Eton joins call for ‘unfair and stressful’ GCSEs to be scrapped

WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 2007: An Eton College pupil walks thorough School Yard with Luptons Tower in the background at Eton College, the iconic English private school, Eton College. Eton College was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. The College originally had 70 King's Scholars or 'Collegers' who lived in the College and were educated free, and a small number of 'Oppidans' who lived in the town of Eton and paid for their education. Eton has a very long list of distinguished former pupils, including eighteen former British Prime Ministers. - Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM – JUNE 2007: An Eton College pupil walks thorough School Yard with Luptons Tower in the background at Eton College, the iconic English private school, Eton College. Eton College was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. The College originally had 70 King’s Scholars or ‘Collegers’ who lived in the College and were educated free, and a small number of ‘Oppidans’ who lived in the town of Eton and paid for their education. Eton has a very long list of distinguished former pupils, including eighteen former British Prime Ministers. – Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Eton College and St Paul’s Girls School have joined some of the top names in education in calling for the scrapping of GCSE exams.

The two schools, among most prestigious in the country, say the system “neither measures the right things nor is very reliable, and leaves in its wake a trail of stress and unfairness”.

In an open letter published on Saturday, more than 20 top names in education, operating under the coalition name Rethinking Assessment, say they are exasperated by the “mutant exam system”.

Signatories include Lord Baker, the former education secretary who introduced GCSEs in 1988 but thinks they are “no longer needed”, and Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Peter Hyman, co-founder of School 21.

They are joined by leaders of the academy trust AET, which runs more than 50 schools, and the Bohunt academy trust, which starred in the BBC2 documentary Are Our Kids Tough Enough?.

Eton said the national exam system had an unhelpful “stranglehold over schools” and hindered youngsters from “finding their talents”. 

Sarah Fletcher, high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, west London, often ranked the best school in Britain by exam results, said GCSEs stifled children’s creativity.

The campaign comes as officials are drawing up contingency plans for pupils to sit next summer’s GCSE and A-level exams online from their homes, if the pandemic makes sitting tests in schools impossible.

Another option being looked at is to use teachers’ predictions of pupils’ performance to award grades again. (see video below for more analysis). 

The campaign to scrap GCSEs is motivated in part by fears that the UK has some of the most stressed youngsters in Europe. 

The letter warns: “Many of those who are involved in the exams merry-go-round are reaching the same conclusion: it’s not fit for purpose.

“Many young people find the relentless practice and planning for exams increasingly stressful; depression and self-harm statistics confirm this.

“The UK has the lowest happiness levels in Europe, according to OECD statistics. Thirty or more GCSEs in one month: intense, high-stakes, written exams couldn’t be designed better to induce anxiety.”

It adds: “More than that, all pupils, however successful they are at exams, leave school with only a partial record of their strengths. No credit is given to those who are skilled communicators, thoughtful team players, clever problem solvers or creative thinkers.”

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Prof of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge, and an expert on the teenage brain, said: “It has become increasingly clear that holding high-stakes national exams [GCSEs] during a period of life characterised by increased vulnerability to mental health problems no longer makes sense.”

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