Are the new GCSE exams causing mental health problems?

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.

23 Responses to Are the new GCSE exams causing mental health problems?

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    Way back when I was in school in the US, tests were just an every-day part of education. In most subjects, we had a short written test every week, and a more comprehensive one every term–and our terms were only six weeks long. Tests never involved essays or any kind of extended writing; rather, they were simple tests of what we’d been taught: declarative and procedural knowledge. Obviously, this was before Bloom built his infamous pyramid.

    Back in those days, teachers were trusted–grade inflation hadn’t been invented, because no one thought of the results as being a reflection on teachers’ competence. Teachers weren’t in the slightest bit afraid of handing out Ds and Es when this was all a pupil’s performance merited. When (or if) you graduated from high school, your rank was merely the cumulative result of your grades from 7th to 12th grade. The closest we had to formal exams were the optional College Boards (or SATs), which were used in conjunction with grades by universities admissions officers.

    The system worked. Back then, it was considered normal for school kids to care passionately about ideas and to argue them into the small hours. When I read reports about today’s pupils weeping over GCSEs that actually require them to solve the simplest equations, I want to weep too. Sadly, one of the ideas that our generation got wrong was embracing the ideas of people like AS Neill–one of the standard essays for my Introduction to Philosophy course at university was to compare Summerhill with BF Sklnner’s mythical Walden II.

  2. Out of interest, have you been around any Year 7s and 8s recently who in some cases are being set GCSE questions and papers for their in-school tests, which they are told will be deciders for which ‘sets’ they are going in, which in turn, they are told, will decide which GCSEs they will sit, which in turn they are being told will decide whether they can do A-levels or not, which in turn will decide if they can go to a ‘good’ university or not? Do you think this process which I’ve seen first hand, might have upped stress at all, do you think this process is advantaging the disadvantaged?

    • Tom Burkard says:

      Sadly, there is only so much secondary teachers can do to make good the yawning gaps in their pupils’ knowledge and skills. We’ve recently been testing KS3 pupils for basic maths skills, and even in the top sets there are quite a few pupils who are utterly clueless about decimals and percentages. This would never have happened if primary teachers had used low-stakes tests routinely. It’s a simple fact of life that the more often you’ve retrieved information or rehearsed a skill, the easier it becomes to retrieve it again. When it can be retrieved effortlessly, the working memory is free to engage in higher-order functions: cognitive scientists have known this for over a generation.

      Such stress as Year 7 and 8 pupils suffer is down entirely to the refusal of many primary teachers to acknowledge these basic facts about learning.

      • You say this, Tom, with such confidence it must be true. However, I can tell you that the primary teachers of the child in question, did most certainly do their damnedest to convey as much information as possible in order to fit the new National Curriculum and the requirements of the SATs papers (GPS an’ all). There was a clear step up to GCSE work by January Year 7 in English, Maths and Science. The combination of difficulty, volume and repeated testing is clearly too much for some students, as observed by me (as a parent) at first hand. On Tuesday, for Year 8, there’ll be an unseen on representation of love in R and J, using 6 PEC paras, remembering minimum of 3 quotes (from other parts of the play – other than that of the unseen passage) relevant respectively to questions of language, imagery, character, structure, phonology, lexical field. This is in addition to French homework on 3 modal verbs – vouloir, pouvoir, devoir: learning the conjugations, applying them in three sets of questions and a passage which includes words he had never met. And this is just off the back of a science test which included GCSE questions, and a maths test likewise which would determine sets for next few years. No pressure. So no worries. No stress. No tears. No anger. Of course not. It’s all the primary schools’ fault.

        • Tom Burkard says:

          I’m sorry, Michael, but primary maths in England is little short of a disaster. It’s so bad that the Yr 4 Multiplication Table Check requires only 25 correct responses in 5 minutes–a pupil who can recall number facts from memory should be able to answer 200. To quote Wong & Evans (2007):

          “Without procedural fluency and the ability to recall facts from memory, the student’s focus during problem solving will be on basic skills rather than the task at hand, thus drawing attention away from the learning objectives of the task (Mercer & Miller, 1992). If the student cannot perform these basic calculations without the need to use calculators or other aids, higher-order processing in problem solving will be impeded (Westwood, 2003).”

