England’s school exam system needs an overhaul to lower the mental burdens they place on teenagers striving for the “holy grail” of results, according to the new leader of the Girls’ School Association.
Samantha Price, head of Benenden School in Kent, wants reforms on how and when students are examined, including a possible delay to the start of degree courses until January rather than autumn, to allow students more time to make course applications, do work experience and learn skills such as financial literacy.
“I don’t think our current assessment system is any longer fit for purpose and I don’t think our university application system is fit for purpose. I don’t think it’s fair across the sectors and I also don’t think it caters for young people’s mental health,” Price said, in her first comments since taking the role as president of the GSA, which represents girls’ schools.
Price admitted that “not all my fellow school leaders may agree”, but called for a serious look at whether high-stakes exams such as GCSEs and A-levels were appropriate for 16- and 18-year-olds in their current form.
The government in England is preparing to publish the results of its consultation on post-qualification university admissions, which is likely to recommend major changes to the timing and structure of applications so that decision-making takes place after A-level results have been published.
“For school students with their sights on a traditional university degree course, we need to overhaul the admissions system to embrace either post-qualification offers or applications. This would be a much fairer system for all young people and would reduce the pressure on them in their final year of school,” Price said.
“We have to recognise that there is a mental health crisis in our country’s young people. Doing away with predicted grade offers and moving to a post-qualification system would minimise the negative impact of striving for the ‘holy grail’ of grades.”
Bringing forward the timing of A-levels would enable the admissions process to be completed for the traditional autumn start. Alternatively, Price said, the university year could begin in January.
Price, the head of a boarding school that charges £40,000 a year, also said there were questions over whether a university degree was still a better option than apprenticeships or other options.
“The extent to which universities may or may not offer value for money has been questioned for a number of years … Lingering student loan debt long into adulthood is a very real problem not only for individuals but also for the country as a whole,” Price said.
A separate report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), published on Monday, found that the quality and duration of home schooling in England improved during the lockdown earlier this year, but that many pupils will struggle to catch up because of the effects of lost learning during the previous lockdown in 2020.
The government’s major effort to recover learning has been through a national programme of tutoring. But the IFS found that among the poorest fifth of families, while 36% of pupils had been offered extra tutoring by March 2021, nearly a third of these chose not to take it up.
By contrast, while a similar share of those in the most affluent families had been offered tutoring, only one in seven of them turned it down.
Angus Phimister, an author of the IFS report, said: “Catch-up policies need to be carefully designed to be taken up by poorer pupils if they are to have any chance of putting a dent in the educational inequalities that have grown so much wider during the pandemic.”