The stress of the exams system

Written by: Andrew Harland | Published:
Andrew Harland, chief executive, International Examination Officers Association (iEOA)

The summer term places huge stress on exam officers with serious consequences – for them, for the students sitting exams, and for the system as a whole, says Andrew Harland

At the moment, the education press is full of articles about the “wellbeing” of both teachers and students. And quite rightly too – we now see regular reference being made to the growing rise in mental health problems among young people as well as the work-related stress that comes with the life (and workload) of a teacher.

Much of this has been associated with exam stress, certainly at GCSE and A level. But exam pressure also affects another group of school professionals. In our 2018 survey of exams officers, 86 per cent told us that they were becoming more stressed because of a growing examinations workload. Some of our members stated that part of that increased workload – where they were “expected to work longer hours, for less pay and with no offer of time in lieu” – is a knock-on effect because of stressed teaching colleagues.

The NHS outlines the behaviours associated with stress, including irritability, feeling wound up and lacking in self-esteem, constant worry, having difficulty concentrating and making decisions, headaches, dizziness, muscle tension, sleep problems, feeling tired all the time causing one to snap or avoid people...

I attended a recent Education Select Committee hearing at the House of Commons which featured an important report produced by the Education Support Partnership (Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018). Some of the feedback in this report infers that a teacher community under stress may not always respond to their exam officer colleagues appropriately over exam processes and practices.

At the same time, the most common complaint by exam officers – across more than 18 years of research by the iEOA – is a break-down in communication at critical times between teachers and exams officers.

It is a problem that there has been no in-depth research on the potential damage caused by excessive stress on the exam officer community and how this is leading to the growing “churn” in the workforce. The move to a terminal examinations system and the years of upheaval to the examinations system have only increased this pressure (The Independent, 2014).

What has been sadly lacking is a greater focus on the welfare of this community and the individuals within it. For too long the focus on helping and supporting the exam officer community has been externally driven and centred only on the welfare of the exam system itself.

Much of this so-called support has been system-driven, with the emphasis on only providing activities that help the community to deliver its role – with no responsibility to the workforce that is expected to operate and implement the public exam system under, at times, enormous pressure.

This pressure is very real. For example, the crucial role of exam officers in ensuring exams run smoothly is very often emphasised in the context of ensuring that schools and other exam centres avoid late entry fees, or of protecting reputations by ensuring that there are no malpractice issues.

The action being taken to address wellbeing in the education sector must include this community. However, the only way we can begin to qualify and quantify this problem is to start confronting the “state of mind” of our community.

We need to define what is causing all the stress and anxiety. We need to prioritise our own wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of the exams system. We need to implement solutions in agreement with the whole education community.

Churn in our workforce is running at more than 35 per cent, according to iEOA research. The students who are moving through the exams system cannot help but be affected by the instability related to staff changes at this critical point in their educational experience.

However, if we can do more to address staff wellbeing, students – and their exam outcomes – will surely benefit.

  • Andrew Harland is chief executive of the International Examination Officers Association (iEOA).

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