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Student mental health and exams: what can we do to help?

Worry over GCSEs and A levels are said to top the list of stress points for teenagers. We need to look at what can be done to reduce that burden on their mental health

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There has been a lot of handwringing recently in the press about the evils of social media – particularly as it relates to young people’s mental health.

But conspicuous by its absence in this media storm was the voice of the people being affected: the teenagers.

So it was refreshing to read, during the recent Children’s Mental Health Week, campaigner Natasha Devon’s column on the Tes website, where she recounted the stress points students tell her are negatively impacting their mental health.

Social media was not on that list. Top, however, was academic anxiety.

It’s worth keeping that in mind at this time of year as revision for Sats, GCSEs and A levels begins to accelerate.

When it comes to exams, we tend to believe that knowing your stuff is the most crucial ingredient for success. Not only are you more likely to be able to do the exam but you will also be calmer, more confident and more motivated. But does that really follow?

In an unchanging world, perhaps. But the goalposts have been constantly shifting over the years. What this has resulted in is that exams have become increasingly high stakes at every level of education, as they have been used not only to test how much children have learned but also as an accountability measure for heads and teachers. That pressure has unsurprisingly cascaded down to pupils. And, sadly, exams have turned into the sum of learning rather than a reflection of it.

This has its consequences. There’s plenty of evidence to back up the fact that children are certainly “feeling” more anxious about their academic work and some evidence that anxiety levels may be increasing, but what we don’t know is how many more teens are more anxious than they once were.

What we do know is that lots of exams are difficult for young people with anxiety disorders. But what we don’t know is what impact frequent exams will have on the mental health of other children.

Anxiety and stress reactions are normal – and for the most part, they assist us in facing the stressor. We do not want to create a situation where any form of stress is deemed undesirable: stress is part of being human. But too much stress and anxiety can severely impair performance and damage health.

So which are our pupils experiencing? We really don’t know. But what we do know is that high-profile cases of anxiety, stress and even suicide among teens can lead to generalisations that may not be accurate. We need better data.

We also need better data for the counter-argument posed by many in support of exams: that more low-stakes tests, better teaching of content, not teaching to the test, can lead to better motivation, lower anxiety and increased confidence about exams.

Young people are not stupid. The fact that these tests still attempt to sum up years of learning in 90 minutes has not changed because they did some low-stakes tests every week. The fact that teachers are stressed because of accountability cannot be hidden from the children, no matter how hard they try.

So where does this leave us? It means that we need to take a more holistic approach to exam season. By all means, give young people revision tips, show them how they can prepare mentally for high-accountability tests and run extra revision sessions, but also give them mental health support interventions, handy stress-busting tips and show them ways they can relax.

For some, this may seem like mollycoddling, but teachers and heads are tasked with putting children through exams; it is their responsibility to guard against the potentially negative impacts of that system.

Ultimately, the welfare of pupils must always come first. And the best way to ensure that welfare? Ignore the media handwringing, and ask your young people how they’re feeling.


This article originally appeared in the 22 February 2019 issue under the headline “Exams could be proving too much of a test on mental health”