Teachers are warning of a mental health crisis among school pupils because of pressure of testing and exams.
Leigh Seedhouse, Oxfordshire secretary of the National Education Union spoke out after warnings by Childline of soaring numbers of calls over unmanageable test stress.
“Daily I see the damage the “exam-factory” system is having on students,” said Ms Seedhouse. “I am currently preparing students for GCSE maths. Just yesterday, one of my students had a panic attack during my lesson and broke down in tears.”
Childline delivered 2,795 counselling sessions on exam stress in 2018/19 – with a third taking place in April and May, the main exam months.
Of that total figure 497 counselling sessions were delivered by Childline’s London base to young people contacting them from across the UK.
Stressed youngsters were stressed about t about disappointing their parents, trying their best and still failing, having excessive workloads and feeling unmotivated to revise.
Ms Seedhouse said: “I regularly see students tired – unable to sleep due to worrying about exams. More and more are suffering anxiety and health issues due to the ever-increasing pressure.
“The increase in content the new curriculum has bought adds to the pressures.
“Teachers at every stage have to be less concerned about the individual and more about hitting Ofsted and Government’s ever-changing targets resulting in stressed students who see their value and the value of education only in terms of the level they have reached.”
Ms Seedhouse said schools and colleges are having to provide significantly more mental health support than five years ago. Suicide and self harm are increasing.
“SATS, GCSE and A-Level pressures are taking their toll on more vulnerable pupils and students as young as nine are talking about suicide.
“Some of my students are so stressed we have to offer special provision so they can sit in a small group or on their own with an adult to give them emotional support as they do not have the strength to enter the exams hall.”
Ms Seedhouse said: “The Government must recognise that despite a rhetoric that focuses on ‘standards’ and ‘excellence’ they have created a system which is the opposite of what they intended: one that is lowering quality, harming and demotivating many students and creating classrooms in which the love of learning is endangered.
“The harrowing stories we have heard and the comments made by Childline about crying, stressed students should make the Government sit up and listen.
“Teachers fully accept the need to be accountable for how well students do but the current system is not the right way to do this. Instead of raising standards and creating excellence, we are demotivating and stressing students and teachers, which does not benefit students’ learning and squeezes the love out of it.”
Girls five times more likely to seek help than boys. Children can call Childline on 0800 11 11 or www.childline.org.uk, day or night.
A teenage boy told Childline: “I am about to take my GCSEs and I am under so much stress that I find it hard to motivate myself. My friends are studying a lot which is putting me under more pressure. I’ve tried talking to my mum but it ends up in an argument as she gets angry when I don’t study.”
Other young people told Childline counsellors the prospect of taking exams was having an adverse effect on their mental health, with some coping by self-harming and others saying they were feeling suicidal.
The most common ages for exam stress counselling were with 15 and 16 year olds, as they worked towards their GCSEs.
Childline is urging all young people to speak out if they are stressed about their exams, especially boys as figures reveal they are five times less likely than girls to talk to counsellors about the pressure they are under.
Anna Williamson, Childline counsellor and writer of teen book, How Not to Lose It, said: “It is vital that family, friends and teachers are there to support children and teenagers during this stressful time.
“My advice to parents would be to never say ‘it wasn’t like this in my day’- children won’t care and it isn’t about you. Also never compare siblings. What you can do is ask if they need anything, say you are proud of them and offer an end-of-exams celebration to help them visualise it being over.”
The NSPCC has recently received over £2million thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery, which will help Childline be there for more children who need help with exam stress or other issues.
The NSPCC has the following advice for young people taking exams:
• Make sure you take regular breaks from revising and do some exercise
• Go to bed at a reasonable time and try and get some sleep
• Try to think positively – even if you don’t feel like it. A positive attitude will help you during your revision
• Remember that everyone’s different – try not to compare yourself to your friends.
Advice for parents and carers to help ease exam stress:
• Don’t place unnecessary pressure on your children to gain certain grades
• Encourage children to take regular breaks, eat snacks and exercise
• Help them revise by leaving them the space and time to do so
• Be supportive and help alleviate their worries by talking to them.
Advice for teachers:
• Facilitate classroom discussions to get students talking about exam stress
• Encourage students to take regular breaks from studying for exams
• Encourage students to talk to you or other teachers about exam stress.
The Banbury Guardian reported on anger over plans to test four-year-olds.