Dealing with exam stress

Anxiety and exam stress are taking their toll on the wellbeing of year 11 students, says Helen Jeys from Manchester High School for Girls

Mock examinations are on the horizon and there is a palpable increase in stress levels across year 11. Although we, of a certain age, might argue that we have done exams and we survived intact, were we subject to the same levels of stress in the 1970s and 1980s as students are today?

The Nuffield Foundation reported on the issue of teenage stress in 2012 with results that are particularly concerning for parents and teachers of girls. The foundation reported that the proportion of 15- and 16-year-olds stating that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years from one in 30 to two in 30 for boys and one in 10 to two in 10 for girls. I have also heard psychologists state that the average 15-16-year-old now has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s. Perhaps, therefore, today’s students are far more stressed than we ever were. Furthermore, this level of anxiety in this age group will be related to worry about examination success. Inevitably, as Dr Dave Putwain of Edge Hill University, states: “There is no doubt that test anxiety … has a detrimental effect on GCSE performance.”

Studies have also related increased incidents of self-harm and suicidal thoughts with examination anxiety. Indeed, stress felt about examinations features far higher in this age group than worry about any other problem.

No doubt, pressures felt by schools to feature highly on league tables has not helped; students can certainly internalise the stresses we as teachers feel about our own performance and that of our school. Tuition fees, the state of the economy and rises in school age all add to the perceived need among students to do well and we cannot ‘undo’ these perceptions. However, we do have a duty of care to our students and it is vital that we are pro-active in our approach to this area of concern. Encouraging our students to sleep well, eat properly and to take time to relax are all well and good, but could we take more responsibility for our students’ wellbeing in our schools?

Encouraging a positive mindset which praises effort, rather than attainment, is crucial to enabling the student to move forwards after experiencing set-backs, such as a disappointing test result. Although difficult, it is also important to provide students with opportunities to relax actively. Physical exercise and extra-curricular involvement must feature significantly on any year 11 timetable. Furthermore, as a supporter of an Aristotelian approach to character education, I believe that the impact of mindfulness practice in schools should continue to feature highly in discussions of how to manage the mental health of such students. Although evidence of the positive impact of mindfulness on children is limited at the present time, breathing and meditation techniques which can aid concentration and provide students with the opportunity to be calm and focus on the present moment, rather than worrying about the future, is certainly an approach that should be actively considered.

However, what we decide to do in years 10 and 11 cannot act as a sticking plaster. We must begin our approach to supporting the mental health of our students from the moment they walk through the door. Furthermore, our approach to mental health is the job of every member of staff who comes into contact with a student. The organisation, YoungMinds, quotes a NASA folk tale which reports that one day a visitor came to the space station and asked a cleaner who was sweeping up what job they did there. The cleaner replied: “I help put men on the moon.” Building academic resilience so that students can manage the stress of the examination years is a challenge for every member of the school community. 

Helen Jeys is deputy head at Manchester High School for Girls W:

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