Written by Nigel Roberts
on 25th April 2023
A few weeks ago I was visiting a college of further education in the west midlands and chatting with staff about the issues that they and their students are currently facing. In the course of conversation I learned that last year was the biggest ever number of no shows of students to exams, and the primary reason was mental health issues and in particular the stresses linked with the exam season. Not showing up for your exams is itself a major source of stress, with all the implications that follow from this action and so there is a great deal of anxiety in schools and colleges about the new season we are about to enter. Is there anything youthworkers, chaplains, schools workers families can do to help our young people negotiate this difficult time?
The issue of mental health issues amongst young people is well known. Statistics suggest that currently 1 in 6 children aged between 7 and 16 are living with some form of mental health disorder, this is up from 1 in 9 recorded in 2017. The coronavirus pandemic falls between these dates and has been a significant factor in the worsening of this situation.
Exam stress can manifest in a variety of ways according to the charity Mind including changes in behaviour, thoughts, relationships and character. Commonly focus is lost and a young person will seek to avoid the very things they need to engage with in order to do well in exams. Revision doesn't happen, extra sessions are avoided, opportunities to talk about how you are feeling or to ask questions relating to the exams themselves are not taken. All motivation evaporates. Exam stress can lead in extreme circumstances to self harm and destructive behaviour.
Why have we got to this point? Exams have always been stressful, but not to the extent we see and experience today. Young Minds suggests that the stress originates in the pressures that lie behind the exams – principally the pressure to succeed, where success is defined as passing well and achieving high grades that will help in the future search for high paying roles in the community.
The current education system has its critics – the research and study done around how we learn suggests that exams are part of a system that is tied to a Victorian model not suited for the modern mind. Academics at Leeds Beckett suggest that the modular approach that recognises differing learning styles is a far more accurate and kinder approach to assessment. Academics such as Howard Gardner in his studies around multiple intelligences would argue that exams are really only testing a very narrow range of intelligence and fail to take account of areas such as inter personal skills, spirituality and creativity - all important in the multi faceted and complex world we inhabit.
Something needs to change, but for many that change will not come soon enough. So, are there strategies that we can employ that will help young people now as we embark on a new exam season?
Theologically speaking I think there are some important points that we need to make plain. Firstly we are not defined by our results. We are not what we do. Our value as a human being is not determined by AQA or OCR or whoever, it is determined by God and evidenced by the cross.
Secondly failure does not mean finished. In scripture we see lots of examples who stumble in their life journey ( the disciple Peter being a prime example) but who go onto great things.
Thirdly we are not alone – the God we worship and love is the God who accompanies, the parakelete – the one who comes alongside. Whatever we face we don't face it alone.
But alongside this theology there are some simple things that can be put into place that have been seen to make a difference.
In a school or college – if the staff model resilience and calm it can have a profound effect. What is it you are modelling with your own children and young people. Are you always anxious or stressed or saying ‘its all too much’ or is your life saying something different, something positive? The significant adult can be just that – significant – but to be that, they need to be visible and available. During the exam season we all need to work harder at being more clearly present. As a chaplain we are used to talking about a ministry of presence and that is especially important at this time. Incarnational ministry in the new testament was preceded by a message from the angels – do not be anxious or afraid. That is still so true.
We need to practice the gift of encouragement ( again thinking of the Greek word paraclete). We need to think about and choose our words carefully and speak them into the lives of those we serve.
We need to work on providing peer and adult support networks that can be accessed and used by young people. Statistics suggest that young people who study together in groups are less likely to experience stress. The sense of being in this together with others is an important encouragement.
We need to provide space. One of the actions that has come out of my discussions with colleges is that I have begun to create pop up reflective spaces for exam times. These spaces, usually in a small gazebo, offer a place to relax, be quiet and centre oneself away from the noise of college or school life. It's a place to pray, to think and to receive. Prayer spaces in schools produce lots of ideas for such spaces on their web site and these can be real life lines at this time.
Exam stress and mental health are big issues and a short article like this can’t possibly cover all that's needed. There will be times where specialist help is necessary. There will be times when you will need to refer on. But awareness of the issue, a willingness to engage and some strategies to help can make a significant difference and help change the narrative for many.
This article was also featured on Premiers NexGen website
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Every chaplain in whatever context does their work starting from a foundation of theology. I work out of a theological web; a series of interconnected theologies, which, when woven together offer a rationale for chaplaincy that has biblical integrity and educational/pastoral attraction. At the heart of that web is what I term the theology of chaplaincy as a gift.
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