Pressurised High-Stakes Exams – Why?

Today my son is taking his penultimate A-Level examination. He’ll then have to wait a seemingly interminable time to find out whether he’s achieved the required grades to continue his education at his preferred university.

My son is fortunate that he is intellectually capable but when it comes to high-stakes exams, even this may not be enough.


He’s been ready and prepared to take the examinations for at least a month, if not longer but unlike exams in other proficiencies, such as driving or demonstrating an ability to play a musical instrument, he has to take the exams at the allocated time rather than when he is judged (or when he judges himself) to be at his most capable. His teachers, in at least three of his four A-Levels, have said that he could have taken the exams shortly after Easter. It’s possible that he might have attained higher grades taking the exams at the time of his and his teachers choosing rather than whatever he achieves now.

He’s exhausted.

Although he loves the subjects he’s chosen to study for A-Level, he’s tired of the repetition. He’s longing to read the stack of books that await his attention in the post-exam/pre-result time. He’s learned and inwardly digested as much as he can for the chosen courses. He can do no more!

Some may argue that if he has learned as much as he can, then he’s going to be ready for an exam whenever it takes place but there’s only so much reiteration one can cope with before the brain switches off to protect it from tedium. There’s only so much repetition before one becomes stressed and anxious to the point of underachieving.


If his teachers were able to provide a formative assessment grade for his ability and his proven attainment in each of his subjects, he would probably be give four A*s or A’s. He’s demonstrated time and time again his capabilities but this isn’t necessarily going to be apparent in his exams due to the fact that he is now, potentially, over-rehearsed to the point of saturation.

The only stumbling block to his attainment in one of his A-Levels is an issue of timing, not of capability. For three of the five essays he has to do in his timed examination, he’s getting 90-100% – thereby proving his competence but not his ability to keep to time. For those who say that timing is an important skill and people in the “real world” need to demonstrate an ability to work under pressure, I would suggest that in this particular case, his natural aptitude would enable him to complete any given task to the best of his abilities.

My friend’s daughter, like me, doesn’t manage the stress of examinations well. She underperforms. She’s currently taking her GCSEs and it’s highly likely that her grades will not correlate with her capability.

Both my son and my friend are not alone. There are thousands of children who are highly proficient whose exam results will not reflect their real potential. There are thousands of other children who may not be as intellectually capable but have endured months of training and re-training, micro-managed to the nth degree, to enable them to pass these exams – or not.

exam sitting

This evening, there’s a television programme on Channel Four, investigating the pressures of examinations and identifying examples of “cheating” by pupils and teachers – brought to such behaviour due to the inflated “value” of these high-stake exams.–exams-cheating-the-system—channel-4-dispatches

We should ask “why”.

  • Why are we doing this to our children and to those who’ve chosen to teach?
  • Why are they all placed in a situation where the exams have become the be-all and end-all of education?
  • Why aren’t we doing something about the appalling levels of stress in adults and young people alike?
  • Why are we allowing the continuation of an education system that is pressurised to the point where everyone loses sense of the very reason the system is there – to educate NOT to examine our children and young people
  • Why are we continuing with an education system that brings fear – to the point where some feel a need to doctor or adjust the results, such is the magnitude of the importance placed on the exams?
  • Why are we testing their ability to sit in abnormal silence to regurgitate/decipher/analyse in a set time rather than allowing them to demonstrate their understanding and proficiency in more normal circumstances?
  • Why aren’t we trusting teachers to “judge” a child’s ability rather than to trust a stranger who has no idea who the child is and what their true capabilities are?

multiple choice

Seriously, why are we doing this?

If we are doing it for economic reasons, then consider the words of Terry Leahy – former CEO of Tesco – who said today that we’re in danger of losing some of our most capable leaders because companies tend to employ those who attended the best universities (who succeeded at high-stake exams) rather than those who have an aptitude for business management.

“Quite a number of the senior individuals in our professions believe they would not now be hired by their own organisation given the criteria that is now used, whether because they did not go to one of the ‘right universities’ or perhaps did not go to university at all.

They have proved that their business was right to hire them many years ago and that it may now be missing out on future leaders by not adequately judging potential.”

Maybe other businesses will start following PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) lead when it comes to employment of young people who demonstrate aptitudes in other ways than their ability to pass exams.

Or perhaps we should consider what the CBI has said about scrapping GCSEs, as we’ve commented on in previous posts.

Or maybe we should listen to the voices of reason in the higher echelons of our private school system where both Sir Anthony Seldon and Tony Little, head masters of Wellington College and Eton respectively, voice their concerns about the distortion of education purpose in our current system, as do the Head Teachers who formed the Headteachers’ Roundtable.


If we are having to perform in these exams for the sake of the universities, then reconsider once more. The “Admissions Tutor” at the university that my son is hoping to attend categorically stated that he knows from the application submissions who is more likely to suit the course they’re offering but he can’t give unconditional places and has to abide by the stringent policies of only offering places to those who pass their A-Levels proficiently – even though they know that there’s not necessarily a correlation between those who can attain A-grade A-levels and those who will benefit and “succeed” on their courses.

The value placed on the ability to pass exams is rarely the same as the ability to perform well in work situations, and it’s not just the so-called “progressives” in education that are saying this.

Other countries are reconsidering their emphasis on high-stake exams. Singapore is now a decade into their “Teach Less, Learn More” strategy and are still finding opposition to this from parents who are used to the high-stake exams and not necessarily by the businesses in Singapore. As we’ve reported before, Shanghai too is reconsidering their education philosophy.

Finland has ONE test throughout the time that a child is at school.


Last week the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, reiterated his concerns about the high-stake exams that he so ably conveyed in his speech to the ASCL this year. He says that we should consider changing our education examination policy over the course of the next decade.

A decade is too long. We need to change now – for the sake of our children.

It’s too late for mine. Please don’t let another generation of children endure the pressures and the tedium of these exams in their current form.

We need to consider the development of the 14-19 Baccalaureate alternative, plus a personal portfolio of achievement for every child throughout their time in school.



Additional reading

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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