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Are difficult exams good for assessing people's skills?

02nd - 09th June 2023

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Total votes


5-11 votes


11-16+ votes

Some people love them, some hate them. The intensity and anxiety of the single shot at success, the be all and end all of a period of education are a firm part of the modern education environment that uses exams to assess skills and knowledge.

But how hard should they be? After Covid there was more scaffolding at GCSEs and A Levels, but now that is coming down there appears to be a move to make exams a true examination of pupils. As well as a correction from the appearance of inflated grades.

For this VoteTopic, voters considered all things exams, following the outcry over the difficulty of recent Year 6 SATs tests in England. They discussed the benefits and drawbacks of exams before reflecting on potential alternatives.

Secondary and College voters all considered: “Are difficult exams good for assessing people's skills?” while Primary 5-11 voters discussed: “Should Primary school pupils take tests?”


5-11 voter

"We should take tests because in Secondary school, we will be doing more tests so we need to build up our resilience and concentration."


11-16 voter

"Different people learn and show intelligence in different ways other than by writing them down."

college student

16+ voter

"Exams should be scrapped. No-one should be judged for their ability to pass exams or not. Having to complete a paper under a time limit makes the whole process worse and isn't reflective of how real life works."

76% of those aged between 11 & 16 said difficult exams are not good at assessing people's skills.

  • Secondary students answered the question, "Are difficult exams good for assessing people's skills?"
  • The majority voted 'No' at 76%, leaving almost 1/4 voting 'Yes'.
  • A common theme in the comments was the argument that exams are not suited to everyone and don't efficiently assess understanding.
73% of those aged 16+ agreed, arguing that difficult exams do not accurately reflect a student's capabilities.

  • College and 16+ students were answering the same question as Secondary students for this VoteTopic: " Are exams good for assessing people's skills?"
  • A slightly smaller but still substantial majority voted 'No', at 73%.
63% of those aged 5-11 said that testing Primary pupils is a necessary part of their education.

  • Primary pupils were voting on a different question around the same topic: "Should Primary school pupils take tests?"
  • The majority voted 'Yes', at 63%.
  • Many older voters argued that exams are unnecessary however the majority of Primary pupils disagreed and explained that they are a good way of recognising gaps in learning.
Many argued that exams cause unnecessary pressure that can lead to stress and results that are not reflective of students' skills.

  • The most common argument was that exams cause stress, anxiety, lack of sleep and don't provide students with the best environment to succeed.
  • Furthermore, some commented that a more effective way to assess people's skills is through practical experience and teacher judgements.
difficult exams results. Primary = majority yes Secondary = majority no College & 16+ = majority no

Feedback from our Impact Partners

Thank you so much to two of our Impact Partners for responding to what the children said.

Karen Wespieser MBE, Chief Operating Officer at Teacher Tapp, a research company specifically aimed at teachers.


Jason Elsom, Chief Executive Officer at ParentKind, the membership organisation of PTAs.

“These results from Votes for Schools are enlightening, and confirm views that parents often have too. What we really need is a system of assessment that gauges the skills that young people have and how they’ve grown as people – not just what facts and figures they can remember at a time of high stress. As a parenting charity, we work with parents, qualifications bodies and other stakeholders across the UK to inform changes to these systems, so that we develop an education system that is world-leading and that supports the growth of happy, healthy and high-achieving young people.”

- Jason Elsom, CEO ParentKind