Coping with Exam Stress (Part 1)

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

This three-part blog series aims to look at exam stress and what we can do to help make things easier for our children and selves. This first part briefly examines stress in children in UK and discusses what’s being done by The Government, Schools and NHS to prevent the problem.

School - A Stressful Situation

In 2018, Shropshire Council reported that student exam stress levels are placing undue pressure on health services. There are suggestions that exam stress is resulting in more suicides and mental health problems. According to the Council, Childline has seen an 11 per cent increase in calls from students. In 2018, The NSPCC reported that referrals by schools for the treatment of mental health issues raised by more than a third in the past three years. Worryingly TES reported, in 2018, that Barnardos (the children's charity) conducted a survey revealing that school was the biggest stress factor for young people.

In 2017, Sally Weale reported, for the Guardian, that 8 out of 10 school leaders felt that fear of academic failure was leading to mental health issues around exam time and that primary children were showing increased signs of stress and anxiety before sitting exams. In Manchester Evening News, Emma Gill said that a 10-year-old revealed to her Mum that she was stressed about SATs and that her friend was suicidal because of the exams. In a 2018, Weale wrote that two pupils attempted suicide at one school and one boy soiled himself during a mock exam. There have been reports of children crying, having panic attacks, raised anxiety and breaking down.

In 2016, a Kellogg's sponsored survey of 1000 pupils revealed that 6 out of 10 students (21%, roughly a fifth) were skipping meals to undertake more exam study. More disturbingly according to the report "33 admitted drinking coffee, 41 ate chocolate or sweets and 16 (up from 8 in 2014) 10 to 11-year olds said they'd smoked cigarettes before exams".

The countries solution

So, what's being done to eliminate this problem? If Corbyn had got into power, Labour said they would scrap SATs exams for Key Stage 1 and 2. However, it looks likely that SATs and the new GCSE are here to stay. In the past, there has been talk about phasing out the SATs exam with a baseline assessment in Reception. Gaby Hinsliff, suggests "Governments of all colours…have to learn to stop fiddling pointlessly with exams. No more tearing up syllabuses, marking schemes or grade boundaries…" and we should lighten children's loads. In other words, the Government needs to work to destress children.

However, schools also have a responsibility. In 2018, Kelvinside Academy, in Glasgow, got creative and introduced Alpacas to help pupil stress levels. Amy Packham reported that All Saints' School in Blackheath is choosing to set more relaxed homework before SATs exams. Some schools also have extra-curricular activities (e.g. cycling, walking, swimming) to help pupils destress.

Unfortunately, from the above evidence, the NHS is likely to be affected by child stress with CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) feeling the impact. In 2018, Education Policy Institute said referrals to CAMHS was up 26%. Subsequently, the health services are going to have to improve to help eliminate the problem.

In other words, we have several ways of dealing with the problem. Preventative (stop stress before it happens), control (when stress is happening) and band aiding (mopping up the damage). If the Government, education organisations acted in preventive ways this could help ease stress for children. These children are our future so why not support them?

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