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Are Exam Pressures Affecting Young Peoples’ Mental Health? A considered comment from the front line

The day when the envelopes are opened - Results Day scene at St John'sThe day when the envelopes are opened - Results Day scene at St John'sThousands of students across the country received their A-Level results a week ago, with GCSE results following shortly after.  Nationally students performed well, despite Michael Gove’s various education reforms;  a new 9-1 grading system was introduced for most GCSE subjects and more difficult exams were implemented.  However, this year more students achieved high grades after last summer’s poor performance that saw the number of pupils receiving A*-C grades drop to the lowest point in a decade.  Although more British students seem to be excelling academically, some schools and education experts are expressing concern that the new system could be contributing to rising levels of exam stress and mental health issues in young people. 

Some stress in relation to exams is normal, and is in fact beneficial, to students.  It motivates them to work hard, revise and ultimately achieve the top grades.  However, many students suffer extreme stress and anxiety, and this is a major problem especially for students that have existing mental health issues, for whom exams can augment the problem to a level where they are unable to cope.  

 

Pupils who attend schools that lack a support system are the most vulnerable of all as they often suffer in silence.  This, at best, negatively impacts their performance, and at worst leads to panic attacks, self-harm, and even suicide.

There are plenty of adults today who would say that students today are, to use the increasingly common term, ‘snowflakes’ and are making too much of a big deal about exams, adding that when they were taking exams they coped just fine with the stress, and even that exams are easier nowadays than they were back then.  Generation X seems to be getting a similar treatment to the Millenials in that we are being categorized as lazy, shielded from the harsh aspects of life and too obsessed with our Instagram pages to notice the privileges we have been given by society.  

 

However, exams and schooling have changed so much since our parents were taking O-Levels or GCE’s that many adults lack perspective on the immense pressure pupils are put under to achieve the top exam results.

For example, when the parents of most 16-year olds were taking their GCSEs, the average number of GCSEs gained per pupil was around five, including core subjects such as Maths, English and Science.  However, today it is not uncommon for students to take 8-10 GCSEs, with 12 seen as the maximum.  With so many more subjects being taken, students need to work harder to manage their time in order to learn 2-3 years’ worth of content for 20-30 written and practical exams. 

GCSEs are seen to have less value today as it has been made compulsory to work towards some form of qualification until you are 18, whether that is A-Levels, apprenticeships or work placements, whereas the parents of Generation X could choose to leave school at 16.  However, there is still immense pressure on 16-year olds to get the top grades, especially the highest achievers.  Although most universities place much higher value in A-Levels and the infamous Personal Statement than GCSEs, aspiring Oxbridge applicants are regularly told by schools that there is no point in applying unless they gain 7-8 A*s at GCSE. 

With so much more competition for places at top universities than there used to be, the most ambitious 16-year olds recognise that by the time they apply for university in 2020, they need a perfect resume which includes top GCSE and A-Level grades, combined with work experience, co-curricular activities and a library of completed books relevant to their chosen subject.  

 

Needless to say this is a tall order for young people, and if the student is lacking in time-management skills it can lead to toxic habits that promote poor mental health.  For example, it is seen as the norm for students to stay up until the small hours of the morning studying or completing homework.  Students are constantly pressured to do so by other students leading by example and even parents.

Arguably the new education reforms are just increasing the stress that students are under.  The students formerly aiming for an A* at GCSE are now aiming for a 9, which is equivalent to above an A*, or alternately an A**.  This year only 732 people in the whole of the UK achieved a clean sweep of 9s.  This new grade runs the risk of giving these pupils the mindset that even achieving an A* is not enough and they should be aiming higher, giving them a target that is unattainable for many of even the brightest students.  

 

As coursework has been scrapped for most subjects, written exams have been given the utmost importance, therefore if the student has not revised properly in the run-up to exam season for whatever reason, be that family issues or mental health problems, it can have a serious impact on their results and their future.

A parent of a 16 year-old student commented  “Today’s students are more motivated by their teachers.  When I was taking my exams I was demotivated and given poor career advice.  We were also not expected to study as much.”

Student Annie who achieved 10 A*s at GCSE commented that teachers should ‘start preparing [students] earlier. Students need to be aware of how early on they should start revising and extra time for revision early on in the year can always lessen the stress for when exam time comes.’

‘Give them people to talk to, whether it is a teacher or someone they can form a connection with, the important thing is for students to always get the support they need.’

Adults in 2018 say that students are ‘mollycoddled’ and are making a fuss over nothing.  However, with one in four students at university reporting that they have mental health issues, teachers and parents need to stop ignoring the warning signs and start providing support and counselling to students from GCSE to degree level. 

 

(Ed note:  Madison's results were excellent, now on to A's.....)

 

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