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Exams 'making children stressed'

Published 04/04/2015

A heavy focus on exams is causing stress and anxiety in pupils, teachers have warned
A heavy focus on exams is causing stress and anxiety in pupils, teachers have warned

Under-pressure children are becoming stressed, anxious and even losing interest in education because of an overwhelming focus on tests and exams, teachers are claiming.

Many school workers believe that some pupils are developing stress-related conditions around the time they are due to sit exam papers, while others say that youngsters become very worried in the run-up to taking qualifications, according to research commissioned by the National Union of Teachers (NUT).

The findings also suggest that creative subjects such as music, art and design are being squeezed out in the final year of primary school due to preparation for national curriculum tests - known as SATs - in reading, writing and maths.

Union leaders warned that children are increasingly at risk of missing out on a rounded education as a result of the current school accountability system.

Initial findings from a study commissioned by the NUT indicate that there are anxious, stressed and disaffected pupils at all levels of education and in all types of schools.

Nine in 10 of the 8,000 teachers polled for the study said that some pupils are being asked to learn things they are not yet ready for.

The vast majority (94%) of secondary teachers, along with three-quarters (76%) of those working in primaries, said they have seen youngsters develop stress-related illnesses around the time of SATs and public exams.

Over 90% of teachers agreed that many pupils become anxious and stressed in the time leading up to tests and exams.

And 96% agreed that when pupils know they are doing less well than others in class or tests, their confidence and motivation suffers.

Researchers said that teachers reported the groups most affected by exam anxiety include high-achieving and conscientious pupils, often girls, although less able pupils and some with special needs can also suffer from stress.

The study, which included case studies of a small group of schools, concludes that the main cause of stress and anxiety may be simply having to do tests or exams in which there is a chance of failure.

But it adds that this is made worse by schools making the importance of these tests and exams very clear to students.

"Even where staff said that they tried to 'protect' their students from the pressure, pupils talked about ways in which teachers reinforced the importance of tests and exams, for example, by regular mention of the SATs," it said.

The study went on to say that a drive towards pupils taking academic subjects over vocational ones has also contributed towards secondary school pupils becoming disaffected with education.

"Teachers argued that some pupils are now studying and being examined on courses that are inappropriate for the level they have reached and that this has a negative impact which manifests itself in a variety of ways (poor behaviour, low self-esteem, etc)."

Separately, the initial findings from the study suggest that teachers say they now have less time to focus on pupils' social and emotional development.

Around 84% of those polled said that the focus on academic targets means that social and emotional aspects of education tend to be neglected, while 93% said an emphasis on targets meant fewer opportunities for pupils to take part in creative, investigative and practical activities.

Under the current system, primary schools are held to account for their results in SATs tests, which are taken by 11-year-olds, while secondary schools' performance is measured against GCSE grades.

The poll found that in primaries, many teachers report that the amount of time spent on the core subjects of English and maths increases in Year 6 in order to prepare for the SATs, with other areas taught less, or not at all.

One teacher said: "Definitely in Year 6 and to some extent in Year 5, the curriculum is narrowed to reading, writing and maths because that's what we're held accountable for and we've got to get those children to a certain level."

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: " The NUT has long argued that league tables, high-stakes testing and other accountability measures have a negative effect on children and young people. Teachers, too, are placed in the invidious position of carrying out myriad requirements to fulfil the Government's desire to measure everything that can be measured.

"What gets lost for those who matter most - the pupils - is the rounded education that we all wish to see and the emotional and pastoral support that children and young people also need from their teachers."

Ministers have introduced overhauls of the curriculum and SATs tests in primaries, saying the reforms are needed to ensure that youngsters get a good grounding in the basics. It has also toughened up the secondary curriculum and GCSEs.

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