GCSE results 2018: Academic anxiety greater source of student stress than body image concerns, says former government adviser

‘There is more pressure on students and they feel they have to be more competitive’

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Thursday 23 August 2018 08:01
What is the new GCSE grading system?

Academic anxiety has become a greater source of stress for teenagers than concerns about body image, the government’s former mental health tsar has said.

The new, tougher GCSEs – which students in England are receiving results for – have caused worrying levels of anxiety among teenagers, according to parents, teachers and experts.

Natasha Devon, the Department for Education’s former mental health tsar, has seen a rise in secondary school students asking for help to cope with “academic anxiety” over the past two years.

Traditionally, the number one concern among teenagers she worked with was body image, she said.

Her comments come as tens of thousands of 16-year-olds receive their GCSE results.

Under the biggest shakeup of exams in England for a generation, GCSEs have been toughened up and have moved away from coursework to exams at the end of two years.

Traditional A* to G grades have been replaced with a 9-1 system, with 9 the highest grade, for the reformed GCSEs which were first awarded in summer last year with maths and English.

This year, a further 20 subjects will be awarded grades under the new numerical system in England.

Speaking of securing top grades at GCSE, Ms Devon told The Independent: “It does feel like there is more pressure on students and they feel they have to be more competitive with each other.”

Ms Devon, who works with teenagers in schools, said: “Academic anxiety has now replaced body image worries as the number one reason pupils give for feelings of panic and distress.”

She added that GCSE exams are a “tangible pressure point” where students’ anxieties about a range of things – including future job prospects and the narrowing of the curriculum – all come to the fore.

The mental health campaigner has also noticed that more parents this year have become concerned about their child’s mental health in the wake of tougher GCSEs.

She said: “A few years ago they would say, ‘What I need to do is prepare my child for the stress of these exams because they are not coping very well with it but this is life.’

“Now they are saying to me, ‘What can we do to try and change the system because this is not a reasonable amount of stress they are being placed under.’”

Parent-led campaign group Rescue Our Schools is now calling for an urgent inquiry into the impact of the new GCSEs on students’ mental health – and already they have received hundreds of signatures.

“We can’t carry on like this because it’s known that extreme levels of anxiety in young people can have lifelong consequences,” Madeleine Holt, co-founder of Rescue Our Schools, said.

The parent campaigners, who carried out a recent straw poll of teachers and parents, found that 77 per cent of staff felt their GCSE students were much more stressed and anxious than usual.

Among parents, a third said their child was very stressed and they were worried about them.

It comes after nine in 10 headteachers, surveyed by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the new GCSEs have harmed pupils’ mental health – triggering panic attacks, sleepless nights, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said: “Exams have always been stressful, but the reforms to GCSEs have cranked up the pressure another gear and many school leaders report that this has caused greater levels of stress and anxiety among their students.

“Schools provide extensive support to students to help them cope with the pressure of exams and they also provide support to students who are exhibiting signs of stress. But in the longer term the government must give greater consideration to the welfare of students in any future reforms.”

Headteachers have also raised concerns that the new grading system sends a “demoralising message” to students who are likely to score lower results in their exams.

A “better way” needs to be found of recognising the achievement of teenagers who score lower than a 4 – equivalent to a C under the old system – in the new, tougher, GCSE courses, they said.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “We are deeply concerned about the pressure and stress these new GCSEs have put on students and school and college staff, which has been exacerbated by the upheaval of the rushed implementation.

“Removing most coursework and other non-exam assessment and just using end of course exams makes the exams extremely high stakes and is contributing to poor mental health among students.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have reformed GCSEs to make them more rigorous and put them on a par with expectations in high performing countries, so they better prepare pupils for further study and employment.

“We know exam season can be a time of heightened emotions for pupils who want to do their best. While testing has always been an important part of education, it should never be at the expense of a young person’s wellbeing.

“We trust schools to make sure that pupils get the help and support that they need, when they need it, working with parents to do this.”

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