Higher exam stress is likely to be down to “mentally fragile” pupils rather than GCSE and A-level reforms, the chair of exams regulator, Ofqual, has said.
Roger Taylor said that rather than exams being the “culprit” for increased stress, “rising levels” of underlying anxiety meant students were finding it “more difficult” to deal with intrinsically stressful episodes such as exams.
Monday marks the start of GCSEs and A levels in England, and the issue of stress has risen up the political agenda in recent weeks.
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Last month, the education secretary Damian Hinds claimed that the government’s exam reforms had cut stress for pupils. He also said that “inherently stressful” exams helped build character.
In an exclusive interview with Tes, Mr Taylor reiterated his view that the evidence was “very weak” that rising levels of stress were the result of exam reforms.
But he expanded on his previous comments by saying that students may be finding exams more stressful because they are more anxious generally.
When Tes put to him that teachers were reporting higher levels of exam stress, Mr Taylor said: "That would be entirely consistent with children being more mentally fragile.”
Explaining his thinking, he said: “Being assessed always is a stressful situation. For as long as this is how the world operates, it will be true that of all your experiences at school, the various points at which you are assessed will be among the more stressful moments”.
However, he said there was a “huge difference” between exam stress and “anxiety”, and that the latter was on the rise among young people.
“The fact there are rising levels of anxiety among teenagers will mean that the most stressful times, children will find it more difficult to deal with those.
“But that can create the impression that it is the exams that are creating the higher levels of anxiety amongst students, and the crucial thing to understand is that the evidence for that is very weak.
“The salience of examination as an issue of stress has been relatively consistent, it’s not that the exams are becoming more stressful necessarily as opposed to the issue that young people are experiencing more mental health difficulties and consequently finding the process of examination more difficult to cope with.”
However, Matt Blow, policy manager at the charity Young Minds, said that education reforms had affected students' mental health.
“Over the last few years, there has been an increase in ‘high stakes’ exams and in the pressure on schools to achieve academically – and this has put extra pressure on children as they grow up," he said.
"The factors behind mental health problems are usually complex, but we work with young people who say that they felt like failures because they weren’t doing well at school.
"Most young people, parents and teachers agree that the current education system focuses more on exam results than wellbeing, and this needs to change.”
According to new figures from the NSPCC, in 2018-19 2,795 counselling sessions took place via Childine relating to exam stress.
Mr Taylor said that Ofqual and the rest of the education system had a duty to eliminate anxiety.
“Where stress trips into unhealthy anxiety, our objective should be that that simply does not occur,” he said.
“We do not want young people experiencing mental health difficulties during their school years. I’m not suggesting it would be realistic to expect they’d be zero [anxiety], but conceptually we should not be saying ‘that’s just part of life’. We should be able to stop this.
“Ofqual and everybody else involved has the highest level of duty to think about exactly what it is doing and how it is helping to support and manage this.”