Despite the fact that the subject of pressure caused by testing in both primary and secondary schools has hit the headlines more than once in recent years, there has been little academic research on the subject in the UK until now.

Dr David Putwain, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University is hoping to shed new light on the effect of examination-related stress on pupils and provide some hard evidence on a topic so far shaped predominantly by speculation and guesswork.

“I worked for several years for one of the English awarding boards at A and AS-Level and started to wonder about the psychological factors that impact on performance,” explains David.

“I started looking at the subject of examination stress as part of my PhD studies and was amazed at how little formal academic research has been done in the UK. I assumed there would be dozens of papers, but there are surprisingly few. Other countries have made in-depth studies, but we have little evidence on which to base our assumptions on whether the pressure of testing has a negative effect on pupils.”

The Government announced recently that it has plans to scrap some SATS – the exams that children currently take at the ages of seven, 11 and 14, before moving onto the GCSE and A-Level stages. Critics of SATS claim that the controversial tests cause schools to focus just on exam success and not necessarily on learning experience of pupils. The new plans mean that tests taken at 14 will be stopped and those taken at seven will be teacher-assessed, rather than pupils sitting
an exam.

David says: “We have a system of repeated testing in this country, but what is clear from my research is that for some children – perhaps more than 10% – the pressures they are put under as a result become intolerable and cause them to underperform.

“Both teachers and parents can put pressure on pupils and some children’s own expectations lead them to fear failure, only adding to the level of stress. If they want to achieve an A* and get an A, they think they have let everyone down. However, it can be that their expectations are unreasonable in the first place.

“I think great care must be taken in how expectations and the importance of exam results are communicated to children. We need more data, but it does seem silly to suggest that if someone doesn’t do well at seven or 11 years old they have messed up their chance of getting a good job.

“Personality plays a part. Some children cope well with these academic pressures, but some do not, and I believe one in 10 pupils feel demotivated and even debilitated by the weight of expectation.”

With colleagues from the University of Manchester, David is currently part-way through a project looking at Year 10 and 11 students at a secondary school in Bolton. He has developed a questionnaire to explore the feelings and attitudes of pupils and staff and hopes to have some solid evidence by the end of this school year. He is also focusing on Year 6 pupils at another school, measuring their emotional resilience when it comes to the pressures of testing.

His research has shown that teachers tend to have widely differing views on how to help pupils cope with examinations. Some will help youngsters in formal tests by trying to make the actual test event less stressful; perhaps providing smaller rooms and giving the children breaks. Others take the view that the only way to prepare pupils is to arm them with the skills they need to perform well on the day.

“I can’t say that either is right or wrong,” says David, “and as yet, we have no definitive research to help us reach a conclusion. The real worry is that some children could experience a pattern of anxiety and stress followed by under achievement that follows them throughout their school life.

“If 10% of youngsters are badly affected by exam pressure it adds up to a lot of children across the country and that is cause for concern. If our school system is to be characterised by testing, then its impact on students must be understood. Pupils should see examinations as opportunities for success, not failure.”