SIXTEEN-year-olds who are staggering towards the end of the GCSE exams marathon are experiencing more intense pressures than any previous generation.
Their parents may feel that they endured the same level of anxiety when taking O-levels and CSEs but, according to Martyn Denscombe of De Montfort University, Leicester, the burden on today's teenagers is greater.
The additional stress is created not by the exams themselves or the large number of subjects covered, but by political pressures and the new emphasis on individualism and self-determination.
"As social class, gender and ethnic origin diminish in their roles as anchors for self-identity and life chances, it would appear that GCSEs are assuming more significance and, as a consequence, are increasingly experienced as stressful," says Professor Denscombe, who questioned 1,648 GCSE candidates in 12 East Midlands schools.
GCSEs mattered not just because they were seen as crucial for getting a decent job or entering ixth form but because they were a marker for making comparisons with others. "For the first time in their lives, the young people faced the prospect of being evaluated and labelled with some objective measure of their achievement and, by implication, their personal worth," he writes in the latest issue of the British Educational Research Journal.
But Professor Denscombe also says that the stresses generated by "league tables" and inspections have filtered down to the classroom.
"The young people felt that teachers were always 'on their back', cajoling and pressuring them to get work done on time," says Professor Denscombe.
One teenager commented: "If teachers eased back a little, I think there'd be less stress. Because, at the end of the day, we know we've got to do it."
Professor Denscombe's paper, "Experience of doing GCSEs", appears in the June issue of the British Educational Research Journal. Contact: Martyn Denscombe, Department of Public Policy, Scraptoft Campus, De Montfort University, Leicester LE7 9SU e-mail