It was always inevitable that reversing the decades-long trend of grade inflation would cause unhappiness for pupils, as many would not get the inflated grades they were expecting under the anti-meritocratic “all shall have prizes” education philosophy. A piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times by Sian Griffiths, Education Editor:
She has spent months cramming for her A-levels and her revision tips are watched by millions of pupils, but last week the vlogger known as UnJaded Jadewas in tears after sitting her biology paper.
Jade Bowler, 18, from Berkshire, who has a place to read biology at Bristol University if she scores AAB in her exams, said: “The paper had 42 pages. It was so hard. I didn’t even finish it. Everyone in the exam room burst into tears, including me. My heart has never beat so quickly.”
Bowler is not alone. Pupil panic over the hardest GCSEs and A-levels yet set in England has exploded in schools and across the internet, with teenagers posting angst-ridden messages — and expletives — about their experiences.
About 750,000 teenagers are sitting the tough new GCSEs and A-levels this summer. It is the first year that reforms have meant more difficult papers in most subjects, with a scale of 9 to 1 replacing the old A* to G grades in most GCSEs.
The biggest exam shake-up in a generation was the brainchild of Michael Gove during his time as education secretary. It was designed to drive up standards, bring England into line with top-performing systems in the Far East and identify academic high-fliers for top universities.
This weekend, the education expert Alan Smithers warned:
• About 1,000 16-year-olds will score the new top grade of 9 in all their GCSEs, compared with tens of thousands who scored eight or more A* grades last year. Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College School, in Wimbledon, southwest London, where 50% of 16-year-olds scored 10 A*s in their GCSEs last year, said he had already written to parents to warn them not to expect “full houses of grade 9s”.
• Private schools are likely to widen their lead over state schools because many have refused to test the new GCSEs and are instead entering pupils for the International GCSE, an older exam many believe to be easier.
Head teachers and parents warned this weekend that many teenagers were struggling to cope.
The Sunday Times phoned several schools to find out how pupils were faring and found that teachers were deploying a variety of new strategies to help their charges succeed. Some schools are running revision classes at 7.30am before the exams start. Others are sending teachers to anxious pupils’ houses to make sure they turn up.
At The Malling School, in Kent, head teacher Carl Roberts said one pupil had broken his glasses on purpose in an attempt to avoid sitting the tests. One bright pupil broke down in tears in a GCSE exam and another had a panic attack. “Why are we insisting that all pupils, from grammar schools through to special needs pupils, have to sit the same GCSEs?” asked one teacher.
“I act as a scribe to some of the pupils and it’s so sad to see them look beaten before they even enter the room. It’s obvious some of them have quite simply given up,” said another.
The trickiest problems find their way onto the internet, such as a biology GCSE question about why carrots do not increase in mass when they are boiled.
The entrepreneur and Dragons’ Den judge Peter Jones, whose daughter Natalia is taking the new exams, said they were far too academic for many teenagers, who need different skills to succeed in the modern workplace.
“I have watched the higher levels of stress Natalia has experienced compared with her two older siblings who took the older exams,” said Jones, who has campaigned for years for a GCSE in enterprise. “She has worked incredibly hard and has got through but it is taking up almost every waking hour.”
The Department for Education said: “We trust schools not to put undue pressure on young people when administering exams.”
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