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Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Exam overload: Are you getting stressed out?

Students are facing immense exam pressure due to the revised system for post-16 qualifications in the UK.

Head teachers paint a bleak picture of over-worked, stressed pupils, unable to participate in extra-curricular activities because of pressure of AS-levels, Advanced Highers and Key or Core Skills examinations.

The new system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, brought in this year, was intended to bring greater diversity and breadth to lower sixth-form study.

One of the main head teachers' unions has called for an inquiry into the implementation of the changes.

In Scotland the Higher Still reforms were intended to give a better range and blend of academic and vocational qualifications. The main teachers' union there is threatening to boycott the internal assessments involved.

What do you think of the changes? Are you a stressed-out student, or parent who has seen first hand the problems caused, or a teacher or head teacher who's been grappling with implementing all this?

This talking point is now closed. Read your comments below.


If students don't like exams why did they opt to go college in the first place, and if they have so many exams, why didn't they start revising earlier? Students were aware of the number of exams before they opted to go to college; it's a big fuss about nothing!
Matthew, UK


I have worked myself so hard this year that I have become ill

Sarah Pyke, England
I am a year 12 student and I cannot believe that once again our year has been the 'guinea pigs' of a failed system. I have worked myself so hard this year that I have become ill, working from 8.30am to 11pm nearly every night this year. I am so stressed out about these exams that my health is starting to suffer and I am furious that the government are only just realising. One of my friends had to sit 7 hours' worth of exams in one day because of exam clashes! I only wish the government would realise exactly what they have put us through and that we could get some kind of compensation or apology for this 'shambles'.
Sarah Pyke, England

I agree that evaluations and qualifications must begin at an early (post-16) age. Indeed, I've found that the anxiety I carried through college and graduate school has forced me to be honest with myself: I am not a genius, I cannot pass without studying. My difficulties in school have shattered my delusions of brilliance. And I'm all the more successful, for having pushed myself. Certainly there is a satisfaction in struggle.
Temina Madon, US

Although the old guard are right to point out that A-levels were harder 20-30 years ago than now, that doesn't mean less stress in the sixth form because O-levels were dumbed down by the same amount (remember?) so the students still have to learn as much in two years, maybe more.
Chris Stratton, UK


For those who say exams are getting easier, my message is Wake Up!

Bala Karunakaran, UK
For those who say exams are getting easier, my message is Wake Up! I go to a top grammar school which takes education as its top priority. We had lunchtime sessions, after school sessions - on top of school lessons - and we still couldn't manage to finish the syllabus. If a student does not understand something he has to seek private tuition or 'just live with it' as teachers cannot afford to spend extra time on them. Those of us who wanted to go to uni had to give up our sporting activities and part time jobs to revise three months ago. Is this really going to produce better candidates? Did those who claimed to have done harder exams do half the amounts of sacrifices we make?
Bala Karunakaran, UK

What the self-indulgent students in this country need to do is look at some education systems abroad. I come from Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, where students start taking serious exams from as early as Grade 1 (primary school)! Every year through to Grade 12, we sit three exams at the end of each term for every single subject, and the final term exam we have to pass (and pass it well), or we fail and we would have to repeat the year, while some of our friends move on. On top of this, the results of each student are ranked in each class from 1st to 100th so that we all know where we stand.

The system is brutal and it makes students work like horses. More importantly, it teaches students real discipline, commitment, and combined with the harsh living conditions, a certain appreciation for the privilege that is education - whatever its flaws. In this country, students don't seem to care much for discipline; don't seem to be able to put their 'stress' in perspective, and most tragically of all, show very little awareness of just how disproportionately privileged most of them really are in the grand scheme of things.
Ebrachem, UK


The AS level system has caused nothing but pressure on both the teachers and pupils concerned

Victoria, England
As far as I can see, the AS level system has caused nothing but pressure on both the teachers and pupils concerned. The syllabus allowed no time for in-class revision or study leave, so it all had to take place in the half term. I can't even say I'm looking forward to a break after they are finished because I start straight away on the A2's the following day. Next year will be the same. If the AS system is considered beneficial by the government, then why is the school which Euan Blair attends choosing not to partake in them?
Victoria, England

For years, thousands of Scottish schoolkids have managed to sit numerous standard grade exams at age 15-16, followed by four to six Highers the next year and then up to three work-intensive CSYS (Certificate of Sixth Year Studies) exams in their final year. What's all the fuss about?
Hannah, Scotland


