Distressing news of exam stress on schoolchildren

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Exams, exams, exams. That’s where we are, as half-term arrives. And we will be for a few more weeks yet.

Meanwhile the press carries disturbing news of the impact of exam stress on this current generation of Sixth Form students. The reports are deeply worrying. How did we get here?

An unremitting and unforgiving emphasis on competition must take some of the blame. Stressed out Head Teachers and teachers inevitably convey their mood to their students.

League tables and OFSTED continue to be the “drivers” in terms of school “performance. All of us in education want the highest standards possible and for every student to reach their full potential. That is a given. Sure, employers want high grades. But they also want outstanding inter-personal skills, personality, integrity and contributors to the common good. In any role involving people, the latter will outweigh the former. The balance is wrong.

The pressure to succeed can have other adverse effects. In athletics it has emerged that 31 athletes likely to compete in the Rio Olympics in August have tested positive for banned substances at the 2008 Bejing Games. In other words they cheated. And it would appear the exam system is not immune. Well certainly not in Thailand, where news has reached us about a particularly advanced type of cheating. Apparently a top Thai medical college caught students using glasses with wireless cameras embedded in their frames to transmit the questions to a group of unidentified people, who then sent the answers back to the students’ smart watches. Ingenious. Actually no.

I guess if a suspiciously large number of my students suddenly appeared to have visited the optician, and were also obsessed with checking their watches every two minutes I might just have spotted it. Like the time one of my students spent hours scratching formulae and other data on to a Bic Biro casing. It was a brilliant piece of innovative design. The only problem was he couldn’t see it during the exam. At one point he complained about the light in the examination hall. There is only one sensible thing to say about cheating. Don’t.

Meanwhile the stress is showing in the examination hall. The invigilators are edgy and bored. Is the coughing student sending signals in the multiple choice paper…3 coughs for answer A and so on…. and what about the student tapping his feet? Other invigilators are furiously concentrating. But not on the candidates. Counting is the name of the game. The number of bricks, or lights, or shuttlecocks stuck in the roof. The stress is showing on the candidates’ faces as well. “Normality is a myth”, said a student in last year’s Psychology exam. He should know. He drew a row of heads, one of which had a teapot on it. Another student’s view in the same exam that “abnormality is an incurable illness” was countered by another candidate informing us that, “Electric shock therapy is really effective. It works on the same principle as kicking the telly to make it go”. In some cases candidates were not only writing about psychological problems, they were succumbing to them as well. “Dear Examiner, I think I’m having a nervous breakdown….”

Fortunately there is an end to all this. The primary schools have reached the promised land already. The SATs are over for another year. On the evidence I have seen, the resilience of the teachers and the pupils has carried them through. Visiting Holy Trinity School in Ripon last week there is no talk of SATS. They are talking chicks. The ebullient Head Teacher has installed hatching facilities in the school foyer and in his office. Assembly begins with a “chicks update”. Apparently six have arrived, another six are on their way. In the foyer the chicks attract excited attention. I become aware that the chicks are being addressed by name. “Donald” says someone, cooing at one of the chicks. One look at the chick’s extraordinary tuft of blond hair and I know why. The children introduce me to “Korma” and to “Pie” and then ask me without irony if I am stopping for lunch. They tell me it’s macaroni cheese and I breathe a sigh of relief. The school is fizzing with energy and joy.

In the secondary schools there is more pain to come. But there is an end in sight. The yearbooks are issued and yet another tradition has firmly taken hold. The whole of Year 13 turned up for their penultimate day at school in their old school uniforms. They were clearly proud to do so, silently signalling through their gesture, both gratitude for the past, and a recognition that their schooldays are almost over. For far too many, schooldays have not been “the best days of their lives.” The pressure has been too great.