Stress and anxiety among exam students is higher than pre-pandemic, say most heads

11/05/2022
More than 80% of headteachers have reported that stress and anxiety among students taking their exams this summer is higher than in pre-pandemic years, according to a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders.
 
Many say this has resulted in high levels of student absence, while some report that stress and anxiety has led to more challenging behaviour, and others say that there has been a rise in incidents of self-harm. Several say that stress and anxiety is worse among A-level students who did not have the experience of taking GCSE exams because they were cancelled as a result of the pandemic.
 
Schools and colleges have put in place a range of measures including increased support with revision techniques, extra counselling and pastoral support, wellbeing sessions, and additional parental engagement. A number say there have been more referrals to local mental health support services for children and young people.
 
The survey, of 527 headteachers and principals of schools and colleges in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, also shows that nearly 80% of schools and colleges have received more requests than pre-pandemic for students to be able to take exams in separate rooms away from the main exam hall. This is mainly due to high levels of anxiety and stress.
 
While schools and colleges do their best to accommodate requests, it puts a great deal of pressure on available space and invigilators.
 
More than a third report that they have not been able to recruit sufficient numbers of invigilators for this summer’s exam series. High demand is compounded by concerns among invigilators – many of whom are retired teachers – about the risk of catching Covid. The government has refused to make free Covid testing available for students sitting exams – a move which could have mitigated some of these concerns.
 
The potential impact of Covid on exams continues to be a significant concern with 14% saying that the level of infections is already worrying, and a further 60% concerned that, while it is not currently a problem, it may escalate.
 
The survey results come ahead of the start of GCSE and A-level exams next week – the first set of summer exams since 2019 following the cancellation of exams over the past two years because of the Covid pandemic.
 
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This survey reveals the extremely challenging circumstances facing students, schools and colleges as they embark upon the first full set of public exams in three years.
 
“It shows that this is far from being a return to normal, and we are particularly concerned about the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of young people. It is clear that schools and colleges are doing everything possible to support them. However, their budgets are extremely tight because of years of government underfunding, and the government has simply not shown enough urgency in improving mental health support for young people going back long before the pandemic began.
 
“We also have to question whether it is right to continue to subject young people to such a huge number of high-stakes terminal exams at GCSE as is the case in the current system. Stress and anxiety were already problems pre-pandemic. It must surely be possible to slim down the exam system and make it more proportionate and humane.
 
“It is also clear that there are sufficient difficulties in recruiting enough invigilators. It would obviously reassure these staff if free Covid testing was available for exam students and we once again appeal to the government to make this simple and obvious provision.”

 
The survey was carried out between 4-6 May via email to 3,500 headteachers and principals in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales. The response rate was 15%. Most responses – 84% – were from mainstream state secondary schools, and 11% from independent schools. The rest came from FE and sixth form colleges and other types of school.
 
The results were:
 
Is the level of stress and anxiety among students due to take their exams this summer higher than in pre-pandemic years?
Answer Choice Response Percent Response Total
1 Yes 82.2% 433
2 No 17.8% 94
  Answered 527
  Skipped 0
 
Have you received more requests than pre-pandemic for students to be able to take exams in separate rooms away from the main exam hall?
Answer Choice Response Percent Response Total
1 Yes 78.4% 413
2 No 21.6% 114
  Answered 527
  Skipped 0
 
Have you been able to recruit sufficient numbers of invigilators for this summer’s exam series at your school/ college?
Answer Choice Response Percent Response Total
1 Yes 62.0% 327
2 No 38.0% 200
  Answered 527
  Skipped 0
 
Is the level of Covid infections among students at your school or college of concern in terms of students potentially missing exams?
Answer Choice Response Percent Response Total
1 Yes 13.7% 72
2 No 22.4% 118
3 Not currently but concerned it will escalate 60.3% 318
4 Don't know 3.6% 19
  Answered 527
  Skipped 0