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Spike in child mental health issues during exams - May, 2017

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As primary school pupils across the country prepare to sit their SATs next week, new data from The Key suggests that exam stress is taking hold of children as young as five in the face of increasing performance pressure. 

More than eight in 10 (82%) primary school leaders across England see mental health issues increase among their pupils during examination periods, according to new findings from The Key - the organisation providing leadership and management support to schools.

The Key’s annual survey report, to be released this month, reveals that general cases of stress, anxiety or panic attacks among children have risen in more than three-quarters (78%) of primary schools over the past two years. School leaders also report seeing an increase in fear of academic failure (76%) and depression (55%) among their pupils since 2014. Many school leaders cite that such conditions and behaviours peak around assessments.

As one primary school leader explains: “Children seem far more stressed. We have to provide more support to our pupils especially around assessment times – in last year’s reading test two children sobbed when they started the reading paper and had to take time out before returning to their seats.”

An assistant headteacher said: “The current assessment system is placing great pressure on children, which is leading to anxiety and mental health issues. We had a child lose their eyelashes due to stress, as well as numerous other pupils whose self-esteem has been damaged.”

More than four in five (81%) primary school leaders are more worried about their pupils’ mental health during assessment periods now than they were two years ago. Over two-thirds (68%) believe that changes to the curriculum and school performance measures over the same period have had a negative impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing.

One primary headteacher said: “Children at primary school level are being put under too much pressure - we have seen an increase in 10 - 11 year-olds suffering from low self-esteem and stress.”

Nearly all (94%) primary heads and school leaders who completed the survey believe their pupils are now battling a wider range of pressures than five years ago. However, examinations are believed to be the biggest source of such pressure by more than a quarter (27%) of school leaders – second only to social media, the greatest pressure on pupils for nearly four in ten (37%) leaders.

The Key’s findings come two years after the introduction of a new “tough”[1] National Curriculum and new statutory assessments to accompany this.

While the opening questions in this year’s SATs have reportedly been made slightly easier to reduce stress on pupils[2], and the government is proposing to replace Key Stage 1 SATs with a reception baseline assessment[3], there have still been calls from some teaching unions to boycott all tests at primary level.[4]

More than two in five (43%) of the primary leaders surveyed by The Key think their pupils’ academic achievement has been negatively affected by the new curriculum and performance measures. Nine in 10 also maintain that too much focus is placed on academic testing as a measure of pupils’ success.

One school leader explains: “Expectations on primary school pupils are too high, too demanding and limiting the curriculum. This is causing stress to young pupils as well as unacceptable pressure on teachers and parents.”

Speaking about the findings, Amy Cook, senior researcher at The Key said: “System-wide changes at primary level have placed a heavy burden on our schools. Initially primary school leaders had to manage the strain of implementing and embedding a new curriculum alongside changes to assessment. Now the dust is settling two years on, they find themselves responding to a deterioration in their pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.

“While the various pressures and factors bearing down on children today are wide-ranging and should not fall solely to schools to resolve, their dedication to protecting their pupils’ wellbeing is unwavering. But should we accept that a rigorous and high-quality school system will place such pressures on pupils and schools, or is a different approach needed?”

Despite the pressures on them, schools are doing all they can to support their pupils’ wellbeing. Staff are working closely with parents in almost two-thirds (64%) of primary schools. More than half of schools are investing in staff training to identify early indicators of mental health (56%) and a similar proportion are nominating staff members as ‘mentors’ (54%). Counselling is also available in just over half (52%) of primary schools.

In the bid to address exam-related stress, nearly half (49%) of primary schools are running revision groups and clubs during assessment periods. Resilience groups, one-to-one interventions for anxiety/stress, and mindfulness groups are just some of the other structured interventions in place in primary schools across the country.

Offering advice to parents and pupils on this matter, Dr Fiona Pienaar, Director of Clinical Services at children’s mental health charity Place2Be said: “It’s perfectly normal to worry or feel stressed from time-to-time but when these worries become more serious or persistent, it’s important that children know how to cope and where to get help.

“Schools are well-placed to support children in learning the life skills to cope with pressurised situations, so it’s really positive to hear that so many primary schools are already working hard to instill these skills from an early age. Both teachers and parents can also lead the way by demonstrating to children how they cope with their own stresses and strains in a healthy way.”

The DfE has recently announced that more than a thousand schools will be given a “point of contact” mental health expert to promote more joined-up working between schools and health services[5].

Many school leaders would also like to see changes made to the curriculum and assessment to reduce the load on pupils.

One school leader explains: “I would love to be part of a changing curriculum for the better, one which thinks outside the box and enhances the future generation to be able to take their learning to a new level without the need for a good ability to remember facts.”

Another headteacher said: “School life is about so much more than attainment and progress in English and maths. We should be celebrating how our pupils are as individuals and future citizens rather than whether they hit a numeric target.”

To view the online release and access free guidance for schools and parents on supporting pupils with stress, go to:

Top tips for helping children to cope with exam stress – Dr Fiona Pienaar, Place2Be
We all get stressed from time-to-time, but for some children these worries can become more serious or even overwhelming. Exam time can be a particular pressure point that can cause some children to feel very stressed or anxious. Here are a few top tips for parents and carers to help children cope:
1. Make a plan – sit down together and break down the workload into manageable chunks to help it feel less overwhelming, and don’t forget to set aside some dedicated time for relaxing too!
2. Boost self-esteem – if your child is struggling, take the opportunity to talk about all of the things that they are good at and that they enjoy. While exam results are obviously important and we always want our children to do the best they can, you can remind your child that they are so much more than their test results.
3. Two heads are better than one – the chances are that other children in your child’s class are feeling exactly the same way about exams. Encouraging them to talk to other children and support each other can help them to feel less isolated.
4. Set an example – talk openly about how you cope with your own stressful situations, whether it’s by having a relaxing bath, or writing a week-by-week plan to manage your workload. This will set a fantastic example that your children can learn from.

About The Key's survey

  • The Key invited a sample of its members to complete its annual survey in February 2017. The questionnaire for this study was designed by The Key and conducted online using Survey Monkey. 1,182 school leaders from mainstream schools completed the full survey.
  • The data has been weighted to match the population profile of schools in England in terms of region, school phase and school type. The profile of The Key’s membership database is similar to the profile of schools across England. The data can therefore be taken to represent the views of school leaders on The Key’s database, which in turn provides an indication of the opinions of leaders in mainstream schools across England.
  • The survey was designed, administered and analysed by The Key. Ipsos MORI provided advice on questionnaire design and weighting.
  •  A report on the full findings will be released in May.

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