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Trouble at a bad time

Nearly a third of exam students are struggling with life burdens that affect their results, writes Bruce Harris from charity Exam Aid

Schools and colleges have done as much as they believe they can to prepare GCSE and A-level students for this summer's exams. But they may have overlooked one important fact - many students perform badly for entirely non-academic reasons.

Judging by three studies I have conducted in this field, about 25 to 30 per cent of candidates need more than academic and subject-centred preparation. Some of these young people have relationship problems at home or school. Others are looking after sick relatives or have suffered a family bereavement.

The first project tracked 800-plus students in six very different schools through Year 11.

The focus was general exam preparation, but it soon became evident that students were also having to cope with such non-academic problems as caring for sick relatives (12 per cent) and being bullied in school (13 per cent).

Of the 60 I interviewed, 22 had problems relating to the death or illness of relatives, nine were concerned about family relationships, and 11 were worried about issues such as bullying and truancy. Thirteen of the 15 lowest-performing members of this group had at least one problem of this kind, compared with five in the top-performing 15.

In my second study, I tracked more than 300 Year 13 students in three schools through the spring term. Once again, my research indicated that revision was being disrupted by personal problems.

Many students said they, would welcome help in the form of relaxation and concentration advice (40 per cent), teacher counsellors (42 per cent) and mentors (44 per cent).

I interviewed 50 of these students and found that 11 f the 16 scoring fewer than 15 A-level points had part-time jobs, compared with only five of the 18 students who achieved 20 or more A-level points.

The third project is ongoing, on behalf of the charity Exam Aid, which I helped to set up. A questionnaire issued to 100 Year 13 students in three institutions has again revealed the extent of non-academic influences.

Problems experienced since the start of Year 12 include family bereavements (23), parental divorce or separation (five), parental redundancy (11), illness (23) and moving house (10).

Forty-seven currently work more than 11 hours a week and 22 are doing more than 15 hours.

Forty describe their employers as occasionally or entirely unsympathetic to the academic pressures they face. Reasons for working include the need to contribute to the family budget (eight) and saving money to go to university (26).

These students were not from deprived or inner-city areas. If in-school, non-teaching counsellors are too expensive, then partnership arrangements with other organisations might be useful. Exam Aid itself, which offers various kinds of support for non-academic problems such as bereavement, parental separation, part-time work and relaxation, could be a partner.

Others dealing in specialist health and counselling could also be involved. The moral argument is about providing proper human support to help vulnerable young people.

Practically, the accountability of institutions is at stake because results can be adversely affected by large numbers of students falling by the wayside.

Grabbing nettles is difficult but they flourish if left alone.

Contact Bruce Harris by e-mail: or Exam Aid's website is:

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