Exam stress or not, the system is becoming redundant

By Kevin Stannard

Those who are stepping up to defend exam stress forget one crucial thing: exams are increasingly becoming irrelevant, writes Kevin Stannard

Who is to blame for exam stress? Education’s top brass have weighed in with pronouncements as unsubstantiated as they are categorical.

The chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, blames teachers for “manufacturing” anxiety, asserting that tests are only a source of concern when people (i.e. teachers) make it so. Damian Hinds, channelling Dr Arnold of Rugby School, accepts that exams are inherently stressful but thinks that as such they help build character.

These knockabout interventions are unhelpful. No one else really doubts that high-stakes testing creates stress. The current argument is (narrowly) over whether the recent reforms have increased stress and (more broadly) about whether exam stress is a cause or a consequence of deeper-rooted trends in mental health among teenagers.

Ofqual’s Roger Taylor weighed in with the assertion that exam reform is not responsible for increased stress. He says that the evidence for a causal link is weak. But that cuts both ways, and our national exams regulator should research it properly, rather than revel in the evidential void. Taylor accepts that it is the duty of the education sector to avoid undue anxiety: surely it’s the duty of the regulator to ensure that our exam system is based on reliable evidence that the apparatus of testing adds value not vexation.

Taylor puts exam stress down to rising levels of underlying anxiety, and to the fact that today’s pupils are mentally more fragile, less able to deal with stressful episodes like exams. Adolescence itself is stressful, and it is becoming more so. But it is quite a leap to assert that today’s young people are somehow less resilient and more fragile. It plays to a narrative about the “snowflake” generation, which does them a signal disservice.

On the whole, pupils navigate the exam system and bounce back, but testing takes a toll. The student survey conducted by the Girls’ Day School Trust in 2016 showed that, in the GCSE tunnel, they tend to narrow their sights, judging teaching by the ability to deliver good notes and teach to the test. Before and after that phase, judgements about what makes good teaching focus more expansively on the ability to inspire, communicate and build on broader learning aims. GCSE reforms merely made the tunnel longer and narrower. The test of the A-level reforms is whether they have dampened students’ ability to emerge from the tunnel or behave as if they are still constrained within it.

Asserting that exams are not the fundamental cause of growing concerns about mental health and wellbeing does not let testing off the hook. It’s not a simple case of cause and consequence. Exam stress both reflects and reinforces the broader picture of pressure on teenagers in an ever-more-challenging world.

It is ironic that defenders of high-stakes testing are taking the field at a time when qualifications based on traditional pen and paper tests are being called into question. Universities are increasingly imposing their own tests or making unconditional offers. Employers are increasingly looking to online filters and psychometric tests that bypass public exam credentials.

Ofsted and Ofqual insisting that tests and exams don’t add to stress (let alone anxiety) calls to mind the First World War generals who persisted with frontal assaults against accumulating evidence that not only was it not working but it was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The question is, what is the educational equivalent of the tank that might finally break the trench warfare deadlock?

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1