“It’s going to affect your life”: A 16-year-old GCSE student on the new, harder exams

“It was not what we were expecting, and you really don’t need stress at that time of your life.”

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This year, GCSEs turn 30. They’ve grown tougher with age. This summer marks the second year of the new, notoriously difficult iteration of the exams, which were rolled out last year for English and maths, sparking controversy among teachers and pupils alike.

These new exams were designed by former education secretary Michael Gove to be much more challenging in content, as well as stripping out any incentives to do resits, and reducing the proportion of coursework.

But even Kenneth Baker, who was education secretary under Margaret Thatcher when GCSEs were first created, has called the new maths GCSE too challenging for less able students. He feels they would benefit more, and gain more confidence, from a core numeracy test rather than failing at “calculus, trigonometry or geometry”.

When the new GCSEs started last year, Baker called the changes to the exam system he pioneered “deeply upsetting”: “You should be very wary of making such fundamental changes as this.”

Tough exams arrive with the news from the NSPCC that the number of English schools seeking mental health treatment for their pupils has more than tripled over the last three years. Although the majority of these were in primary schools, and the cause cannot simply be pinned to the prospect of exams, I spoke to a 16-year-old who describes the stress and confusion of the new, tougher GCSEs:

Heather Schild, 16, goes to school in Nottingham and did her GCSEs last year

I found the maths, English and science difficult.

I’m not particularly good at English anyway, so that probably didn’t help, but I found that a lot of people also didn’t enjoy it because of the questions and the source we were given from the books we were studying – they weren’t very good. And maths – well, I think the questions were just really hard for some reason.

I think they were very different, especially English, from what we had been doing in lessons and for homework. The examples [sample questions] we were given during lessons in English were much easier, I found. But at the actual test, it was really not what we were expecting.

After we came out of the exams, [the atmosphere was one of confusion]. As usual, when you get out of an exam, everyone’s talking about the answers, and with maths, when I was listening afterwards, everyone was basically giving different answers for each question – so that was kind of weird, because usually you get large group giving the same answer.

And for English, everyone was really complaining about the question and how they didn’t really understand it, and how we didn’t really learn about the kind of sources we were given, especially for Romeo and Juliet.

I think people were worried, because usually when you get out of an exam, you know if you’ve failed or not. But this time, it was like “err, I’m not sure!”

I don’t think I was particularly stressed when revising, but afterwards I was really worried about my results. Before and during them, I was fairly OK – but everyone else was really worried.

I guess it [pupils being stressed] makes sense, because when you’re younger you’re not really used to having so much stress, and you really don’t need it at that time of puberty and everything. Everyone was focusing on the exams and weren’t really questioning how stressed they were.

I kind of think it’s wrong to have so much pressure at this age, because I feel like you’re still developing and everything, and trying to understand it all. GCSEs are basically going to affect your life, so they should be a little later in life, maybe.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.