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House of Commons Hansard
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Ivybridge Community College: Examination Pressure
07 May 2019
Volume 659

[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered views on examination pressure from pupils of Ivybridge Community College.

It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Sir Graham. I am particularly pleased to welcome the Minister to his place and am delighted that a Minister of his seniority is here to respond to this short debate.

Just before Christmas, I met with a group of bright students at Ivybridge Community College in my constituency to discuss a range of issues relating to their education, including their reaction to the Government’s mental health Green Paper. For as long as I have been a Member of Parliament, Ivybridge College has been an “outstanding” school under three different heads. It is a real centre of excellence. The group of predominantly year 11 pupils I met with did great credit to their school, their parents and, most importantly, themselves.

For more than an hour, we had a fascinating in-depth discussion about their school experience and, in particular, the issues that impact on their mental health on a day-to-day basis. We discussed everything from exam pressures to the impact of social media, how students are taught to deal with mental health, emotions and general wellbeing, and issues of competitiveness during what, as we all know, can be some difficult teenage years.

On dealing with mental health issues, we must recognise that teenagers and young people in general are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They face issues that young people of my generation never faced, with modern communications and social media. We must therefore do all that we can to help to improve their mental wellbeing by ensuring that help is there for them when it is needed the most. I promised to raise their concerns and the issues we discussed with Ministers to ensure that the people making the laws under which my constituents are being taught are fully aware of what life is like for the modern teenager living in Devon. I hope the Minister will bear with me as I take him through the concerns raised by this highly impressive group of young people.

First, year 11 student Lucy Ryder asked:

“What is a ‘mentally healthy’ student?”

We discussed that smart question. We think we know what mental health problems look like, but what does it mean to be mentally healthy? The group believe that could describe someone at peace with themselves for most of the time, accepting that there will be periods of stress and angst, particularly during important exam periods—Sir Graham, you may think, as I do, that that could also describe the life of a politician. A mentally healthy student should know how to lead a healthy lifestyle and feel comfortable approaching teachers and members of staff for help and advice when it is needed, without hesitation.

The students felt strongly that the Government focused too much on treatment and not enough on prevention, as was evidenced in the recent Green Paper on mental health, although its ambition to reduce the time it takes young people to get treatment was warmly welcomed, as ensuring that we help students to deal with mental health conditions at the earliest possible stage is both best for them and saves money down the line, when certain conditions would require much more counselling. A House of Commons Library briefing paper published in April 2018 shows that the average waiting time for someone to receive psychological therapy in my constituency was between 16 and 49 days. Most people are therefore seen within six weeks, but an appointment to child and adolescent mental health services can take significantly longer.

Nell, one of the pupils in the group, said that six weeks is a long time in the life of a teenager, especially one going through difficult circumstances, with it certainly being long enough to result in mental health conditions creating a dark place for young people. That is an important point. Mental health conditions should be treated with the same urgency as physical injuries and disabilities. I explained that the Government are seeking to prioritise mental health treatment, but I am sure the Minister recognises that we have a long way to go. What steps might his Department take to improve focus on prevention rather than cure in the mental health of school pupils?

The students were concerned about the current delivery of personal, social and health education classes. When delivered properly, PSHE lessons should help to make up a balanced school curriculum, providing an important opportunity to discuss issues such as mental health, living healthily and wellbeing in general. However, the students raised an important point: not all teachers are comfortable in delivering mental health lessons. They remarked that it is difficult for a teacher who is not trained properly, or who may not have any first-hand experience of mental health issues, to deliver a quality and informative lesson on dealing with those issues.

One member of the group, Ela, provided a good analogy: we would not expect a Spanish teacher to deliver a history lesson, or vice versa. They are not trained in that field, and are not likely to have a good grasp of the subject. Part of the Government investment aimed at schools should allow them to provide specialist mental health teachers, who can empathise and show proper understanding of what students experiencing mental health conditions are going through and how they can best deal with it.

The group welcomed the ambition of putting mental health leads in every school and college, but felt strongly that we must go further. We must ensure that existing teaching staff are properly trained to identify students who are experiencing mental health conditions, and especially those who may be nervous or uncomfortable approaching their teachers or wider school staff directly to talk about it. Of course, that is all part of prevention rather than cure and responding to the changing issues of our modern age. The group would be grateful if the Minister commented on what more Government can do to ensure that teachers are fully trained in this area.

