As GCSE reforms take their toll, it is vital that young people have better access to mental health services

Nearly five and a half million 17-year-olds will be waking this morning (afternoon?) filled with relief or disappointment, depending on the GCSE results they received yesterday. This year in particular, those of us with responsibility for their welfare will need to pay close attention to how they are coping.

Of course, exam seasons come and go, and a little bit of unexpected failure can be a good thing. However, these students are coping not only with the normal stresses and strains but with some new GCSEs whose curriculum is harder and whose results are more difficult to understand. This, coming as it does at a time of significant worry about the mental health of our young people, could become a toxic mix if not managed very carefully.
The reforms which replace the old A* to E grades with 9 to 1s for English and Maths, are designed to pull UK education further up the world rankings and differentiate more at the top end of ability. Whilst there is no harm in that, this change brings with it an inevitable dip in overall results alongside confusion about the mark and what it means.

And to make matters worse, the exam regulator has warned of what they euphemistically call “centre volatility” – meaning that in the new English Language and Literature exams in particular, the grade may not be correct and need to be challenged.

So where does this leave pupils?
It seems to me they are receiving mixed messages. We cannot in one breath aim to ease pressure on young people whilst in the next, confuse them and put even more focus on exam results. These issues cannot be seen in isolation.

At Benenden we have decided to wait for the time being and stick with the international GCSE (iGCSE) in English and Maths. As an independent school, we are fortunate to have that choice. This means we can assess the impact of these initial changes and learn any lessons to help our pupils best adapt from next year.

My chief concern is that with the uncertainty of a new system comes the risk of young people feeling as if they have underperformed, particularly when they compare themselves to older siblings or friends. At the top end, a student who would have received a clutch of As and A*s may now receive 7s. Fewer that three per cent gain the top grade in English and Maths. More students may feel their grades are not seem worthy of great jubilation – even though they are.
This means families have a particularly important role this year. We know that many pupils are terrified of letting down their parents. Telling our children we are proud of them, come what may, is our first job. Making sure we all understand the true nature of the changes and, if necessary, working with schools to fight on their behalf through the appeals system, may come a close second this year.

It leaves me to wonder who the new 9-1 system is aimed at. Whilst some of the most able are musing on what a 7 actually means, those in the middle may feel even more vulnerable. It is essential that, at a time when anxiety about gaining a place at university or another institute for higher education and thereafter gaining employment is a recorded cause of anxiety for our young people today, universities and employers also quickly understand the new system and are prepared to show flexibility.

If pupils are to be used as guinea pigs for what is essentially a political purpose, they must expect an even higher level of care from the adults around them. Those who have instigated these changes should consider they have a particular duty of care. Raising academic and pastoral care standards for this generation must work in tandem.

Schools exist to get the very best for their pupils. We simply cannot focus on the brain at the expense of the mind.

Samantha Price,  Headmistress , Benenden School

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