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Pupils struggling with eating disorders, drug abuse and attempted suicide as a result of increasing pressure and stress – ATL survey

ATL | Association of Teachers and Lecturers

4 min read Partner content

Forty-four per cent of education staff believe young people self-harm as a result of pressure and stress in their lives, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

Thirty-one per cent of survey respondents think pupils have developed eating disorders as a result of stress; 21% say students take recreational drugs to alleviate the pressure; and 12% believe pupils have attempted suicide. Thirty-four per cent of education professionals think their students truant as a result of pressure and stress.

When it comes to the causes of stress, almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents cite testing and exams; almost half (48%) felt pupils suffer because of an over-crowded curriculum; and almost a quarter (22%) think their students are worried about getting into the best school or university. Twenty-one per cent of respondents believe pupils are stressed because of the volume of homework or coursework they are set.

A primary teacher from Merseyside said: “Primarily the curriculum is to blame as too much pressure is put upon young children. They need more 'down time' and need to be less intense and there needs to be more emphasis on fun and creative lessons.”

Sixty-one per cent of respondents think the pressure on teachers and schools to do well cascades down to their pupils.

A primary teacher from Oxford said: “Pupils are picking up on teachers' stress owing to inspections and lack of choice of how and what to teach.”

As a direct result of the pressure and stress pupils face, almost three-quarters (73%) of education staff thought that it results in low self-esteem, 67% said it makes pupils become anxious, 66% said pupils lack motivation, 62% cited an inability to concentrate and almost half (49%) said pupils get excessively upset.

A secondary teacher from Cambridge said: “These issues were still prevalent 10 years ago, but now, I think, we are better at identifying them. Sadly, there is still not enough funding to do much. Students can sometimes wait months for an initial assessment, even when suicidal.”

This was echoed by a primary teacher from Lincoln who stated that with a decline in support services for pupils, they are not getting the help they need: “Lack of council funds have definitely had a detrimental effect on our ability as a school to support our children. The external services simply are not available any more, or are so oversubscribed that it can be half a school year or more before any support is received by the child.”

Almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents believe that pupils in their school are under more pressure and stress than two years ago. Sixty-three per cent believe pupils have been put under more pressure and stress over the last five years and almost 60% feel they are under more pressure now than ten years ago.

Speaking ahead of ATL’s fringe on pupil well-being at the Labour party conference, Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of ATL, said: “It is shocking that so many young people are under so much stress that they self-harm. It is also alarming that much of the pressure and stress is caused by the education system and this needs to be a wake-up call to policy makers.

“Our children are among the most unhappy with their school life in the world, and are also among the most tested in the world. Teachers do their best to support and protect children and young people from the pressures of schools which are becoming unhealthily competitive, but with brutal cuts to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) support is no longer available to children and young people coping with mental health issues.

“We need to listen more carefully to young people and to provide an education system which inculcates a life-long joy of learning, rather than an exam treadmill. The current system of testing and re-testing is unrelenting and unstainable and is inflicting enormous damage on our young people’s mental health.”