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'Students and teachers like and respect each other, so why the stress levels in our schools? Workload and the exam system'

Teachers worry they lose sight of the individual worth of their pupils and have less time to talk to students because of the pounding pressures of the school day and the new exam regime, writes the leader of a major teachers’ union

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"Character education" are the new buzz words in all the trendy education circles at the moment. Nicky Morgan is very keen on "perseverance", "resilience" and "grit" and, to encourage these traits, has launched a character education award to enable pupils to leave school more "fully rounded" and "better equipped to meet the challenges of employment and future life".

I am in two minds about this initiative. Whilst I welcome any sign that government ministers recognise there is more to life than exam passes, I worry that their current predilection for character education is a smokescreen to obscure the very worrying state of our nation's children’s mental health.

One in 10 children and young people in England suffers so badly from mental health difficulties, in relation to anxiety, depression and conduct problems, that they need support from specialist mental health professionals. But support is not easily or readily available. Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are in crisis. The health select committee’s 2015 report into CAMHS found the service has been operating in a "fog", suffering from insecure or short-term funding. A direct consequence is that only one in four children and young people who is referred to CAMHS meets the criteria for support.

And let’s be clear about this: it is not the case that those refused support do not need it; rather, they are not (yet) ill enough to access heavily rationed CAMHS. There are at least 850,000 children in the UK with a diagnosed mental health condition and the figure may well be rising.

'Schools make pupils unhappy'

It gives me no pleasure at all to say that school, it appears, is a major cause of stress and unhappiness in children and young people. The 2015 Good Childhood Report said that children in England were amongst the most unhappy with their school life in the world, and their dissatisfaction increased with age – starting from a low point of only 34 per cent of 10- and 11-year-olds agreeing that they liked to go to school and falling to a disastrous 18 per cent who still agreed that school was a place they wanted to be aged 12 and 13.

Some 38 per cent of children in England reported they were bullied each month. English girls were lowest in the international rankings in terms of happiness, suffering anxieties about their appearance and from low self-esteem.

Why is it that schools, in England, appear to be places which cause some children and young people such unhappiness and distress? It is not the relationships between pupils and their teachers which is the root of the problem. International evidence tells us that the UK does well in fostering good pupil-teacher relationships, and UK pupils are more likely to say their teacher cares about them, and is interested in them, than those in many other countries. 

There can be little doubt, however, that there is a constant tension in schools between protecting and nurturing the individual child, and meeting external accountability pressures which force schools to focus on exam passes. There is a real and present danger that children and young people become commodities of the education system – their worth measured in their ability to pass timed, linear exams in a narrow range of academic subjects.

Teachers are worried that they lose sight of the individual worth of their pupils and have less time to talk to pupils because of the pounding pressures of the school day (and night working to mark books, fill in progress charts and complete all the admin that cannot be shoe-horned into excessive working hours). And there can be no doubt that the government's imposition of timed linear exams can only make the effect of these pressures worse. Life chances for young people are to be decided through several weeks of intense pressure – taking multiple, timed exams which give one opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned during two years of study. Just having a bad day, or making a mess of one question, or feeling ill – all traits to which adolescents are highly prone – could have life-long consequences.

Recently published research by Professor Jannette Elwood, of Queen’s University Belfast, covering nearly 250 students from across England, found examinations structured through modules (and resits) allow students to learn from their mistakes, and remove the stress of having to do everything in one sitting. Students thought it was only fair to have a mixture of examinations and coursework because: “We don’t all like the same things."

Professor Elwood also found that students felt insulted by the annual circus of debates in the media around falling exam standards, which they saw as degrading their own achievements. They were also concerned that changes to examinations were being introduced "live", rather than being piloted in advance, and felt their future successes might be "messed up" as a result. These changes could have a considerable impact on their final grades and they argued this was too high a price to pay.

No wonder Nicky Morgan wants young people to have grit and resilience – they will need it to survive the exams endurance test which awaits them at the tender age of 16. It is a great pity the secretary of state has not thought more deeply, and imaginatively, about the purposes of education, both in school and throughout life. The Commons education select committee is, however, going to do that thinking for her – through its inquiry into the purpose and quality of education in England. I look forward to its report.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

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