy nilly, even though the producers of this ‘aid to teaching’ would be laughing all the way to the bank if this were to happen. We are building a powerful case to end SATs on the simple grounds that the data don’t support their continued use, and people are beginning to show an interest in knowing more.

  • 3
    John White wrote on 23 June 2018:

    Harrowing stories of effects on their mental health from students who have just sat their GCSEs
    23 June

  • 4
    Michael Newman wrote on 20 July 2018:

    Earl Lytton, who pushed the 1918 H.A.L. Fisher Education Act through the House of Lords, lead the 2nd reading on 23rd July 1918. This act gave our teenagers the right to schooling and he was leader of the community of practitioners, called New Ideals in Education, including Percy Nunn, first Director of IoE, and who coined the community’s values statement, ‘liberate the child’. They were very much aware and discussed the influence of exams, creating a culture in which children became defined by their measurers and lost their own sense of creating themselves and valuing themselves, they also argued that being trained within an authority based school destroyed values of self-realisation, creativity, freedom, dignity and the concept of learning to be human… Let’s celebrate these values and the 1918 Act, and how they envisaged schools based on mental and physical health and the development of active citizens in a democratic, just and peaceful society… https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Mpg_pNABq4krz2zRx-wqYrQRbgRYrWnh/view?usp=sharing

  • 5
    as above wrote on 24 September 2018:

    I am not against records of achievement – but without other changes they will become like exams- an instrument of selection – how about open access to university that would do it- let anyone who wants to go to university go- that would reduce the anxiety problem – students could be encouraged to develop profiles like art students portfolios- then you would need to ration places in some way – otherwise Russell group universities would be full of old Etonians
    Ofsted is making some small steps with their new framework which they promise will emphasise outcomes less and inputs(the curriculum ) more – a small step – lets hope.
    Michael young