Is the pressure of school life too much for young children? Roger Smith investigates

A review from Cambridge University, reported early in October in 2007, suggests that too much pressure on today’s primary school children is leading to stress and anxiety. The independently funded Primary Review is based in the university’s faculty of education and is an interim report which will be followed by a further 31, before the final, full report in 2008. What we have is a small part of the whole, but the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’ should set alarm bells ringing. Is this what primary education is about? Are we really developing an education system where increasingly effective teaching is raising standards only to make children stressed and anxious? If this is the case, can we just carry on regardless, or do we need to think carefully about what we are doing?

What does the review say?

The review suggests that today’s primary school children are suffering from stress and deep anxiety about modern life. National tests, combined with concerns about anti-social behaviour and climate change are forcing children to grow up too soon. Researchers travelled round the country and met children, teachers, parents, governors, community representatives and religious leaders. Those who were consulted expressed concerns about stresses at school as well as what they saw as the perilous nature of and the future prospects for the society they will grow up in. Outside school they were worried about the condition of family life, the decline in mutual respect, the dominance of anti-social behaviour, materialism and the growing crisis of climate change. The Primary Review director, Professor Robin Alexander was quoted as saying that ‘… what we heard confirms that the health of a national education system cannot be fully captured by the term “standards”, critically important though standards are… The evidence from this one strand of the Primary Review’s evidence suggests that standards may have been too readily equated with quality, and that it is time to start exploring the difference between them…’

Standards and even higher standards!

Because I am not a mathematician or statistician I am confused. We all work hard to raise standards but is it possible to raise them for ever and ever or will each school eventually reach a kind of ‘highest possible standards’ peak where no matter what they do, they can go no further? Some schools obviously will have children who can achieve more than others, and realistically the standards at some schools will be higher than at others. This does not mean that we should not aim for the best all the time. In fact we should be maintaining the already high standards as well as aiming to support every single child to reach their full potential. But some of this potential is related to national tests and some isn’t. We have children in our schools who can eat tests, practice tests and revision for breakfast, lunch and dinner and still have time to behave and enjoy themselves as children should. Equally we have children who find the whole process more of a challenge and a waste of their valuable time or often downright boring. This does not necessarily mean that they are stressed but that they are finding their time at primary school rather frustrating and restricted.

The stress-free school

Most schools offer tests and revision that are important parts of a system of practice that will both familiarise children with what the tests look like as well as what a real test situation is like. Good teachers will be able to focus each child’s attention on trying to improve their chances of doing their best and making the most of their chances. In many ways part of each school’s reputation will rest on their national test results and all the interpretations and analysis and comparisons that can be made. Ofsted base much of their initial assumptions about each school on national test data. So, obviously, achieving the highest possible test scores and increasing the value added elements, etc, are very important and there needs to be a smooth process of teaching and development so that each child is able to show how good they are. But this is not the same as pressure to succeed at all costs. Children will be able to distinguish between structured practice routines and the desperation to succeed. Pushing children forever upwards at the cost of the whole curriculum is not acceptable. It is this constant reminder that tests are the be all and end all that will induce stress and anxiety and even the most academic children will start having feelings of inadequacy.

