Updated: Oct 18, 2022
England’s exam system has only been effective at upholding the notion of privilege through constricted tests and exams, resulting in an outcome of poorer mental health overall for young people. A September 2021 survey published by NHS Digital concluded that one in six children in England (17%) among the age range of 6 to 16 years had a “probable mental disorder”. This same rate was also the same between 17 to 19 year olds. The prevalence of this has risen by over 50% since 2017.
Responding to a survey conducted by the Children's Commissioner for England in 2020, two-thirds of pupils regarded exams and excess homework as the leading driver of stress. Furthermore, a poll conducted by the NEU (National Education Union), 73% of teachers surveyed cited that the mental health of their students depreciated following the government's introduction of rigorous “reformed” GCSEs. These new GCSEs, introduced in 2017 by Michael Gove despite advice not do so, place more weighting on final exams at the end of Year 11, and less emphasis on other non-exam assessments and coursework.
These statistics on young people in the English education system’s exam factory leads to the following question that needs asking. What is the substance of a fairer education system that promotes wellbeing and keeps social inequality to a minimum? The answer would be to look at Finland's education system.
Finland’s school system has no examinations prior to leaving school. Instead, all assessments are conducted by teacher-based assessment. This method of assessment is pitched towards driving learning beyond in higher education. Teachers, educated to master’s level, in the process of assessing students can exercise a high degree of professional autonomy and discretion. Regarding the wellbeing of Finnish students, the country’s education system provides free school meals for all students and aims to remove social inequality. In addition, Finland outperforms the UK in health satisfaction of 15-year-olds alongside their success in OECD Pisa tests to measure reading, mathematical and scientific ability.
Meanwhile, the English education system is overly centered on competitiveness and cramming information. The OECD in 2019 found that the UK ranked 69 out of 72 when assessing the life satisfaction of 15-year-olds, the steepest decline of any country since 2015 in children’s living standards. The Finnish system is underpinned by conceptualizing communication and collaboration skills in the classroom. The OECD’s Pisa measure, with Finland at the top, shows how the wellbeing of teachers and students in the English education system can be improved by providing ownership and autonomy over teaching and learning as the information age changes. The test of simply regurgitating information in exams is counter-productive; a well-rounded education can provide a supportive system for teaching children and allow them to reach their full potential beyond a standardized criteria of exam grading.
The extreme stress of anxiety and exams in England asks what the point of this system is being in place. Former education secretary Damian Hinds in his article for the Sunday Times in 2019, acknowledged the stress of exams having a “disproportionate effect on young people’s wellbeing”, he insisted without any evidence that such stress was essential in “building character” and “developing resilience”. Realistically, it is statistically shown that the majority of people suffering from a mental health disorder is developed in early age, and large amounts of stress in childhood does not bolster resilience.
Hinds’ article was narrow-minded to make a convincing case to show young people can pass exams and enter the top universities. It fails to show adequate levels of research and independent thought with reasoning with empathy. Then education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, mindlessly insisted the UK returns to the exam model that was paused during the pandemic, but without any explanation for this.
Exams are a measure of aptitude, ranking specific skills alongside retaining facts under pressure, only representing a small percentage of skills a person requires to traverse the real world. Many global challenges facing us are complex, multi-faceted and entrenched. The ability to spout facts to solve these issues is not necessarily a solution. The English education system needs to become more forward-thinking, develop the social and emotional intelligence of young people, and emphasizes collaboration over competition. The longer the system we have in place continues, the system will fail the student to create diversity and more disparities in higher education.