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Exams at 16 are unnecessary

Exams harm 16-year-olds, and increasingly there are calls to abolish them. What are we waiting for?

Every year around exam time the news is full of coverage about GCSEs. They’re too hard. They’re too easy. Or highlighting the serious stress that students are put under.

The current exam regime is distracting, distorting and, ultimately, damaging

Kevin Stannard

But why do we have to have them at all? More and more voices are starting to call for scrapping exams for 16-year-olds entirely.

Examinations at 16 were designed for a time when many left school at 16. Now that the law has been changed to make education compulsory until 18 there is no reason for such high stakes testing just two years before students leave.

Opponents of the exams on both the left and the right

Amongst those pointing this out is Lord Kenneth Baker, the former Conservative minister responsible for introducing the exams in 1986 “Not many have woken up to the fact that education now stretches to 18 years old. GCSE is no longer assessing performance at departure and over the course of the next ten years it will disappear because it won’t have much of a purpose and the real test will be at 18 to show what you have done.”

Not many have woken up to the fact that education now stretches to 18 years old

Kenneth Baker

Eton headmaster, Tony Little, also said that the only written exams to be taken at age 16 should be maths and English, to give students more time to develop a range of skills. He called for an end to the “Victorian style” of education which crushes students’ creativity, which measures ability by “sitting everyone down in rows in an exam hall”. Because A-levels were used by universities as part of the higher education admissions process there was an argument for keeping them but Little insisted there were no good reasons why students had to be assessed in “this very Victorian way” at age 16.

Kevin Stannard, a director at the Girls’ Day School Trust, a network of independent schools wrote in TES challenging the educational justification for the exams.

“The current exam regime is distracting, distorting and, ultimately, damaging, because GCSE results are used not only to judge individuals but also to evaluate teachers and schools as well. The use of GCSE as an accountability lever has distracted pedagogy, but also distorted the curriculum (with creative arts subjects being squeezed out).”

Sir Mike Tomlinson – who chaired a committee in 2004 on reform of 14-19 education, the recommendations of which were widely supported at the time but which were shelved by Labour at the last minute for political reasons – described GCSEs as ‘a waste of time’, although he did still suggest that four core subjects be tested.

In 2015 Labour were proposing revisiting the proposed reforms, Tristram Hunt being yet another voice pointing out that it no longer made sense to have exams at 16 when teenagers were required to stay in full-time education or training until the age of 18.

Brains are vulnerable at this age

Leading neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore claims that teenagers are being harmed by having to take major exams at age 16. Blakemore, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, highlighted the huge amount of new knowledge we have on this period of life. MRI studies looking at the development of teenagers’ brains have shown very dramatic development during this period. There is extensive evidence that high stakes testing causes harm, both psychologically and because focus on the exams means students are missing out on so much.

At the Hay festival Blakemore was yet another voice challenging the need for stressful exams at 16 given that students now must continue in education until 18. The reason for GCSEs were ‘historic’. ‘But that’s no good reason to have an extremely stressful exam which, by the way, I think has become more stressful in the last ten years – just at an age where children are going through all this change in terms of brain, behaviour hormones and social changes, and rendering them very vulnerable to things like mental health problems.’

Let’s end it. Why keep subjecting our children to something that is not only harmful but also pointless?


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