We moved on to social media. Now, old people like me are often quick to blame the mental health issues that our youngsters experience on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat—all of which I am very familiar with—but the students told me that social media is not the overriding factor playing on their minds that we think it is. In fact, they made a number of points that took me by surprise. They all believed that, far from being an instrument of bullying or pressure, social media was, more often than not, the antidote to it.

Nell raised the point that bullying at school, both in the playground during breaks and in the classroom, can be far harder to deal with than that on social media. I had taken a view that was the polar opposite. The students explained that it is far harder to deal with bullies face to face during the school day, whether it be passing in the corridor, in the playground or indeed in the classroom.

If a student feels intimidated by someone in their class, that will have a negative impact on how they take part in certain lessons that they share with those classmates. It may, for example, make them less likely to take part in activities during class, perhaps by shying away from group tasks or by not volunteering answers to questions. That could prevent a student from achieving their true potential in that class, affecting their grades and results later. In their opinion, physical bullying remained a greater threat than bullying on social media, bad though that might be.

Evie raised an interesting point: social media, by contrast, is far easier to control. If a young person feels threatened or anxious by the actions or comments of another user or peer, they can simply block that person at the touch of a button. The bully or troll is then prevented from seeing that person’s profile, pictures and comments. It is even possible to prevent certain words or phrases being used in comments on social media posts.

For many students and young people, social media acts as a platform through which to share their collective experience of mental health conditions and support each other, and it serves as a reminder that they are not alone in dealing with their challenges. Before I sat down with this impressive group, I had not fully recognised how social media can help students cope with bullying and threats.

I was interested to see in The Times today, which I was reading on the train on the way to London, new research that tends to bear out the point of view expressed by the pupil group, namely that the link between social media and lack of student wellbeing was not supported by robust evidence and may well be the opposite of the truth. Can the Minister comment on the Government’s view on the impact of social media? I am sure he will agree that any comments should be based on science and not the prejudices of members of an older generation, such as me. Does the Minister agree that at the same time as closing down the worst excesses of social media, we must proactively promote the positive resources that internet platforms provide in helping youngsters to deal with mental health issues?

We spent some time discussing exam pressures. The Green Paper states that

“Children and young people with mental health problems are more likely to experience increased disruption to their education,”

and suggests that could be due to time off school. Results from a 2018 study by the Mental Health Foundation suggest that young people today have higher stress related to pressure to succeed than previous generations. Some 60% of 18 to 24-year-olds and 41% of 25 to 34-year- olds agreed that they experienced significant examination pressure, compared to 17% of 45 to 54-year-olds and just 6% of those aged over 55. I may have simply forgotten what it is like to sit exams, but those survey results chime with my own experience in the 1960s and 1970s. I do not recall exam stress being much of an issue, either for myself or my fellow pupils, but clearly that has changed significantly. The students at Ivybridge Community College were fairly unanimous about the impact that target grades and upcoming exams have on their mental health. I believe they are now under pressure in a way that my generation never was. Does the Minister have any research to support that point and does he think that examination pressure today is too great?

Lucy made an interesting point when she said that students do not want to feel like they are constantly in competition with their friends and classmates. She said that they want to work in class to support each other to get the best grades they can, particularly when, as in the case of GCSEs and A-levels, those results will be judged for a significant period of time and be used to gauge the likelihood of whether they will get into their preferred university courses. The students would prefer the approach to exams to be more collegiate, rather than overtly competitive. They felt that we should not understate the importance of exams in school but that we need to emphasise to students that doing badly in an exam does not mean their life chances are over.

Annabel argued that students are tasked with taking significant decisions about their journey through education from the age of 13, when they start choosing subjects to study at GCSE. These are important decisions, as they will inform which subjects they study at A-level and university. That brings a great deal of pressure at an early age. The point was made that students should not always feel that they are in competition with their fellow classmates to get the best grades or to out-do each other; students would prefer a culture of working together. Can the Minister can suggest ways to improve the way students collaborate with each other to help to improve their performances in exams? Does it have to be so competitive?

Lucy suggested that at school students are taught that the workplace is full of competition and that they will be competing for jobs and promotions. That is true, but the difference is that adults have a choice about whether to be in competition with their colleagues in the workplace. Students do not feel that they have that choice; perhaps they should. We need to demonstrate more intentionally to students that the workplace is also about team work and collaborating with colleagues. That should be no different in school; we should encourage students to work with and to support their classmates.

On A-level and GCSE results days each year, influential people from the business world remind students that they got 2 Cs and a D at A-level, but that has not stopped them achieving their full potential over the course of their adult lives. That is an example of how social media can help students to see that people who do not test well can still go far. That is an important point on which I invite the Minister to comment.

