Pupils were asked to say which of a list of potential worries causes them the greatest amount of anxiety. The most commonly-selected response was ‘performing well in school exams and tests’. The next most frequently selected worry was about finding a job (11%), and choosing a career (10%). Ten per cent “don’t feel any anxiety”.
Many of those surveyed will have been studying for GCSEs or looking ahead to them, at the time the research was conducted. A quarter of those surveyed were in Years 10 or 11 when they completed the study. Since 2015, GCSEs have undergone a series of reforms including the introduction of a new numerical grading system and “more challenging” course specifications  combined with a switch from coursework to exam-only assessment.
When asked who they’re most likely to turn to for support with worries or pressures, other than a friend, 57% of pupils said they would go to someone at school and a fifth (20%) specifically said a teacher of their choice. However, a quarter (25%) would go to someone outside of school and, worryingly, 14% wouldn’t tell anyone at all.
The findings follow on from a survey of over 1,000 school leaders run by The Key last year, in which secondary school leaders stated they saw an increase (91%) in signs of mental health issues among pupils during exam periods. They also reported feeling more worried about pupils’ mental health during exam time, than they had been 2 years previously (87%).
Amy Cook, head of content at The Key, said “There’s mounting pressure on young people today to meet expectations, and exam success is clearly one of those pain points. We conducted this survey to shed some light on where pupils may feel they need more support, and ensure school leaders have the tools to help where it's needed. With the findings indicating that most young people will look to their school for guidance, greater emphasis needs to be placed on equipping school staff to navigate complex mental health and social development needs of pupils, while also giving them the space and time to do that.”
Despite their anxiety about exams and tests, only 19% of 11 to 16 year-olds cited mental health as one of up to 3 topics they would most like to learn more about at school. Over a third (36%), however, would like to learn more about how to apply for jobs and employability skills, and 32% are keen to learn more about financial management. Just over a fifth of pupils also expressed a desire to learn more about drugs and alcohol (22%), first aid (22%) and sex and relationships (22%).
Catherine Roche, Chief Executive at children’s mental health charity Place2Be, said “Feeling stressed or nervous about tests is completely normal and something that nearly all of us will experience, especially at exam time. When feelings of anxiety become overwhelming or young people feel like they cannot cope, it’s crucial that the adults around them know how to help. At Place2Be, we provide teachers with training to improve their awareness and understanding of mental health issues, so they are equipped to spot when young people need extra support.
“Parents and teachers will understandably want to encourage children to do their best in exams, but it’s equally important to remind them that they are more than just their test results. Boosting self-esteem can make a huge difference.”
Notes to editors:
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About the research:
- Ipsos MORI undertook this survey on behalf of The Key, selecting pupils from a random sample of schools drawn from a database maintained by the Department for Education that excluded 6th form colleges, special schools and fee-paying schools
- Self-completion questionnaires or online surveys were completed at schools between 5 February and 25 May 2018
- 2,381 school children between the ages of 11 and 16 completed the full survey in schools in England and Wales
- The data has been weighted by school year, gender and region to match the profile of school children across England and Wales