MANY have spent the pandemic worrying about how the disruption will affect our children’s academic performance. Since Spring 2020 children globally have missed large amounts of schooling, with remote teaching and home education not having the same benefit for all. Yet perhaps the biggest worry is how the pressure to achieve is affecting our children’s mental health.

Child and adolescent mental health presentations have increased massively during this time of great uncertainty. A tripling in the number of referrals to child eating disorders services is just one example. This is on a background of a third of children aged 5-16 already talking to Childline in 2018-9. Such is the government’s concern that it has pledged £3 billion toward promoting what it describes as “support for children’s mental health and wellbeing alongside academic recovery”.

GCSEs and A-levels have long been the yardstick of academic evaluation, but recent reforms have changed how they are conducted and graded, with more emphasis on final assessments rather than continuous appraisal. Over half of teachers feel that the new reforms record students’ ability less well.

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Of greater concern is how these changes are affecting children psychologically. 80% of school leaders have noted a worsening in children’s mental health in association with the burden of exams.

Children’s brains are developing right into adulthood, with two significant periods, between 0-5 and 12-25 years of age. Chronic stress and negative encounters are associated with lifelong complications and an increased risk of both physical and mental health illness.

Yet far before this, any child who is stressed or unwell will not perform as well in an exam setting, a recent study published in the BMJ showing it makes them three times more likely not to pass five GCSEs.

That isn’t to say that the significance of academic achievement should be dismissed. Clearly it can’t. While many highly successful people will have little in the way of formal qualifications, for the majority a sound education is one of the foundations of a prosperous life.

However, it is vital to recognise the potential burdens that young minds can experience and not prioritise academic excellence over this. Regularly checking in on a child is also a vital part of them knowing support is available.