Too much pressure, much too young

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Current testing in schools is leading to some primary pupils requiring stress counselling, surely a clear sign of our `competitive culture' going too far.

Stress management is an integral part of the curriculum at Sir William Penn School in Slough, Berkshire. From an early age, pupils are taught to cope with the pressure of exam stress. Parental mentoring aims to minimise competitiveness engendered by league tables and Statutory Assessment Tests (SATS) results, and pre-exam pupils showing signs of stress and anxiety are quickly identified and given extra support.

The strategy is mirrored in secondary schools up and down the country, where preparation for GCSE and A level students includes recognising stress and developing techniques to deal with it. The difference is that Sir William Penn is a primary school.

At a time when teaching has been identified as one of the most stressful occupations in Europe, with members of the profession calling for stress management to be made a compulsory part of teacher training, a growing number of headteachers and educational psychologists are warning that stress is percolating down as far as primary school pupils. If stress were once an alien culture in the primary sector, it is not any more.

National testing and teacher assessments, literacy and numeracy targeting and the spin off league tables are being blamed for a climate of achievement and performance, with symptoms of stress manifesting themselves in children as young as seven. "In the past year, I have become conscious of the fact that there are children in our primary schools who are dreading doing their SATS," says Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations. "It is their first experience of adult pressure, when they are still children inside. They are very aware that their performance in the SATS reflects on them and their school, and this creates pressure. It is vital as parents that we make them realise that their happiness is what is important."

Research at Leicester University's department of education has shown that "easy riding", once an opt out feature of secondary school pupils switched off by education, is filtering down into primary schools.

"Pupils react to pressure and teaching for the test by trying to slow the work down," says Professor Maurice Gaiton. "The techniques are often subtle, such as measuring a margin three times, repeatedly sharpening a pencil, or writing in large letters when told to fill a page. But the effect is to slow things down."

Headteachers pinpoint headaches, tummy ache, absenteeism, time wasting and behavioural problems among stress-related symptoms in the classroom. In spite of school policies to make SATS as non-threatening as possible, peer pressure, parental expectations and league tables combine to form a potentially damaging formula.

"Stress in primary schools is not as widespread as in senior schools, but with the current level of testing, it is gradually creeping in," says Carol Pearce, headteacher of Sir William Penn School. "We have seen children in our school stressed out by the prospect of key, stage two SATS, which is why we address the problem from the word go.

"By the time the children are in year six and looking at their SATS, there is an awful lot of pressure on them to perform, especially if they know their parents are anxious for them to do well. Parents have a keen interest in test results and league tables, and this stress filters down to the children. Some of them become very anxious and nervous.

"We take a very gentle and subtle approach to preparing them, as is the case in other primary schools. There is no timetabled lesson in stress - it is just worked into the day-to-day curriculum. We prepare the children for success, not failure. Involving the parents helps, too. They are very responsive."

In Nottinghamshire, assistant director of education John Berridge, compares the stress encircling national testing to the scenario that grew up around the 11 plus.

"Just as in the days of the 11 plus, when parents would home tutor their children with practice papers, there is now an increasing market for home curriculum packages, which all contribute to the feeling of stress and anxiety. If anything, SATS provoke more stress than the 11 plus in that they can be revised for, which increases the pressure on children."

Absenteeism is a common part of the stress-related pattern surrounding the SATS, he says. "Some parents arrange their school holidays in order that their children miss the SATS."

Little research exists in this country into the problem of stress among primary school children, although in the USA test anxiety is recognised as a significant educational problem in elementary and secondary schools.

A study at the University of Michigan showed that schools with ability- based evaluation were most likely to foster anxiety.

Senior educational psychologist and associate tutor at the University of London, Alan Jensen, is heading a new research project into stress in primary school pupils in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, where concern among headteachers is high. Pupil stress, he says, is an inevitable consequence of teacher stress and parental anxiety, fused in a society that is performance related.

"Children look to adults as a role model and if the role model is stressed, that is going to rub off on the child. One of the big problems today with the national testing is the huge amount of paperwork involved, which generates a lot of pressure for teachers. It is unavoidable that some of this stress will filter into the classroom."

But not all stress is destructive, he emphasises.

"Children, like adults, handle stress in different ways. A certain amount of stress can actually be a good thing, creating the adrenalin we need to perform. Too little stress in our lives can result in boredom: it's when it becomes too much that it causes problems. The optimum is a balance."

Children today have a great deal of stress in their lives, even before they get to school, according to Jensen. There can be factors which their teachers may be unaware of, such as a family breakdown. The added stress of SATS and having to perform can tip the balance for a child.

In addition, there is pupil stress which exists no matter how hard a school works at making SATS a non-threatening experience. Peer pressure means children are inevitably aware they are being tested and evaluated, and with that comes the possibility of failure.

"The sad thing is that family life is now led at such a hectic pace, there isn't time to counterbalance school stress with proper relaxation and family time ungoverned by deadlines," says Jensen. "When families don't sit down together to share a meal, then the time to share problems is also lost. Family socialisation is gone."

Peter Wilson, child psychotherapist and director of Young Minds (the National Association for Child and Mental Health), believes that it's the "welfare to work" culture which is responsible for the current climate of stress in schools. Competitiveness to avoid catastrophe is pervading the classroom, with anxious parents becoming excessively focussed on education as a means of ensuring that their children do not face poverty and unemployment in the future.

"Our culture is a rollercoaster of competitiveness," says Wilson, "with parents fixated on academic success and an ipso facto intolerance of non- success. There have always been winners and losers in society, but today the stakes are much higher."