Stress and serious anxiety: how the new GCSE is affecting mental health

The GCSE is 30 – and it’s suddenly much tougher, causing extraordinary anxiety for teachers and pupils. So should it be scrapped?

On Monday morning, what may be the most dreaded and feared set of public exams England’s teenagers have ever sat began in school assembly halls up and down the country.

It is 30 years since GCSEs (General Certificate for Secondary Education) were first introduced under Margaret Thatcher, replacing O-levels and CSEs. The new exam was designed to cover a broad spectrum of ability rather than dividing pupils between high achievers, who sat O-levels, and lower-ability students, who took CSEs. Now, three decades later, following claims of grade inflation and dumbing down, GCSEs have been revised and re-formed and a brand new set of exams is being rolled out.

Gone are the old-style assessments with their forgiving modules, repeat exams and coursework. In their place are Michael Gove’s super-tough, “gold-standard”, highly academic qualifications. Gove, secretary of state for education between 2010 and 2014, believed the old GCSEs’ reliance on coursework assessment was open to abuse. He argued that the content of the revised examinations should be pitched at a more sophisticated level, claiming: “By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race.” These students are under more pressure than at any point in living memory.

An English teacher said, Each GCSE has therefore been designed to be more challenging, with increased content, which is tested almost exclusively by end-of-course examinations and measured by grades that run from 9 to 1 (rather than the previous A* to G). The new 9-1 measure sets a 4 as equivalent to a C, while the top grades, A* and A, are split into three grades, 7, 8 and 9, with 9 awarded to those with marks at the top of the old A* grade. As a result, far fewer students will end up achieving the very top grade available, and many who would have been A* students under the old system will wrongly regard a 7 or 8 as a failure.

A Guardian call-out last week asking for our readers’ views about the new GCSEs prompted more than 200 responses, an outpouring that was overwhelmingly – although not exclusively – negative. The more extreme responses included accounts of suicide attempts by two pupils at one school, breakdowns, panic attacks and anxiety levels so intense that one boy soiled himself during a mock exam.

The then education secretary Michael Gove announcing the government’s planned review of the National Schools Curriculum. Some of the responses from pupils were alarming. “GCSEs have been a horrible experience,” says one 16-year-old. “I have suffered from panic attacks and a high increase in anxiety. It’s quite scary how as a student I find it normal to see my peers break down in lessons as they are scared of what’s going to happen to them in the future if they fail.”

Another writes: “I have seen the mentally toughest people crack and it’s painful to watch. People crying over being unable to do a maths question. Is this what we want as a nation, to be put under this mental stress?” Pressure in classrooms has been intense for the past two years as teachers have grappled with the new specifications, for which they say there are inadequate resources or revision materials. The new exams have been launched at a time when budgets are shrinking, schools are in deficit and parents are increasingly being asked to fill the gaps with everything from monthly cash donations to glitter glue, pens and even toilet paper. Nonetheless, schools are doing their best, with some laying on relaxation sessions, yoga classes and resilience programmes to support worried pupils. “For the first time in 10 years of teaching, I have no idea what to expect come results day,” says one bemused history teacher from Worcestershire.

Chances are that the final headline results may not be dramatically different from previously as the exam boards will peg this year’s outcomes to previous years so as not to disadvantage the latest cohort. The grade boundaries could prove telling, however. When the new mathematics and English GCSE courses were tested for the first time last summer – ahead of the main wave of re-formed GCSEs – it emerged that scores in one maths exam were so low that the pass mark was set at just 18%. This year, a further 20 new exams are being rolled out, including sciences, modern languages, history and geography, with more to follow next summer. Phil Beadle, an award-winning teacher and education consultant, says this year was bound to be stressful but that things will improve. “People are stressed because, with the exception of in English and maths, no one really knows exactly what an 8 or a 9 looks like. Your first run through of a new syllabus is rather less skilled than your fifth.”

But this is of little comfort to schools where study leave has been cancelled this summer because staff have been unable to cover the volume of work required by the new qualifications; students are being taught the curriculum to the very last minute. What’s more, because assessment is now virtually all exam-based, students may be sitting up to 28 exams in the space of two or three weeks, some of them spending a little short of 40 hours lined up in rows in exam halls, folded over constricted desks.

“I have 10 different subjects and 28 – yes, 28 exams,” says one 16-year-old from Greater Manchester. “They are a minimum of 75 minutes. Maths now has three papers, six science papers for dual award. Oh, and three geography papers. It is ridiculous.” The NSPCC reported this week that the number of referrals by schools in England seeking mental health treatment for pupils has risen by more than a third in the past three years. A Gloucestershire teenager told the Guardian she believes about 50% of her year group are suffering from mental health problems. “I know that everyone struggles with the exams and the importance of them,” she says, “however, the new courses have amplified the pressure and surely they shouldn’t be causing my fellow students to have suicidal thoughts.” Schools are also coming under pressure to perform well in league tables. A student from Dorset describes the countdown to exams in his school, with posters showing the number of days left and notices warning that if you get grades 1-4 you’re likely to end up cleaning or working in a shop, whereas if you get 8s and 9s you’ll be off to university to enjoy “a great lifestyle”. “I have seen near enough all my friends cry over our exams, worry (to the point of having a panic attack!) about not having done enough revision and failing,” writes one GCSE student who contacted the Guardian, adding: “In fact, I don’t think a single one of my friends currently are happy.” I have never, in over 20 years of teaching, seen pupils suffer so much anxiety and other symptoms of poor mental health.

