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Education

55% of Britain's Teachers Think New A-Levels Are Harming Students' Mental Health

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Research shows that the number of young people experiencing a mental health issue has increased in the UK in the past 15 years. The UN's Global Goal 3 calls for good health and wellbeing to be made a priority, including mental health. You can join the movement by taking action here to help support this goal.


Teachers have said that the new A-levels, which pupils in their final year of school did this summer, have been worse for student mental health compared with previous years. 

A majority of the teachers, 55%, said that they felt the new exams had made “students’ mental health worse” and 37% said they felt the new A-levels reflected a students’ ability less accurately than previous exam formats. 

Young people up and down the country will be nervously getting ready to open their results tomorrow, Aug. 15, and thinking about what to do next. It can be both an exciting and a stressful time for lots of young people and their families. 

This cohort will have completed the reformed A-levels, which have reduced the amount of coursework that counts towards the final grade to no more than 20% of the syllabus in all subjects. Most subjects are now assessed entirely through exams, the education magazine TES reported

So, more pressure is now on those final exams days, rather than seeing the work spread out throughout the year. The policy, introduced in 2017, was part of a series of reforms that MP Michael Gove began when he was education secretary in 2014. At the time, Gove said that changes were necessary to make the qualification more "rigorous". 

Matt Blow, policy manager at the young people’s mental health charity, Young Minds, said the changes had to led to “high-stakes” exams in the UK. 

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Blow told Global Citizen: “It’s concerning that most teachers feel that the new exams are having a negative effect on students’ mental health."

“Over the last few years, there has been an increase in ‘high-stakes’ exams and in the pressure on schools and colleges to achieve academically – and this has put extra pressure on young people as they grow up," he added.

“The factors behind mental health problems are usually complex, but we work with young people who say that they felt like failures because they weren’t doing well at school," Blow continued. "Most young people, parents, and teachers agree that the current education system focuses more on exam results than wellbeing, and this needs to change.” 

The survey was done by a large teaching union, the National Education Union (NEU), to find out about the level of engagement and the impact on students the new format has had. 

Almost half — 48% — of teacher’s said student engagement with their A-level work was the same as seen in previous years, but 34% said students’ engagement had decreased. 

Meanwhile AS-levels, the exams taken in pupils’ penultimate year of school, year 12, have also been “decoupled” from A-levels, meaning work done that year does not count towards the final A-level grade either. 

Andrew Morris, assistant general secretary of the NEU, told TES: “When 55% of teachers believe students are being put through an education system that is damaging to their mental health, it is quite clear that something is wrong."

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"Changes to A-levels, including removing AS-levels and most subjects now being assessed entirely through end-of-course exams, is resulting in many students becoming disengaged, overwhelmed, and stressed," he added.

The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that helps young people dealing with depression, has produced advice for students’ dealing exam-related stress along with Birmingham City University.

The guide includes advice around neutralising your thoughts and avoiding a negative spiral of thoughts if things haven’t gone to plan. 

Here are some of their tips if you're collecting your results this week: 

Six top tips for dealing with catastrophic thinking:
  1. It's ok to say "stop" to yourself, to try and interrupt negative thoughts.

  2. Remember that catastrophic thoughts are typically irrational, i.e., they are not based on facts or your usual experience.

  3. Think about alternative outcomes: a bit like re-writing your own story.

  4. Identify what you like about yourself and your successes, and remind yourself of them regularly.

  5. Acknowledge that sometimes unwanted things happen, but that doesn’t make you a bad person.

  6. Practice self-care strategies: things you like doing, such as spending time with friends, exercising, and eating well.

If you're based in the UK and want to talk to someone about your mental health or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the Samaritans for free at any time, from any phone, on 116 123. You can find international resources here.