My advice to all those people with exam stress is to chill out

David, Netherlands
My advice to all those people with exam stress is to chill out. They are really not that important. I'm a professional recruiter and I look for well-rounded people with good common sense. After all, how much of our education do we actually use? I've got a 1st class degree in Maths and use none of it! It's not worth getting worked up about something that you can forget about as soon as you've taken the exam anyway. My advice is to live abroad, and get some IT skills. The job offers will then roll in! Think of Richard Branson and Julian Richer (of Richer Sounds) - the lack of lots of A Levels didn't do them any harm.
David, Netherlands

Yes, exams are stressful but if at some point we aren't given a goal to strive for, we become lazy. I am an MSc student. I have had my fair share of exams and school-related deadlines. However, a NEED to perform often makes you do much better in the end, and how you learn to handle stress is more important than the stress itself.
Rooty, Canada

This new system is still in its first year so problems are understandable. I can see why this system was introduced to vary the subjects taken and encourage students into further education. The main problem I have found is that teachers still do not know at what level AS and A2 level is to be taught. Also it is unclear whether universities will accept these as grades and if not I do not see the point in the AS grade. However personally I have found that the workload is no more than that of GCSEs and in some cases less work.
Prakash Kachhala, UK

I'm a year 12 student, doing the new "improved" AS Levels. A friend of mine had no less then EIGHT exams in ONE day, I have a couple of other friends who have SEVEN in one day. Looking at this, it seems I have it easy with seven over two days. This is ridiculous!
N. Ahmed, Birmingham, UK

I took 4 A Levels and 3 S Levels last year. I sat over 22 hours of exams. I will be starting my first year university exams tomorrow - twelve hours of exams in two days. In my experience, the key to avoiding stress is to learn during the course of the year. This way you don't have to cram everything in the two weeks before the exams. I'm no saint - I cram a little too - but I also do enough work during the year to avoid becoming distressed and worried about exams. Getting nervous and distressed is no bad thing in small quantities, it just means you care about your future.
Chris, UK


Exam stress is nothing compared to what you can expect when you get a job

Martin, Yorkshire
So it's stressful! School is meant to prepare you for life in the real world and believe me exam stress is nothing compared to what you can expect when you get a job. Then add in the stress of your own children complaining about stress and money problems, etc. Employers don't just look at exam results because they prove you can write your name, it also indicates that you can work under a bit of pressure. Stop whingeing, get revising, and look forward to finding out what real stress is!
Martin, Yorkshire

My daughter, Sarah, is sitting today no less than 4 AS levels. She is one of the guinea pigs for the new A level system. What kind of administration allocates 4 modules to one day. This week I have watched painfully as my daughter has manifested levels of stress I have never seen in her before, afraid she will let down her school, her family and herself if she attains low grades. I strongly believe the new system is putting far too much pressure on 17 year olds, worse than the system it has replaced.
Jill Fenton, England

If you are sick of exams then simply don't do them. Don't moan - at least you have the chance of a decent education. It's all about preparation for life. Get used to it. Life can be pretty stressful. I am currently working in the city, and also studying accountancy exams - try balancing your work/social life/home life/exam life - now that's stress. Get over it kids.
Fraser, Essex, England

Stress? I'm sorry, did I miss that when I sat my A-Levels 3 years ago? Modular exams, none of which are over 1.5 hours for most subjects, spread over two years. Hardly a great challenge is it. As far as I can see the problem these days is students so used to the easy life that the three hour university exams come as too great a shock. If the exams were as hard as they were even 10 years ago they'd have a point. But they aren't. Modern A-Levels are a joke which any platypus could pass with five minutes effort. At least make them hard enough to be a decent benchmark for educational standards.
Martin Campbell, UK


What is really stressing me is the fact that these exams are such an unknown quantity

Liz, UK
I am a Year 12 student currently in the middle of A/S exams and what is really stressing me is the fact that these exams are such an unknown quantity - even the teachers don't know what to expect, so they can't prepare us to the best of their ability. I'm sure that if some of the people who say that the exams are getting easier returned to school and tried to study for 5 A/S levels, while keeping up after school activities and a pretty basic social life, they would realise the stress that us students and the teachers are under and that are complaints are justified.
Liz, UK

Well it certainly doesn't help us sixth formers to have the older generation drilling it into us how much "easier" things are getting. My sixth form are trying to complete up to 5 AS levels, Key Skills and general studies. More exams may mean the results do not hinge on one exam, but instead means that we are under pressure to consistently perform to the best of our abilities.
Steven Alderson, UK

I cannot honestly say whether things are harder or easier nowadays. However, constant current references to stress from this, stress from that, surely allows people, whoever they might be, to indulge themselves in being stressed?
Mike, England

