Children should sit exams earlier on in their school career to help them cope with exam pressures, the School Standards Minister has said.
Nick Gibb told a joint hearing of the Health and Education Select Committees that exam pressures have “always been there”.
“The way to deal with exam pressures is to make sure that young people have taken exams earlier on in their school career – at the end of Year 7 at the end of Year 8 and so on – so they are used to taking exams,” he said.
But Labour’s Emma Hardy told the Minister: “Basically you are talking about exam pressure that is constant, that is in every year group for every subject for every pupil.
“How many subjects in each year? Is it nine, is it 10? And they’re having to do that every single year.
“It’s not the same when you were at school, or when I went to school, when we had that pressure at the end of GCSE year. You are giving our young people a constant, unending pressure for exams in every year group.”
And Conservative William Wragg asked: “I just wonder if it is not time that the gas under the pressure cooker might be turned down a little?”
But Mr Gibb told MPs that the number of exams had actually reduced, by “eliminating that retake culture in schools”.
He acknowledged that children were facing more “real-world” pressures today, but said that the more rigorous curriculum is one that “all young people can cope with”.
He told the hearing on young people’s mental health provision: “Exams have always been part of the school system.
“We have actually reduced the number of exams pupils are taking by getting rid of the modular concept of GCSE – there was a retake culture that had spread into our system where children were spending huge amounts of time banking a grade and then retaking to push it up to another grade – we’ve essentially eliminated that retake culture in schools as a result of our reforms.”
Mr Gibb added: “I don’t think it’s right to say that reforms to the curriculum are the cause of young people’s anxiety or a result of increasing mental health issues among young people.
“There are a whole raft of real-world pressures that apply to young people today that didn’t apply when I was in school. We are introducing measures and policies to help schools tackle those issues.”
He continued: “Exam pressure has always been part of being at school. Nothing we have done makes it worse, the curriculum is more rigorous but it is a curriculum that all young people can cope with. The GCSEs that we have reformed are on a par with curricular and exams in other parts of the world where young people have been used to them for longer and are coping perfectly well.”
Meanwhile, Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price added: “We do know that one in 10 children have an identifiable mental health condition and that is separate from exam stress.
“So I think while exam stress can exacerbate already existing pressures, I don’t think we should see that as being the primary cause here.”
Commenting on the hearing, Matt Blow, policy manager at the charity YoungMinds, said: “At the moment the education system is fundamentally unbalanced, with a far greater focus on exam results than the wellbeing of students.”