Do We Still Need Examination Results to Prove We Are Successful?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 15 September 2022
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Exam Results; Child wellbeing

As results season swings into gear in schools across Northern Ireland we celebrate with the successful pupils and try to reassure and console those who have not done as well as they needed to. Apart from the exceptional cases where teachers are shocked by unexpected failures by pupils or surprised by unpredicted excellence, A level and GCSE grades should normally be a validation of the hard work and perseverance of pupils over a number of years. Exam courses are a marathon, not a sprint and like in athletics, the ability to do well depends on an extended period of training, self discipline and the right advice and support.

The last two years have been different of course and the validation process has had to be changed to  teacher- based assessments of pupil attainment to allow awards and certificates to be dispensed. In this column I have previously discussed the pros and cons of school- based assessment versus external examinations and we have reviewed the history of how grades, perhaps inevitably became inflated in the process of trying to do the best for pupils. In the light of recent experience, I suspect that most schools are relieved to have external assessments once again taking away the responsibility of grading their own pupils.

The BBC have reported that both A Level and GCSE grade boundaries - the number of marks needed for each grade - were more lenient this year. Students may have needed fewer marks to reach a particular grade, or been looked at more favourably if they were very close to the boundary for a higher grade. In addition, various courses in some parts of the curriculum were removed, and students were given additional advance information about which areas to revise to compensate for the disruption to their learning during the pandemic.
GCSE results 2022: When are they out and how are grades being decided? - BBC News

So, as we gradually resume our previous approach to external examinations should we pause and reflect on whether we are doing the best we can for our young people by putting them through the stress and worry of examinations now that we have tried doing without them?

The argument in favour of exams includes the point that they help schools to assess whether areas of a course or subject have been successfully taught or not and also how the teaching and learning in a school measures up to others nationally. Indeed, without the data that A Levels and GCSEs provide, it would be difficult to assess how our education system is performing on an international level.  Even more importantly perhaps, university faculties and employers rely on the standardised benchmarking provided by examination boards to fairly select candidates for places and positions. Examinations force students to study hard because they know they are going to be put to a test at the end of the course. Without this pressure it is likely that many students would not take their studies as seriously and standards would inevitably fall. There is then an element of competition in this approach which it could be argued, puts children under harmful pressure rather than simply assessing whether they know everything that they need to.
The Importance of Examination -

Is there a valid argument that examinations are unfair to some children and also that the pressure to perform to national standards causes unnecessary stress and damage to self esteem when results are disappointing.

The Anna Freud Centre with Royal patronage has taken over delivery of The Mentally Healthy Schools initiative since April 2020. They recommend a very careful approach to placing stress on pupils pointing out that;

“For children and young people who are generally anxious, the experience of taking exams can be very threatening and could lead to unmanageable increases in anxiety levels.

Children who find schoolwork a struggle, or those with special educational needs or mental health difficulties, may be more likely to experience academic anxiety. However, so can high achievers, particularly children who are overly perfectionist or whose parents have very high ambitions for them.”

Based on the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child approach they differentiate pupil stress into three categories;

“Firstly positive stress which can be positive for children and young people and which helps them learn coping skills and develop resilience which are essential for successful adult and working lives, then tolerable stress, which is the type like examinations, that can be tolerated particularly if children and young people have developed resilience and are cushioned by strong adult relationships and then toxic stress which involves the prolonged activation of stress responses without the benefit of being protected by strong adult relationships”.
Academic and exam stress : Mentally Healthy Schools

It seems therefore that so long as pupils approach examinations in the context of a caring, nurturing home and school environment that the resilience and positive confidence which comes from facing and succeeding in exams is an appropriate way of preparing for adult and working life. Even if at times this means experiencing failure then that too is an important life lesson which should enhance rather than diminish character.

Finally we need to remember that our ability to cope as a person is perhaps the most critical skill that we need to learn to be truly successful in whatever sphere we chose to work in.

“Dr Carolyn MacCann from the University of New South Wales is quoted in December 2019 in The Mail as saying;

 'Although we know that high intelligence and a conscientious personality are the most important psychological traits necessary for academic success, our research highlights a third factor, emotional intelligence, that may also help students succeed.

'It's not enough to be smart and hardworking. Students must also be able to understand and manage their emotions to succeed at school”.
Being smart and hardworking are not enough for academic success | Daily Mail Online

It is important to add that success in A level or GCSE examinations are by no means the only routes to success in life or indeed all that is needed to become a fully rounded adult. The complexity of the world and the enduring demand for a range of human skills and endeavours will always require excellence in fields other than academia and we in schools have been guilty at times of failing to acknowledge this. Hopefully as we resume examinations we can add qualifications and training routes which can respect and facilitate excellence in the wider range of knowledge which our society needs.

This article is correct at 15/09/2022

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email

View all articles by Frank Cassidy