It's the exam season and all over Scotland pupils are working themselves into a frenzy. Douglas Blane looks at the stress caused by Highers and Standard grades and what can be done to alleviate it
It is five to nine on an overcast May morning as you enter the echoing hall. Your mouth is dry; your palms are wet; your brain is racing. There is a ringing in your ears and your heart is pounding in your chest.
As your friends disperse to find seats, all of a sudden, surrounded by people, you feel utterly alone. The invigilator clears her throat and the buzz of nervous conversation drops to a murmur. Above it you hear the clip of footsteps receding along the empty corridor outside and the tick of the old-fashioned clock on the wall.
"Turn over your papers please and begin writing," the invigilator says. Your heart-rate, already uncomfortably high, rockets to a level that will be fatal in about two seconds, and your brain, which was revving like a well-oiled machine a moment before, shuts down completely.
A whole year of work, worry and self-imposed isolation are about to culminate in the biggest disaster since the Tay Bridge.
This is exam stress. For the majority of us, sitting an exam is unpleasant but just about manageable. A few strange characters actually enjoy it, but for a significant minority the experience of sitting an exam is awful in the extreme, and just thinking about it can induce severe panic.
Exam stress afflicts young and old alike, but with a total of 135,000 candidates for Standard grade, Higher and Sixth-Year Studies exams throughout Scotland, it is particularly prevalent among 15 to 18-year-olds.
Recent issues of a leading journal on school counselling cover drug abuse, alcoholism, bullying, HIV, delinquency, bereavement, relationships, pregnancy, sexual harassment, child abuse, school phobia and eating disorders, not to mention "what to do with the occult-involved student". But in the past five years there has not been one reported study of exam stress among schoolchildren.
Approaches to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the Scottish Council for Research into Education and Jordanhill faculty of education at Strathclyde University elicited equally negative responses, ranging from "I'm not aware of any research in this area" to "My first line of investigation would be the TES".
All this is more than a little remiss of the professionals, because the results of a survey carried out by ChildLine a few years ago showed unequivocally that more young people in Britain worry about exams than about any other issue in their lives - a whopping 79 per cent of them. This is more than bullying, more than relationships, more than appearance, and much, much more than the occult. A similar figure was returned by a recent survey of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland, where worries about school exams came a close second to the Troubles.
"The significance of school in children's lives can hardly be overstated," says ChildLine's John Hall, "so it is not surprising that we hear from so many children about difficulties in their school lives.
"Among the most poignant of these are calls from children about exam and work pressures. These are youngsters who feel they are failing themselves, their parents and their schools. Some youngsters are so affected by their sense of failure that they get depressed, sometimes suicidal. Pushed by their own and others' expectations, they easily lose a sense of proportion, feeling that only exam results matter. These youngsters are very vulnerable."
But for every child excessively worried about exams, there are several who are not concerned enough, and teachers are often more mindful of the latter.
"What we really need," said the headteacher of one secondary school, "is information on how to induce exam stress." "Most of the time," said another, "we are trying to encourage the children to work harder. A certain amount of stress is needed to get the adrenaline going."
But some schools take a more enlightened approach and their efforts go well beyond the traditional pep-talk about organisation and time management.
Greig Ingram, headteacher of Stirling High School, says: "We had one boy who got very flustered in exams, so we arranged to give him more time. Even then he still didn't perform to what he was capable of, so we successfully appealed on the basis of his class work.
"In general I think our pupils are very well prepared for exams nowadays. We've been using Lee Pascal, a study-skills expert from London, a great motivator who goes down really well with the children. He explains how all of us learn differently, and gives the children techniques to try so they can find out what works best for them."
Some schools are beginning to provide advice to parents. John Strang, headteacher at Renfrew High School, says: "We organised an evening for parents recently and in preparation carried out a survey of the pupils to find out what support they wanted at exam time. We got Cameron Munro, a consultant, to come and talk to the parents, then they formed themselves into workshops. it was a very successful evening.
"For the children themselves, we try to get stress under control by teaching them how to study. Research shows, for example, that some people find music helps them learn, while others are more visual and techniques like mind-mapping work for them. And for several years now we've been getting the Renfrew Association for Mental Health to come and talk to our pupils about exam stress."
Initiatives like these tend to be directed at older children in secondary schools where the greatest concentration of exam stress can still be found. But nowadays no-one is immune from the affliction. One experienced teacher of a Primary 3 class said: "Some of my kids get into a state and you have to do your best to calm them down. We're supposed to integrate 5-14 testing into the school day, so that the children are not aware it is a test, but no matter how you do it the kids do know. I don't think you can make testing stress-free." To date the youngest caller counselled by ChildLine about exam stress in the UK was just seven years old.
ChildLine produces a booklet "Exam stress and how to beat it" tel: 0800 1111. There are local associations for mental health throughout thecountry. For more informationcontact George Watson at theRenfrew Association for Mental Health tel: 0141 842 3437Lee Pascal, tel 0973 818443. Cameron Munro, tel 0141 883 8110
'IT'S IMPORTANT TO FIND SOMEONE TO TALK TO'
A few years ago the Samaritans ran an advertising campaign aimed at young people driven to despair by exams. Their message was "share your feelings with someone".
The campaign was condemned by a number of education professionals for associating exams and suicide in children's minds. But the connection exists - exams create stress and stress can kill - and it is unhelpful to deny it.
"Our talks to schoolchildren about stress recognition and stress management should be seen in the context of a 40 per cent increase in young adult suicide in the last 20 years," says Renfrew Association for Mental Health's education officer, George Watson.
"The effects of stress are cumulative and increase greatly around exam time. It is important for children to be able to recognise the signs and take action to stop stress reaching a critical level.
"We teach them to spot the symptoms in themselves and their friends - becoming moody and irritable, paying less attention to their appearance, opting out socially, loss of self-esteem, and so on. And we suggest a variety of actions they can take - sport, music, relaxation.
"Children nowadays find it very difficult to relax, so we show them how. We talk about simple things like eating, sleeping, exercise, laughing and enjoying themselves. But the most important advice we give is 'don't try to deal with problems on your own'. They need to find someone to talk to - a friend, a parent, a teacher or a counsellor, and we provide contact numbers and helplines, including our own counsellors."
Claire McKinney, a pupil at Renfrew High School, is in the middle of her Standard grade exams.
She says: "I feel better once I'm in the exam, but before it I'm a nervous wreck. The fact that these are our first national exams adds to the pressure. I remember the talk from Mr Watson - that was the first time anybody told us children can get stressed too. It felt good that somebody recognised that."