GCSE examinations can be a defining moment for young people in determining their access to further education, vocational opportunities, and employment. Any changes made to the exam system and experience should be based on the views of those experiencing it first-hand. Often, however, young people are sorely absent from research and policy discussions.

With that in mind, I am developing a survey to explore student views of the GCSE exam experience. Students are uniquely positioned to give a percipient view of educational assessments beyond what could be offered by a researcher, a teacher, or a policymaker.

The GCSE landscape

Due to the impact on the future trajectories of students’ lives, the grades achieved at GCSE can be a great source of stress and anxiety. Added to this is the wider context of a culture of competition and pressure in schools in the current English education system.

Prior to the 2015 reform, assessment at GCSE level was comprised of examinations and non-examined assessments such as coursework. The GCSE reform that came into effect in 2017 saw a significant reduction in teacher-assessed coursework, controlled assessment, and a modular structure to exams. These forms of assessment were replaced with an increased focus on formal, end-point, timed examinations.

Students’ education has been particularly disrupted following the Coronavirus pandemic and restrictions that shifted learning to be self-direct and delivered remotely. Research has identified that, during the pandemic, students’ mental health was significantly impaired. We need to explore how students experience GCSE examinations, to find out what factors negatively impact students’ mental health, wellbeing, attainment, and outcomes. Once these have been identified, we can look to address them.

Findings so far

While developing my research, I felt it important to gather and use feedback from students about the content and design of the survey. This feedback was gathered through a focus group conducted with Year 10 students who attend a comprehensive school in the Northwest. The focus group generated loads of insightful data which demonstrated how important this topic was to students.

When asked about the positives of exams, students discussed how achieving good exam grades instilled feelings of pride and increased self-esteem and self-efficacy. They also highlighted how exam success was a means of justifying their intelligence to themselves and others.

But there were still areas of improvement. Students discussed how they felt the exam hall could provoke anxiety due to the unfamiliarity of the surroundings. Students found themselves comparing their own progress on the exam paper with the progress of others around them, which was both distracting and stressful. Students also felt the switch from alphabetical to numerical GCSE grades could be confusing, particularly in how their performance compared with previous students who had achieved letter-based grades.

When asked what changes they would make to the exam system if they could, the students wanted exam grades to be based on a range of assessment methods, to provide a more holistic view of their capabilities; this approach is already adopted in subjects such as Drama.

What’s next?

The data from the focus group will be used to inform the development of a survey administered during the GCSE exam period of 2023 to Year 11 students. The survey questions will elicit data to advise schools and policymakers on how they can best support and prepare students for their exams. The aims of my research are to identify what helps and what hinders students’ preparation for their high-stakes exams. By considering students’ views, we gain a greater understanding of how young people experience GCSE assessment and study.

Policy implications

To date, the inclusion of student feedback in research has been tokenistic and is seldom incorporated into policy reform or used to incite real change. Policymakers, exam boards, schools, and those invested in education need to be motivated towards gathering the views of students. Students offer perceptive contributions towards education debate, an experience they are most heavily invested in. The bottom line is that the focus of any exam reform should be around how we can improve the system to enable all students to have the greatest chance to do their absolute best and show what they know and what they can do.

As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.