Teenagers and exam results

Peter Kinderman is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society:

Today (Thursday, 22 August 2018) many teenagers across the UK will be receiving their GCSE exam results.

Adolescence is a particularly challenging period for our psychological wellbeing. It’s been estimated that the majority of mental health problems that are identified in adulthood can be seen to have their origins in childhood or adolescence. Adolescence brings challenges of expectation, too. As we complete our high school education, we all anticipate our future roles in life, which depend in part on academic success. We also know that comparisons can be highly invidious. Bullying is a major scourge, and a very likely source of significant mental health problems both in adolescence and in later life. These comparisons, and the abuse that can follow, can perhaps be amplified on social media.

And, in the centre of this storm of psychological pressure, come exam results. Quintessentially, the grades we receive can set the stage for comparison – with our expectations, with the expectations we perceive others have for us, and with other people.

There have been many good recommendations to young people about how they might protect and preserve their psychological wellbeing around examination results time. But individual advice – advice to the adolescent himself or herself – is not the only issue. We also need to consider wider issues; how we design the examination and grading systems, how we discuss results, the ways in which we use exams to determine children’s futures, and even how we design and fund education.


First, we could think about issues of comparison. There is an understandable but nevertheless perhaps unhelpful tendency to compare. Children and parents compare their grades to expectations and to the grades of others. That’s maybe understandable, but we compound these tendencies in the media and politics with politicians and the media highlighting comparative trends and discussing the societal and political implications. There is a real danger, given how much stress – and even bullying – is consequent upon such comparisons, that such discussions bear heavily on individual children.

The issue of ‘grade inflation’ is a real dilemma, but is probably much more ‘ordinary’ than most people assume. There is good reason to believe that the increased performance that we’ve seen over time (more people getting ‘A’ grades) is ‘real’. Everyone gets better on tests over time; the ‘Flynn effect’ suggests that even IQ test scores are increasing steadily over time. But there are also reasons to be cautious. As Governments set ‘league tables’ for schools and universities, and as politicians take the credit or blame for perceived success, there are clear pressures (rewards and punishments) on the system.

This means that, from time to time, it’s worth looking at grading systems to see if they continue to meet their needs. If, for whatever reason, the ‘A’ grades are not efficient in helping people make decisions about their futures, then reform is welcome. But we should be clear about why and how we do this without causing unnecessary stress on young people.

It is, therefore, important to make sure that we compare an individual’s performance in a test against objective criteria; not against the performance of other people, whether now or in the future. We should not allocate a set proportion of ‘A’s or ‘10’’s to, say, 10% of the population, as if such distinctions represent judgments about the inherent qualities of those young people. Instead, we should compare our young people’s performances against agreed criteria and allocate grades accordingly. If all goes well, we should EXPECT grades to improve over time, and WELCOME the fact that our education system (and parenting, nutrition, etc.) is getting better – better at helping young people meet the objective criteria that are the aims of education.

We should, then, gently avoid the tendency to make generalised comparisons. We should probably try to have fewer media reports that encourage parents and young people to think of exam performance as a competition or a system for grading quality. If the results suggest that a young person might be well advised either to re-think their strategies for learning (and improve their grades) or perhaps re-think their plans for the future (because the grades are offering valuable information about aptitude), then that should be done… and we should make sure that alternatives and pathways are available for that to be possible. Routes to education, and employment, are much more flexible now, and that should be welcomed.

‘Exam results’ circus 

It would probably be better if the whole ‘exam results’ circus were covered differently in the media. Perhaps less like the results of a general election (public, on cameral, revelations of life-changing success or failure, believed to be ‘in the public interest’) and more like the results of medical tests (important, of course, perhaps even life-changing, but generally understood to be private and personal, and deserving of quiet reflection and expert advice).

If we, journalists and politicians included, were to speak and write a little less about comparisons between individuals, and focus a little more on the objective criteria we set for our education system, we would be setting a good example for the bullies on social media… and more scientifically accurate. Most importantly, a less competitive, comparative, judgmental and divisive conversation about ‘grades’ is likely to be of major value to our children’s mental health.

‘Free and universal’ 

More generally, if we wanted to reduce the overall stress on young people at this vulnerable time, we could do everything we can to avoid selection in education. We should keep education free and universal. This is commonplace in major and successful economies, especially in the ‘Nordic’ model, but it currently under threat in a neo-liberal political environment. Equally, we should aim for more equitable social (and particularly employment) policies – reducing the gap between expectations, and reducing the pressure on one-off exams. Exams – or at least assessment of students’ work – are not only inevitable, they are to be welcomed. But, we should not assume that the results are judgments about the worth of the individual. They are (or should be) simple evaluations of the degree to which a particular piece of work meets objective criteria. From time to time we need to change those criteria, in part because of there’s a lot of reason to believe that, collectively, we’re improving society. These aren’t judgments about the quality of each young person, and we should avoid fervid political discussions of the significance for individuals of what are largely technical issues.

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