          I’m not blaming primary school teachers, nearly all of whom really do want to do their best for their pupils. However, for more the a generation, maths educators have ignored serious research in the subject. I also hold a brief against teachers who transmit their own distress to their pupils and then hold out ‘mental illness’ like so many beggar’s sores.. If only adults went through life without ever being faced with tasks that they weren’t adequately prepared for! Funny how ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ drops out of educators’ vocabulary on occasion.

    • David Didau says:

      I agree with you wholeheartedly here Michael.

      There’s some positive news in that Ofsted are being really clear that this sort of practice will be put under scrutiny from 2019 onwards. The advice I give to all the schools I work with is that giving GCSE questions to KS3 students will not improve exam results (in fact it’s more likely to drive them down). Instead, as I’ve argued repeatedly, schools should be providing a broad and balanced curriculum: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/curriculum/broad-balanced-curriculum/

  3. If 13/14 year olds (year 8) do not realise that what they know and how they do in a test will have consequences for their GCSE and A level courses then they are incredibly naive. They need to know that the tests they are doing at end of year are important and they need to do as well as they can. They can be helped in this by doing tests all year through, low stakes tests that allow them to practice retrieval of what they know, so it becomes natural. If they are not doing this then ofcourse being suddenly told how well you do in a test will determine your A levels at 16 is going to be upsetting – the schools shouldv’e made this clear much earlier. For example, at 14 or so choosing my GCEs I knew my parents were making sacrifices for me to stay on at school and it was therefore my duty to do well, and go on to A levels and do well there too. I was costing my parents money and comfort; my mother went out cleaning other peoples’ houses so I (and my brothers) could stay at school, my father did long hours of overtime. They wanted their children to have a chance of a better life than they did (and two of us went to university because of their sacrifices). . Letting my parents down was unthinkable because of the economic and psychological outlay they made – that’s definitely stressful, far more than actually sitting the exams. Stress is not bad for you – it is an urge towards a goal.

  4. Paul Lindsay says:

    “The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.” – Cus D’Amato

  5. Duncan A says:

    We now know that the new GCSE Higher Tier papers have 20% of questions aimed at Grade 8 and 9 so are intended to be inaccessible for the majority of those taking the paper. I think that is a genuine shift from what went before and of course has the potential to demoralise.

    • David Didau says:

      Well, that’s just not true. It *might* apply the higher tier maths paper, but it certainly is not true of the untiered papers. Feel free to confirm this with Ofqual.

      • Duncan A says:

        It is true of GCSE higher tier Science papers according to AQA and isn’t widely known. Of course it won’t be exactly the same for untiered papers but nevertheless we might anticipate that to achieve statistical separation of candidates at the top end the exams have just got harder.

        • Chester Draws says:

          Well, harder for the better students. Those that can only do two-thirds of the paper anyway won’t notice that the ones they can’t do are harder.

          Provided students expect that there are more hard questions, why is that stressful?

          In my experience people stress about their grades, not how hard the paper is.

          • Duncan A says:

            Well long experience tells me that when students can’t do a question they sometimes freeze and sometimes panic. Freezing means that they spend too long (often a lot longer) on a question that they can’t do trying to find a solution, then fail to complete the rest of the paper which should have been accessible to them. Panic on the other hand leads to them simply giving up. The purpose of any exam is surely to try an measure the extent of a student’s learning – make it too hard and you are no longer simply testing knowledge and understanding but other things. And remember, GCSEs are simply a staging post in the learning journey – if students start to believe a subject is too hard they don’t study it further, which is definitely counter-productive. Believe me, students do stress about how hard papers are, and we are already seeing the negative effects on making the maths GCSE harder in terms of A level sign up.

