Damian Hinds has dismissed fears that tougher GCSEs have damaged the mental health of pupils, saying there has always been exam pressure.
The education secretary’s comments, made in an exclusive interview with Tes, came after 90 per cent of headteachers cited in an Association of School and College Leaders survey believed GCSE reforms had harmed pupils’ mental health.
Natasha Devon, the government's former mental health champion, accused Mr Hinds of "casually dismissing" headteachers' concerns.
When asked about the concerns by Tes, he said he took the “mental health and wellbeing of children and young people extremely seriously”.
However, Mr Hinds added: “On exams, there has always been exam pressure. It is, I think, an inevitable thing that if you are going to have examinations of what you have learned at school, that is going to be a period of greater stress for young people than other times.
“Of course, you also in life get times of heightened stress, and one of the things that school days do is help you to prepare for later life.”
Mr Hinds has made pupil wellbeing a key priority, telling civil servants to ask themselves whether their work will develop character and wellbeing.
When pressed on the impact of the reformed GCSEs on pupils' wellbeing, Mr Hinds said the decrease in time spent preparing for, and carrying out, controlled assessments left more time “that is available for teaching and learning and preparing for exams, but also just for deeper learning and allowing it all to bed in”.
He added: “Having, for most subjects, the exams at the end of the period also enables you to think, to consider all the different aspects of the subject together and, in turn, then helps you if you are going on to A levels for those that are, to go on for that, and then for those going on to university, but of course GCSEs are there to help you prepare for whatever your next step is.”
Stress 'comes to a head'
Ms Devon told Tes: “I find his casual dismissal of what countless teachers and parents are saying worrying.
“Whatever happened to the Department for Education being in ‘listening mode’?”
She has backed calls for an “urgent inquiry” into the effect of the reformed GCSEs on mental health.
Ms Devon added: “What Hinds is failing to acknowledge here is that, while of course exams are always stressful, the increase in testing has happened alongside a whole swathe of education reforms that have negatively impacted young people and teachers alike.
“Exams represent a tangible apex, when all the stress of the academic year comes to a head.
“They are, I believe, objectively more stressful than they were, but exams are far from the only problem with the school system.”