• Olivia Halsall

Educhaos 2: Why We Need to Adapt Exams Entirely and Urgently

Updated: May 23

When you Google “Why is school so …”, the finalé offered up is: boring, long or easy. Neither of these come across as positive, and that’s a problem. In an ideal world, education would be personalised for each individual based on their academic abilities, personal interests, future ambitions, the list goes on.


I like to err on the side of optimism when it comes to the human race, and I do believe we can live in a world where each and every child (and adult) genuinely enjoys their education. But we aren’t quite there yet. For starters, children are still taking examinations and assessments that are outdated, and no longer relevant for the 21st century. The million pound question I pose is how can we adapt these to cater for a world we don’t yet know, let alone understand?


There is scope for exams to adapt to modern (chaotic) settings. Let’s take iGCSE English as an example. My Shanghai-based students (due to lockdown) submitted a portfolio of work and completed an online writing assessment. My UK-based students, however, have to sit in exam halls for hours on end, cramming heaps of information only to regurgitate words on cold blank pages, for (literally) weeks on end. Grim.


The negative health effects of exams on young people are in abundance. 42% of year 12 students in an Australia-based survey reported high-level anxiety symptoms which were high enough to be “of clinical concern”. Those experiencing the highest severity of stress and anxiety were gifted girls, which was consistent across a range of cultural groups.


Further, Lucy Maddox, Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist, has said “Getting grades which were below what was expected was a significant stress for young people and could cause huge upset, sometimes resulting in severe self-harming behaviours as they felt all their chances had been blown.” This led me to Google “What is the point of exams?” of which the results were, dare I say, even more depressing. The Internet hit me with some of the following justifications:

  • A great sense of achievement – You set yourself a target and achieved it. It is a statement to others that you worked hard and have succeeded.” Great for some who thrive in competitive environments, disaster for those who fall short of their own (or others’) expectations.

  • I think if we’re all being honest, without exams we would be much less likely to revise.” In the current educational environment, yes probably. The end goal needs to be reframed for students (and the adults who are calling the shots).

  • Exams enhance the child’s overall personality and memory and revision skills.” Remind me of the relevance of “revision skills” in real-life? This article made me weep.

I find it unnecessary that students have to undertake exams under these circumstances today. Life is not a Dickens book and yes, I get it, English people like to be stoic and say stuff like “rah” because we can’t express our emotions particularly well, but exams as they stand need to go. They are not preparing students for real-life, and they are not a measure of grit or intelligence.


The NHS website has a lot of useful information on how to help your child “beat” (aggressive, yikes) exam stress. In a future OLEA's Educhaos article (posted every Monday on our website), I am going to put my money where my mouth is and write an article sharing ideas from myself and fellow education experts on how best to assess students in the 21st century. Stay tuned.


- By Olivia A. Halsall

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