“You can do it, sweetheart.” I’ve lost count of the number of times my grandfather, a mechanic in a little village on the west coast Riviera that is Cumbria, said this to me in my teenage years. He would usually shout it above the whirring of his 1967 Morris Minor, as he drove me the 15 minutes to school every morning for five years. Sometimes the journey was 25 minutes – it depended on how many ‘fools’ he deemed to be loose on the pot-holed, often flooded, rural roads. It also depended on whether he was taking his chances at freewheeling into the valley.
Up to that point, I was likely busy silently reciting French verb endings while my grandad asked himself out loud why anybody would give Sara Cox a slot on radio 1 (too aggressive for a morning’s listening, he thought). He melted as we approached the end of School House Lane though, and reiterated his timeless advice as I anxiously filed away my notes and turned off my Nokia 3310*, ready to enter the Memorial Hall for yet another exam.
“You can do it, sweetheart.”
I was invariably crippled with nerves before exams. I’d put the work in and maybe that’s what made it worse; a sheer fear of not giving it my best. My grandad clearly knew this, as did my mother, although her approach varied. I recall her ushering me out of the door and stuffing my overly-annotated copy of Return of the Native into my blazer pocket, alongside a packet of Kalms – the herbal remedy promising to help battle the stresses and strains of everyday life. A pinnacle of responsible parenting, for sure.
Sure, it all seems a tad extreme now, but I was a worrier. My grandfather’s faith in me consistently surpassed the faith I had in myself. My dad thought I just liked to be anxious – almost like I didn’t think I was trying hard enough if I wasn’t stressed out. There might have been some truth in that too.
So I know from experience that pupil anxiety is nothing new. As Sky reporter Glen Oglaza challenged me in a radio interview last week – “Young people have always faced school-related pressures. Does it really matter that over three quarters of school leaders surveyed by The Key are worried about their pupils’ mental health?” I think it does. I think it matters more than ever.
Government statistics, released last month, reported a 12% increase in child deaths due to suicide or deliberate harm between March 2014 and March 2015. That’s 90 children who took their own lives over that 365 day period. Stress and anxiety play a part here, but mental health trusts are struggling to make ends meet. Budget cuts to the tune of £600 million during the last Parliament mean that access to the right support is often worryingly elusive.
Early intervention, then, is crucial. I have always maintained that anxiety is contagious, and social media can make it impossible for young people to leave social pressures at the school gates. Indeed, the number of young people contacting ChildLine about exam stress has increased by a staggering 200% between 2012/13 and the last academic year.
It seems to me that we are all able to be more proactive in supporting sound mental health. We know what the stress points are in a young person’s life, and now we talk about it more, which is wonderful. But the shift in focus needs to be cultural. Consider the messages we give off about exams, and their career- and life-defining power. Instead, we must balance expectations with a network of support, and be proactive in preparing for and addressing the anxieties surrounding education.
Many schools are leading the way: eight in ten pupils now have access to a counsellor at school. Families, too, must bring talk of anxiety to the table, to reassure and to support their children. As 18-year olds across the country get their exam results today, and as we await the predictable media response about how exams are getting easier, remember the impact it can have on some young people – and consider how nervous, or unsure of their futures, they might be this morning.
I don’t know how many grandfathers will be driving their granddaughters to pick up their results, but I hope they aren’t among those family members reported to be making pupil anxiety worse. My grandad definitely wasn’t. I should have added what else he used to say. “And if you don’t do it Amy, we’ll still love you just the same.”
*I found that phone when visiting home this summer. It still had charge.