'There's no excuse for applying stress until pupils snap'

Former government mental health champion Natasha Devon responds to those who dismiss exam stress as a bogus phenomenon

Broken pencil

In 2018, absolutely everything is open to "debate": even children being held in concentration camps on the US border hasn’t been met with universal disgust. This is, apparently, what "balance" looks like. And the majority of the media’s response to the outcry from teachers and pupils alike to education reforms and exam factory-style schooling is a perfect example of how this type of "balance" inhibits meaningful progress.

For those that missed it, teenagers have created a YouTube stream of videos showing them emerging from their GCSE exams in tears, or hyperventilating, completely overwhelmed. This was a story which should have been straightforwardly reported, perhaps by inviting a teacher or other education expert to explain what had caused this collective distress.

Instead, the BBC and others decided to host "debates" on whether exams have, indeed, become more difficult, whether this represents fuel to the fire of the mental health crisis, or whether this is yet more evidence of a generation of "snowflakes", unable to deal with the realities of life. Ella Whelan (a columnist for a right-wing magazine and self-labelled "libertarian feminist" who believes that acknowledging structural sexism is "patronising" towards women) put in such an impressive performance, derisively dismissing overwhelming exam stress as a bogus phenomenon based on her "working in a school for, like, a year", that it won her a place on Question Time the following Thursday.

The response on social media was predictably disheartening. "Common sense at last!” wrote one commentator. “We are not cultivating the resilience that these students will need in adult life."

“They think stress is a newly discovered thing,” wrote another. “Kids 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago all went through the same stress, etc, especially at exam time. Suck it up, kids! It’s nothing new!”

The newspapers, conversely, took a different tack, deciding that exams were a red herring and that it’s all social media’s fault. I speculated in my column a few weeks ago about the dangers of confusing correlation with causation when it comes to technology and its relationship to mental illness.

Exam factories

I also believe there is a possible significance in the fact that social media, whilst undoubtedly on young people’s list of things that affect the way they think and behave (in both negative and positive ways), is way below academic anxiety as the top threat to their wellbeing in the focus groups I conduct. I can’t help but think there might be another agenda at play here – one that has more to do with social media contributing to the decreasing popularity of traditional media than any genuine concern for children’s wellbeing.

What all of this bluster fails to take into account is that it’s not just about the exams themselves. The entire education system has undergone seismic change since 2010, and exams represent a tangible endpoint – They are a symbol of increasing amounts of stress affecting pupils and teachers alike, but they don’t tell the entire story.

Education has become more systematically exam-focused, the curriculum has been narrowed, subjects that promote creativity and wellbeing have been virtually stamped out of existence, rare pockets of time for relaxation and processing have been filled, targets have been increased whilst budgets have been lowered. It is all of this that has cumulatively taken its toll.

One of the very many things that pundits like Ella Whelan, who also spoke about wrongly labelling children who struggle with their exams with mental illnesses, fail to understand is that we all have mental health. To talk about "mental health issues", which can be anything which impairs your ability to function and negatively impacts on your quality of life, is not to make a diagnosis of mental illness.

Last Thursday, I attended a conference at Aureus School during which teacher and strategic mental health adviser Mike Armiger said: "We are all just one or two adverse events from becoming overwhelmed." This is never truer than when we are in our teens, a time when our brains are flooded with dopamine, our bodies with hormones; when we are statistically most at risk of common mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and when our brains are still developing.

The entire system needs redesigning, with the benefit of what we now understand about neuroscience, psychology and the best ways to encourage children to learn and flourish. I’d also like to see evidence on where the tipping point is between stress and trauma in a developing brain. Yes, stress is part of life, and learning to manage it is a key life skill, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to continue to apply indefinite amounts of stress and call the children and teachers who snap under the pressure "snowflakes".

Tragically, there are a thousand barriers to the above actually happening, not least of which is the public’s seeming inability to take what teachers and young people are telling them at face value.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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