Study Finds Exam Pressure To Be The Cause of Mental Health Problems In Pupils


A recent report has found that over-focus on exams is causing mental health problems in pupils.

The study found that there has been a rise in self-harm, anorexia, and other mental health issues because of the ‘constant testing’ in UK schools. The pressure and stress of examination performance and academic excellence is thought to be making many pupils physically and psychologically ill. The study was commissioned by the National Union of Teachers and carried out by Professor Merryn Hutchings, London Metropolitan University.

For me, this comes as no great surprise. The report, aptly called “Exam Factories?”, reflects the very label I have often attributed to schools in my local area, including my own. In these schools there is a ‘retake culture’, where anything less than an A is seen as not good enough and must be retaken. Although limits on retakes are now being applied which puts pressure on students in the other extreme, repeatedly resitting the same exam because the school does not think the pupil has done well enough is just as stressful as having one chance to get the top grades. In another school, there is a screen with a count-down until the first summer exam from the very first day back in September, as well as a Saturday school and compulsory extra lessons after school and during school holidays.


The top academic performers are often put on a pedestal, whilst those who are less academic, or those who have struggled but made the most improvement are ignored, because they did not produce the very top results.

Why is this? One reason is, in the current economic climate and no doubt for the foreseeable future, jobs outside of exploitative zero hour contracts may be hard to come by. Even amongst top level university graduates competition for employment is rife. And under our current government, who will not act against zero hour contracts and who promote austerity leading to fewer available jobs, competition within the education system has been increasingly encouraged. The general feeling is that to be successful one has to be a top performer in exams, or else they will have a much harder time getting a job with a liveable salary.

Professor Hutchings claims that illnesses associated with exam pressure are likely to have the biggest effect on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, stating:

There is evidence that disadvantaged children, who on average have lower attainment than their peers and are therefore under greater pressure to meet targets, can become disaffected as a result of experiencing ‘failure’, and this is being exacerbated by recent changes to the curriculum to make it more demanding and challenging.

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

Part of our commitment to social justice is the determination to ensure every child is given an education that allows them realise their potential. That’s why we are raising standards with a rigorous new curriculum, world class exams and new accountability system that rewards those schools which help every child to achieve their best.

It is often said that young people these days are under far more pressure than previous generations, with life being so fast paced and instantaneous. Pupils these days also have more exams to take than previous generations. This is of course all speculation as to why young people feel so pressured. There are likely to be other reasons, such as bullying, friendship issues, money worries, and families to name but a few.

However, around 76% of primary school teachers and 94% of secondary teachers who responded to the study survey agreed that pupils were driven towards stress-related conditions during exam periods.

One primary school teacher taking part in the survey claimed;

Parents confide that the children cry at the thought of coming to school and are often exhausted due to the stress of learning.

A secondary school teacher said;

I have never known stress-related conditions […] to be so prevalent in secondary education. Self-harming is rife in Key Stage 4. Last year a pupil was hospitalised for three months in a psychiatric ward following a suicide attempt, another very nearly starved herself to death, and again was institutionalised for five months in a specialist eating disorder unit.

These illnesses – anxiety, depression, self esteem issues, eating disorders – that are caused by exam pressure can affect pupils into their university studies and adult lives. The focus on exams by the Government is leading to teachers ‘teaching the test’ rather than giving a broader education, which puts pressure on them too.

Notably, the findings are a stark contrast to the comments made by former Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2012, who told the Academies Association conference that the sense of achievement that exams provide makes children happy. He said:

There is no feeling of satisfaction as deep or sustained as knowing we have succeeded through hard work at a task which is the upper end, or just beyond, our normal or expected level of competence

Former Education Secretary Michael Gove.

This is just another example of how out of touch with reality our former Education Secretary was. Some reforms to the education system implemented by Michael Gove focused on measuring school performance, increased inter-school and inter-pupil competition under the Free Schools programme and schools obtaining academy status. In short, in addition to the ever present problem of bullying and school social hierarchies, Gove has encouraged schools to be run as independently from the government as possible. With this pressure to get the highest exam result statistics in comparison to other schools, schools often put pressure on pupils to get the highest grades, in particular students who are struggling. Higher achieving students are encouraged to compete against one another to be ‘top of the class’, as only the ‘crème de la crème’ get any kind of recognition for their efforts.

Lucie Russell, campaigns director at the Young Minds mental health charity, said the education system is at fault:

The findings of this research are very concerning as they demonstrate that both pupils and teachers are under a lot of pressure to achieve results in a pressure cooker, exam factory environment. A young person can have the best grades possible but if they can’t cope or deal with the harsh realities of modern life then our education system is failing them.

It is clear that the education system is not working for young people; practically, emotionally or mentally. They are not being prepared for the real world, but are seen only as statistic providers rather than young people, who need to be taught skills for employment. Pupils are not being celebrated for the range of non-academic talents that they should be, they are not being treated as individuals and teaching itself is becoming far less vocational and more about producing results.

Seeing as NHS spending on children’s mental health services is being cut by £50 million, this may be a problem that needs addressing within the education system itself.

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News Editor 2015/16. Philosophy and Politics student. Opinionated activist with a questionable sense of humour. Left Wing, Critique of the Status Quo and diplomatic debater who loves writing for you!

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