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On exam alert

April is the cruellest month," wrote TS Eliot, but many teenagers must believe that it is August that deserves that title. While adults are blithely going about their business and carefree younger brothers and sisters are revelling in the summer sunshine they are enduring the agonising wait for GCSE and A-level results. Many parents, having experienced the selfsame suffering, are in fact acutely aware of their predicament. Nevertheless, the Samaritans are right to stretch out a safety net to try to catch those teenagers who can't, or won't, speak to their family and friends about their anxieties.

George Turnbull, of the Associated Examining Board, is, however, justified in questioning some of the simplistic deductions that the Samaritans' campaign may encourage. It may be correct to report, as The Times did last year, that there are perhaps five or six suicides (four males and one or two females) for every 100,000 15 to 19-year-old exam-takers. But the Samaritans have always been loath to blame exam pressures, or any other factor, for teenage suicides, preferring to see themselves as the fire brigade, rather than forensic scientists.

That caution is sensible because research shows that youth suicide rates have been rising not just in Britain but all over the developed world (with the inexplicable exception of Germany). Sir Michael Rutter and Professor David Smith, who published a huge international study on the mental health of young people only two months ago, reported a worrying increase in psychosocial disorders and confirmed that more schoolchildren were now prone to depression (20,000 British children are said to suffer from a serious depressive disorder). But even Rutter and Smith were reluctant to identify causes. The changing nature of adolescence - young people reach puberty earlier but take longer to attain adulthood by finishing their education and finding jobs - might be one important factor, they thought. But they also hypothesised that youth cultures could be having a malign influence.

Other researchers have concluded that although real or imagined exam failure may sometimes represent the "last straw" it is often a young person's chronic lack of self-confidence or inability to make or keep friends that is at the root of their angst. Furthermore, an unhappy home life can also leave teenagers vulnerable. Inevitably, a school finds it very difficult to advance such an argument when the parents of a suicide victim are publicly accusing it of permitting the bullying or academic pressures that were the ostensible cause of their child's death. To challenge their claims will seem heartless, and yet if it doesn't, the school's own reputation may be unfairly, and irreparably, damaged.

The feeling that schools cannot win whatever they do reached its peak in 1993 when a West Sussex coroner suggested that it was not exam pressures but the lack of a competitive ethos in one school that was partly to blame for a teenager's suicide. Children, he said, had to be taught from an early age that they might fail. The alarmingly high child suicide rates in the fiercely competitive South Korean and Japanese school systems undermine that eccentric theory. But another often-heard criticism, that the publication of performance tables and the consequent pressure on teachers to deliver A-C grades has increased the strain on children, may have more substance. In general, however, neither teachers nor schools have any reason to feel guilty. The education system now provides many more second-chance routes for those who fail and is arguably more sensitive to children's emotional needs than it has ever been. Even so, teachers, as well as parents, will need to be alert to any signs of serious distress among unsuccessful candidates in the next few weeks.

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