The teacher view on GCSE exam pressure – and
expert strategies for helping Y11s to cope
The headlines over the past couple of years have been inescapable. If accounts are to be believed, students sitting their GCSEs now face an unparalleled level of pressure – and teachers are on the front-line to witness the fallout, whether that’s pupils burning out from the workload, grappling with anxiety, or disengaging from learning altogether.
This is without taking into consideration the added pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (which has unfolded since this report was originally published, in February 2020). Since then, we've seen the cancellation of exams, and an unprecedented loss of learning time during the 4+ months of school closures.
A 2019 survey from mental health charity YoungMinds found that 77% of young people who had sought help for their mental health felt that ‘academic pressure’ had been a major contributing factor.
More recently, the OECD’s 2020 Pisa (programme for international student assessment) results revealed, damningly, that British 15-year-olds ranked 69th out of 72 countries in the world for life satisfaction – with 66% of young people saying they were ‘sometimes’ or ‘always’ worried, compared with an OECD average of 50%.
The question is: why?
While increased exam pressure – arguably worsened by the post-Gove GCSE framework – may bear some of the blame, there are numerous other factors to consider, including the growing technological complexities of teenage life. A 2019 study by King’s College London found that as many as 1 in 4 young people have ‘problematic smartphone use’, linked with anxiety, feelings of stress and poor sleep, as well as poorer educational attainment.
All this data paints a very gloomy picture. But is teen emotional wellbeing genuinely getting worse? Are incidences of poor mental health actually increasing? Or could it be that teachers, children, parents, and society as a whole, are becoming more aware of mental health issues, and therefore more vocal in speaking up about them?
In this report, we’ll dig into teachers’ viewpoints to get a nationwide perspective on the scale of the problem. We’ll also bring you actionable advice from educational psychology experts on how to help Y11s cope with exam pressure, manage healthy stress, and stay buoyant in the face of daily challenges inside and outside of school.
East of England
State school (including academy sponsored, academy converter & LA)
20s & 30s
40s & 50+
Our survey, conducted in February 2020, saw over 4,000 secondary-level teachers respond, from all corners of the UK and different types of schools. With a range of different ages and levels of seniority represented, the survey offers a snapshot of teachers' perspectives.
Reflecting on how this year’s Y11s are getting on compared to their predecessors, teachers broadly felt that the picture was roughly the same – though, significantly, almost a quarter said that their students were coping ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’ than previous years.
Interestingly, these results were consistent across the full spectrum of survey demographics, spanning state-funded and private schools. proportion of students receiving free school meals, and UK regions. In a time of extreme political division in the UK, on this question, it seems, we’re all in the same boat!
Drilling down into the specific issues affecting GCSE-age pupils, we asked teachers to identify the problems that they felt had markedly worsened in the past two years. Notably, anxiety emerged as the biggest concern, highlighted by nearly two-thirds of respondents.
On this question, however, there were some noticeable differences between state-funded and private schools, with private schools reporting consistently lower levels of depression, anxiety and lack of engagement with learning.
This (perhaps unsurprising) finding echoes DfE and Education Policy Institute data on attainment, showing that disadvantaged pupils are often as much as 2 years behind their better-off peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. It also poses a big question for government social mobility targets: can you close the attainment gap without addressing the underlying imbalances in mental health, resources, aspirations and access to opportunity?
The verdict was clear: teachers resoundingly point to too much passive screen time, technology and social media as the biggest harmful factors for their pupils, followed closely by ‘lack of parental engagement’ and excessive pressure from assessments.
However, looking a little deeper, the results did show some nuanced differences of opinion both at a micro level - between teachers of different subjects – and at a macro level, between different UK regions.
Perhaps reflecting the nature of the curriculum and the new zero-coursework exam frameworks, 60% of English teachers perceive excessive exam pressure to be a key issue, compared to just 46% of Maths teachers. Technologically-inclined Science teachers, meanwhile, don’t seem to mind ‘screen time’ as much as their colleagues – 59% compared to 68% of English teachers and 70% of Languages teachers.
Taking a broader view of the whole country, in the North East and East Midlands, low aspirations and a lack of role models emerged as some of the biggest concerns (for 60% and 56% of teachers, respectively) – compared to just 37% in London. Similarly, a lack of parental engagement was flagged by 67% and 66% of teachers in the North East and West, compared with 56% in the capital.
These toolkits offer 3 different perspectives on mental health and GCSE exam pressure, from educational psychology experts - including actionable tips and advice.
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At MyTutor, we work with over 450 schools, helping GCSE students to build exam confidence through tailored one-to-one tuition. Here are just a couple of their stories.