Instead of reforming GCSEs, let’s go Dutch

That’s right, folks. 2017 is the year of the new GCSE marking system for English and Maths, with grades numbered 9-1 being given out instead of letters.

As this rather idealised video shows, fewer students will be able to achieve the top grade of nine than have previously been achieving the top grade of A*. The intention of this is to further reward the brightest pupils, but will it really work that way? Already, huge numbers of Year Eleven students across the country are being encouraged by teachers to aim for the top grade, despite Ofqual labelling the new exam content as ‘more challenging’ than ever before. So while the government’s aim may have been to more accurately represent the levels of students’ achievement, it may be that they have simply caused more and more stress for those who are already struggling under the burden of academic pressure. On top of that, students and teachers are still unsure about what constitutes a ‘good pass’ on a par with grade C, and whether or not pupils will be forced to retake the exams until they attain what the government deems a sufficient score – again ramping up the pressure for British teenagers. In light of this, my proposal is that the UK should go Dutch.

No, I don’t mean that we should split the bill, gather tulips, don clogs or acquire a charming European accent. I mean that we should start trying to reduce the exam pressure being put on children and teenagers, and teach them instead how to live happy and rewarding lives – much like the system of education in the Netherlands.

Unicef’s 2013 report, which ranked 29 developed countries by the overall well-being of their children, clearly shows that the Dutch are coming out on top. At the same time, the UK and US fall short of the mark, with the United States (one of the richest countries in the world) falling into the same category as Lithuania, Latvia and Romania – three of the poorest countries in the study.

What’s clear from this is that the wealth and development levels aren’t the key factor in young people’s happiness. Most children in developed countries face crippling levels of academic stress which seriously impact their lives and welfare. For Brits, standardised testing can begin at the age of seven, and continues throughout secondary school, sixth form and university. But few people seem to realise that by expecting so much from people so young, we are effectively robbing them of their childhoods.

In the Netherlands, however, it is a different story. There is no homework during the primary school years, and reading, writing and mathematics only formally begin at age six. Education Secretary Justine Greening may contend that this places Dutch children at a disadvantage from the offset, but in fact the opposite is true: those who learned to read one or two years later than their British counterparts caught up within months, according to Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchinson.

Children from the Netherlands are among the least likely to feel pressured by schoolwork and can enjoy the freedoms of cycling to school and taking initiative with their learning, rather than being forced to complete the difficult tasks which many struggle with in UK primary schools.

High school students in the Netherlands also take a different approach to learning. The Mindful Attention Awareness Scale for Adolescents, a psychometric study, has found that anxiety and stress levels for Dutch teenagers are less than half of those of their American or British counterparts. Exam results and higher education acceptance, while important, are not considered the sole purpose of the education system, and the teenagers recognise that their wellbeing is a priority, according to this article from Dutch news site de Volkskrant. Countries such as China, Korea, the UK and the US place such great importance on academic success that there is often little time left for anything else, and that has to be one of the most overlooked dangers facing teenagers today.

Maybe the reason for this huge disparity in values is the contrast between Dutch and American (and, to a lesser extent, British) lifestyles. Consumerism and social inequality play a huge part in driving parents to push their children forwards, and motivating teenagers to prioritise their schoolwork over their mental health. NHS provision for under-eighteens’ mental health services (where some waiting list periods last over a year) is already struggling to keep up with demand, whereas the Dutch Youth Mental Health Service is given priority position on the political agenda, enabling more specific services and shorter response times to become available. Though the middle classes aren’t as rich as Britain’s, America’s, China’s or Japan’s, Dutch society is less driven by materialism: most children play with second-hand toys and wear hand-me-down clothes, which may come as a bit of a muilpeer considering their undeniable league table success. For them, personal motivation to succeed is not stifled by a weight of expectation from their family, or excessive competition with their peers.

It will always be worth remembering that school exams can only be a measure of how well a person can follow narrow assessment objectives. As humans, we have to hold the keys to wellbeing, compassion and happiness just as much as anything else. Our government must recognise this and reduce the pressures of standardised testing accordingly. It appears some Dutch courage might be in order.

Words by Annabelle Fuller

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