Stress and serious anxiety: how the new GCSE is affecting mental health

On Monday morning, what may be the most dreaded and feared set of public exams England’s teenagers have ever sat began in school assembly halls up and down the country. The Guardian reports.

A Guardian call-out last week asking for our readers’ views about the new GCSEs prompted more than 200 responses, an outpouring that was overwhelmingly – although not exclusively – negative. The more extreme responses included accounts of suicide attempts by two pupils at one school, breakdowns, panic attacks and anxiety levels so intense that one boy soiled himself during a mock exam.

Some of the responses from pupils were alarming. “GCSEs have been a horrible experience,” says one 16-year-old. “I have suffered from panic attacks and a high increase in anxiety. It’s quite scary how as a student I find it normal to see my peers break down in lessons as they are scared of what’s going to happen to them in the future if they fail.”

Another writes: “I have seen the mentally toughest people crack and it’s painful to watch. People crying over being unable to do a maths question. Is this what we want as a nation, to be put under this mental stress?”

Pressure in classrooms has been intense for the past two years as teachers have grappled with the new specifications, for which they say there are inadequate resources or revision materials. The new exams have been launched at a time when budgets are shrinking, schools are in deficit and parents are increasingly being asked to fill the gaps with everything from monthly cash donations to glitter glue, pens and even toilet paper. Nonetheless, schools are doing their best, with some laying on relaxation sessions, yoga classes and resilience programmes to support worried pupils. “For the first time in 10 years of teaching, I have no idea what to expect come results day,” says one bemused history teacher from Worcestershire.

What’s more, because assessment is now virtually all exam-based, students may be sitting up to 28 exams in the space of two or three weeks, some of them spending a little short of 40 hours lined up in rows in exam halls, folded over constricted desks.

“I have 10 different subjects and 28 – yes, 28 exams,” says one 16-year-old from Greater Manchester. “They are a minimum of 75 minutes. Maths now has three papers, six science papers for dual award. Oh, and three geography papers. It is ridiculous.”

A student from Dorset describes the countdown to exams in his school, with posters showing the number of days left and notices warning that if you get grades 1-4 you’re likely to end up cleaning or working in a shop, whereas if you get 8s and 9s you’ll be off to university to enjoy “a great lifestyle”.

Read more shocking responses from students and teachers Stress and serious anxiety: how the new GCSE is affecting mental health

How are your pupils/own children coping with GCSE exam stress? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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Categories: Exams, Learning, Mental Health and Secondary.


  1. Make ‘Stolen Childhoods’ compulsory reading so that these teens can see what their teenage forebears had to put up with during internment in Japan during WW2. They will then see that they are being lied to by teachers and the govt all the time and that they have no right at all to be so ‘stressed’. Govt and teachers are guilty of having very low expectations of youth and for having destroyed the stiff upper lip. Govt and teachers are the ones who have encouraged all this ‘express your feelings’ garbage. Well now, you get what you expect don’t you? Pathetic.

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