Publicity-hungry schools and pressure to post results on social media are driving up exam stress among girls, the Girlguiding movement has said, after it found that close to two-thirds of girls now believe there is too much pressure to succeed.
On the eve of the GCSE results the charity said girls were facing a perfect storm of pressures, with well over half of those aged 11 to 21 fearing a bad performance in exams could ruin their futures.
With some schools having put up banners boasting about their A-level results and an expectation that girls will post about their results online, 64% of those polled for Girlguiding said there was too much pressure and focus on doing well in exams, with half saying exam stress affected their happiness.
“A lot of girls say they want more support about how they handle this stress,” said Madison Rogers, 24, a volunteer with a guides group in Haywards Heath, West Sussex. “They want support from schools and parents but there is a lot of pressure on girls to cope with it themselves.”
In the 72 hours around the A-level results last week there was a 75% increase in texts about exam stress to Shout, a helpline for people experiencing suicidal thoughts or facing a mental health crisis.
“Exam stress has been growing,” said Alan Smithers, professor of education and a psychologist at the University of Buckingham. “The teachers are wound up about it all and the parents like to brag about their children and if they haven’t done well enough, they are upset.”
The level of worry about exams emerged in an annual survey of girls’ attitudes, which also showed:
The proportion of 17-to-21-year-olds wanting to be leaders in their profession has fallen from 66% in 2016 to 53%.
More than a third of girls aged 11 to 21 have faced bullying about how they look, rising to almost half among those aged 17 to 21.
71% of girls apply filters to the pictures they post on social media some or all of the time.
A third said they had seen upsetting or harmful pictures or videos online that they wish they hadn’t.
“In a world full of filtered photographs and online bullying, the last thing girls need to face is a worrying amount of academic pressure,” said Emma Dixon, 19, a member of Girlguiding’s advocate panel. “Yet exam stress is very real and forms the perfect storm of pressure on girls, the detriment of their mental wellbeing.”
“Schools are posting online pictures of students holding their results and it adds to the pressure to do really well,” said Rogers. “A lot of schools have banners out already saying 70% of our kids to A* to C. They are very keen.”
Smithers said exam stress could tip people over into mental health problems if they were already predisposed to them.
“It can create feelings of failure if you haven’t done very well and affect your outlook on your future life, but most people bounce back from it and soon work out that actually exam grades aren’t that important,” he said.
There are various theories about the difference between girls and boys in relation to stress. Smithers said his own research showed that when asked about the relative benefits of single-sex or co-educational schooling, girls often said they liked the more relaxed attitude to exams in mixed classes.
“Schoolgirls have in the past, and perhaps still now, been very keen to please,” he said.
In 2013, Mike Nicholson, then the director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford University, said boys tended to do better in certain exams such as multiple choice tests because they were more willing to take risks, making them faster and more likely to finish. Girls, he said, were more likely to spend time trying to work out the answers to difficult questions rather than taking a punt.