Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, was speaking following a meeting with members of her Youth Panel, she explained, “I was frankly shocked to find that so many of the Panel in exam years were in a state of stress and extreme anxiety about their experiences at school.”
One young person from the Panel said “There is so much more pressure than before, we are getting tested more and every test is like an exam as they potentially count towards going to uni. The pressure is immense, we can’t lighten up on any piece of work, Teachers are testing in case the grades rely on teacher assessment rather than exams.”
The Commissioner continued, “I have since engaged with other young people, teaching unions and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) and I am absolutely clear the current situation is untenable and the Minister must move to protect the health and wellbeing of our young people. My suggestion would be to cancel exams, however if the Minister can come up with an alternative that will dramatically alleviate the stress that young people are under as a result of continuous assessments, then I am very willing to listen.”
“In normal times it is important that GCSE and A Levels go ahead, but we are not in normal times. Consequently we have found that both schools and young people are working to make sure every assignment and class test is perfect. Young people have reported being continuously assessed and indeed Principals and teachers have confirmed they are continuously assessing. This means young people are in constant ‘exam stress’ mode, they are suffering mentally and it cannot continue for the rest of the school year. A decision must be made before Christmas.”
Koulla explained a robust back-up plan will be essential. “CCEA in consultation with schools, young people and other stakeholders should develop a robust framework for centre assessed grades. The end result would be criteria which schools, teachers and young people have full confidence in and a system that would reflect young people’s educational achievements to make sure they are ready for the next phase of their education, training or employment. This would avoid the turmoil around the grading of GCSE and A-level students last summer.”
“The Department of Education has announced that exams will progress in January and June, however the nature of a virus means there can be no certainty about this. Regardless, there has already been lost learning time and some students have been, and will continue to be, forced to self-isolate because of positive Covid cases in their class.
Another member of the Commissioner’s Youth Panel said, “ You can really feel the teachers’ stress about exams they are so stressed out and our relationships with them have been severed. There is an underlying tone of panic and a lot of uncertainty. The support for mental health has been taken away and the stress and pressure of exams has been ramped up.”
Speaking about changes to the exam curriculum already announced, Koulla Yiasouma said, “There is little evidence to suggest these have alleviated the pressure and seem minor compared to the disruption to education which has taken place already and which will continue as pupils have to intermittently self-isolate.”
‘It is also important to note this has been the experience of GCSE and A level aged young people, there is also emerging evidence that another group of much younger children, our P7 pupils, are suffering and I once again reiterate my call to all schools who intend to use the Transfer Test to admit pupils for their 2021 intake. Now is the time to choose an alternative process in the best interests of our children.”
The Education Minister, Peter Weir spoke to school pupils at the start of the month and said it was important that exams go ahead. Commenting, Koulla said, “I note and have some sympathy with the Ministers statement in relation to not being able to do a ‘solo run’ on cancelling exams because our young people will have to compete with young people across the UK for jobs and universities. I also do not underestimate the task facing CCEA and the Minister from this challenge laid down today but young people need clarity with regards to the arrangements and they cannot continue any longer on constant ‘exam stress’ mode.
“We await further announcements from the other jurisdictions following reviews which recommended exams are scrapped inWales and emerging evidence from across the nations about the impact the current plans are having on our young people.”
Concluding Koulla said, “It is time to make a definite plan for the indefinite situation of 2021, it is time to take our foot off the accelerator, to give our young people and teachers some breathing space and to prioritise our children’s mental health, because nothing is more important.”