SSTA concern over Exam Burden and Impact on Pupil Well-Being

Seamus Searson, SSTA General Secretary said “the SSTA is acutely aware of the workload pressures associated with the National Qualifications but is extremely concerned as to the potential damage on our young people as the pressure intensifies at this time of year”.

“Self-harm is a deliberate injury to oneself, typically as a manifestation of mental health and welfare issues. Often, the first thing that springs to mind is a forearm or a wrist covered in lacerations. Obviously, it can take the form of any physical injury anywhere on the body. This leaves a trace, physical evidence of self-harm. Unfortunately, it is not the only evidence. There is evidence that a rising numbers of pupils are being identified as self-harming”.

The BBC published an article on the 17th February 2015 with the headline:

‘Self-harm Among Children in Scotland on the Rise’. This reports an increase in hospital admissions for self-harm across the last 5 years. It states that last year, 563 under-18s were admitted for self-harm in Scotland. In 2014, more than a third of the 76 admissions to NHS Highlands’ hospitals involved 15 year olds.

ChildLine Scotland reported, in February 2015, that counselling sessions with 12 to 15 year olds on self-harm had increased by 20% in the last year.

A 2014 report by the Edinburgh based mental health charity, Penumbra, revealed that – since 2009 – there has been an increase of 166% in the number of referrals it has received. Nigel Henderson, chief executive of Penumbra, called these figures just the tip of the iceberg. He said “Problems at school, parental pressure to succeed or feelings of low self-esteem, alongside changes in local authorities’ services, welfare reform and local youth unemployment may all have had an impact on the figures”.

Seamus Searson added “How much self-harm goes undetected? How much, like the iceberg, remains hidden under the surface? We cannot afford to take the mental health and wellbeing of our pupils for granted simply because there are no outward indicators of self-harm. For me, self-harm is not just the cuts on the forearm. It’s looking in the mirror and chastising yourself for what you see. It’s the abuse of alcohol and drugs as a means to escape. It’s the emotional suffering exacerbated by stress and a feeling that you can’t cope. Self-harm is all these things and more”.

“The causes of self-harm are wide and varied. But equally, we have to accept that school, the curriculum, the at times unrelenting internal assessment of our 15 and 16 year olds between January and April is a contributing factor to pupil stress and can damage pupil welfare”.

“How do we, as a teacher profession, respond to it? Teachers can question the pointless and often invalid assessment burdens. Teachers question the frequency and intensity of assessment faced by our 15 and 16 year olds sitting N4 and N5.

A typical example of the ‘average’ pupil in S4 (the teacher would have to work hard not to miss in amongst the 29 other bodies in the room). She is sitting 6 subjects in S4 and in some schools she could be sitting 7 or more.

Our ‘typical’ S4 pupil could be taking 3 subjects at National 4. This could be Modern Studies, Biology and Maths that includes 3 unit assessments and an Added Value assignment for each subject.

In addition, she could be taking 3 subjects at National 5. This could be History (3 unit assessments and an Added Value assignment), Music (3 units encompassing between 4 and 6 assessments altogether with the performance element taken into account) and English (2 units, comprising 4 assessed elements and a N4 Added Value assignment thrown in as a fall back.

In short, at best, she faced 24 assessments or assignments – the majority of which were crowbarred in-between January and April.

An SSTA English teacher said “Every time I introduce a unit assessment, an AV unit, a folio piece, a prelim, a exam, I can see the anxiety writ large across our pupils faces. There are relevant assessments, the ones that hone the skills necessary for exams, for progression within the subject, for entering the workplace. Unfortunately, others, whether in full or in part, are NOT necessary for the exam, NOT valuable for progression, NOT developing skills for work and these are the pointless assessments”.

Euan Duncan, SSTA President concluded “Teachers have been, by and large, left to develop courses and assessments as they teach them. This overbearing stress that experienced professionals, as adults, are struggling with and that stress is unintentionally, yet undeniably, being transferred and transmitted on to our pupils. The Government and the SQA need to review its current assessment requirements and accept the gathering of naturally occurring pupil’s classwork and the use of teacher’s professional judgement are sufficient and reduce the pressure on our pupils and the threat of self-harm.”

Further information from:

Seamus Searson
General Secretary

0131 313 7300

15 February 2016