THE FIRST GCSE year is the most unpleasant in a child's school life, as a combination of exam stress and poor peer relationships hits morale, research indicates.
Child welfare charity Antidote questioned 8,000 pupils in 25 schools on a range of criteria, including whether they felt listened to, included, accepted and safe. Researchers found well-being dropped by a quarter between the end of primary school and Year 10.
Previous research concentrated on the Year 8 dip, a drop in motivation and achievement caused by the fading excitement of attending a new school. But the Year 10 dip, at least in terms of well-being, is far more drastic, Antidote found.
While more than three-quarters of pupils felt included in school life in Year 5, less than half felt that way by Year 10. Three-quarters rated their relationships with adults highly in Year 5, sliding to half by the start of GCSEs.
"The main thing to come through was the relatively poor quality of peer relationships," said James Park, a director of Antidote.
As friendship groups stagnated, hostility towards other members of the class rose, researchers found.
"There's an attitude of 'They're not my mates, why would I want to talk to them?'" said Mr Park. "The openness and excitement of Year 7 have faded."
Mr Park believed the hostile atmosphere could make group work difficult for teachers and recommended holding fortnightly team-building activities to break down barriers. Philosophy lessons and primary-school style "circle time" sessions could help start pupils talking, he suggested. "You do not have to tackle the issues directly, but through role-play and hypothetical situations," he said.
Rachael Wing, the 16-year-old author of classroom romance Star-crossed, agreed that Year 10 could be tough. "You often choose different subjects from your friends, so are split up in lessons, and the GCSE workload hits you," she said. "We brought in a lot of cakes that year, so it wasn't so bad."
As a team-building exercise for Year 10 pupils, James Park, of Antidote, suggests you ask them to imagine they are on a desert island. Who will be the hunter, the builder, the fisherman? Where will they build their huts and who will get the best location? The way pupils negotiate the tasks will show how they cope with problems as a group.