As examination season gets underway across the country, the charity has issued a stark message reminding schools, parents and policy-makers about the sometimes devastating impact of exam stress.
Quoting figures published earlier this year, ChildLine warns that the number of children contacting the service about exam stress has risen by 200 per cent in the last 12 months.
Its annual report, published in February, shows that 34,454 counselling sessions took place mentioning school and education problems during 2013/14 – with 7,546 of these specifically involving examination stress.
Also, ChildLine’s webpage on the issue was viewed more than 87,500 times during the same period.
Major themes emerging from the counselling sessions included a fear of disappointing parents, a general fear of failure, and pressures linked to academic achievement.
ChildLine warns that these stressors can affect students’ ability to sleep and can trigger anxiety attacks, depression, tearfulness, and eating disorders. In some cases, it can lead to self-harm and suicidal feelings – or make these existing situations worse – the charity says.
One teenage boy who called ChildLine said: “I am about to take my GCSEs and I am under so much pressure as my parents are expecting me to do really well. I am going to revision classes and trying really hard but I feel like it is not good enough for them. My parents don’t allow me to do anything else apart from revision and if I try and talk to them it always ends up in an argument.”
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, which runs ChildLine, said: “The exam period can be a very stressful and anxious time for young people. As these figures reveal, the pressure to do well is being felt by an increasing number of young people across the country.
“We hear from lots of young people each year who are anxious, worried or panicking about their exams and revision. We want to let them know that they are not alone and that ChildLine is here to listen to them.”
The warning has been supported by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which says its own research has also revealed increases in anxiety, stress and disaffection among pupils. The NUT also warns of a negative impact on the “quality of the teacher-pupil relationship because of the level of pressure on and in schools”.
Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, said: “It is possible to draw a link between increased stress and exam reform and the accountability framework under which schools are ranked and measured. England’s children are some of the most tested in the world, and doctors, teachers and parents want change.
“When government defines educational success in fantastically narrow terms, and punishes teachers, schools and students who do not attain it, many opportunities for learning are denied to pupils. Pressure grows on children to view exam success as high stakes.
“We could do much better, in terms of a creative and high-quality education, than we are being allowed to do. England is exceptional, unfortunately, in its emphasis on repetitive high stakes testing, and in the pressure it puts on teachers and schools to produce satisfactory ‘data’. Data does not equate to learning and the human cost is an increase in child mental health conditions, directly attributable to stress in school.
“We have a testing system that turns a section of students off education. It narrows educational goals and it restricts rather than enhances opportunity.
“Schools need permission to think of education in broad terms, as the creation of the whole person, with child wellbeing and happiness placed squarely in the centre.”
ChildLine, meanwhile, is urging students to take regular breaks from revising and regular exercise, and to go to bed at a reasonable time.
Its advice adds: “Try to think positively – even if you don’t feel like it, a positive attitude will help you during your revision. Take some water into the test with you if you can – keeping hydrated by drinking water will help you concentrate.”
Visit ChildLine’s exam stress web page at http://bit.ly/1Hpo5Iu or call the free confidential helpline on 0800 1111.
Schools are also being reminded about the impact that asthma can have on students during exam season. More than one million children have asthma in the UK – two in every classroom – and four in five of these pupils will also have hayfever.
Research shows that having a diagnosis of asthma means students are 30 per cent more likely to drop a grade between their mock and final exams. Hayfever sufferers, meanwhile, are 40 per cent more likely to drop a grade.
Charity Asthma UK is urging parents and students to take preventative steps rather than waiting for hayfever symptoms to start and to ensure they are on the right asthma treatment too.
Dr Samantha Walker, director of research and policy at Asthma UK, said: “Asthma and hayfever are not trivial conditions, particularly when some people have both; research shows that pollen can trigger potentially life-threatening asthma attacks and it can affect school performance so much it can damage your future career prospects.”
Visit www.asthma.org.uk Photo: MA Education