AS the weather hots up for summer, many people will be heading outside to enjoy all Yorkshire has to offer – beaches, seaside towns, bustling cities.
But for many teenagers, those warmer days and longer evenings don’t mean the holidays are here just yet. In fact, with the GCSE and A-Level exam season upon us, life may seem far from a picnic.
Instead, they’ll be faced with a timetable of revision and colour-coded highlighters to sit some of the most important exams they’ll ever take. It’s a stressful period: the revision can be draining; exams are never nice; and the stakes are high. In Mental Health Awareness Week, many people argue it’s unreasonable to put this burden on our young people, that education should not include such pressure or judgement.
I can see their point, but only up to a point. I also think exams are a great opportunity to equip our young people with the resilience and coping strategies they need to deal with challenges now and in later life. Exams and the pressure that comes with them have always been a part of our school system. Back in my day it was O-Levels and CSEs. Then, and now, exams are an important way of measuring pupils’ academic progress and achievements.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t concern me when I hear stories about how exam stress is affecting young people’s wellbeing. Clearly if pupils suffer sleepless nights or depression because of their exams then they need extra support.
Along the North Yorkshire coast, a local organisation which aims to get more young people into higher education is helping year 11 and post-16 students develop coping strategies. PhD student and international footballer, Tracy Donachie, is using her experience competing at the highest level on the football pitch to help pupils and staff tackle exam stress. Young people at Caedmon College in Whitby, Scalby and Graham Schools in Scarborough are learning how the right level of nerves can enhance performance, while too much anxiety can block our thoughts and lead us into a panic.
The coastal area is also working with secondary schools to improve teaching and learning, as well as creating a ‘Resilience Revolution’ with partners across the community. I hope this helps raise aspirations and improve the outcomes for young people. With wider awareness of emotional health and wellbeing they will be equipped to succeed and bounce back when things don’t go to plan.
Teachers in the Bradford Opportunity Area are providing extra tuition to small groups of Year 11 students, supporting those at risk of failing in English and maths GCSE, so they get the qualifications they need to unlock future opportunities. We know there is a massive premium on English and maths when it comes to getting a job.
Since 2010, we’ve carried out a huge programme of reform in our education system. I know that this period of change has been challenging for teachers and pupils alike. One of the key things our reforms have done is strip away endless modular exams that meant too many pupils were sitting exam after exam during their GCSE years.
Pupils now have at least two full years of study before they sit their GCSE exams, so they get a thorough grasp of the subject before being tested on it. This level of preparation should mean less stress, not more.
There will be pupils who realise the importance of their GCSEs and A-Levels too late and don’t prepare as well as they should. There will be those who make errors on the day and don’t do as well as they hoped. For those pupils it is important to have some perspective.
While GCSEs and A-Levels are important, and good grades will help unlock future opportunities, they are not the be-all and end-all. We all know of cases of people who’ve done amazing things later in life, despite their exams not going well.
While that’s true, I’m sure if you asked any millionaire who failed their exams, many would say they wish they’d done better. So now is the time to prepare as well as you can and work hard. As I’ve said before, the most important thing any pupil in school can do is to try their best.
Damian Hinds is the Education Secretary and a Conservative MP.