This year's GCSE candidates will be sitting their fourth set of national tests in nine years. Is the Government pushing them too hard? Jon Slater investigates.
THE pressure to succeed in exams has never been greater.
The Government, the media, employers, parents and teachers all trumpet the same message: if you want to get on in life, you need qualifications.
As a result, we have grown used to the annual stories of A-level and GCSE students struggling to cope with stress, revision and high expectations, sometimes with tragic consequences. Last year, three young people killed themselves during the exam season, while hundreds more called helplines or sought professional help including a growing number of primary pupils.
Critics warn of the damage to children caused by the growing battery of tests. They argue that when summer schools, homework guidelines and after-school clubs are added to the mix, what we have is a hothouse education system where children may end up burnt out.
Chief inspector Chris Woodhead hit back last week, accusing teacher unions of "using children as pawns in a game" to oppose his Office for Standards in Education and greater scrutiny of the profession. He argued that if young children feel the pressure of tests it is because teachers communicate it to them.
Since the advent of the national curriculum tests in the early nineties, more young children are being tested than ever. Children who sat the first key stage one tests in 1991 are now preparing for their GCSEs - their fourth set of national tests in nine years.
These pupils have been guinea pigs for the new assessment regime. After being tested at seven, 11 and 16, they will also be the first to sit the reformed A-level and AS-levels - with exams in the first as well as second year of the sixth form.
But those following in their footsteps may look at their experience with envy. Even more tests are planned for the early secondary years as part of the Government's drive to improve literacy and numeracy.
And with the concentration on the 3Rs, "fun" parts of the curriculum, such as art, music, drama and sport, have been increasingly squeezed out, often surviving only in after-school clubs. A recent survey by Sport England found that the proportion of nine to 11-year olds spending two or more hours a week in PE lessons has fallen from a half in 1994 to one in five last year.
"We are putting too much pressure on children. We may reach a point in 10 to 15 years where the children who have been through this have burnt out," said Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.
"There is a particular problem with key stage 2 tests. I go into schools and children starting that year are already getting worked up about the tests at the end of them. There is a fine line between switching primary pupils on and turning them off for ever."
Parents also need to be careful about putting too much pressure on their children. Anne, 13, phoned ChildLine, the charity which offers telephone counselling to distressed children, because she was terrified of how her mother would react to bad exam results.
"She takes exams seriously and shouts if I do badly. She even does it in front of my friends. She calls me stupid," she said.
The mother of 15-year-old Susan, another caller to the helpline, was pleased with her exam results until she found out the girl next door had don better.
Parents may make things worse but it is the Government that has been the target of most critics. At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference last month Hank Roberts, a secondary teacher from Brent in north-west London warned:
"The route this Government is treading is the route to child suicide like Japan because of the intolerable hothouse pressures put on children's learning. What happened to play? What's happening to childhood?"
In Japan a 44 per cent rise in suicides among those under 16, 192 of whom took their own lives last year, has raised questions about its intensive education system and the ability of young people to cope.
But are things here really so bad? The Government's supporters argue, that, by attacking the tests, trendy middle-class parents are effectively denying less privileged youngsters the rigorous education that their children get at home anyway.
The statistics do give some cause for concern. Last year, ChildLine received almost 800 calls about exam stress. Nineteen children said they were so stressed that they had contemplated or attempted suicide. Half the calls were from GCSE students, but more than 100 came from children under 14.
In 1997, the latest year for which figures are available, suicide rates in the UK among the under 25 age group rose for the first time since 1993. That year, more than 800 young people took their own lives and the Samaritans charity believes the trend is now upwards, with young men particularly at risk. Suicides among under-14s totallled 35 in 1997 (see graph).
But the pressure on young people does not just come from tests, but also from the demands of the modern economy.
Thirty years ago young people (especially young men) could happily leave school without qualifications and find an apprenticeship. In contrast, those leaving school without qualifications this year are likely to find themselves in low-paid, menial work or on the dole, with bleak prospects. Hence the Government's determination to ensure that all children get something out of school - even if that means making the hothouse even hotter.
According to the Samaritans young people are caught in a vicious circle. "The economy as a whole is now more competitive. There is a lot of emphasis on qualifications and pressure on young people to succeed. But there is a very strong link between children who have parents and teachers with high expectations and those who commit suicide."
If we are to avoid a tragic situation similar to Japan then the Government, parents and teachers need to strike the right balance: to push children hard at school, without pushing them over the edge. STRESS SYMPTOMS
* Being angry and impatient
* Behavioural changes
* A feeling of isolation
* Low self-esteem
* Loss of interest in things
* Loss of appetite or irregular eating
* Panic attacks and difficulty
* Tight, knotty feelings in your
* Low energy and lack of
TIPS FOR PUPILS
* Talk to someone you trust, whether that is a friend, teacher or relative l Eat healthy food regularly
* Get exercise - walking, running, dancing, sport
* Get a reasonable amount of sleep
'There is a fine line between switching
primary pupils on and turning them off for ever'