Professor Iain Chapple with Hiraa Jamil
Professor Iain Chapple with Hiraa Jamil

White glove years are generally extremely rare events, when all final year students sit the Final BDS examination and all pass the examination. 2019 saw the 2nd consecutive white glove years, and one that was achieved in front of a GDC inspection team. So are the exams getting easier? Are the examiners getting softer? Or is there another explanation? 

“In my 30 years at Birmingham Dental School, I had only seen 2 white glove years; 2004 under Professor Roger Anderson – a very small final year due to a large failure rate in pre-clinical years, and 2015 under Professor Philip Lumley. 2018 brought my first white glove year as Head of School”, recalls Professor Iain Chapple, “a year of 69 students, which was followed in 2019 by a 2nd consecutive white glove year for 63 students, which was achieved in front of the GDC inspection team.”

The obvious question is – are the exams getting easier? Or are the examiners getting softer? The answer may be neither, and may lie elsewhere in the exam system and, more importantly in the Generation Z student. Unlike 10 years ago, final year students are now not permitted to enter the examination unless they meet the minimal clinical requirements AND obtain a pass grade in all 7 specialty subjects as well as in Clinical Practice GDP-phase of the course. This component contributes 2/3rds of one of 3 components of the examination, making it difficult to fail that 1/3rd. The written papers make up a second 1/3rd of the exam and the final 1/3rd is the unseen case examination. This puts students under high pressure not to fail any specialty area or their GDP-phase: indeed, if they do they will be held back for 6 months to gain more experience.  In previous years, they could enter the final examination with a fail grade and compensate for that fail during the examination. It seems logical that the pass rate should therefore increase, as not all students sit the exam. This was not however the case in the two white glove years – no students were held back.

“When I was a BDS student, we all just wanted that elusive 50% pass mark in every exam, whether it was a small class test, or a large end of year exam; we did not worry about distinctions or honours.” However, today’s generation-Z students have been, since primary school, highly talented and successful, top of the class students. By their own admission, they don’t care how trivial the exam or test is, they just want to be top of the class and they want honours; many perceive not achieving honours as failure! Therefore, all students seem to work harder than ever before, and this brings with it a self-generated pressure, stress and anxiety. They are hugely competitive, and this characteristic, along with the gateway processes into the examination, mean it is more likely for all students who sit the exam to pass it than in previous years. The standards are no lower, and the marking, if anything is harder due to standard setting processes that ensure a consistent standard is achieved. “As staff we try to encourage students not to focus on top marks, but to strike a work-life balance; our advice falls on deaf ears for generation Z.”

The price is one of mental health, and this was powerfully described by one of our current final year, Hiraa Jamil, who wrote a very moving and brave article called “It’s OK not to be OK”, when she was a 4th year student. The impact of her paper, in “BDJ Student” was such that she won 2nd prize in the 2019 British Dental Editors Forum communicators award. “I recommend reading it. Life is not always, what it seems, and white gloves may sometimes carry a subtle shade of grey.”