Children in Distress: The NUT/Hutchings “Exam Factories?” Report

If we can judge a nation by the way it treats its children, and by the overall wellbeing of its children, then please consider the following evidence from the NUT in today’s Guardian and elsewhere:

Children ‘in complete meltdown’ over exams

Teachers in England seeing unprecedented levels of school-related anxiety, according to National Union of Teachers report

Teachers in England are seeing unprecedented levels of school-related anxiety, stress and mental health problems among pupils of all age groups and abilities, particularly around test or exam time, according to a new report.

Children aged 10 or 11 are said to be “in complete meltdown”, in tears, or feeling sick during tests, and problems can be made worse by their competitive parents, according to the Exam Factories? report commissioned by the National Union of Teachers and conducted independently by Merryn Hutchings, emeritus professor at London Metropolitan University.

Teachers complain that low achievement at tests or exams is resulting in low motivation and low self-esteem. One secondary school teacher at an unnamed school said “self-harming is rife” at key stage 4 (14- to 16-year-olds) and reported that a pupil was hospitalised for three months in a psychiatric ward following a suicide attempt, another nearly starved herself to death and numerous other students “suffered from symptoms that are on the questionnaires that the NHS uses to diagnose depression”.

The report looks at how tests, exams, Ofsted inspections and other “accountability measures” are affecting schools. It includes responses from a survey of nearly 8,000 teachers, case studies of heads, other teachers (not all NUT members) and children, and a review of research and other literature.

Hutchings said: “The problems are caused by increased pressure from tests/exams, [children’s] greater awareness at younger ages of their own ‘failure’, and the increased rigour and academic demands of the curriculum.

“The increase in diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) has been shown to be linked to the increase in high-stakes testing. Thus it appears that some children are being diagnosed and medicated because the school environment has become less suitable for them, allowing less movement and practical work, and requiring them to sit still for long periods.”

sitting exams

Christine Blower, the NUT general secretary, said: “The findings about the experiences and concerns of children and young people are shocking and sometimes upsetting.

“The study exposes the reduction in the quality of teacher-pupil interaction, the loss of flexibility and lack of time for teachers to respond to children as individuals, the growing pressure on children to do things before they are ready, and the focus on a narrower range of subjects.”

A number of other reports in recent years have raised concerns about the increasing pressure children feel. ChildLine has reported big increases in school and education-related issues and Lucie Russell, director of campaigns at charity Young Minds, said in response to Hutchings’ findings that many of those the charity worked with “said that they feel completely defined by their grades and that is very detrimental to their wellbeing and self-esteem”.

Russell said: “We have to question the role of schools in relation to developing well-rounded, confident young people.”

Ofsted has never reported on pupils’ mental health since it was established in the mid-1990s, although ministers across health and education departments have become increasingly worried about the issue.

The Department for Education said: “No one should be stressed out by exams, which is why we have scrapped modules and January assessments so young people are only entered for tests when they are truly ready.

“We are also investing in mental health services helping schools provide counselling services and support for pupils with mental health needs. This is alongside almost £5m funding for projects dedicated to helping children and young people with mental health issues.”

As ever, the Department for Education’s comments reek of complacency and a complete unwillingness to face up to the reality of what we do to our children in the name of “driving up standards”.

No one should be stressed out by exams“. Really? Why would they not be stressed and anxious when it’s drummed into children day in and day out that passing tests and getting good grades is the name of the game, as they relentlessly practice tests from a very young age? As the research shows, and as teachers well know, even the most able children are filled with a dread of failing or falling below “expected levels”. The Department for Education should be ashamed of itself for suggesting this isn’t so, or that this shouldn’t be the case.

Teachers too have their lives and their careers blighted by the so-called Standards Agenda. All good teachers know that their children have a poorer experience of school and education as a result of the targets, testing and tables regime.

How much longer can this go on?

The Department of Education congratulates itself for “investing in mental health services” for children in need, or at least for those who are at the tip of a largely-submerged iceberg of distress and desperation. But the Department could never, ever, consider changing a system that actually causes these mental health and wellbeing problems in the first place.

Camila Batmanghelidjh was recently forced out of the leadership of Kids Company, a charity she founded to support the neediest children in our society, by a government that resented her public attacks on its failures to protect children from neglect and abuse. Who will now dare to take on the government for its continuing to ratchet up the pressure within our system of high stakes tests and exams? How many more studies and reports do we need before we collectively take a stand on behalf of all our children?

The NUT and Professor Hutchings are to be congratulated for carrying out the research that informed this important report. We look forward to reports from the NUT’s National Education Conference that’s taking place in Leicester this weekend. (#NUTNEC)

See also:

Pupils are being harmed by test-driven agenda that is turning schools into exam factories, report claims

Exam focus damaging pupils’ mental health, says NUT

CBI complains of ‘exam factory’ schools

Teachers: life inside the exam factory

Labour calls time on ‘exam factory’ approach to schooling

‘Exam factory’ conditions at school causing children to self-harm, says new research

Exam factory approach ‘damaging education’

We all know that something is very badly wrong with our system of education. When will we ever do anything about it?

NB In their departmental advice on Mental Health, there’s naturally no mention of the Department of Education’s own culpability.

Other 3D Eye posts:

Act Now – For the Rights of the Child

Action Needed on Wellbeing and Mental Health of Children and Young People

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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