Children who suffer ever-increasing stress because of pressure to succeed from their families and schools could be driven to suicide, teachers warned yesterday.
Members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers attacked the Government's drive to raise standards as "factory farming", claiming pupils as young as four were exhibiting anxiety and neurosis because of "intolerable pressure" imposed by national tests.
Hank Roberts, a teacher at Copland Community School in Wembley, north London, likened the state education system to that in Japan, where a record 192 children took their own lives last year.
He told the 150,000-strong union's annual conference in Belfast: "The route this Government is treading is the route to child suicide like Japan because of the intolerable hothouse pressures put on children's learning. What's happened to play? What's happening to childhood?"
More than one in ten of the 780 children calling the children's charity Childline about exam stress last year were under 13. Some children told counsellors the stress was so great they had contemplated suicide. Nearly two million children aged 7, 11 or 14 will take standard assessment tests (Sats) next month, as schools come under increasing pressure to meet the Government's targets for literacy and numeracy.
Mr Roberts blamed ministers, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) inspectors, heads and classroom teachers. He said: "What impact does this have on the pupils? The answer is it has a great and inevitable impact. The pressure to achieve is transmitted, the anxiety, the irritability, shortness of temper and all the other symptoms caused by stress."
Peter Wilson, director of the mental health charity Young Minds, said: "For some children, testing is very demanding and distressing because they cannot do it. I would not say many of our children would go on to commit suicide, but there are now very significant mental health problems from many children who do not have the ability and readiness to take on this challenge."
Estelle Morris, the School Standards minister, dismissed the criticisms. She said: "I'm not sure it's too much pressure to get children to read and write. I actually think children enjoy it. I do not accept the country is full of children who are incredibly anxious about their Sats after Easter.
"For ages we have put pressure on some of our 11-year-olds because they can't read and write. It does mean hard work, a bit more study on the part of the kids, but the bottom line is they go to secondary school with the basic skills they need."
Teachers also passed a motion criticising Ofsted after the suicide of Pamela Relf, a Cambridgeshire primary school teacher. They called on Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, to reduce the stress of inspection. Andy Garner, from Suffolk, said: "Pamela Relf's death is the tip of the iceberg when we discuss the victims of Ofsted."
Delegates also criticised Mr Woodhead for his "grudging and belated" expression of condolence after Miss Relf's death in January.Reuse content