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School accountability can harm pupil mental health, research warns

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Pupils are suffering from a rise in anorexia, self-harm and other mental health problems because of government measures to hold schools to account, the author of a report published today has warned.

Professor Merryn Hutchings from London Metropolitan University said: “Anorexia is increasing among primary-age children.

“Self-harm was reported as a direct response to the pressure of Sats and these pressures increased through the secondary school years.”

Her study, Exam Factories?, commissioned by the NUT teaching union, examines the impact of accountability measures in England’s schools, including Ofsted inspections and school performance tables.

It reports that increasingly high levels of anxiety, disaffection and mental health problems are caused by the pressure of tests and exams, as well as a greater awareness of "failure" at younger ages and the increased academic demands of the curriculum.

Lucie Russell of mental health charity Young Minds said that teachers as well as pupils were “under a lot of pressure to achieve results in a pressure-cooker, exam-factory environment".

"Constant testing and assessments are creating an environment that is putting a lot of stress on young people and adversely affecting their confidence, self-esteem and mental health,” she added at the launch of the report.

"What we need to do is create an education system whose success is not just assessed by exam results, but by how it is helping to develop children's and young people's character, resilience and well-being."

The research included a survey of almost 8,000 teachers, 94 per cent of whom said they spent more time on accountability documentation than lesson planning.

Ninety per cent of the teachers said children were being asked to learn things they were not ready for, while 95 per cent said they did not have enough time to focus on the needs of individual pupils.

Professor Hutchings' report is damning of Ofsted, which is viewed as unsupportive, punitive and inconsistent, with the ability to cause a school to “fall apart”. It notes inspectors’ “tendency not to take on board the way that individual circumstances affect outcomes”.

The study finds that nine in 10 teachers think pupils become stressed and anxious in the time leading up to Sats exams (taken in Year 2 and Year 9), while 80 per cent of teachers said the emotional and social aspects of education were neglected because of the need to focus on academic targets.

One teacher in an "outstanding" Ofsted-rated primary school commented in the report: "It is heartbreaking to have a four-year-old approach me in tears because they are still in the 'bad group' for reading because they have already been streamed in phonics at age four!"

Another teacher said a "severely dyslexic" and "incredibly hard-working" Year 6 pupil turned to self-harming because of the "pressure she felt to achieve to a level similar to that of her peers", while another commented that self-harming was "rife" in pupils aged 14-16.

Pupils interviewed for the report spoke of exam stress and their worries about performing well. A Year 12 student said some young people would cry for most of an exam because they were so stressed.

NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “It demonstrates in vivid terms that the accountability agenda of government and Ofsted is having deep-rooted and negative effects on both primary and secondary pupils.

“The whole culture of a school has become geared towards meeting government targets and Ofsted expectations. As this report shows, schools are on the verge of becoming ‘exam factories’.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Part of our commitment to social justice is the determination to ensure that every child is given an education that allows them realise their potential.

“That’s why we are raising standards with a rigorous new curriculum, world-class exams and new accountability system that rewards those schools which help every child to achieve their best.”

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