Amelia argued that the Government need to reconsider curriculum and scheduling in the run-up to already stressful exam periods and to look at the impact that target grades have on young people over the course of the academic year. Can the Minister comment on whether schools have sufficient flexibility?

I ask the Minister to join me in thanking the students at Ivybridge Community College—Lucy, Amelia, Evie, Ela, Lilana, Izzy, Annabelle, Nell, Ella, Katy, Katie and Cameron—for being so clear and robust about these important issues. They all contributed to an excellent discussion, although I have not been able to include all their points. Can I invite the Minister to fully take on board the comments made by those excellent pupils? They are pupils at one of the largest and most successful state comprehensive schools in the UK, which has been outstanding for as long as I can remember. They are intelligent and articulate young people, who demonstrated an extraordinary understanding of the issues affecting them. They were able to talk confidently and openly about how they feel their schooling could be improved, in the presence of their teaching staff. We should take notice of those fine young people and work as hard as possible to deliver for them.

I realise that the Government are already active on some of these issues. By aiming to put dedicated mental health leads into every school and college, the Government have recognised the need to take a co-ordinated multi-agency approach to understanding children and young people’s mental health conditions and are putting together the most effective package of treatment and support for young people. I welcome the fundamental principles proposed at the heart of last year’s Green Paper: ensuring designated mental health leads in all schools and colleges, by providing an extra £15 million to £20 million per year from 2019, and encouraging schools and colleges to collaborate locally to help to improve services for students and reduce NHS waiting times for young people’s access to specialist services.

Whether we like it or not—or fully understand it—the mental wellbeing of our young people today is rapidly becoming one of the key issues that we must deal with. Although perhaps it has lessened in the last decade, there is still a significant stigma attached to mental health conditions that we do not necessarily see associated with other health conditions. I hope the Minister will agree that it is helpful to hear from young people themselves about the challenges they face, their response to them and what they request from Government.

Even though the students had been fairly robust with me, I left our meeting with an overwhelming sense of confidence in the future of this country. The pupils of the coming generation are exceptionally talented and committed to doing their best for themselves and our nation. We must now do all we can to help them achieve their potential; we do that best of all when we listen to them.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) on securing the debate, and the pupils at Ivybridge Community College—particularly Lucy, Amelia, Evie, Ela, Lilana, Izzy, Annabelle, Nell, Ella, Katy, Katie and Cameron—on providing such clear and articulate views on this important topic. I recall visiting the college some years ago and opening an excellent maths department. It is an outstanding school with a high proportion of pupils being entered for the EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs.

I agree with many of the points that the pupils made to my hon. Friend, including that mental health is about not just treatment, but prevention. There has been a lot of focus on the significant investment that the Government are making in increasing specialist children and young people’s mental health services. The NHS long-term plan announced that by 2023-24 an additional 345,000 children and young people aged up to 25 will receive mental health support via NHS-funded mental health services and new mental health support teams, as referred to by my hon. Friend. Mental health services will continue to receive a growing share of the NHS budget, with funding set to grow by at least £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24. Spending on children and young people’s mental health services will grow faster than adult services, and faster than other NHS spending. That investment will go a long way towards tackling the sort of waiting times highlighted by my hon. Friend.

The trailblazer areas testing our Green Paper proposals include some testing about how to achieve waiting times of a maximum of four weeks. But the trailblazers also focus on prevention. The mental health support teams we are introducing will be linked to groups of schools and colleges, bringing expertise in dealing with milder and more moderate conditions, precisely to provide fast, local responses to issues as they arise. It is a huge undertaking. The teams will introduce a new, trained workforce, eventually numbering in its thousands, to provide support in the more preventive way envisaged by the young people of Ivybridge college.

The preventive aspects of our reforms do not stop there. The Department is providing up to £95 million between 2019 and 2024 to support the delivery of the Green Paper proposals, including the costs of a significant training programme for senior mental health leads, to help schools to put whole-school approaches to mental health in place.

The Ivybridge pupils emphasised the importance of PSHE to my hon. Friend. Our reforms in that area, making a new relationships and health education curriculum compulsory in all state-funded schools from September 2020, are probably the most significant preventive step of all. Health education includes a new requirement for all pupils to be taught about mental health. The aim of making the subject compulsory is to bring the quality and consistency that the pupils are calling for, ensuring that pupils are taught the right framework of knowledge to help them to lead a mentally healthy lifestyle and deal with the challenges they face.

