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‘What If My Best Isn’t Good Enough?’ My Journey with Academic Success and Validation at School

There have long been calls to reform or change the way we look and talk about education in the UK, but never has it been talked about so much since the Coronavirus pandemic.

What would have been an already stressful period for those leading up to taking exams, was amplified by disrupted learning and uncertainty. Yet, what wavered rarely during this period was the high standards of academic achievement that many students were held to. As someone who completed their A-Level ‘exams’ this year, but has struggled with academic pressure since I was about twelve, I had sleepless nights for weeks over how I would be graded.

I was halfway through Year 12 in sixth form when the UK went into its first lockdown. Slightly startled by the sudden plunge into home-learning, I managed to maintain my hard-working attitude. I didn’t realise it at the time, but lockdown would make me rethink my entire attitude towards the education system.

Learning vs. The Education System

Ever since I can remember, I have always been a “pleasure to have in class”, a common buzz-phrase amongst teachers at parent’s evenings and meetings. As I am writing this, it is the day before my A-Level results day, and I am still hoping for a place at university. Despite all the reflection I have had about academia, the education system, and the pressure placed on myself, I am still extremely anxious, knowing the results I receive will undeniably impact my mental health.

I worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, as if it were a normal school timetable, waking up at 8am, working between 9am to 3pm, maybe up until 1pm nearer the end. This ultimately left me feeling extremely burnt out. I remember having a conversation with a friend as summer started to near, saying “I love learning, but I hate the education system”.

And it’s true.

I read constantly, both fiction and non-fiction, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts etc. and this isn’t a ‘look at me and everything I do’ brag, but to show that learning truly is a pleasure of mine. However, constant examinations, and being seen as a grade more than I am seen as a person, has naturally taken its toll on me.

So, as someone who loves to learn, I started to do some research on academic stress and the impact of seeking validation from it.

The Impact of Stress

Having panic attacks the night before exams and feeling so nervous I couldn’t sit still are vivid memories of mine, as they are for a lot of my peers too. Leading up to big examinations, such as GCSEs and A-Levels, many will say that stress can be a good thing, the kick we need to remain motivated. But I wanted to check this theory out for myself.

A 2020 study looking at the impact of stress on students in secondary school and higher education found that academic-related stress can lead to the development of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. It also found that academic stress can result in substance use, disrupted sleep, and an increase in developing physical health problems later in life.

But what I found most interesting, and alarming, is the following finding: “students with higher perceived stress are likely to have lower academic achievement”.

All this pressure I have placed on myself to do well could have actually hindered me, yet academic stress is extremely normalised within education. It made me wonder what we would see if students’ mental health was prioritised over exam results.

Exams, Exams, Exams

Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, both GCSE and A-Level students were assessed by end of year exams, with some subjects also incorporating coursework. Years of hard work and learning boiled down to a two-hour exam in an eerie school hall.

The examination system and the process of how grades are awarded in the UK mean that a student could be performing at an A-grade level throughout their course but end up with a C-grade if the day of the exam simply didn’t go their way.

There are many sides to the argument about exams. Some argue we should have exams, others believe we should scrap them altogether, and many have points of view in between, but it cannot be denied that exams are having a negative effect on students’ mental health.

Between 2015 and 2018, the NSPCC reported that the number of referrals by schools in England seeking mental health treatment for students increased by more than a third. A survey conducted by London Metropolitan University suggests that this directly links to the exam season.

This year, the buzz phrase around results day was ‘grade inflation’: the idea that students had ‘got it easy’ due to the cancellation of exams and the way that grades were awarded. As an A-Level student myself, I find this point of view insulting, because my learning was far from easy. I argue that gathering a student’s classwork, homework, and past classroom examinations results is a more honest grade than a final exam at the end of your course.

Perhaps we should be wondering if it’s time to rethink the way we grade students.

My Experience

Researching the effects of academic stress resonated with me deeply. It was a part of my life so normalised and accepted, that sleepless nights were expected. A few years ago, when I was struggling with severe depression, I began to heavily base my self-worth on my grades and academic achievement. Feeling useless and fed up meant that I became reliant on praise through my teachers and school. I often buried myself in schoolwork, using it as a distraction from my real problems, and a way to avoid spending time with friends or family.

So, when I would inevitably burn out due to academic stress and unresolved mental health problems, my mood would deteriorate. I was stuck in a vicious cycle of feeling depressed and unmotivated, putting pressure on myself to do well academically, and if I did not reach my self-imposed standards, I would sink deeper into a depressive episode.

Thankfully, after eventually getting help for my depression, I was able to sever the ties between my mood and my grades. But that did not mean that I still didn’t feel enormous pressure to do well when it came to exams.

I just have to remind myself that there is much more to life than grades, and that’s something we need to remind students all across the world too.


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