Young People Explain Exam Stress

Today (Thursday 27th March) is the BBC News Schools Report day. It’s a fantastic opportunity for young people to be involved in presenting and making the news – an excellent example of co-production.


On Tuesday this week BBC Radio 4s “Woman’s Hour” invited two young women into the studio to co-present with Jane Garvey. They also asked another group of young women to make a report about the stress students endure whilst studying for exams.

The level of concern amongst these young women is considerable. Their first-hand accounts of the sort of pressure they feel will resonate with many. After reading their comments, we should all take time to consider how they feel and what we can do to make life more bearable during these times.

Examinations are pressured. They always have been. The modular style of exams, of which Gove disapproves, helped reduce the angst of taking all exams simultaneously. Now there is never any let-up for these young people. It’s exam after exam after exam. Is a return to the old style of cramming endless exams into a short period at the end of Key Stage 4 really the answer to these young peoples’ problems? Are they really going to be able to “perform” at their best?


Here are some quotes from the young women in the programme.

“I’m quite worried because I have 23 exams in a month and I don’t know how to do this because there are too many exams in one time, and it’s confusing.”

“I find it very difficult because now we have one exam at the end of Y11 and in that exam we have to do all of what we’ve done in Y10 and all of what we’ve done in Y11. It would be a lot easier to do an exam after every topic that we’ve done and a lot easier if they were spread out across the year.”

Now there’s a good idea. Out of the mouths of babes comes the idea of formative assessment – something that good teachers do continually, thereby providing a real understanding of the pupils’ ongoing progress and achievement. It’s also what the less-stressed out young people of a similar age in Finland are offered.

“It seems as if everything is being made harder for the younger generation. It’s like they want us to fail.”

“When I was in Y10, I used to get really, really depressed about just life in general and then the exams…………….The teachers – they’re trying their best and they want the best for us but it gets way too much. They don’t know the effect it has on us, and when you have 12 teachers doing exactly the same thing, everything just piles and piles and piles on top of you, until your face is on the ground.”

“It’s just work, work, work……….. it makes you want to sit down and do nothing all day. It’s too much. I don’t want to do anything. What is the point of trying?”

Teachers are “trying their best” but they are trying their best in a competitive system where one feels that the individual child is lost. A teacher of history knows that the teacher of physics is also asking for excessive additional work from the same pupil but their need for an ‘A*’ is seemingly paramount.

Something’s got to give. So what does “give”? Family life? Mental health?


“Now the school have introduced this Saturday school from 10- 1 and I went, and I found it very difficult to manage to finish all my homework, go to the Saturday school at the same time. So I stayed up till 10.30 on Friday just doing work – I couldn’t go down for dinner because I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to finish my controlled assessment for Spanish and then I couldn’t actually take a break. We are always working.”

“There’s a lot of pressure from my family because my cousin got 11 A*s – and my parents are “Oh you can do that now. If he can do it, you can do it.””

“I feel that if I don’t [go into medicine] everyone is going to be disappointed in me and that it way too much pressure and I just don’t know how to deal with that………… I’m scared of exams……… I’d rather not do them…………………. If I do them and I fail then that’s it. If I don’t do them I can’t fail.”

Whether the pressure from families is real or imagined, the outcome is the same – pressure and stress. Good schools offer techniques and mechanisms for dealing with the stress yet simultaneously continue to pile that pressure onto an already burdened young person.

We’re not suggesting that all young people should be mollycoddled and protected from all ills in the world, but this level of stress is hugely damaging. Assessment of learning is vital but if it gets in the way of real learning, and the enjoyment of learning (which in itself is the greatest incentive for further learning) then we have to stop and listen to the effects that it’s having on young people.

stress meter

The young people also have to know about how the system places absolute and considerable pressure on the teachers too. When that pressure forces people to take steps that are, quite literally, beyond reason we really ought to take stock of what we are actually trying to achieve.

One school mentioned in the programme has introduced a “ranking” system. Each of the young people in the school are ranked according to their “progress”. These results are then published for all to see – one assumes they’re given pride of place in the corridors so that the entire school can see who is at the bottom and who is at the top of the pile.

Here’s how these young women feel about that.

“Say you’re 39th. You look at everybody above you and feel terrible. If you’re in the top ten – well done – but if you drop that is going to make you feel ten times worse than you felt before.”

“Teachers say it’s going to encourage you but it doesn’t. It just makes you feel really bad. It makes you feel unmotivated.”

“At our school is that girls are reaching their target and boys are getting left behind, and I think if makes the boys feel as though they are failing and saying “there’s no point in me stressing over all of this if I feel like I’m going to fail in general”.”

The head teacher’s response to these concerns………

“They were put in place as part of a range of strategies to support students to improve their results. I visited another outstanding academy about two years ago and the acting head teacher there told me the posting of rankings was the single most effective system that they had used in that school to move students forward, and so we decided to trial it here.

When we started it the rankings were based on attainment – the highest attaining student was at the top. I was uncomfortable about that, and I’ll be honest with you girls, I’m still slightly ambivalent about it. But, we’ve changed it now so what you see is not attainment but progress.

I suppose the harsh reality is that life is ranked and when you apply to university you’ll be ranked because it is, at the end of the day, a competitive system. So we feel it’s just parts of lots of things we put into place to help you.

I think it [ranking] works for some students. I listened to what your group of girls said about this, and I have shared this with the rest of the leadership team. So it will be something that we discuss. We have formally evaluated it in previous years. We asked our students what they think of it. Most, but not all, like it.

We will continue to evaluate that but we have to look at the greater good of the school. If we find it has a positive effect on more students than it has a negative effect, then we will probably continue with that as one of a raft of strategies that we put into place to support you.”

And there we have it. The answer – “we have to look at the greater good of the school”, not “we have to look at the greater good of all our individual young people in school”.

What sort of system makes a pressurised head teacher, who has already expressed her ambivalence to ranking, say such a thing?

Yes, the young people are under pressure, but part of that is a deferred pressure from the senior managers to ensure their school is “up there” at the top of their ranking strait-jacket of league tables. That pressure is then placed on the teaching staff to “perform”, which then cascades down to the individual child – in the interests of whom?


As another head teacher interviewed in the programme said,

“I guess we all become very preoccupied with the outcomes”.

Too right. And also very wrong. We’ve become obsessed with attainment outcomes. We’ve largely ignored other outcomes, such as the wellbeing of our young people or the outcome of enabling young people to love learning throughout their lives. We’ve ignored the outcomes that are qualitative rather than quantitative. We’ve often ignored the development of life-skills that might enable young people to cope with pressure too.

Congratulations, once again, to the young people who participated in this programme but can we now please stop, contemplate, listen and act upon what our young people are saying?

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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