'More, Earlier Exam Experience to Cure GCSE Stress,' Says Minister

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Feb 9, 2018

'More, Earlier Exam Experience to Cure GCSE Stress,' Says Minister

Defending reforms to the way in which the examination system works, Nick Gibb, Education Minister, said children should sit more exams from an earlier age so that they find GCSEs less stressful

Whilst giving evidence to the Commons education committee, Gibbs dismissed suggestions that exams placed students under constant, unending pressure.

He went on to blame social media and internet use - rather than the pressure of exams - as main reasons behind severe anxiety in pupils. In contrast, research conducted by YouGov on behalf of leading children’s charity Barnardo’s released earlier this week, reported only one in ten children and young people are worried about social media or cyberbullying. An overwhelming 83 percent of 16 year olds surveyed admitted to being stressed, with 65 percent of those asked citing school as their main cause of stress.

Gibb’s remarks drew criticism from mental health charities and Labour MPs. He is quoted as having said:

“I don’t think it’s right to say that reforms to the curriculum are the cause of young people’s anxiety and mental-health pressure...exam pressure has always been part of being at school. Nothing we’ve done has made it worse”

The reforms, introduced by Michael Gove and continued by the Conservative government, place an emphasis on exams over coursework, yet the frequency of assessment has been reduced.

While schools can set end-of-year tests, not all do. Many have shown concern that teaching for Sats tests takes over most of the last year of primary school in preparation for secondary school, whilst the first years of secondary education are used to expose young people to a wider range of subjects before making their GCSE choices. By placing a stronger emphasis on testing from an earlier age, children could have less time to explore and try new subjects - and to adjust to other changes and pressures that come with moving between primary and secondary school.


Mr Gibb said: “I don’t think it’s right to say reforms to the curriculum are a cause of young people’s anxiety or mental health issues among young people. There are a whole raft of real-world pressures.”

These real-world pressures include more homework hours than many other European countries, according to figures released in 2014. While the weekly average was around five hours, these figures included young people who did little to no homework at all. Teens aged 13-14 completing at least an hour-long block of homework regularly were found to do significantly better on standardised exams. Data suggested that spending ‘60 minutes a day doing homework is a reasonable and effective time’. However, studies have previously failed to find a relationship between time spent on homework and academic achievement for primary school children.

With kids spending an average six and a half hours a day, 195 days a year at school, with an average five hours of homework a week, young people are already spending over almost 1,500 hours a year on studying or at school. With the number of children seeking counselling for anxiety rising by 60 percent over the past two years (according to recent figures), do we risk overwhelming children with exam pressures from an early age, where they are already experiencing a multitude of changes and pressures?

Natasha Devon MBE, author of A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z and creator the Mental Health Media Charter highlighted that exams aren’t a measure of intelligence, but ‘measure ability to remember facts under pressured conditions’ - which is just one out of a range of useful skills we should be encouraging and helping young people to develop.

In a conversation with The Independent, Devon called on the Department of Education to seek expert help in brain development to understand the pressures children face.

“They can’t just keep piling on more and more pressure and cross their fingers and hope that it will work”

If you are concerned about a child or teen’s stress levels or mental health, find more information about stress and indicators at Counselling Directory or try these tips for combatting stress from qualified Life Coach, Sam Sahota.

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