England’s punitive exam system is good for one thing: preserving privilege

Why are we doing this to our children? As exam term begins, the question hangs over millions of households. NHS figures suggest that 17% of 6- to 16-year-olds in England now suffer from a “probable mental disorder”, and the incidence has risen by 50% since 2017.

In a survey by the children’s commissioner for England, two-thirds of children ranked homework and exams as their greatest cause of stress. Responding to a poll by the National Education Union, 73% of teachers said they believed the mental health of their students had deteriorated since the government introduced its “reformed” GCSEs, which put more weight on final exams and less on coursework and other assessments.

These reforms, imposed on schools by Michael Gove against expert advice, may have contributed to the OECD’s shocking finding in 2019 that, of the 72 nations in which the life satisfaction of 15-year-olds was assessed, the UK came 69th. Our children’s joy of living suffered the greatest decline of any country since 2015, the year in which the GCSE reforms became effective. If we are going to subject young people, already so vulnerable, to the extreme stress and anxiety of exams, there must be an excellent reason. So what is it?

Given the importance of the subject, it’s remarkable how thin and infrequent are the government’s justifications. For a sustained attempt by a senior government figure to justify the English system, you must go back to an article by the previous education secretary, Damian Hinds, that he wrote for the Sunday Times in 2019. While he accepted that exams were stressful and had “a disproportionate effect on young people’s wellbeing”, he claimed, without any supporting evidence, that this stress was important in “building character” and “developing the resilience and coping mechanisms to deal with challenging experiences”. In reality, the great majority of people who suffer mental health disorders develop them as children or young adults. Great stress in childhood is likely to make us less resilient, not more.

Hinds’ article – simple-minded, hackneyed, cavalier – makes a strong case, but not the one he intended. It shows that you can pass your exams, enter a top university and become a cabinet minister, yet fail to achieve basic standards of research, insight, originality, reasoned argument, empathy or humanity. But at least he tried. While the current education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has insisted we return to the exam model that was suspended during the pandemic, he has made no attempt to explain why.

What exams measure is aptitude in exams. While they might rank certain skills, such as the retention of facts and the performance of linear tasks under pressure, these represent just a small part of the equipment a person needs to navigate the world. Many of the challenges we face are complex, long-lasting and multi-layered. They might demand social and emotional intelligence rather than the ability to marshal facts, and might best be overcome by collaboration instead of competition.

But performance in these narrow, unrepresentative tests can determine the entire future course of a student’s life. Some will be branded failures, creating a self-image that will never be erased. I’ve met children who are brilliant in peculiar ways, but who flunk exams. I’ve met adults who, often after long struggles with self-esteem and social condescension, succeed magnificently despite their low grades. I’ve met others whose evident talents remain unrecognised, as they never overcome the stigma.

It’s not the child who fails the system. It’s the system, seeking to force everyone into the same box, that fails the child. It pathologises diversity. For example, as The ADHD Explosion, by the clinical psychologist Stephen Hinshaw and the health economist Richard Scheffler, suggests, a massive increase in ADHD diagnoses appears to be linked to the rise in high-stakes testing. As exams become more important, parents have a greater incentive to seek the diagnosis and acquire the drugs that might improve their child’s performance. At the same time, as a report by the education professor Merryn Hutchings argues, more children are likely to show ADHD symptoms in a stressful, channelled schooling system that forces them to sit still for long periods and reduces opportunities for creative, physical and practical work.

Exams distort every aspect of education. It’s not just a matter of “teaching to the test” and drilling pupils in rote learning rather than encouraging deep understanding, independence and creative thought. They also ensure that the curriculum is narrow and compartmentalised, sealing testable knowledge into artificial boxes. This partitioning, coupled with the ridiculously early specialisation of the English education system, ensures that by the time we reach our late teens we can scarcely understand each other, let alone the world into which we emerge.

So what are exams for? Preserving privilege. Privilege loves competition, because it can always be rigged. Private schools and parents who pay for tuition can afford to drum the necessary requirements into a child, even one whose mind seeks to travel in other directions.

If there is a better case for exams, this government hasn’t made it. They inflict pain and distress on our children, narrow their minds and force them to conform. They turn education, which should be rich with the joy of discovery, into an instrumental misery. They exacerbate injustice, exclusion and inequality. Q: What would a fair, rounded, useful 21st-century education look like? A: Nothing like this.

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