Although schools' organisational inefficiency can make life unnecessarily difficult for GCSE candidates, there is no doubt that personal problems and crises have an even more damaging effect on some pupils' exam performance.
My research indicates that nearly one in three pupils experiences a personal problem that could affect their schoolwork during Years 10 and 11, but unfortunately they are often reluctant to tell their teachers about their difficulties.
Forty-five per cent of the 678 Year 11 pupils I surveyed said that "feeling worried or anxious all the time" was "a problem" or a "big problem".
Bullying worried 13 per cent of the pupils and a surprisingly high proportion, 12 per cent, said that they were having to help look after a sick relative.
Nearly 90 per cent of pupils thought it was important that they should have access to teacher-counsellors if personal crises arose during the exams year. But none of the six secondary schools included in my study provided such a counselling service.
I therefore attempted to estimate what effect personal problems were actually having on the GCSE results of the 60 pupils I interviewed in more depth.
As I have explained (see story above), 15 of the pupils amassed fewer than 40 GCSE points. Thirteen had been worried by at least one problem that was not directly connected with academic work.
By contrast, only five of the 14 pupils scoring more than 60 points had complained about a personal problem.
It is true that 13 of the under-40 points group (not the same 13) were not working to a revision timetable. It is easier, however, to envisage the personal difficulties creating the revision problems than vice versa.
Three of the lower achievers had spoken about sickness or death in the family. One girl had argued with her parents and left home, while a boy had found it impossible to work at home because of the disturbance caused by three younger brothers.
Other problems included bullying and part-time work commitments because of financial hardship in the family.
Many schools would maintain that they cannot possibly afford to have trained counsellors on hand. But it is clearly in the interests of schools to do something about these problems.
In my opinion there are four practical possibilities that do not take the school into unwelcome territory: * investigate the potential for "peer counselling", perhaps using sixth-formers or ex-pupils * give two or three Years 1011 staff a counselling function, possibly on the basis of a pupil vote of the whole year or a pupil council * include a unit on dealing with such problems in the Year 11 personal and social development or pastoral programme and ensure that pupils know there are people they can talk to * invite national and local counselling organisations to visit the school and help with future counselling activities.
My evidence suggests that the GCSE year is challenging even for pupils whose difficulties are entirely subject-based. For too many, extra pressure is piled on to the extent where they can fall at the first adult hurdle, sometimes never to recover. Providing timely and practical help makes a lot of sense from both the moral and pragmatic points of view.