Students all feel an uneasy sensation in their stomachs before entering an exam hall. They think to themselves that the moment has arrived, all the hours of revision, lectures and sleepless nights have boiled down to this very moment. However, it is often considered a given, an unshakeable inevitability of life. It may be unusual to hear, but the UK is particularly unfair for placing stress on the young generation to succeed in academic examinations.
Academic examinations are fueling a young mental health crisis in the UK which has motivated the government to declare that we need “a fundamental shift in our culture to deal with the problem”. Why is the UK in particular singled out? The burgeoning level of economic inequality in the country is what is bringing about an extra layer of pressure not present in other countries. Government fiscal policy over the past few decades is directly to blame for this tragedy, and it will take more than finger-pointing at culture to solve it.
The fundamental idea is that the more economically unequal a society is, the bigger the incentive there is to succeed in academic qualifications in order to guarantee oneself a greater position in that society. This thesis is promoted by Oxford University’s Professor Danny Dorling in numerous recent studies. According to Dorling, young people now see academic success as a way to guarantee themselves a higher salary, a notion ingrained by the fact that that those with degrees earn higher incomes.
Many more people have taken to degrees, but not even undergraduate degrees are enough in modern day Britain anymore, where the number of students enrolling on masters and post-masters degrees has spiraled quickly. This is distinctly concerning owing to the fact that a postgraduate qualification is too often the preserve of the privately funded.
This is a definite act of a generation trying to ‘one up’ on each other in a job market which is both competitive and precarious. The added financial pressure of nine-thousand-pound annual tuition fees then accelerates the problem. The effect of this is to create an educational system as structured and exclusionary as the British class system.
An unequal society has created pressure upon young people to perform better, which in terms of outcome one might think is a good thing. Yet the opposite is true. As cited in Wilkinson and Pickett’s groundbreaking work The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone it is empirically shown that more unequal states have worse educational attainment and higher levels of illiteracy. For instance, in a study conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), average maths and literacy scores were much higher in Sweden than they were in the US where economic inequality is much higher in the latter compared to the former. This is due to a focus on exam results over actual educational development.
In objection, commentators may argue that exam stress is a universal issue irrespective of the state in question, but what is important to highlight here is that it is the significance of doing well academically for future career prospects which makes exam stress so much more acute in unequal economies. To take this example to its most extreme, we can look at developments in China where the Gaokao University entrance exam is of so much importance that student suicides are common both before and after the exam.
The impact of economic inequality can be seen quite clearly in British schools which have been nonchalantly described as exam factories for a decade. This is exactly what they have become. To universities this news is financially desirable and indeed they are complicit in the pressure. By promoting the prestigious nature of their institution they are directly apply pressure on A-Level students to perform, to focus on the exam and nothing else. This pressure feeds down to GCSE students who increasingly need excellent grades to apply for university. For some degrees at the University of York, indeed, an A* in GCSE Mathematics is a requirement, resulting in fourteen and fifteen-year-olds unknowingly fighting for a place at university. Surely this has gone too far?
By clamping down on workers’ rights, cutting social welfare and cutting redistributive taxes on the richest in society, the governments of the past thirty years have been complicit in the formulation of an unequal Britain. This has had pervasive effects in society, especially so in education. The state has accorded education a status of being a basic right for its citizens yet education has been corrupted to a belittled mixture of exam technique and memory. Inequality therefore breeds a much more competitive academic environment so reliant on exams that it is accelerating a mental health crisis in our generation. Next time students are nervous outside the exam hall, it is worth bearing in mind that it needn’t be this way.