Stop testing kids at 16, say neuroscientists

Jumping for joy: 20.5% of entries recorded at least an A (7 in the new system).

Should GCSEs be scrapped? Despite efforts to make exams harder, the nation’s 16-year-olds rejoiced yesterday as pass rates rose. But the stress of exam season took its toll on many.

After a long, hot, tense summer, the results are in. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of students received the final verdict on their GCSEs.

For the first time, most of the GCSEs in England were graded from 9 to 1. This is part of the government’s plan to overhaul the exams and make them more difficult.

Students rose to the challenge. The proportion of students reaching the pass levels — England’s new grade 4 and grade C in Wales and Northern Ireland — rose 0.5% to 66.9%. About 4% of entries received the top grade. And 732 delighted people scored a clean sweep of 9s in all subjects.

Girls continued to outperform boys — but boys narrowed the gap. Overall, 17.2% of boys’ entries scored a 7 or A, which is up from 16.4% last year.

Although much of the news is good, research from the National Citizen Service found that 73% of students said the new grading system caused extra stress. The UK is the only European country to have high-stakes testing at 16, and a growing chorus believes the current system should go.

Neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore says GCSEs are “unfair on teenage brains”.

“Until about 20 years ago it was assumed that teenage behaviour was almost entirely governed by hormonal and social changes, but studies have revealed that adolescence is also a time of substantial neurological change,” Blakemore writes in The Times.

For example, during adolescence, melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy in the evenings, is produced a couple of hours later than in childhood or adulthood.

Writing for HuffPost, Sam Burt argues that GCSEs were designed for a time when half of all students left school at 16. Now everyone is required to stay in some form of education or training until 18.

And so instead of believing that 16 is too young to test, Burt believes it is too old: “16 is too late to be labelling someone ‘non-academic’ when their education up to that point has prioritised academic success above all else”.

But most experts still believe exams are a necessary part of education.

Who is right?

Testing times

Keep GCSEs, say many. Eleven years into their education is the right time to give young people their first big tests. GCSEs should be stressful in order to prepare people for adult life. Doing it any later would mean students cannot specialise before university. And any earlier would put too much pressure on developing brains.

Scrap them, reply others. Desperately cramming information for a strictly timed test is a poor imitation of the reality of working life. They also make people miserable at a time when learning should be a pleasure. GCSEs are ill-suited to teenagers’ brains. We should replace them with a system that plays to their strengths.

You Decide

  1. Should GCSEs be scrapped?
  2. What would be a good alternative?


  1. Think of a job you would like to do when you are older. Write an advert for that job, outlining the skills an applicant would need. How much importance would you place on exam results?
  2. Write a letter to someone who has just received disappointing exam results, consoling them.

Some People Say...

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

Albert Einstein

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
GCSE results were published yesterday. It was the first time most schools in the UK used the new 9-1 grading system. Results improved marginally on the previous year, and boys narrowed the gender gap. However, this is partly due to much lower grade boundaries for some subjects. Nonetheless, many students said the new system caused them extra stress.
What do we not know?
To what extent mental health problems are correlated with exam stress. After all, exams have been around for a long time, and mental health problems among young people have only recently started to rise sharply. We also do not know how long the current British system will be around.

Word Watch

Stands for “General Certificate of Secondary Education”.
9 to 1
Under the new system, 9s and 8s are A*s, 7 is an A, 6 and 5 are Bs, 4 is a C, 3 is a D, and 1 and 2 are the other fail grades.
Boys narrowed the gap
The percentage of girls who got a 7 or A remained static at 23.7%.
Only European country
In many European countries, including Sweden and Germany, performance is marked by assessment rather than by a one-off examination. In the Netherlands, however, students are tested one year earlier than British students are at GCSE level. Outside Europe, neither Japan nor South Korea have any formalised testing before the age of 18.
Neurology is the study of the nervous system, which includes the brain.
Left school at 16.
By 2009, 78% of British people between the ages of 15 and 19 were in full-time education.

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