          • David Didau says:

            The point of GCSE exams is that they allow us to discriminate between candidates. An exam that all candidates find easy is useless in this respect.

        • David Didau says:

          The fact that something has got harder doesn’t automatically make it more stressful. As I’ve aged I find it harder to climb Snowdon. I don’t find it any more stressful.

          • Duncan A says:

            Climbing Snowdon was never in any way critical to your future career or educational prospects so a rather fallacious comparison. And I am in no way arguing that exams should be easy – the question is whether they have become too hard. Making an exam that discriminates well statistically between the limited group of candidates who score a level 8 or 9 could easily make it statistically less capable of discriminating between candidates between levels 4 and 7. It may be that we can eventually re-calibrate parents and students so that it becomes more acceptable that they might achieve a good pass with less than 50% on a paper, but right now I do think they find it stressful.

          • David Didau says:

            Fallacious? I did no work whatsoever for my GCSEs and failed all but 3. This certainly dented my career progression. If only I’d felt a little more stressed I might have tried a little harder. That being the case I have no problem with students taking exams seriously and being anxious about their performance. It seems absurd to suggest something as complex as mental health has so straightforward a causal link with exams though.

            In other news, I really don’t follow your argument that the new GCSEs make it harder to discriminate between lower grades. Why would you think that? I admit I’m in no way a statisticians I’d appreciate an explanation if you have one.

          • Duncan A says:

            Thinking purely from a statistical perspective the ideal exam achieves a good spread of your candidates. This then allows us to have the best possibly chance of giving the student an accurate grade, i.e. a grade that correctly measures their knowledge of the domain. When tests are too hard the candidates don’t score many marks and tend to bunch together towards the bottom. When the number of marks separating the grades becomes too small it is far more challenging to get an accurate measure of a student’s “true” ability – apart from the obvious issues around marking accuracy, students no longer have to demonstrate fluency across the majority of the domain being tested to pass. This creates a high degree of variability year to year as students can get lucky if a question on a test happens to match a small area of the domain that they happen to know well – you may argue that has always been the case but it is something that examiners actually try and avoid.

            Now consider the GCSE maths grade boundaries last year on the higher tier paper – a level 4, equivalent to a low C grade in the old system, was awarded for a candidate achieving just 20% on the paper. I don’t see that we could argue that 20% shows that the candidate has anything other than a minimal and partial knowledge of the domain being tested. We can also that the level 7 was achieved with 51% and a level 9 with just 63% so actually a far from ideal distribution. The one thing in math’s favour is that the reliability of marking is very high. English and the other subjects this year don’t have it so lucky

  6. Chester Draws says:

    People who think internal assessment removes stress are in complete denial. Instead it shifts the stress across the *whole* year. That means it is more prolonged.

    Stress does not come from a task itself, but from the importance of the task. Internal assessments that mean something are as stressful as externals that have the same meaning.

    If you remove assessment, stress moves to “am I buttering up the people I need enough?”.

  7. Alexander Baugh says:

    Thanks for the interesting article, David. As an secondary English teacher, I find the structure of the English Language papers, and especially the timings, are a serious cause of stress. When my classes sit mock papers I always make an effort to do them myself and I’m always struck by the relentlessness of it all – a relentlessness that is very poor preparation for writing in the world of work and academic writing at university.

    • David Didau says:

      It’s a mistake to see GCSEs as preparation for work or university. They’re simply the best worst way we have a capturing how much of a domain students have learned.

      The current GCSE English Language papers are, no doubt, a dog’s breakfast. They are fundamentally unfair in that they are a test of how much general knowledge students possess. That said, whether sitting the exam itself is stressful isn’t the point. What’s stressful is the hysteria and high stakes hooha that surrounds sitting the exam. What stressful is the hours of pointless (in English) exam practice.

  8. chestnut says:

    What is unforgiveable is that some teachers are passing their high stress levels onto students.

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