Is Our Exam System Putting Children Under Too Much Pressure?

29/08/2017 15:14 BST | Updated 29/08/2017 15:14 BST

I overheard a mum in a coffee shop talk to her friend about her child's revision this summer holiday. The girl had to do minimum three hours a day. I assumed GCSE or A Level. But no it was the 11+.

So instead of frolicking by the seaside or playing frisbee in the garden, kids spend their summer chained to their desks.

To get your child into a decent free or fee paying school he or she has to pass gruelling tests that I'm not sure many adults would pass.

Ten is a crucial time in a teen's development. Up till then their confidence is usually intact but several factors come into play and can quickly crush it.

Changes to one's body make them self-conscious and often lead to them giving up pastimes like swimming or gymnastics that show off their 'lumps and bumps'.

With the switch to senior school also comes a shift in friendship groups, children can be excluded from their old gang or even bullied by it.

Social networks like Snapchat supposedly for 15 year olds start as young as eight and carry with them their own risks to a child's well-being. They can grow disgruntled with their own lives, on watching other kids' better holidays, or homes, or stuff. They can also become be obsessed with their projected selfie image online.

Already tweenhood is a challenging time and yet our education system does nothing to take this into account. Instead they load on the pressure to 'perform', to get top marks and to beat others.

Yet the criteria for performance does not necessarily offer the right yard stick for all forms of intelligence. The approach is still very academic, based on revision, repetition and theory. For creative souls, there is little to inspire them, so poor results may ensue, even though the child is gifted. Even for the brightest spark can crumble in the exam environment - the ticking clock, rows of desks, scribbling pens. None of it is particularly conducive to clear and considered thinking.

In France and other countries, tweens are left to enjoy their childhood. Exams happen at 14 then 18. Though their format is largely the same - timed papers for several hours.

Denmark has an interesting approach - in some exams students are allowed access to the internet so they are tested on their ideas rather than their memory.

Later on in the UK, GCSE and A Levels are even more intensive. This year's GCSEs have been greatly criticised for setting youngsters up to fail, with the new numerical grading system. As a result the pass rate declined and less able students achieved lower grades. A '4' this year would have got the same person a C in 2016. Some have even said the new grades will create an even greater divide between top ranking students and everyone else. The head of the independent councils confirmed that they existed to stretch the most able students.

It will be interesting to see how these children fair in 5 or 10 years time. Will they burn out as so many of their precious childhood was focussed on schoolwork? Will they end up doing what they truly dream of?

Not everyone wants to pursue further education and yet schools are all still focussed on this as a goal. Little time or curriculum is spent on alternative routes, apprenticeships, BTech courses, arts orientated programs. Yet these train youngsters in many of the exciting jobs out there - whether a painter, pilot or police officer.

It would be interesting also to see how many of those with top results or uni degrees went on to do equivalent professions. It also true that many are stuck in the ivy league‎ and would rather do something else. I was, and I managed to change paths in my 30s. Straight As led to Oxford that led naturally to corporate career which was not all adapted to my personality or talents. It's as if top achievers have to do banking or law, or become dotcom superstars. Some actually might want to dance, or nurse, or as in my case, write.

‎We are far away from a system that matches children's talents with the right schooling or opportunities. A broader curriculum, with interactive classes that nurture right and left brain is sorely needed. Steiner, a niche private school, doesn't teach Geography, History or English. Instead they take a theme or topic - like a medieval town, and learn how to cook at that time, how to read the language, how to use the instruments and tools. It immerses the child in every aspect of life - practical, cerebral, artistic and spatial.

I have many UK friends with tweens who are worried about the upcoming 11+ and its detrimental effect on their children. They are right to worry. Working with teens in a clinic that suffer from depression, anxiety and eating disorders, it is clear that one of the main causes is high volume of school work, coupled with giving up time consuming hobbies such as riding and ballet.

So to every parent, aunt, godparent, please insist that your children are allowed to continue their passions and if their school is piling on the pressure then look at other options, alternative systems such as Montessori, or European schools in the UK.

A happy child is more important than a learned one.