What’s special about Year 11 exam stress?

Is Year 11 really that stressful? Or are young people today just too soft? Surely it can’t be that bad – after all, we all went through it.

As an experienced Maths Teacher and Year 11 tutor I’d argue that yes, it is that bad, that the pressure in schools is much more intense than it used to be. There are lots of reasons for this, not all generated by the additional pressure schools are under to meet their targets. It’s a very different world with a lot more time spent living in our heads, staring at screens. And I don’t remember feeling it was the end of the world if I didn’t get some O levels.

Within each group of Year 11s are the students who are confident, have a plan and just get on with it; those that don’t care, have a plan that doesn’t fit in with government-designated destinations (sometimes they’re already making more than a teacher’s salary online); those that are plodding along quite happily when all of a sudden the immensity of what they have to do to succeed suddenly hits them and they start to crumble under the pressure; and those that have found the increasing pressure has built up over the years and it feels like the end of world is coming; plus all the others in between. 

But as a very busy tutor, teacher or Head of Year you have to broadcast the same message to the whole year group several times a year to make sure everyone has the best chance of getting on with revision and coursework and heading for the best exam results. It comes from such a good place, this message but it hits the different groups very, very differently. The students who can’t be bothered tend to stay not bothered, whilst the ones who are already feeling very pressured now feel the pressure that you meant for the others.

And so every day as well-meaning teachers we inadvertently add to the growing mental health crisis. Schools create a crisis and have little resources to deal with it. It’s all a bit backwards really.

Research shows that happiness comes before success and yet as a species, we are convinced its the other way round, that we need to sacrifice to be successful. So as adults we give up our time and often our health to work hard and then wait for the weekends and holidays to do the stuff we really want to do but are then too tired to do. And we install this in our children when we tell them that their Maths GCSE is more important than their wellbeing.

Self-discipline, hard work and the ability to achieve goals are vital for a life well lived, but so is the ability to prioritize your wellbeing, to be able to switch off, play and have fun too. I’m not so sure that’s possible in the current education system with its focus on testing and exam results as the measure of a young person’s worth.

Deep down we all know its a lie. We all know that GCSE results are not the only determinant of success. But schools are under immense pressure to convince young people that this is so.

Click here for a short audio to help with Year 11 stress

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