Is the UK exam system doing more harm than good? 

Whether it’s answers hidden in the labels of water bottles or pencil cases, exam boards and invigilators are notorious for cracking down hard on cheating. With the introduction of smartphones into our daily lives, cheating has never been harder to monitor, and an example of this is the investigation AQA launched into an A-Level Chemistry paper leak this year in June. 

The investigation began after reports surfaced that an account on Snapchat had leaked questions and answers from the exam paper to students in exchange for money. On one hand, it might be easy to conclude the main problem here is solely the leaked exam paper, but I disagree. What makes students search for such content online, and are the stress of exams nowadays tempting students who might otherwise disapprove of cheating to now take it up themselves? 

Back in Year Eleven, I was part of the first year of students to sit all their GCSEs under the new 9-1 system in which A*-D grades were converted to numbers, with a new marking criteria for each subject. Like many of my peers, I revised for hours each day and during holidays in the hopes I would get the best grades possible to get into sixth form. This cycle continued into sixth form as I strived to achieve the top grades needed to get into university. But the more I revised, the more I began to reflect on how broken the exam, or overall academic system is in the UK. It is a one-size-fits-all system which requires students across the country to play a memory game, stuffing as many equations and formulas, quotes from various Shakespeare plays and historical dates into their brains until it feels so full it might burst. It is a system which values reverberation over creativity and individuality. Students are no longer learning just to learn – they are learning so that they can pass their GCSEs and then pass their A-Levels, with no real interest in the content they are consuming because it is rendered dull by exam papers with questions worded in such a way that you require a special code to decipher each of their meanings. 

I might come across as overly critical and perhaps you wouldn’t be wrong for wondering whether I did poorly in my exams as a result of this, but the opposite is true. I received all A*s at A-Levels, and yet I feel this makes me perhaps even more qualified to criticise the exam system. I played the game. I got the grades I needed to get. And yet I still feel dissatisfied with the system. Exams should not sacrifice the mental health of young people today or disadvantage those who struggle with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, or anxiety, for instance. If we had a system that incorporated more coursework and open-book examination options, it would be easier to satisfy a wider range of needs. I don’t support cheating and I never will, but I have to say, I understand the desperation when the pile of content you need to memorise is the size of an average landfill site. Perhaps if the government ever listened to its students, it would too. 

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Eve Attwood

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August 2022
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