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Has education-related stress increased among GCSE and A-level students since the introduction of linear assessments?

Joshua E. Stubbs, Doctoral Researcher, University of York

It is well established that adolescents often cite concerns about their academic performance and uncertainty about the future among their main sources of stress (Anniko et al., 2019). In the UK, there is widespread concern about the amount of academic pressure that students experience and the implications that it has for their mental health (Hutchings, 2015). There are increasing concerns about the amount of stress that 15-to-18-year-old students are experiencing since the introduction of linear GCSE and A-level assessments in 2014 (Putwain, 2020). Linear assessments require all examinations to be taken at the end of each course, rather than being divided into separate units. In an online poll of 650 teachers in 2019, for example, 73 per cent reported that they thought that the introduction of linear GCSE assessments had caused student mental health to worsen; 55 per cent felt the same about linear A-level assessments.

‘There are increasing concerns about the amount of stress that 15-to-18-year-old students are experiencing since the introduction of linear GCSE and A-level assessments in 2014.’

Supporting the suggestion that the amount of stress that students experience may have increased since the introduction of linear assessments, the percentage of 15-year-olds in England who reported that they feel pressured by their schoolwork ‘a lot’ increased from 25 to 40 per cent between the 2014 and 2018 iterations of the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children surveys, while calls to Childline regarding examination results increased by 51 per cent during this period. Furthermore, the number of 16-to-18-year-olds who contacted Childline for support with education-related problems increased by 110 per cent between 2012–13 and 2017–18; such concerns were among the seven most common reasons for 16-to-18-year-olds to contact Childline between 2016–17 and 2018–19 – ahead of concerns about their friendships, body image or bullying (NSPCC, 2017, 2018, 2019). Strikingly, 1 in 25 counselling sessions provided by Childline to 16-to-18-year-olds during this period related to concerns about education-related problems, such as examination-related stress. It is also notable that in 2012–13, education-related problems did not feature among the ten most common reasons for 16-to-18-year-olds contacting Childline (NSPCC, ).

Figure 1: Number of occasions on which Childline was contacted by 16-to-18-year-olds regarding education-related problems between 2012–13 and 2018–19.

Source: NSPCC

The number of 16-to-18-year-olds who contacted Childline regarding education-related problems receded slightly in 2018–19, but was still 77 per cent higher than in 2012–13. It is not possible to determine whether the fall in the number of 16-to-18-year-olds who contacted Childline regarding education-related problems in 2018–19 was the beginning of a downward trend because of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the overall, upward trend in the number of 16-to-18-year-olds contacting Childline regarding education-related problems lends provisional evidence to support the idea that the introduction of linear GCSE and A-level assessments may have contributed towards amplifying the amount of stress that some students experience. Certainly, teachers have raised concerns about this, with one suggesting that terminal, ‘all or nothing’ examinations can have ‘a cataclysmic effect’ on the mental health of some students (Baird et al., 2019, p. 124).

There is, therefore, a need for critical, ongoing reflection on the role that linear assessments may perform in contributing towards supporting or frustrating healthy adolescent development, especially at a time of mounting concern about the mental health of older teenagers (Patalay & Fitzsimons, 2021). Indeed, it is important to ensure that the academic demands that are made of students are commensurate with their ability to cope (Cosma et al., 2020). As the UK seeks to ‘build back better’ from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is therefore an ideal time to consider how best to promote good mental health and facilitate positive learning experiences among students; it may pay dividends to learn lessons from countries that place fewer academic demands or less pressure on their students (Högberg, 2021).

References

Anniko, M. K., Boersma, K., & Tillfors, M. (2019). Sources of stress and worry in the development of stress-related mental health problems: A longitudinal investigation from early- to mid-adolescence. Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 32(2), 155–167. https://doi.org/10.1080/10615806.2018.1549657 

Baird, J.-A., Caro, D., Elliott, V., El Masri, Y., Ingram, J., Isaacs, T., Pinot de Moira, A.,  Randhawa, A., Stobart, G., Meadows, M., Morin, C., & Taylor, R. (2019). Examination reform:

Impact of linear and modular examinations at GCSE. Ofqual. 

Cosma, A., Stevens, G., Martin, G., Duinhof, E. L., Walsh, S. D., Garcia-Moya, I., Költő, A., Gobina, I., Canale, N., C. Catunda, C., Inchley, J., & de Looze, M. (2020). Cross-national time trends in adolescent mental well-being from 2002 to 2018 and the explanatory role of schoolwork pressure. Journal of Adolescent Health, 66, 50–58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2020.02.010 

Högberg, B. (2021). Educational stressors and secular trends in school stress and mental health problems in adolescents. Social Science and Medicine, 270, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113616 

Hutchings, M. (2015). Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people. National Union of Teachers. https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/basw_112157-4_0.pdf

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [NSPCC]. (2013).

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [NSPCC]. (2017). Not alone anymore. Childline annual review 2016/17. https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/media/1121/not-alone-anymore-childline-annual-review-2016-17.pdf

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [NSPCC]. (2018). The Courage to talk. Childline annual review 2017/18. https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/media/1596/courage-talk-childline-annual-review-2017-18.pdf 

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [NSPCC]. (2019). Childline annual review 2018/19. https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/media/1898/childline-annual-review-2018-19.pdf 

Patalay, P., & Fitzsimons, E. (2021). Psychological distress, self-harm and attempted suicide in UK 17-year-olds: Prevalence and sociodemographic inequalities. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 219(2), 437–439. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.2020.258

Putwain, D. (2020). Examination pressures on children and young people: Are they taken seriously enough? The British Academy. https://medium.com/reframing-childhood-past-and-present/examination-pressures-on-children-and-young-people-are-they-taken-seriously-enough-e274b9595d4  

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