Promoting the whole curriculum

None of us want to induce stress by creating an atmosphere where testing and the results of tests dominate the whole ethos of the school. So, what can we do? Well, many schools make sure that they celebrate all kinds of achievement – not just the academic. For this kind of praise and the rewards that are associated with celebrating achievement it is important to spread the load. For example, if a child has won a sporting trophy, received a certificate for dancing or music, or has entered a painting in a competition the class and their immediate peers need to be able to congratulate them first. But, rather than localise this kind of achievement in a single classroom their also needs to be whole-school praise in weekly assemblies. This emphasises an achievement ethos – but not a single-minded ‘raising academic standards’ kind of achievement. It will tell those children who find tests and everything associated with them ‘uninteresting’ that they can achieve and that what they are good at is valued and celebrated. The review also suggested that there was anxiety about anti-social behaviour and climate change – together with broader issues such as the cult of the celebrity and the condition of family life. I think that most of us would react by immediately recognising that these are issues that affect the whole of society and not just schools. There is a whole industry of magazines, newspapers and television programmes whose sole reason for existing is to reinforce the shallowness of ‘celebrity’. Similarly, there are all kinds of gloom and doom reports in print and again on television that prophecy the disintegration of families and communities. We can’t win if all we try to say to children is ignore all this – it is just scaremongering – the world is just not like this. For many of our children, it is exactly what their world is like and for them it is easy to see where their anxiety and concerns come from. We need – to use the cliché – to gain their hearts and minds. The more information you have about an issue the better your choices. We need to help relieve their anxiety by giving children information. We need to get a grip on the curriculum and find time for long projects on such issues as global warming, the local environment, family life and families across the world. We need to operate on a much more optimistic level. Behaviour in most of our schools is excellent. Behaviour in the streets is not as bad as the media suggests. If children are given more information and are allowed to talk about wider social issues, they will be able to make better judgements and, ‘the more knowledge, the less anxiety’. We need to be willing to tackle children’s fears and pessimism instead of bombarding them with sometimes needless and often oppressive accountability measures such as tests, targets and tables.

Is it just a school issue?

Many of the issues suggested by the Primary Review have a much wider social base. It is troubling to realise that many children are not getting the best out of what should be a much more innocent and carefree childhood. Each of our schools is part of its own wider community and each school needs to work within this community. Why not use the police to talk to children about how safe the streets really are? There are all kinds of support groups to help educate children and parents in the positive role of families. Environmental groups will be keen to tell children about recycling and energy conservation and what they can do to help prevent global warming. After all, understanding the problem is one thing but knowing what we can do to help is even better. In fact the school could be a focus for all kinds of groups who see a much more positive future. But, parents as well as children need to be involved. They all have a role to play in preventing stress and anxiety in their children. We need to tell parents about the testing system, how it works and how to support their children and help them achieve their best instead of pressurising them to achieve something that is unattainable. We need to make it clear to them that tests are a small part of what schools are doing and that there is a full and wide curriculum that they can help their children with. It is important to try to prevent parents from making comparisons and saying their child is cleverer than or less clever than someone else. Each child should certainly not be valued any less just because they are not living up to some entirely inappropriate expectations. If parents do make unfair comparisons they will initiate a process where their child will not feel good enough unless they are better than the children they are being compared to.

Helping parents reduce stress


Self-esteem can be fragile and stressed and anxious children may feel unworthy and will not value themselves. They need to maintain their natural self-confidence. If you are concerned about some of your children it might be a good idea to offer the following advice to parents:

  • Believe in your child’s unique talents and show it.
  • Give lots of praise and positive feedback for all kinds of achievements.
  • Reassure your child that it’s OK to make mistakes.
  • Encourage your child to listen and read to understand problems.
  • Help them to express their feelings.
  • Respect your child’s interests – even if they seem boring to you.
  • Take a genuine interest in your child’s friends and what is happening at school.
  • Accept and talk about any genuine insecurities your child may have.
  • Encourage appropriate independence.
  • Focus on your child’s successes – never on their failures.

As professionals we all know that emotional wellbeing is important for learning but it is also one of the keys in determining future life chances and social mobility. We need to work alongside the rest of the community to improve these life chances. If children have high self-esteem, they will place greater value on themselves and will believe that they are worthwhile. This will mean that they are more likely to be creative and successful, and in social terms will be able to make and sustain good and lasting relationships. In fact there is lots of evidence that links stress to low self-esteem and shows a positive correlation between high self-esteem and achievement. So what are we waiting for? If we want higher standards a good starting point is to make sure that we have children with low stress levels.

Roger Smith is a former primary headteacher

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