All around the UK, teenagers face an extensive set of exams at a critical time in their social, emotional and cognitive development. Researchers and educators are questioning whether the stress of national exams may be detrimental to teens’ future success.

Sitting an exam is nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster: the weeks of anticipation, sweaty palms, racing heart, self-doubt… a burst of courage! And finally, exhaustion. Children and teenagers face this common experience throughout their development as educators seek to measure students’ knowledge and understanding of subject matter. Although exams may be important, it could be time to rethink the pressure they place on young people.

Ground-breaking discoveries in developmental science have shown that the brain develops extensively during adolescence. For instance, research has shown brain regions that underpin social cognition, including reasoning and interpreting others’ feelings and emotions, are still developing structurally and functionally during adolescence. In addition, areas of the brain supporting high-level cognitive functions such as inhibition and decision-making are maturing. Thus, teenagers learn to form more complex relationships, as they become increasingly aware of how they are viewed by those around them and begin to delve into the complicated world of love and lust.

“Exposure to stress during childhood and adolescence greatly increases the likelihood of developing psychiatric disorders later in life.”

This concoction of functional and structural brain development coincides with a crucial time in young people’s education when they are deepening knowledge and learning new skills. However, the period is also one of vulnerability because of the brain’s heightened adaptability to environmental experiences and physiological changes. A recent review noted that over 70% of mental health illnesses are diagnosed before 18 years of age, and evidence suggests that exposure to stress during childhood and adolescence greatly increases the likelihood of developing psychiatric disorders later in life.

At age 16, students in the UK are required to take General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams in both core and elective subjects, which could amount to as many as 16 national exams in just a few weeks. Until 2013, GCSEs represented the end of school qualification in the UK; however, under new requirements students must continue their education or training until age 18, when they face additional required exams.

“Subjecting 16-year-olds to national exams may be more harmful than beneficial.”

Educators and researchers alike have questioned this extensive testing of adolescents in the midst of this period of amplified brain development. For example, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor in Cognitive Neuroscience and leading expert on the adolescent brain, has argued that GCSEs impose unnecessary stress on adolescents, and head teachers and union leaders have called for this outdated procedure to be replaced by more “light-touch” assessments.

Adolescence is characterised by heightened brain development, which may have lifelong implications for an individual’s mental health and learning potential; therefore, subjecting 16-year-olds to national exams may be more harmful than beneficial. The cumulative findings in this field of research call for a review of current national examination systems to improve the overall well-being of young people and to support them in fulfilling their potential.

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