Terrified of failure, children run away from home rather than face their exams

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The Independent Online
The prospect of returning to school to face summer exams has led to a surge in the number of children being reported missing. With pre-teenagers now having to sit formal examinations in state schools, child psychologists are reporting a marked increase in exam- related stress.

The National Missing Persons' helpline said yesterday that its daily workload had increased by 20 per cent as children baulk at going back to school for the summer term. Children as young as 11 have called the charity saying that they cannot cope with their workload at school.

Janet Newman, co-founder of the helpline, said parents were often unwittingly putting children under too much pressure to achieve better results. She added: "It is not intentional. It is not until the child goes missing that parents realise how much pressure they were under. They should not feel guilty but they should realise that children listen when they are talking."

The charity said that 13-year-olds were especially vulnerable to exam nerves. As 12-year-olds they were less aware of the importance of the tests and the pain of failure.

The numbers of missing schoolchildren are expected to remain high for several weeks as youngsters realise how much work they still have to do for their summer exams. The helpline is already receiving up to 30 extra cases a day and many of them are believed to be because of the exam problem.

Jane Pearson, who runs the charity's Message Home system, said: "We are certainly getting an increase in the younger age group ringing in about schoolwork. Eleven-year-olds have raised the issue."

She said youngsters would call in from railway stations or hostels with messages for their families, adding: "They were scared to go to school because they could not cope with the exams. Rather than go into school they have just run."

These join the estimated 250,000 included in the statistics of children who go missing each year. In an attempt to slow the tide, the charity has today began putting the faces of some of the missing children on milk cartons in the hope that they will be identified. The face of 12-year- old Patrick Warren has been printed on to thousands of four-pint milk cartons at Iceland supermarkets across Britain.

Malcolm Walker, Iceland's chairman, said: "Using milk labels to print a photograph and brief details of a missing child is an ideal way of circulating vital information."

Patrick and his friend David Spencer, 13, have been missing for 15 weeks after claiming they were going to spend the night at Patrick's brother's home. However, they never turned up.

Christine Hicken, David's mother, said the pressure of school may have been a factor in his disappearance from home in Chelmsley Wood, Birmingham. Although he enjoyed arts and science lessons, David had been unable to cope with English lessons and had been excluded from school after disrupting lessons. "He had only just come out of junior school and he felt that everybody was on his back. Now they are out there on their own. They may be street-wise but they are still babies," she said.

A-level student Andrew Smith, now 19, has been missing from his home in Poole, Dorset, for 16 months, after experiencing problems with his school workload.

Large numbers of university students are also expected to go missing in the coming weeks as finals and first-year exams get nearer. Many students who have called the charity's message home system have expressed a wish to drop out after being pressured by school and family into taking a subject which they did not enjoy.

Christopher Nickolls, a senior educational psychologist, said parents could help children from being overwhelmed by the scale of their work by helping them draw up a revision schedule. He said: "While the exam period may seem like an enormous single obstacle, if the child can be encouraged to break his revision down to manageable segments then reassurance and confidence grows."

Mr Nickolls said 45-minute bursts of work were most effective for GCSE students, followed by 20-minute relaxation periods. Children also draw satisfaction from crossing off each segment of completed revision on a check list.

He said families should also make it clear to the child that there was life after exams. "Instead of talking about possible results, parents should be biting their tongues and offering love, support and security. They should also remind children that the world is full of successful men and women who failed their initial examinations," he said.

t The National Missing Persons' Message Home helpline can be contacted on 0500 700740.