Teachers in England have observed high levels of anxiety among pupils in the run-up to GCSEs and A-levels, with reports of panic attacks, angry outbursts, self-harm and disengagement among students who will be the first to sit examinations in three years due to the pandemic.
With the main summer exam period due to begin next week, headteachers say they have seen a rise in requests from GPs and mental health teams, asking for individual pupils to be allowed to sit their exams in a separate or smaller room, away from the main exam hall, because of stress and anxiety. Numbers have more than doubled in one school, creating space and invigilation challenges.
A-level candidates have also reported fewer university offers from the most sought-after institutions – fuelling their anxiety – partly as a result of a rise in the number of students who deferred places last year following record A-level results, but also because there are more 18-year-olds in the population competing for places.
GCSEs and A-levels in England have been cancelled for the past two years because of Covid and replaced with teacher-assessed grades, meaning this summer’s cohort of A-level students have not yet experienced public exams. They have also been told there will be fewer top grades as the government begins to rein in grade inflation.
“We’ve got more young people who are anxious than we would normally have,” said Glyn Potts, the headteacher of Newman Roman Catholic college in Oldham, Greater Manchester. “We have got some students who are desperate to do very, very well. They fear they are not going to get the grades they should be getting because of the disruption, and because the government needs to sort out the [grade] inflation over the last two years.
“We’ve also seen a huge number of doctor or CAMHS [child mental health services]-related feedback to parents … requesting children should have a room of their own for the exams.” Requests have more than doubled to 23 GCSE candidates this summer, he said.
A Place2Be mental health practitioner working in a secondary school in the north of England, who asked to remain anonymous, said some pupils were suffering panic attacks. One girl was unable to make it into the hall to do her mocks. “Even thinking about exams would bring on panic. It’s affected sleeping and eating – particularly for females. There’s a lot of self-harm. Lots of low mood and anxiety.
“The boys tend to get more angry. One particular boy got very angry at the thought or mention of exams and was punching walls. He didn’t want to hear anything about exams, because it felt too painful, too stressful to think about.”
One London teacher, who did not want to be named, said: “In one class I’ve had one male year 13 student crying and shouting at me. Some other kids’ response is to just shrug their shoulders and downplay the significance of the exams.”
Robin Bevan, the headteacher of Southend high school for boys in Essex, said – as with many schools – he had seen a noticeable increase in pupils seeking additional mental health support or counselling.
“Until a few years ago we would have made the occasional referral to external services, we now have a fully booked full-time on-site counselling service and the benefits of an NHS-funded mental health support team. It is hard to tell whether this is a real increase or suppressed demand now coming in to the open.”
Sean Maher, the headteacher of Richard Challoner School in New Malden, Surrey, said: “We have certainly seen an increase in anxiety and less resilience in our young people but my feeling is that they aren’t any more stressed about the upcoming examinations than they have been in previous years.”
Ben Davis, the head of St Ambrose Barlow RC high school in Swinton, Manchester, said: “There’s an awful lot of anxiety, fear, and worry, and disengagement among some of them. Overall, I’ve been really impressed at how the year 11s have coped. But there’s a group of them for whom it’s suddenly got very real very quickly. They don’t quite know how to handle it.”
Elena Blair, 18, who is about to sit her A-levels at Harrogate grammar school, a comprehensive in North Yorkshire, said: “Not having GCSEs has thrown us all a bit, particularly when it comes to revision. It’s been quite difficult. It does probably add a layer of stress. It does not really feel real.”
“It’s quite scary,” said one 16-year-old student from Manchester who will sit 26 exams in 10 different GCSE subjects over the next few weeks. “You do see a lot more people getting upset during school. It’s hitting everyone, now that the exams are coming. Sometimes people are in tears. Everyone feeds off everyone else’s anxieties.”