More than eight in 10 headteachers say their pupils are more stressed and anxious about exams this year than they were pre-pandemic.
A survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) found that nearly 80% of schools and colleges had also had more requests than pre-pandemic for pupils to take their exams in separate rooms away from the exam hall because of anxiety and stress.
In the poll of 527 headteachers at schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, heads reported that exam anxiety was causing high rates of pupil absence, with some saying that they were seeing more challenging behaviour from pupils as a result of anxiety.
Some heads said there had been a rise in self-harm incidents, with several reporting that A-level pupils, who will have never taken a full suite of public exams before, experiencing the worst anxiety.
Schools and colleges have put in extra support such as more counselling and revision technique tips but are struggling to cope because of the pressure on available space and the number of invigilators, the survey found.
More than a third said that they had not been able to hire enough invigilators for this summer’s exams, with a combination of high demand and fears from invigilators – many of whom are retired teachers – about the Covid risks of exam halls.
In total, 14% of heads said that the level of Covid infections is already worrying, and a further 60% said that infections were not currently an issue but they were worried this could escalate.
Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said: “This survey reveals the extremely challenging circumstances facing students, schools and colleges as they embark upon the first full set of public exams in three years.
“It shows that this is far from being a return to normal, and we are particularly concerned about the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of young people.
“It is clear that schools and colleges are doing everything possible to support them. However, their budgets are extremely tight because of years of government underfunding, and the Government has simply not shown enough urgency in improving mental health support for young people going back long before the pandemic began.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Exams remain the fairest and best way to assess students and for them to have the opportunity to show what they know and can do.
“It’s normal for exams to feel stressful for some young people and we recognise that may particularly be the case this year. Teachers know their pupils best and are well placed to work with them and their families to respond to signs of undue stress and access appropriate support.
“We have worked with Ofqual to put in place a number of adaptations such as advance information to support the safe and fair delivery of exams in this academic year and to recognise the disruption students have faced.”