On GCSE results day this week, I couldn’t help cast my mind back to the daunting day last year as I walked through the school gates with my parents, trying my best to read my teachers' faces thinking: are my results catastrophic? Have I failed? My teacher is refusing to make eye contact, I must have bombed it... and so on.
I remember feeling through the envelope, trying to guess the results, as I rushed through the rain to find a quiet spot where I could face what felt like monumental news to me at the time. It felt like my world would come crashing down if I did not hit the marks. My future rested on what was in that envelope, my happiness relied on those letters and numbers. This is what rushes through many 16-year-olds’ minds. This is what it feels like for the majority of young people collecting their results this week. This is the reality.
A survey carried out by the NHS in 2017 found that 17 per cent of people between the ages of 17 and 19 have a mental health disorder. This is commonly attributed to increased social media use, but adults all too often fail to notice the common denominator which affects children of all genders and backgrounds on a daily basis: the flawed education system.
We know that people should not be reduced to being just a number or part of a statistic, yet that’s how the British education system treats us. In the UK, a 17-year-old must cross a threshold of grades before they can even consider certain prestigious universities.
As teenagers, universities, as well as schools, repeatedly tell us that we are not good enough because our grades are not good enough, and no matter how hard we try, we’re taught that any perceived academic failure could impact the rest of our lives.
We are told that there is no point applying to Oxford or Cambridge because our grades are not good enough to even get us through the door for an interview. According to the Oxford University website, only 47 per cent of applicants are actually given the opportunity to reach the interview stage because many applicants are rejected upon an initial glance at their grades, and are not given the chance to speak for themselves or show who they are as a person.
This does not need to be the only way. Over in the US, for instance, things are done very differently. For example, if you visit an Ivy League university in the United States, they will tell you there are “no minimum grade requirements”. The application process for American Universities is far more holistic and well-rounded than the British Ucas system. The same is true of many other countries’ university systems.
Instead of limiting students by reducing them to numbers on a page, the American system pushes them to highlight their strengths beyond the academics throughout their application – often in musical skills, volunteering or personality traits. They value ambition and creativity and the desire to succeed. They encourage anyone to apply to the most prestigious institutions because they know there is more to an applicant than a bag of grades.
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Now that British universities are finally offering unconditional offers, people are actually criticising this move. In fact, unconditional offers may actually be a step in the right direction. At least students would finally be able to receive an offer from a university they are allowed to fully celebrate, rather than spending months with a niggling voice in the back of their mind saying, “what if I don't make the grades?”
Contrary to what some seem to assume, unconditional offers don't make students feel “complacent”, they make them feel wanted; they give students a light at the end of the tunnel and the chance to take a break from the hamster wheel of a British education. They allow students to take their final exams with a passion for their subject rather than bags of fear and anxiety for a change.
I’m not suggesting we allow the youth to run wild, or to ban examinations. In fact, I believe there should be better discipline within schools. However, we must review the values of our education system and raise awareness of the weight academic success and grades carry in students' minds, and how this stress is significantly contributing to the 17 per cent of us dealing with a mental health disorder.
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No matter how much teachers and parents encourage students, not much is going to change with these fundamentally flawed values and a system obsessed with grades, unable to value a whole person.
That is why I am trying to give young people a voice with a campaign called Could Do Better.
When we walk out of our school gates for the last time the scars don't fade. Our mental health is only a school's problem for seven years but it is our problem forever.
Romy McCarthy is a student at North London Collegiate School