Schools minister Nick Gibb reportedly advised MPs that young people should face more frequent tests in secondary school, to better prepare them for the exam stress they experience by the time they take their GCSEs. This is a surprising and somewhat short-sighted approach – not unlike proposing more regular alcohol consumption as the solution to binge drinking.
It is hard to understand what appears to be a blatant disregard for the mental health of children and young people on the part of the schools’ minister – especially given that this government has repeatedly called on schools to play a larger role in addressing the purported mental health crisis among students. The prime minister herself has called for an end to the “hidden injustice” of mental illness that “too often starts in childhood and that when left untreated, can blight lives”.
To be clear, there is no doubt that exams contribute to mental health problems among young people. A 2015 report by the National Teachers Union concluded that:
Children and young people are suffering from increasingly high levels of school-related anxiety and stress, disaffection and mental health problems. This is caused by increased pressure from tests/exams; greater awareness at younger ages of their own ‘failure’; and the increased rigour and academic demands of the curriculum.
These findings are supported by 2009/10 survey data from the World Health Organisation and findings by the children’s charity ChildLine in both 2014 and 2015, which highlight that children and young people in England are suffering from growing levels of school-related anxiety and stress.
A recent survey carried out by the Association for Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) found that 82% of educators believe children and young people are under more pressure now than they were 10 years ago, with 89% considering that testing and exams were the biggest cause. Some research has even drawn a link between the performance pressure created by the education system, and the development of suicidal thoughts and self-harm among young people.
Ignoring the evidence
Gibb’s own colleagues on the health and education select committees have recognised the harmful effects of exam pressure, following a joint inquiry into the impacts of education on children’s mental health. Perfectionism has become a harmful epidemic among young people, as they attempt to meet the demands of modern society. So to suggest more exams, as a means to combat the stress brought about by exams, misses the mark by a mile.
The schools minister denied that reforms to the curriculum were adding to the pressure on students, claiming that “there are a raft of real-world pressures” – including social media – weighing on young people today. He didn’t explain how imposing more tests could possibly alleviate those pressures.
Nearly 20 years of empirical research shows us that test preparation can actually obstruct learning, contribute to anxiety and dampen motivation, for both teachers and learners. This is the ultimate absurdity in Gibb’s defence of an exhausted testing system.