The new subject will include content such as understanding emotions, identifying where someone is experiencing signs of poor mental health, simple self-care, and how and when to seek support. Schools will be required to teach the new subjects from September 2020, but we are encouraging schools to get under way sooner. We already have hundreds of schools signed up as early adopters, with more schools registering every day. To help schools to teach the new subjects effectively, we recently announced an additional £6 million in 2019-20 to design and develop the training and resources that schools need.

We are also building the evidence on what other support for wellbeing works in schools. Our children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing research programme is one of the largest studies of its kind in the world. Thousands of children and young people will learn how to use a range of innovative techniques to promote good mental health and wellbeing.

I was not surprised to hear the views of young people that social media can be a force for good in relation to mental health—although I was impressed by the range of apps that my hon. Friend is familiar with. Social media is part of life and relationships for young people, but for it to be helpful we need to make sure that the online environment is as safe as possible. The Government’s recent online harms White Paper set out a range of measures, detailing how we will tackle online harms and setting clear responsibilities for technology companies to keep UK citizens, and especially children, safe.

We also need to equip young people with the knowledge to use the internet and social media safely, understanding how to deal with the different behaviours they will encounter online. That is why, to support the teaching of the relationships and health education content, we are developing detailed guidance on teaching about all aspects of internet safety, to help schools deliver the new subjects in a co-ordinated and coherent way.

We know that all kinds of bullying, whether in school or online, can have long-term effects on mental health as well as immediate impacts on pupils. The Government have sent a clear message to schools that bullying for any reason is unacceptable. All schools are legally required to have a behaviour policy with measures to prevent all forms of bullying. Relationships education will also include content on tackling bullying. To support schools further, we are providing more than £2.8 million to projects run by anti-bullying organisations such as the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the Diana Award.

My hon. Friend also talked about exam stress, which obviously is a particular issue at this time of year, with hundreds of thousands of teenagers up and down the country preparing to sit their GCSEs, A-levels and other exams. I take this opportunity to wish all those students, including those at Ivybridge, all the very best with their exams.

I would beg to differ from my hon. Friend on one point, when he says that exam stress was not much of an issue in the 1960s and 1970s. I think that exams are inherently stressful, for any generation. Perhaps my hon. Friend has forgotten, but certainly my own experience in the 1970s was that sitting my O-levels and A-levels was a challenging time. I know that for some students that pressure can get too much and can tip over into real mental health problems. Clearly that is a matter for concern, and the support that I have described is there to help those young people.

However, for very many young people the level of stress created by exams is manageable, so long as they are well supported by their schools, families and peers. Research shows that there is a clear difference between exam stress and exam anxiety, which is a cause for concern. Recent research found that young people recognise that exams can be a time of pressure and want their school to support them, especially on how best to revise and prepare for those exams. We trust schools to provide that guidance, and there is help to support them to do so. Ofqual support includes a blog aimed at teachers and a guide for students on coping with exam pressure, produced with Professor Dave Putwain from Liverpool John Moores University.

My hon. Friend mentioned that two of the students at Ivybridge had talked about not wanting to feel that they are in competition with their classmates. He also invited me to comment on the fact that there are many successful people who did not do well in their exams. He is quite right; no student should be made to feel that their life chances are over because they did badly in an exam. However, as my right hon. Friend Secretary of State said in his recent article on the subject, not many of those people

“would say that it isn’t important to do as well as you can.”

Few people succeed without preparing and working hard. All anyone can expect of our young people over the next few weeks is that they do their best.

Doing as well as you can does not necessarily come at the expense of others, and certainly not your classmates. It is fundamental to any qualification that it tests individual performance. Each young person will take that qualification forward with them into later life as evidence of what they know and can do. I also believe that it is right to expose young people to a certain level of competition, to help build the resilience that will help them to make a success of their adult lives, but that does not mean that schools should not foster a collaborative spirit and encourage team working during the school year. Indeed, I would hope that all schools are doing exactly that.

That brings me to an element of our preventive work that is especially pertinent, given that this debate has been inspired by young people taking an interest in mental health and helping each other out. We know that young people turn to their friends and peers first when they have concerns about mental health. Peer support programmes can be an effective part of a whole-school approach to mental wellbeing, as well as in tackling bullying and supporting each other with their exams. We are working with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families to pilot different approaches to peer support, to help more schools to develop or improve their own programmes.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and the pupils of Ivybridge Community College for giving me the opportunity to set out just how much we are doing to promote mental wellbeing, as well as to increase access to specialist services. I hope they are reassured that what we are doing will go a long way to help schools and young people themselves play their part in meeting the challenge of improving the nation’s mental health.

Question put and agreed to.