As exam stress soars, anxious families are being offered therapy to help them stay calm, writes Sian Griffiths.
Britain’s top private schools have warned that they have seen an alarming rise in exam stress among high-flying pupils over the past five years — much of it caused by pressure from anxious parents.
For the first time parents as well as children are being taught techniques to help them stay calm amid concerns that youngsters are buckling under the pressure from home.
In the run-up to the summer exam season parents are being called in by schools for sessions with teachers and are being asked to attend sessions with therapists to advise them to ease up on their children.
Growing concerns about a surge in cases of self-harm, depression, anxiety and eating disorders among pupils in all schools in recent years are behind the move.
According to an exclusive survey by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents the country’s most famous schools including Eton, Harrow and Westminster, 95% of heads polled said “visible stress related to exams” had increased in their schools over the past five years.
More than half (56%) said that pressure from home to get high grades was the biggest cause of exam-related stress. Nearly all head teachers (97%) said they were now asking parents into advice sessions and offering parenting classes on how to deal with the issue.
A quarter said university and medical school demands for “stratospherically high” A-level grades were responsible and 39% blamed the distraction of social media.
“Pressure from home is a desire by pupils to please parents concerned about university places and future careers,” said an HMC spokesman.
Nearly half (44%) of heads said pupils had demonstrated erratic behaviour and one in five said they had seen pupils dropping out of exams. Girls show more obvious signs of pressure than boys, according to the poll.
“Today’s teenagers are increasingly overwhelmed by the pressures they feel to succeed in life. There is no doubt that we — parents, teachers, friends — must come to their assistance,” Chris King, headmaster of Leicester Grammar School Trust and chairman of the HMC, told The Sunday Times.
“Parents — and I am one of them — need to keep a sense of perspective and try not to transmit our anxieties onto our children. We know social media can be a distraction, that the world is a competitive place and our offspring need to stand out from the crowd.
“But our survey shows that pupils are piling pressure on themselves in no small part to please their parents. We have to break that vicious circle.”
The heads said these are not “pushy” parents, but ones made anxious by the “near-perfect” exam grades being demanded by universities.
According to the heads, some parents have asked schools for extra lessons, hired tutors and emailed teachers late at night to request special help for their child.
Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, said recently that some parents scream on the phone at school receptionists or send late-night emails to teachers after “a glass or two of wine”.
This weekend he told The Sunday Times: “They are unbearable sometimes. I sympathise, because they are so worried.
“Sometimes I have to say to the receptionist ‘hold the phone a long way away from your ear . . . It’s just that they [the parents] don’t know what to do and get carried away’.”
The survey reveals that more than three-quarters of schools are calling in therapists and all are offering counselling within school. Three-quarters offer mindfulness sessions and nearly half have laid on yoga classes. King said some would see such measures as “hothousing or mollycoddling” but denied that this was correct.
Later this month the leading private schools will hold their first conference on mental health — signalling a determination to make public the issue and to share techniques for helping children to cope.
Emma, a pupil at one of the schools, will tell the conference: “I think I’ve got an unhealthy expectation of myself. I get stressed because I want to do well.
“I want to be successful and it’s a shame if that has to come at the cost of being stressed out all the time, having to work late nights, having to do every sport, do every activity, because that’s what top universities want you to do: be a ‘well-rounded individual’.”
Deep breathing cuts stress — and lifts results
An experiment to teach teenage girls how their brains react to stress has resulted in improved exam grades, writes Sian Griffiths.
Pupils sitting their GCSEs at Queen Anne’s, an independent boarding school for girls in Reading, Berkshire, have been attending workshops for the past year to help them prevent stress from becoming anxiety.
As well as learning how proper revision and planning can reduce the risk of panic during an exam, they have been taught techniques such as deep breathing to calm themselves.
The school attributes the improvement of up to two grades in mock GCSEs between December 2014 and January this year in part to the BrainCanDo experiment, a three-year research project created by the head teacher, Julia Harrington. It was inspired by Anna Scarna, an experimental psychologist at Oxford.
The project is to be introduced at four more schools, including Grey Coat Hospital School in Westminster, central London, where David Cameron’s daughter, Nancy, is a pupil.
“I wanted to make sure the girls stopped being afraid of stress,” said Harrington.
Abigail Leach, 15, who has seen her C grades improve to As and A*s, said: “It’s been really helpful . . . I use deep breathing and also try to put the exams into perspective — they are not the be-all and end-all of life.”