I am a lower sixth student taking the new AS Level exams at the moment. Whilst I do not agree that the subjects are "too hard", I do find that the workload is excessive. On top of five subjects (Chemistry, Physics, Double Maths and German) - in which the homework levels are still set as though we are only taking three subjects - we must take pointless Key Skills qualifications which are easier than their GCSE counterparts and which the universities I am interested in are going to ignore anyway. And then I hear that the Government are thinking of scrapping the AS system and bringing back the old one! Am I alone in feeling annoyed at the way my friends and I have been used as guinea-pigs over our entire school career for various new schemes of dubious credibility?
Alex Robinson, West Yorkshire, UK

I took an A-level last year and passed with an A. It wasn't easy (I failed my A-levels at school) but it was done in the non-competitive atmosphere of evening classes, and I am 32 - well past everything else teenagers are struggling to deal with. Exams at school are indeed preparing kids for life: stress, pressure to succeed (defined as earning pots of money), and no time to relate to other human beings or take stock of your own life. Ah, the wonders of education.
Sarah C, UK

The exam load is tough, but you still produce better students than we do in my country.
Robert del Valle, USA

Lets face it, the exams of today are far easier today. If pupils are complaining, it is probably because they are not up to the task and not because of the demands of the much easier exams. Frankly, the quality of education in the UK has fallen (at least in part to make it easier to get into universities).
Chris Wood PhD, UK

What a joke! Exams are easy compared to yesteryear. Nowadays all GCSE exams and A Levels are modular, thus you have many chances to pass. It doesn't boil down to exams only at the end of two years. Today's youth are extremely lucky. The only thing they should be stressed out about is when they go to Uni. (like me) having to suffer with tuition fees and intensive exams.
Habib Chappati, Nepal


Students have never had it easier

Hvn, UK
Students have it easy these days because their results are dependent on more exams which reduces the risk of messing up on one of few exam papers.
A level and GCSE Maths is a joke given the watering down this subject received because it maths is perceived as "hard". Students have never had it easier.
Hvn, UK

As someone who has witnessed the changes from O-levels through to GCSE's, the introduction of Stats, university modules and spent time in America things are just beginning to get ridiculous. There are only a certain number of hours in the day, no wonder there is a increase in disorders such as depression, ME an anorexia amongst children and young adults. Recently I thought I would take an evening class just for the fun of learning a new subject only to feel like walking off because of the constant testing regime that seems to be now in place in this country.
K, UK


We are told by Universities that they are not going to count the A/S's, so what's the point of them anyway?

Tom O'D, UK
I am doing the new system and can say that it seems to most of us to be a waste of time and putting us under extra unwanted stress and pressure. The old system seems to be far better to most of the people in my year at college. It is daft, we are just getting overworked.
We have to do at least four A/S's, ok people may say that they are only half an A-level but they aren't. I had to drop one of my subjects because it was just the old A-level course forced down our throats in one year instead of two. We are being put under unnecessary pressure. Then we are told by Universities that they are not even going to count the A/S's when we come to our interviews, so what's the point of them anyway?
Tom O'D, UK

So the poor little darlings are getting stressed are they? When I took exams 10 or so years ago there were no modular exams and years of study stood or fell on the results of two three-hour papers. Exams today are easier, there are more chances to pass and each one makes up a smaller portion of the overall total. Why are students getting so stressed about it?
John B, UK

I am a 16 year old student doing my A/S levels. I am sick and tired of so many exams year after year. If you ask any fellow student about exams and why they do it they will tell you that's it's so they can get a decent job. A student of today is under far more pressure than a student of yesteryear. It seems to me that when the Labour government asked schools about how to raise standards they forgot to ask the students.
David, UK


Maybe this will make some of the less motivated students think twice about taking up a University place

Geoff Hannard, Lincs, UK
Yes it's a lot of pressure, but in one way it gives them a reasonable expectation level for University life. I recall the shock of having to submit lengthy monthly assignments, coupled with exams twice a year. Maybe this will make some of the less motivated students think twice about taking up a University place that could be better used by a more dedicated student.
Geoff Hannard, Lincs, UK

With the new AS/A2 levels the candidates get more than one chance at sitting a module. Also the modules a spread out through the year, reducing the many hours of terminal exams faced by candidates this year. As the exams are easier than 20 years back [just compare modern papers to those of the 1960s] there should be less stress. If there were no hard exams the system would just be a joke and the qualifications would be devalued.
Mark, UK

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See also:

06 Jun 01 | Education
Heads call for A-levels inquiry
07 Jun 01 | Scotland
Teachers to vote on boycott move
02 Jun 01 | Education
Exams stretch schools to the limit
30 May 01 | Education
Sixth form overload 'shambles'
11 Apr 01 | Education
New exams 'stress out' sixth formers
25 May 99 | Features
Taking the stress out of exams
19 Mar 99 | Education
A level reform aims to broaden choice


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