This may have been true of many teenagers faced with make-or-break exams over the years. But teachers who responded to our call-out told the same unhappy story and expressed alarm at the increase in mental health problems among their students. A 26-year-old English teacher says he has watched his year 11s go through anguish. Like most of his colleagues, he has laid on countless revision sessions during lunchtimes and holidays to try to get his students through. “In one week recently, there were two suicide attempts by students. This is in a high-achieving school in a middle-class area, so I am sure problems must be heightened for already disadvantaged students, too.” His own subject – assessed by four exams over eight hours – has become hugely daunting for students who are no longer allowed copies of their set texts and must rely entirely on memory for quotations from two novels, a Shakespeare play and 15 poems. “This seems both cruel and futile,” he says. “The most able students will still come out on top, but those who already struggle will barely be able to access these exams. I can only wish them the best of luck and hope that I have done enough to see them through, because these students are under more pressure than at any point in living memory.”

At a school in north London, another English teacher describes a student cohort in apparent meltdown. “They have been assessed on the same texts since year 9,” he writes. “They have been forced into after-school and weekend revision sessions that I have been forced to run since September; they have been denied study leave, and now that the exams are looming they are imploding, emotionally, mentally and literally (a boy soiled himself in a recent mock exam he was so nervous).

“These young people are angry, and they have every right to be. At 16 years old, the stress, anxiety and pressure in our current educational climate is now manifesting itself in adolescent molten rage.” “The whole thing is a mess,” says a school governor in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. “Preparation and implementation rushed, not enough help and support from exam boards, teachers not sure of syllabus until there was little time left to prepare. Grade boundaries not clear, exemplar material limited. Training meetings late or non existent. For students, chaos, stress and loads more exams than before.” “The number of students with mental health issues is definitely on the increase,” says a Cheshire teacher. “We now have a significant proportion of students who cannot take exams in the exam hall but require smaller rooms and rest breaks to stay calm. Attendance is increasingly affected with students off with anxiety.”

And from a history teacher in Norfolk: “The new GCSEs have broken my best students, left some with serious stress-induced illnesses, and isolated the majority, leaving them completely apathetic towards their own learning. My lunch times are filled with crying students who feel they are not doing enough, despite doing full days at school and revising until 1am every single day. “They have heart palpitations and panic attacks and migraines and they are all so, so tired. Worst of all, I feel like a hypocrite, because I’m not even sure I could achieve the grades I am asking them to get. “I am lying to my students when I smile and say it will be fine, because they have worked so hard. Ultimately, I feel I have failed them.” The school leaving age is 18, in effect. Education goes on from four to 18. So what are you testing people at 16 for?

Lord Kenneth Baker; This year is particularly challenging for all concerned. There has been enormous change over a short space of time, when schools are so cash-strapped that some are unable even to afford the books required for the re-formed exams.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, who still has nightmares about her O-levels, says the new exams are regressive and harmful. “I think it’s absolutely tragic,” she says. “It’s tragic for the pupils concerned and it’s tragic for UK PLC. We are not thinking intelligently about the sort of education and assessment that’s needed for the modern world.”

The Department for Education defends the new GCSEs. Its statement says: “In order for pupils to be successful, rigorous examinations are vital. They are not, however, intended to cause significant anxiety. Good leaders know that positive mental wellbeing helps pupils fulfil their potential and make that part of their overall school ethos. This government has taken steps to reduce examination burdens upon young people. At GCSE level we have removed the incentives for multiple resits that were not helping children’s education, giving pupils at least two full years of study before they sit exams.

“We are helping schools to spot mental health problems as early as possible and have allocated £300m of funding to transform mental health services for children and young people. Where staff are struggling with stress we trust headteachers to take action to tackle the causes and have issued guidance that is clear they have a responsibility to take work-life balance into account when managing staff.”

No doubt subsequent years will see some of the pressures ease as the new GCSEs are tweaked and teachers and pupils become more familiar with what is expected of them. But a broader question remains about the continuing relevance of the exams.

Testing times … Kenneth Baker, education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, 1985-1986.

Critics say that English children are among the most tested pupils in the world, starting with the new baseline assessment in the first weeks of school; a phonics screening check in year 1; and standardised national tests (SATS) in years 2 and year 6. With pupils in England now required to stay in school, college or work-based learning until 18, many are starting to question the rationale of high-stakes exams at 16 and then again two years later.

Among those critics is the Conservative peer Kenneth Baker, who was education secretary between 1985 and 1986 when the first GCSEs were being tested. “When I took the equivalent in 1952, it was before O-levels,” he told a radio show last year. “Ninety-three per cent got a job at 16 when I took the exam. And so they had to clutch in their hands a certificate showing what they’d achieved and that was very important. But now the school leaving age is 18, in effect. Education goes on from four to 18. So what are you testing people at 16 for?”

Baker has his supporters, none more so perhaps than the tens of thousands of students frantically prepping for their GCSEs this week, with A-levels to look forward to two years down the line. But given the enormous upheaval and expense of these latest reforms, it seems likely to be some time before any major change is attempted again.